VOULEZ VOUS UN POPPADOM

 

I still tend to think a lot about food even though I’m an occasional and indifferent cook and my teeth and gums can now only cope with Baby Porridge and Heinz Teething Rusks. Memories of Duck number 512,948 (depuis 1890) at Le Tour D’Argent, my mother’s bread pudding, an andouillette at La Courte Paille, a plate of grilled red mullet in a Sicilian port – they’re always popping up in meditative moments or pleasant dreams. These cuisine memories are constantly jogged by a collection of culinary ephemera – menus, bills, wine labels and tasting notes, all from favourite restaurants and wineries collected over the last 40 years. They are supplemented by Michelin and Gault et Millau restaurant guides from the 70s and 80s, Larousse Gastronomique, The Penguin Companion to Food, all of Jane Grigson’s books and Mediterranean Seafood, a unique and creative mix of biology and seafood cuisine, written when the author, Alan Davidson, was British Consul in Tunis. All of these books are food for thought as well as thought for food.

When it comes to actual cookbooks, Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail Eating is popular in our kitchen and Gerard Depardieu’s Ma Cuisine (Paris 2005) is a great hymn to classic French Provincial cuisine, which, sadly, is not what he serves in his restaurant, La Fontaine Gaillon in la rue de la Michodiere. Many of the recipes in these, and in other foreign food cookbooks, are unworkable in Australia. Coq au Vin? Try asking a Sydney butcher for a rooster or a capon for that matter. And no, it doesn’t taste the same using the drumsticks of a pale, cling-wrapped battery hen, now sold sans skin in a bid to eliminate any vestige of taste. Similarly don’t bother with quenelles de brochet, jugged hare, or anything with pigeon, offal or Roblochon. Alas, speed and health are the new drivers of cook books. Here are five elegant books about food and wine as enjoyment and kept solely on my shelves for the pleasure of their company.

Les Hors D’Oeuvre  Sont Un Jeu D’Enfants
Michel Oliver
Paris, 1969

img_3708I like this book for its Quarto format (ring-bound for easy reference while cooking), its charming, hand-painted illustrations, the fact that it deals only with classic French dishes and its historical importance.

In the early 60s, after a brief spell selling Jazz records in Bordeaux, Michel Oliver went to work for his father, Raymond, at that time proprietor and chef of Le Grand Vefour, an ancient Mecca of French haute cuisine. In existence since 1784, the restaurant has fed, among others, Napoleon and Josephine, Victor Hugo, Jean Paul Sartre, Colette and Jean Cocteau, who became a regular and designed the menu. Some of the restaurant’s best years came after Raymond Oliver acquired it in 1954 and in the next decade when it earned its third Michelin star while Michel worked his way through the kitchen to become Maitre d’Hotel. In 1970 Michel left Le Grand Vefour, and with the royalties from ‘La Cuisine est un Jeu D’Enfants’(1963), which sold three million copies, and subsequent additions to the series, opened four restaurants – Bistrot de Paris, Bistrot Romain, L’Assiette au Boeuf and the Bistrot de La Gare, all of them offering the complete opposite  of the cuisine classique of Escoffier served at his father’s tables. The food was lighter, simpler, with more emphasis on presentation, and much, much cheaper. In the early seventies at the Bistrot de La Gare on Le Boulevard Montparnasse, with its ravishing Art Nouveau interior, you could eat for as little as US$11 (no credit cards accepted) including wine. Championed by Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who had begun a popular food guide in 1965, the restaurants were a huge success. This was Nouvelle Cuisine before it became confused by ‘fusion’, decorated with camel snot, skid marks and rare fungi grown only on the West flank of Mount Fuji and presented in tiny stacks in the middle of plates the size of hubcaps. Michel did not invent Nouvelle Cuisine; the term was first used in the 20th century by Henri Gault to describe the food prepared by Paul Bocuse for the maiden flight of Concorde on March 2nd 1969, but he certainly popularised a new form of French dining. Except perhaps for the Salade de Pissenlits au Lard I have never found any of Monsieur Oliver’s hors d’oeuvres on a Sydney restaurant menu; probably too simple for our sophisticated tastes. Unless you make one of his recipes yourself, you will have to go to France to try them. Don’t waste time looking for L’Assiette au Boeuf or Bistrot de la Gare next time you are in Paris; they still exist but the magic has gone. Le Grand Vefour, still there in the Palais Royale, has now only two stars, but is still worth a visit.

