As part of the Classic Voices in Food series, Quadrille Publishing is reissuing this work of culinary genius. And I can see why.
Being given the opportunity to review the book has given me a chance to try out some truly wonderful recipes, as well as absorb several pieces of fine advice which still hold true today. Published as a hardback, this new edition would make a fine present for a dinner thank you, or for an avid cookbook fan.
First published in 1923, Xavier Boulestin did much to help dispel the myth that French cooking is complicated and difficult. He was the first television chef, working with the BBC in the early experimental days in the 1930’s. I love his succinct writing style, and the fact that he clearly trusts his audience: he appears to be a precursor to the modern Jamie school of splashing, drizzling and throwing.
His writing style is extremely accessible, and in many cases bang on. His classification of potatoes made me laugh. This is exactly the way I think of the different types: the long yellow kind, the white floury kind, the long Dutch kind. And his potato recipes are delicious, and simple. I could almost hear him accompany me around the market, pinching and squeezing fruit and vegetables, assessing and approving (or otherwise!) my choices.
Many of the recipes are quite short, and the way the book is put together showcases how skills build once you start cooking. In the sauce section, you start off making a simple roux before moving onto hollandaise and then mayonnaise, for example. There are no pictures; but this is actually quite liberating. I don’t know about you but it can be exhausting knowing that what I’m putting on the table bears no resemble to the photograph. Any recipe that starts off with ‘Bone the hare’, however, may be a bit beyond modern tastes. There are plenty of recipes amongst the 300-odd which appeal, however; it would be a mistake to dismiss it as a slice of history.
The cooked lettuce recipe opened my eyes to a new way to eat my greens. Stuffed tomatoes took me back to home economic lessons; the Cassoulet transported me to the South of France. The Salad section has given me new ideas for dressings as well as food for thought with such gems as ‘One cannot help wondering if an English salad is the result of ignorance…’ Boulestin then redeems himself by going on to recommend walnut or olive oil only for dressings; a man ahead of his time.
I adore the meat dish section which states ‘Birds should be roasted in front of a clear fire’. Gives me another argument for replacing the gas fire with a woodburner. The man speaks sense; he’s not talking down to his readers yet doesn’t overburden us with technicality. Sometimes you may need to refer to another cookery book to check techniques learnt long ago, yet overall, Boulestin’s book rings as true today as it did at the time. I imagine this, by the way, I wasn’t around in the 1930’s.
Nearly 90 years after it was written, Boulestin’s enthusiasm for fresh, good quality ingredients and innate thriftiness shines through. An enjoyable book to read, and to cook with, it’s a bit like having your grandmother on speed dial: each section has a dose of common sense, some good suggestions about what to do with leftovers, and a dash of culinary education.