Recipe for the perfect mashed potatoes, by France’s ‘chef of the century’

Mashed potatoes were to Joel Robuchon, the star French chef who died on Monday at 73, what a madeleine sponge cake dunked in tea was to novelist Marcel Proust: a powerful, sensuous reminder of his youth.

Recipe for the perfect mashed potatoes, by France's 'chef of the century'
Photo: Studio Sarah Lou/Flickr/AFP

And as far as he was concerned, the more butter, the better.

Robuchon rehabilitated the simple milk-spud-butter mix in the 1980s, at a time when most chefs looked on it with disdain, and, as he later recalled, “there were only packets of Mousseline (an instant mash mix) to be found in French homes.”

“He realised early on that if you give people potatoes, potatoes and more potatoes, they'll be eternally grateful, forever fulfilled,” food author Patricia Wells wrote in her 1991 book on Robuchon's cooking.

The New York Times published the recipe and it went on to become a global sensation.

Here it is, in 10 steps, as described by Robuchon in the French TV programme “Cuisinez comme un Grand Chef”:

1- Use a kilogramme of potatoes, approximately the same size. Do not peel them. (Robuchon used the ratte variety).

2- Wash the potatoes and cover them with water, adding an extra 2-3 centimetres on top.

3- Add 10 grammes of salt per litre of water.

4- Bring the potatoes to the boil and simmer for 25 minutes. Prick a potato with the tip of a knife and try lifting it up. If it falls off it's cooked.

5- Peel the potatoes while still hot and put them through a vegetable mill. Do not use a blender as it makes the mash sticky.

6- Add a drop of water to a saucepan and then pour in 20-30 centilitres of full-cream milk. Bring the milk to a boil.

7- Over a low heat, add 250 grammes of cold butter, cut into lumps, to the potato mix, little by little.

8- Add the milk slowly.

9- Mix first with a wooden spoon. When the mix gets softer, use a whisk.

10- To make the mix even finer, put it through a sieve.

And to quote Robuchon's sign-off in his TV food show which ran from 2000 to 2009: “Bon appetit bien sur!”

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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!