Aromas & Flavours of Past & Present
Alice B Toklas
London 1959

img_3710I like this book because it is as ‘much for the mind as for the kitchen’, because it is full of rococo recipes and because it goes right against the present wave of books demanding we eat faster, cheaper, healthier food. There are whole chapters on Cooking with Champagne, Cooking with Cognac and Ratafias (fruits, berries and flowers soaked in brandy or gin). I’m surprised it’s not banned.

Many of the recipes are steeped in history and their ingredients lavishly soaked in wine, sherry or cognac. We have Pike in half-mourning, Truite en Chemise, Perfumed Goose, Sweetbread and Artichoke stew, Queen of Sheba Cake, The Ribbons of Sarah Bernhardt and Vespetro, requiring 2 pounds of sugar and 2 quarts of brandy, anjelica root, a pinch of powdered orris root and coriander seeds. Then there is Ducks Mademoiselle where we are instructed to inject, using a hypodermic syringe, the bird’s breast and legs with 20 or 30 doses of burgundy wine. Hmmm.

Alice was the life companion of Gertrude Stein, a writer whose only quotable sentence is ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’. Each Saturday, in their shared Paris apartment at 27 Rue Fleurus, the couple hosted a salon frequented, among others, by Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, Matisse, Picasso and Braque.

‘Gertude wrote and talked and Alice cooked and talked’ and when Alice did speak, people listened for she had, according to one witness, a voice ‘like a viola at dusk’. After Gertrude’s death in 1946 Alice looked comfortable as she had inherited much of Stein’s estate as well as their shared art collection, which included works by Cezanne, Bonnard, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and Lautrec. Alas, Gertrude’s greedy relatives claimed and removed the choicer paintings while Alice was on holiday. It was almost certainly to relieve the ensuing pecuniary hardship that in 1954 she published the Alice B Toklas Cookbook, famous for its inclusion (excluded of course from the American edition) of a recipe for Haschich Fudge, the ingredients of which included canibus sativa. Aromas & Flavours followed in 1959. Nevertheless poor Alice died in poverty. She rests alongside Gertrude in Pere Lachaise cemetery: They were one of the very first couples to be openly gay.

This is not a book of a television show presented by a matey Jamie Oliver or the X rated Nigella; it is a mature cookbook written by an intellectual. Alice’s advice has a very personal ring to it in contrast to the very impersonal instructions to be found on the internet. She would find incongruous a typical Sydney dinner that included a Thai starter, Italian main and German dessert. She disliked refrigeration, believing it took the life out of food; cream, she insisted, should not be frozen but unctuous. Her recipes never indicate how many a dish would serve, that would depend on the appetites of the diners and their enthusiasm for the dish. If the waiter is harrying you to choose a side of fries, rice or baby carrots to go with your crispy, soy-roasted pork belly, remember Alice’s advice – an entree does not necessarily have to be served with something or on something; don’t be frightened to enjoy things on their own.

 

Receipts and Relishes, being a Vade Mecum for the Epicure in the British Isles
Bernard Darwin
London, 1950

img_3709Some might say ‘Epicure in the British Isles’ is an oxymoron, like ‘Fun Run’ or ‘Australian Fashion Week’, but I’m here to praise a book, not a country’s cuisine. Books are more than their content. There’s the feel, the right combination of format, typeset and paper, the quality of decoration and illustration, the provenance and the added ephemera – those little press cuttings and handwritten recipes that previous owners have tucked inside. This charming little book ticks all those boxes. Inside my copy you will find a yellowing press cutting with instructions on how to make Bedfordshire Clangers for Bonfire Night, a letter from Norah McQueen from Grangemouth recalling how her Grandmother made Sheeps Head Broth and the annual dinner menu of the Devonshire Branch of the Food and Wine Society with its entre of Brixham lobster and mussel pie. It is easy to see from the recipes, which are arranged geographically, why Britain is known as the land of a thousand cakes and four cheeses. I think you must be English and elderly to fully appreciate this book because it is the names of the dishes and places that resonate: Tiverton Chudleighs from Devon, Plum Shuttles from Rutland (buns for Valentine’s Day) and Fidget Pie from Shropshire. There are Potted Lamperns, Solomon Grundys, Parkins, Lardy Johns, Singin’ Hinnies and Kattern cakes, made by the people of Ampthill, Bedfordshire, sold on St Catherine’s Day and named after Catherine of Aragon who was once imprisoned in the local castle and remembered for her kindly interest in the local lace-makers. These are the peculiar dishes of a peculiar people handed down from one generation of housewives to another.

