I love buying and browsing through cookbooks, but I have to admit that I return to the same old classics time and time again. Here’s how I learned to cook French food.
The most exhaustive reference for French cuisine I have ever found, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (2 volumes, by Simone Beck, Julia Child and Louisette Bertholle) spells everything out in laborious detail (including a 15-page recipe for French bread!). I wouldn’t bother attempting the bread, but the other recipes are more practical. If you follow the instructions in this book, you cannot go wrong, and the results will be all you could hope for. My first copy of Volume 1 (the more useful of the two) was so well-used that it literally disintegrated and I had to buy another copy.
Another valuable book for novices is the wonderful Complete French Cookery Course by Mireille Johnston. A reassuring book to pick up when you want to impress your guests with authentic French food, without driving yourself to the brink of a nervous breakdown in the process. It got used a lot when we first moved here and timidly started to invite French guests to our table.
Once you have mastered the basics in this book, you are ready for Elizabeth David’s magisterial French Provincial Cooking. In my opinion, if you are a novice cook Elizabeth David is not the best place to start. Her recipes are very brief, and assume a fair amount of knowledge of cooking processes and the behaviour of various mixtures. If you aren’t absolutely certain of what you are doing, the results could be disappointing. But no cook who is serious about French food should be without this book.
One of my favourite Elizabeth David books is not a recipe book as such, but a collection of articles written for magazines and newspapers over the years: An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. David’s concise, no-nonsense style is ideally suited to this medium and there are some wonderful reminiscences of meals in France and elsewhere, along with inimitable rants about bogus food (the article about mayonnaise is particularly memorable). It does contain incidental recipes, including my favourite tomato recipe ever, tomates à la crème, which as David says, “tastes startlingly unlike any other dish of cooked tomatoes”. A great bedside book — but all of her books lend themselves to reading at leisure, not just cooking.
Other well-thumbed volumes: I really like Nigel Slater and Simon Hopkinson. And Jane Grigson is up there in the firmament with Elizabeth David. Both English Food and Good Things disintegrated and had to be replaced — the ultimate accolade for a cookbook. And Jane is a less frightening kitchen companion than Elizabeth.
Books I don’t like: celebrity chefs’ cookbooks which seem to presuppose a vast kitchen, an unlimited supply of pans, an army of commis chefs and unhindered access to ingredients such as demi-glace and sauce espagnole. The only book by restaurateurs that gets house-room here is the out-of-print French Country Cooking by the Roux brothers. Some of the recipes are fiddly, it’s true, but most are child’s play to any competent cook. My favourite: the recipe for rabbit and mustard which rejects the usual mustard/cream combination and produces a wonderfully light and fresh-tasting dish.