When is a fillet a “fill it” and when is a fillet a fee-lay?
Anyone who writes about food and cooks the occasional beef fillet or writes about ordering one in a restaurant will have encountered this conundrum. You say, aloud, a sentence containing the word fillet, pronouncing it “fill it”, and sure as a downpour follows a warm, clear Cape winter’s day, someone within earshot will pipe up and “correct” you.
“You mean ‘fee-lay’, surely? It’s ‘fee-lay’, not ‘fill it’.” Often with a look that says , “You’d think he’d know, being a food writer and all.”
And I’ve found that there’s no point in arguing, because once some people have got it into their heads that it’s fee-lay, and always fee-lay, there’s no explaining to them that they’re wrong.
Which, half of the time, they are.
It’s merely a matter of language. Filet – pronounced (they will tell you) ‘fee-lay’ – is French. Fillet – yes, with the “t” pronounced – is English, and rhymes with billet and millet. And almost without exception, we tend to write fillet, which means that the dogmatically, pigheadedly (to mix one’s animal metaphors) stubborn who insist on arguing the toss are only right if, in their head, they’re seeing the French word. Which I suspect they’re not.
The same person will pick you out when you say ‘Francoise”, pronouncing the “oise” part to rhyme with Mars. “It’s waah,” they’ll say. “Frans Waah.”
But it’s not. Francois is Frans Waah. Francoise, with an “e”, is the female, and is pronounced Frans Waaz. Am I right? I take my cue (for the last argument) from the sultry French chanteuse Francoise Hardy, who is not (as many South Africans like to say it), “Frans Wahaadee”. She’s Frans-Waaz-adee. Oh, and it’s “shaan terse”, by the way. Not “shaan terr”.
Look, I’m open to correction here, and if I spend next week suffocating beneath a mound of letters from Irate of Rondebosch and Astounded of Franschhoek, I will eat my words, French or not.
Anyway, “filet” the French way, with one “l”, is more correctly pronounced without any apparent “ls” at all, as “fee-yay” (um, I think… having written that, I’m starting to doubt it), and frankly I think that non-French-speaking people risk soundling silly when trying overly hard to say things as if they had been born within sight of the Eiffel Tower. It’s not as if the French endeavour to pronounce English words with an English accent, if you think about it.
If a Frenchman says ‘Ziss ees ze way to pronounce eat’, we don’t say, ‘Oh! Bloody frog can’t spell.” We think, ‘Oh, don’t the French sound so charming and sophisticated.’ Whereas the Frenchman will be thinking, ‘Stupid Rosbif.’
If all of the above spices up the odd dinner party table talk around town this week, here’s something to make as a main course while arguing it out. I have a plethora of spices at the moment, so decided to use some of them to make a spicy crust for a half beef fillet.
I raided the spice jars and chose Szechuan peppercorns, fennel seeds, yellow mustard seeds and black teal seeds. If you don’t have all of these, choose three or four hard seed spices of your choice. For teal seeds (which I found in a Gatesville spice store), you could substitute jeera (cumin) seeds.
The key here is to toast the hard spices briefly before grinding them.
Spice-crusted beef fillet
A half beef fillet (the thicker end of the fillet), about 1kg
3 Tbs olive oil
1 Tbs fennel seeds
2 Tbs Szechuan peppercorns (1 Tbs is for the potatoes)
1 Tbs yellow mustard seeds
2 tsp black teal seeds
Baby pink fir potatoes, 5-7 a serving
3 Tbs butter or ghee, melted
1 glass red wine
1 cup stock
Salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 200°. Heat a flat frying pan and toss the dry spices (the fennel seeds, mustard seeds, Szechuan peppercorns and teal seeds) in the pan for a couple of minutes. Do not let them burn. As soon as they start to smoke very slightly, take the pan off the heat. Pour the seeds into a mortar and bash them with the pestle (or pour them into a pestle and bash them with a mortar, whatever – no one remembers which is which).
Wash and pat dry the whole fillet. Coat all over with the spices, drizzle liberally with olive oil and roast for 20 minutes in the 200° oven. Salt the beef half way though cooking. Turn off, open the door and leave ajar for at least five minutes for the joint to rest.
Add red wine and vegetable, chicken or beef stock to the pan juices to make a quick sauce for the beef. There’ll be plenty of flavour from the collected pan juices and spices.
Pink fir potatoes? I found them at Woolies recently – they’re tiny and waxy, pinkish-skinned and yellowish inside. Wash the baby pink fir potatoes and steam them for about 7 minutes. Drain, leaving them to dry in a colander or steamer basket away from the heat. When you’re ready to serve them, toss them in spiced butter – stir a tablespoon of crushed peppercorns into melted butter or ghee, salt, toss for a couple of minutes and serve.
Go to the table and say, “Here’s the fillet.” And don’t brook any arguments.
First published in Weekend Argus July 2012