Shelves darkened by lines of books, heaped to block out much of what little light comes in through the window, piled to turn the path no more than a foots length and make you walk heel-to-toe, all of them waiting for some dust to be blown off if not deliberately then by a sneeze (asthmatics like me should beware!); the musty smell of the cotton and card or embossed waxy covers, the graininess of the creamy pages, made dark and brittle in parts by sunlight; the tactile pleasure, the joy of holding something by Elizabeth David or Jane Grigson, or others, that is fifty years old or more is one the internet can never provide. I love hunting down older, original (sometimes first edition) cook books. It is an occasional treat for me, the chaotic drive, then a leisurely pub lunch followed by the slow perusal of the second hand bookshops to find something new, well new to the collection.
So there was a frisson of excitement when I received two books from the Classic Voices range by Quadrille Publishing to review: “The Gentle Art of Cookery” and “Simple French Cooking for English Homes”. Both beautifully bound in the old style card and weave as if the post had been delayed for the decades or so since its first publication. The feel of the covers reminiscent of the old style books that represent a quality made to last. These are enjoyably tactile and the vibrant colour pleasing to the eyes, and smell as fresh as the dandelion on one of the covers. As Skye Gyngell is quoted as saying, they are indeed wonderful bedside readers to dip into and put down at leisure.
These are collectibles, but there is the rub. I WANT to use them, I want to be able to give the recipes a try, use their historical knowledge and encyclopaedic wisdom to help a food craving or an idea take shape, and that is my only disappointment (and I say ONLY). As beautiful as these are and collectible as they may become, the gilt edge of the Boulestin (and my own copy of Mme Prunier’s silvered pages) are not practical to use with greasy or flour covered hands. Rather like “Venezia” by Tessa Kiros (a beautiful if impractical book), I could be put off buying them if I didn’t feel I could actually use them in a practical sense without leaving sparkling traces in my pastry, for example, (though it may actually improve my offerings) but they are so well presented retro collectibles that I want to buy them. A shame but that is my only real dilemma, my only complaint; and that is, truthfully, it.
But to start, in chronological order, “Simple French Cookery for English Homes” (originally published in 1923) comes in a custard yellow cover printed with a pair of brown heifers on the front, gilt edged (see earlier comment) it is half the size of the other book I receive but just as practical and in some senses the more enjoyable to read.
X (Xavier) Marcel Boulestin was the original bon viveur having been a journalist and a translator, before doing the occasional stint as a private chef and wine advisor to the wealthy (which led him to get the commission for this, his first book) and finally, and more importantly, the original television chef in 1937.
Matthew Fort is quoted as saying the original modern cook book was due to Boulestin and it is clear why; here and there you can almost see his Gallic flare of the nostrils or a David Suchetian wag of the Poirot finger to warn us not to err down a certain culinary path, notably in his ‘Remarks’ section.
His raconteur character comes through in the almost romantic paragraph introducing soup, where the opening picture whisks the reader off to the rolling hills of the Auvergne or further south. Here he explains the North South divide (I guess they invented that one too!) telling us that soup and wine is the traditional peasant fare from the centre and south of France rather than poor coffee and bread in the north. Again, there is the tale master spinning his yarn to warm us to the traditional idea of French food.
First comes the chapter on Sauces with the caveat that all sauces are part of the dish mentioned in the subsequent meat or fish section. It is a really useful and easily readable chapter from the Courte Bouillon to the Hollandaise.
Whilst he cautions us (finger wagging) on the need to keep Egg recipes simple, and has no comment on the various fish dishes, the section on Meat opens with a small dig at the ‘perfidious’ Swiss getting in the way of our understanding of French Cuisine. (We should be at one, cooking from the same page but they got in the way; why did they do that to us? Why?) The least we can do therefore is to disguise their influence with a head of garlic in a leg of mutton.
On salads, the finger wagging goes ‘metronomical’ (tick, tick, tick), the iron fist in velvet glove comment “I cannot help wondering if an English salad is the result of ignorance or the aim of a curiously perverted taste” is a prime example. Ouch! And yet, you have to laugh. But the reader’s attention is grabbed and he goes on to explain why.
Ending the food section (following a good selection of deserts) is a suggested daily menu starting from Sunday and working its way through the week, a progression of dishes using leftovers for the following day with a page explaining his reasoning, and a late evening supper (suggested at 3am so not only the original TV Chef but also the original clubber?)
