This photograph was taken at Chateau Haut Sarpe in the Bordeaux region. The cook seen here grilling steaks over vine shoots in a Renaissance fireplace is Mme Chabrerie who at the time it was taken had worked for the chateau owners, the Janoueix family, for many years. The meat comes from their own cows, raised on the estate as is most of the produce for the harvest meals. This team of pickers eats well, and has fun - there is even a little night club in one of the old farm buildings.
A hungry cellar-worker grilling a steak over an improvised fire made from the staves of old barrels steeped in the tannins of Bordeaux wines: these are the supposed origins of this celebrated dish. Who or when are facts that are lost in the usual mists of time. But there are stories of esteemed gastronomes of the past being glad to accept an invitation from a cellar master to share an entrecôte cooked in this way. However, barrels are expensive things nowadays and châteaux are more likely to be selling their old ones than letting their workers use them as cooking fuel. In any case, it gradually became the tradition to use vine-shoots (sarments) saved from the pruning, or old vine stocks taken out during re-planting, to make the fire. The ingredients are few and simple but the combination of steak, shallots and bone marrow has become a classic.
According to an often-quoted old book("Traîté de Cuisine Bourgeoise Bordelaise" by Alcide Bontou), the piece of steak should be about the thickness of two fingers. It should be marinaded in a tablespoon of oil, salt and freshly-ground black pepper. When the fire is glowing, put the meat on the grill. (Of course it can be grilled under gas or electric - perfectly good, less picturesque). Chop together 4 shallots, a good firm piece of beef marrow and a little handful of parsley. Turn the steak and spread this mixture over the upper surface. Heat the blade of the knife and use it to press down the mixture a few times, to soften the marrow. That is all.
Any other complications, such as red wine sauces, which sometimes go under the name of entrecôtes à la bordelaise, are usually denounced as not being the real thing. (Though they may be a perfectly good thing in their own right - the entrecôte is usually fried in a pan and kept warm while chopped shallots are briefly tossed in the same butter. A teaspoon of flour is then added and a sauce made by adding a glass each of red wine and water, to which chopped, raw marrow is added and softened in it. This sometimes appears as entrecôte marchand du vin.)
It is useful to know how to prepare the marrow. The marrow bone should be sawn into 7.5 cm (3 in) lengths by the butcher. If possible, soak the pieces in cold water for 12 to 24 hours, changing the water several
times. Put the bones in cold water to cover, bring slowly to the boil and allow to barely simmer for about 20 minutes. Scoop the marrow out of the bone with the handle of a small spoon. Marrow bones vary in size. Ask the butcher for advice on quantities. It is now ready to chop with the shallots and parsley.
If no marrow bones are obtainable, all is not lost. In the Bordeaux area you see people grilling steaks and simply sprinkling them with a good handful of chopped shallots and parsley.