The trouble with having worked in the UK and then moving to France is the need to sort out quite complicated tax rules. So I had to bite the bullet and visit an accountant. It was whilst getting stuff ready to take that it reminded me that I needed to do a blog about cookbooks.
As a chef I have a passion for cookbooks, I can happily just read them and browse through them. Here in France it also helps improve my language and gives insights into the culture – in France they sometimes use as a measure a cuilliere a cafe (coffee spoon) where English books use a teaspoon.
So how should you choose a cookbook? In his book Considerations sur la cuisine, Pierre de Pressac advises, “Which is the best cookery book? The one you like best, and which gives you that confidence that cannot be called forth to order but which is instinctively felt.” One master French work is Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne published in 1938. He was a master chef here in the Languedoc and although working at the top of his profession never forgot the regional cookery which had been practiced within his family for generations. Another great French chef who never forgot his regional roots was Escoffier and his great work Ma Cuisine published in 1932, when he was 88, contains many famous Provencal dishes. At Chez Maison Bleue I always try to follow one of Escoffier’s greatest maxims “Faites simple”
In terms of great English cookbooks many people often refer to “Mrs Beeton” forgetting that her work is really about far more than cooking being, to use its title, a “Book of Household Management”
I suppose moving to the modern era many swear by Delia, I tend to swear at her because I find her recipes a bit verbose and sometimes unnecessarily complicated. Jamie Oliver produces some good recipes as do many of the celebrity chefs. However as a good foundation basic cookbook I reckon that the Good Housekeeping Step by Step Cookbook takes some beating.
For a real insight into French cookery everyone should read French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David. This book first published in 1960 is more than a cookbook. Although containing some classic recipes it also gives fascinating cultural and historical information and is an interesting read even if you never follow any of the recipes.
So what books do I use, well loads actually. If I want to try a new dish I will read as many different versions of the same thing and then make an amalgam of them picking what I consider to be the best bits. I would never rely on just one version. I share the view of cookbooks expressed by Pierre de Pressac with whom I started this piece. He went on to say, “For myself I like those books which are not too complicated and which suggest ideas rather than being minutely detailed handbooks.” Although fans of Heston Blumenthal would probably not agree with de Pressac’s comment, “Mere freakishness is no passport to glory. It is not even to be recommended”.