The Wines of Gala
Salvador Domenich Felipe Jacinto Dali
Paris 1977

img_3721Salvador Dali, Spanish Surrealist painter and eccentric, was also a gourmet, wine lover and Romantic. In 1929 the 25 year old Dali met and fell instanter in love with Russian immigrant, Elena Diakonova, and in that same year bought a small fisherman’s cottage at Portlligat where they began living together. Elena was ten years older than Dali and comfortable in the company of artists and writers, for she had been the lover of Max Ernst and was, at that time, still married to Surrealist poet Paul Eluard. After their marriage in 1934 Dali wrote:  ‘I name my wife Gala, Galushka, Gradiva; Oliva for her oval face and the colour of her skin…’ and Gala she became, remaining his Muse for the next 50 years. There have been many famous Muses, Man Ray’s Kiki de Montparnasse, Jeanne Duval, Charles Beaudelaire’s ‘Black Venus’ and Francis Bacon’s George Dyer come to mind. Georgia O’Keeffe was the Muse of photographer Alfred Stieglitz and Victorine Meurent is said to have inspired Manet to see the world in an entirely new way. But for longevity and intensity of passion, for the volume and quality of the works she inspired, none can match Gala. Many of Dali’s works are signed with both their names. ‘It is with your blood, Gala, that I paint my pictures’.

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Gala

In 1968 Dali bought his wife a castle in Pubol (near Gerona), where she would go for weeks at a time and sometimes for the entire summer with the agreement that Dali could only visit with her written permission. It was in these periods of loneliness, frustration and depression when deprived of her company that Dali produced two books devoted to important elements of their life together: The Dinners of Gala (1973) and The Wines of Gala (1977).img_3736

The Wines of Gala begins with ten Dali wines, including the Wine of Ay (Champagne), Lacrima Cristi, Chateau d’Yquem and, of course, Jerez de la Frontera. They are followed by Gala’s wines, grouped under the ten emotions or characteristics they evoke and display, so we have wines of Joy, wines of Sensuality, wines of Dawn, Generosity and Light. Do not expect tasting notes, great vintages and advice on food pairing; this is a book on wine as art, life and history and as a bond between lovers. Dali’s illustrations are a combination of ‘doctored’ old masters, impudent cartoons and paintings full of saucy symbolism, at the same time, both beautiful and unsettling. After Gala’s death in 1982 Dali lost much of the will to live, hanging by a thread until he drifted off on 23rd January 1989 to the music of Tristan and Isolde.

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The Art of Cuisine
Toulouse-Lautrec, Maurice Joyant
London, 1966

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Another cookbook from an artist, although Lautrec did not actually write this elegant book; that was the work of Maurice Joyant. The friendship between Lautrec and Joyant, or ‘Momo’ as his friend called him, began when they met at school in 1872 and lasted until Lautrec’s death in 1901. The friendship endured because they were both bon vivants and because they were both involved in art. While Lautrec painted Maurice managed Boussod, Valadon et Cie., art dealers, the same company (then called Goupil et Cie.) that had fired Vincent Van Gogh and where his brother Theo had worked as Manager of the Boulevard Montmartre branch. It was Maurice who gave Lautrec his first retrospective in 1893, organised his exhibition in London in 1898 and published the first biography of the painter in 1926. It was also Maurice who persuaded Lautrec’s mother, La Comtesse Adele, to donate her collection of her son’s art to the Lautrec Museum in Albi. Finally, it was Maurice that compiled and privately published the first copies of this book. But do not think that Lautrec had no hand in it.img_3718 He and Maurice both came from families where food was not just a matter of survival. They ate in the best restaurants and kept note of the dishes and their preparation; they hunted, fished, cooked and entertained together and kept records of what they served. They both saw the planning, cooking and presentation of food as art, art that would be reflected on the menus designed by Lautrec.

