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
I 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
I 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
Some 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
Salvador 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’.
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).
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.
The Art of Cuisine
Toulouse-Lautrec, Maurice Joyant
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. 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!