Finally, he flourishes with an exceedingly useful chapter on wine as if taking the amateur gently aside (in the same way as a Frenchman might take you gently aside at a wedding reception and say “your wife is having an affair with the Mayor but we have to be adult about it” type ‘gentle aside’, a Gallic shrug, a pat on the shoulder, an almost imperceptible shake of the head). He advises on storage and how we serve our whites (too cold – agreed) and our reds too warm, undecanted and cooked in the bottle by the fire (thank goodness the microwave hadn’t been invented then!)
In other chapters there is not so much commentary or introduction having already discussed most of his thoughts in his Remarks both General and Special, though there are quotes from Brillat Saverin, Meredith, Galsworthy and even Darwin add to the flavour.
“Simple French Cooking for English Homes” made me smile, laugh and fascinated me all at once; a rare gem.
“The Gentle Art of Cookery” on the other hand, is a collaboration of two ladies who sound like a pair of ex-debutantes or nannies than writers; Mrs C F (Hilda) Leyel, the wife of an theatrical impresario who used her dining menus as a basis for writing this book before going on to write others, and her assistant, Miss Olga Hartley who was a suffragette, journalist and noted author.
The rich herb green cover, silver spine and large dandelion pattern have a visually comforting appeal. Inside recipes are described in a matter of fact, no nonsense way. The writing has no fuss or frills, no nonsense, no delicious metaphors or gastro-prose verbage like, oh, my blog for example, just straight talking; an approach reminiscent of Fanny Craddock but without the harpyish, hand slapping bossiness. Most of the chapters have quotations and an introduction on the importance of the key ingredients such as eggs, mushrooms, and so forth.
Many things stand out in this book however, the flower chapter, to which the front cover alludes, starts with an introduction on the history of flower usage from ancient Sparta to medieval times and to the Far East with Orange Pekoe and Jasmine. Hilda Leyel’s knowledge as an herbalist really comes to the fore with examples of Dandelion Puree and Eggs with Marigold.
The chapter for Children’s recipes is as amusing as it is a revelation, listing some amazing things that the reader can do for children, ‘To Make an Ostrich Egg’ (using pig’s bladder and several ordinary eggs), or that children can do for themselves, ‘Omelettes in Saucers’ (although Boulestin in his Egg chapter says that an omelette is not the easiest thing to get right), Meringues and a Gingerbread House, for example. All done in a simple no nonsense way, but something that gets children excited about cooking (that can’t be bad).
The Egg chapter has an introduction including the historical significance of eggs both in food and in society which is almost worth buying the book for alone, and there is a potentially lifesaving section on mushrooms for the amateur forager. However, I could not understand the need for separate chapters on Almonds and Chestnuts when walnuts are mentioned in vegetables (that’s the author’s decision, who am I to question?)
For a themed party there is a chapter called Arabian Nights. Although the recipes are based on those in Burton’s book of ‘The Thousand Nights and a Night’ (also known as Arabian Nights) the release of the film ‘The Thief of Baghdad’ with Douglas Fairbanks (1924, when the book was probably being assembled) must surely have had a massive influence. In fact, at the time of writing the book (published in 1925) the Empire Exhibition had opened, Art Deco was arriving from Paris, Tutankhamen’s artefacts had done a whistle stop visit to Wembley, Kingdoms were emerging in the Middle East, and all things exotic were being produced. Having said all that, given her classic comments on ancient mythology and food history, Mrs Leyel perhaps failed to digest Leviticus in this particular chapter. LARD? BACON?! Or am I being too particular (though I am very much tempted to give Oeufs a la Constantinopolitaine a go)?
Despite a feeling of slight nanny knows best commentary and my occasional criticism I loved this book, it is a treasure trove of information, very much worth the cost to sit proudly anywhere, be it by the bed, on the coffee table, or, like mine, in the kitchen where it will be well thumbed and highly valued.
The Classic Voices series is an excellent collection brought together by Jill Norman, the series editor, who also writes a great introduction to each book. They bring an almost other worldliness to the present with mentions of taking food up to the nursery in the vegetable section of Leyel’s book and cellaring wines in Boulestin’s, phrases that have no place in the modern and instant world that we live in and yet although dated are not something that distract from the recipes and ideas themselves, in fact, are a pleasure to read: different worlds, different lives. Jill Norman has created a real joy and collectible pleasure for the buyer and whilst there are only a few books in the range (so far?)I cannot wait to get my hands on more editions.