It is the menu covers, examples of Lautrec’s art not seen in the usual monographs, that make this book so charming. Today many of the dishes are totally impractical, especially outside of France. They were written at a time when cookbooks were exciting and imprecise and when the Cancan was danced sans culottes; Oui Madame, sans culottes!

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Cooking With Fat

My mother was a good cook. I’m inclined to say simple but good, but in retrospect her cooking required the patience, timing and talent that rendered the technically difficult outwardly simple. Two of her dishes – tripe with onions and brawn (which required soaking a pig’s head in brine for 24 hours and simmering for another 8 hours before the gelatinous meat could be picked off the bones) demand more time and effort than most would nowadays be prepared to spend. “It must be tasty” she would say as I watched her poaching a piece of smoked haddock for my father’s breakfast or dragging a sizzling joint of silverside from the oven. She was unafraid of offal and her pies were as they should be, with a roof of light, sugar-dusted shortcrust pastry punctured by a ceramic chimney that supported it and allowed the steam to escape. She claimed that her own mother’s food was uneatable and that she had learned her cooking from her father, a chef on the railways in the days when dinner on the Brighton Belle or The Flying Scotsman was an enjoyable 3 course meal instead of a factory produced sausage roll and tea in a Styrofoam cup. The need for speed and convenience has done much to take away one of life’s great pleasures, the preparation of food and its enjoyment in company.

Home-made brawn may seem adventurous to today’s Sydney housewife but Mum would not have been considered an adventurous cook in her time. The culinary revolutions that did occur, such as that created by Elizabeth David with the publication of “Mediterranean Cooking” in 1950, passed her by and she was still serving up her same roast-based repertoire even when Dad’s teeth could no longer deal with meat.

Like most kids in post-war London, I was permanently hungry and kept alive in that era of food rationing by the humble but potentially lethal cuisine of the times. Mid-meal hunger was assuaged by doorstep sized slices of bread liberally covered in dripping (the congealed fat from the last roast) or an assortment of sandwiches, their fillings ranging from butter and sugar to Marmite and even evaporated milk. In spite of this diet and a supplement of halibut liver oil capsules and a daily spoonful of Virol (a malt extract), photos of me in the late 1940s reveal a spindly pair of legs dangling like pieces of string from a pair of oversized shorts. Our cat however, ate in a feline “El Bulli”, tucking into fresh fish and boiled rabbit. If Mum had cared to read “Mediterranean Cooking” the family might have dined occasionally on lapin au moutarde while the cat roughed it on Jellymeat Whiskas. As it was I developed a taste for rabbit by picking at the cats’ food as it was being prepared; together with stealing lumps of raw beef and bacon this habit prepared me for an instant appreciation of steak tartare, lapin chasseur and jambon de Bayonne when I arrived in France.

Along with every other citizen my diet was severely limited by the introduction of food rationing in January 1940, occasioned by the volume of imports lost in mid-Atlantic to German submarines. Rationing continued for 15 years, ending finally in July 1954, when the last remaining restriction (on meat) was lifted. I was 12 years old when Mum handed me a bent, yellow object, which she described as a banana. I was 9 years old when chocolate and candy became derestricted and I no longer had to hand over a coupon for an ounce of Bulls Eyes. To my knowledge the Germans never had to endure rationing and continued to tuck into their pig’s knuckles and sauerkraut delivered under the Marshall Plan.

At prep school, lunch was always accompanied by an obligatory quarter pint bottle of silver top milk. There was a greater choice of milk in those days, which in the 1940s was delivered by horse and cart along with the horse droppings, which Mum scooped up and dug into our rose beds. In later years real horsepower was replaced by batteries powering a small electric float. The different qualities of milk were distinguished by the colour of the foil capsule, silver, green, red, and best of all the gold with three or four inches of bottleneck filled with yellow cream. You needed to be on hand soon after a delivery of gold top in case a tit or blackbird decided to stick its beak in.

