Neglected cookbooks: Simple French Food by Richard Olney

Simple French Food by Richard Olney

I was given Provence, 1970 for Christmas and have just been reading it. In it, a group of well-off Americans, all interested in food, gather in Provence in autumn 1970, cook, dine, and have endless conversations about food and wine. They just happen to include Julia Child and her husband Paul, M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, and Richard Olney. I enjoyed it in a cosy sort of way, eavesdropping on their gossip and occasional snobbery. The author, Luke Barr, is MFK’s great-nephew, and he used letters and especially his great-aunt’s notebooks and diaries, to reconstruct whole evenings of conversation in a convincing way. I have to say that I wasn’t surprised to find that Olney, while probably the best cook of the lot of them, could be a somewhat unpleasant character — his Simple French Food is written in such a way that I never felt I’d be comfortable in the kitchen with him, just as I wouldn’t be with Elizabeth David. Whereas Jane Grigson, MFK, or Julia Child would surely be good company. It was a bit disappointing to find that Sybille Bedford (partner of an old friend of MFK’s) could be rather obnoxious as well though.

Serendipitously, we were looking for a recipe for stuffed cabbage and found one in Olney’s book. Oh, good, a chance to revive my neglected cookbooks theme! I’ve had this book for many years and even blogged a recipe from it once, but I don’t get it out often. There’s no denying the quality of the recipes; it’s the turgid prose that puts me off. The first sentence sets the tone: it’s 124 words long. He’s the kind of person who refers to himself as “one”, and his paragraphs are unnecessarily long and rambling.

Still, the proof of the pudding and all that. Alice Waters quotes him as her main inspiration for Chez Panisse, and by and large I’ve been happy with the results of the recipes I’ve tried. He has taken traditional French bourgeois cooking and turned it into an art form. I have to say that while stuffed cabbage may sound dull, if not positively offputting, it was spectacularly good. So if you’re a fan of traditional French cooking and you can get past the convolutions of his prose style, it’s worth having on your shelf. But if you’re not an experienced cook, I still believe no-one surpasses Mireille Johnston for authenticity and accessibility. Mireille’s is the book that’s splattered with food stains in our house. Such a shame it’s out of print; on the other hand it does mean you can obtain cheap second-hand copies.

Anyway, here’s the stuffed cabbage. We made this with pork mince from organic, free-range pigs browsing under oaks in the Aragonese Pyrenees, which probably had a lot to do with the excellent flavour. We didn’t have much stock, so we just made it up with water and flavoured it with a whole peeled onion and a couple of carrots. You need a piece of muslin or a string bag to wrap the cabbage in, and some string.

Start with a large and beautiful Savoy cabbage:
Savoy cabbage

1 large Savoy cabbage
500 g pork mince
250 g bacon lardons
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (or use tinned, or even a generous squirt of tomato puree)
a couple of handfuls of cooked rice
salt and pepper
mixed dried herbs
To cook:
stock or water
1 onion, peeled
2 carrots

Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage, trim the stem, and parboil it in a lot of salted water for 10-15 minutes. Drain in a colander and let it cool enough to handle. Spread your muslin or bag out on a work surface and put the cabbage in the centre. Gently spread out about 20 of the outer leaves, flattening them without detaching them. Remove the heart, slicing it off above the base of the cabbage so that the outer leaves remain attached.

Removing the cabbage heart

Chop the heart, draining out any remaining water by squeezing. Mix the chopped cabbage (you may not need all of it) with all of the stuffing ingredients, seasoning to taste. Use your hands to form it into a compact ball and mound it up in the centre of the cabbage. Then carefully re-form the leaves around the filling, one by one, to restore the original cabbage shape. Wrap the cloth/bag around it, and use string to truss it up firmly so that it keeps its shape.

Wrapping the cabbage

Bring your stock or water to the boil with the seasoning vegetables in a pan large enough to take the cabbage. Put the cabbage in, cover, and simmer slowly for 3-4 hours (we did it on top of the woodburner). To serve, put the cabbage in a shallow bowl right-side up, untie the cloth, and then put a plate on top. Turn the whole lot upside down, remove bowl and cloth, and then reverse the cabbage back into the bowl so that it is right-side up again. Cut into wedges and serve with a jug of the cooking liquid to moisten it. The remaining liquid will be cabbagey, obviously, but will form a good basis for a hearty soup.

Stuffed cabbage

6 thoughts to “Neglected cookbooks: Simple French Food by Richard Olney”

  1. Lovely dish. A classic book and a classic recipe that has made me hungry and nostalgic in equal measure. It’s years since I’ve made anything quite like this. I’ve neglected the Olney book to the extent that I can’t find my copy any longer. To be honest, I may have given it to the charity shop – I did start to find him very irritating. Shamefully, I’ve also neglected my Mireille Johnston book too. I’ll definitely track that down again. It’s a shock to realise that she’s not been with us for more than 15 years now.

  2. I wonder if it would work as well with a vegetarian stuffing? Just wondering! ( madchickenwoman!!)

  3. Hi Veronica,
    This looks lovely – I’ve read recipes for stuffed cabbage before, but never had the courage to try it!!
    I don’t have any Olney cookbooks, but I have several of Mireille Johnston’s, in fact I just found the French cookery course book 2 in a charity shop in London!! 🙂

  4. I’ve just found another cabbage and pork recipe (must be the time of year!) but this one looks a good choice for the weekend.

    I have tried another Olney recipe – Chicken au Gratin – it was quite simple and very rich. I found it on a blog so I missed out the prose.

    I totally agree about Mireille Johnstone. I have both books and like yours they are spattered from frequent use.

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