Now you collect your own carton of milk from the supermarket where the creamiest product would not even merit a silver top; after that there’s a rapid downhill slide through Lite and Pura to disgusting soy milk, fit only for oiling the lawnmower although I’ve frequently seen it used to contaminate a perfectly good coffee. Along with full cream milk, the milkman also passed into history, depriving many a bored housewife of his casual company and eliminating the source of a thousand dirty jokes.

Alan Davidson, in his “Penguin Companion to Food”, confirms my suspicion that cream no longer tastes like it did. He attributes this to the introduction of mechanical separation (so that cream is no longer allowed to “ripen”) together with pasteurisation. Surely a few people can be sacrificed to the odd batch of lethal bacteria to provide the majority of us with the taste of proper cream.

England has always endured a harsh reputation for its cuisine. In fact the word “cuisine” hints of a refinement that only seems apposite to the country of the word’s origin. In France, I became accustomed to hearing “On ne mange pas bien la-bas, n’est ce pas?” whenever I told someone my nationality. England was the land of over-roasted beef, of vegetables boiled until the colour of army fatigues, of fish encased in batter the thickness of the Polar Ice Cap.  It was a country of five cheeses and a thousand and one types of cake. In 1582, while the English were gnawing bones, the French were using forks on the duck course at La Tour D’Argent. While French and Italian housewives were using olive oil and butter my mother was using enough lard (pig fat) and suet (beef or lamb fat) to grease the wheels of the entire rolling stock of British Rail. Our larder (from the Latin Lardarium) was what it sounded, a place for storing fat. Behind this unfortunate but largely merited reputation lays the fact that ever since 880 AD, when King Alfred (distracted by an invasion of Danes) allowed a peasant woman’s cakes to burn, women have been in charge of the nation’s cooking. Where we had Hannah Glasse, Mrs Beeton, Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, France had Vattel, Parmentier, Brillat-Savarin and Escoffier and more latterly Paul Bocuse and the Troisgros brothers.

In the early sixties there was a shift in the English attitude to food. Coffee, once poured in essence form from bottles sporting a picture of an Indian Army Officer, diluted with hot water and sweetened with a spoonful of evaporated milk, was now discharged from Espresso machines and enjoyed in coffee bars. Olive oil, previously only available in chemists for medicinal purposes, now appeared in litre drums in Soho delis. Importantly, Simone de Beauvoir published “The Second Sex” encouraging women to abandon their aprons for a two piece suit, while Len Deighton, famous for spy novels like “The Ipcress File”, published “Ou Est Le Garlic?” making cooking an acceptable interest for blokes. The Swinging Sixties placed English cuisine in the hands of men; we were now fighting on a level playing field with the French. But the sixties had only sown the seeds and it was another 20 years before there were tangible signs of the revolution. Raymond Blanc was one of the first of the men-cooks to achieve fame with his Manoir aux Quatre Saisons, which as you will gather from the name, is heavily influenced by Blanc’s native France. It was in the mid 90s that Jamie Oliver, who would normally have been a shipping clerk, became the first male celebrity cook, spawning Gordon Ramsey, Heston Blumenthal, Fergus Henderson and many others. The X-rated Nigella Lawson is the exception to the rule.

The fact that England and Australia are both currently represented among the top ten best restaurants in the world, says nothing for the overall standard of cuisine in those countries. Heston Blumenthal’s signature dishes at England’s Fat Duck include snail porridge and smoked bacon-and-egg ice cream – the sort of thing a 12 year old would dream up to shock his parents. The people who voted Fat Duck into the top 10 are the same people who judge the Turner Art Prize and the Man Booker. It’s a vote for multiculturalism; these are dishes produced in a country that no longer has an identifiably English cuisine although it did have some recognisably English dishes once upon a time – potted shrimps, Lancashire hot pot, Simnel cake, Yarmouth bloaters, Melton Mowbray pie, syllabub, pikelets, popovers and Johnny cakes to name a few. In between “Ou Est Le Garlic?” and now England has opened its doors to Eastern Europe and the Indian sub-continent and its cuisine has been largely lost in a sea of curry and kebabs or even worse, “Fusion”. If English is your thing, make for my favourite London restaurant, Fergus Henderson’s “St John” in Smithfield and try his Roast Bone Marrow on Toast, Bath Chaps and Baked Treacle Pudding. Brilliant.