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Book Review – French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David

SynopsisElizabeth David‘s books
belong in the libraries of everyone who loves to read and prepare food
and this one is generally regarded as her best; her passion and
knowledge comes through on every page. She was one of the foremost
writers on food in the latter half of the 20th century and this book has
her most celebrated writing. French Provincial Cooking should be
approached and read as a series of short stories, as well written and
evocative as the best literature.

First LineWhen Curnonsky, the famous French gastronome and writer, who died in 1956 at the age of 83, describes the four distinct types of Freanch cookeryLa Haute Cuisine, la cuisine Bourgeoise, la cuisite Régionale, et la cuisine Improvisée‘ he might perhaps also have mentioned that other well-known branch of French cooking, la cuisine
Á LA française, or French food as understood by foreigners all over the world.

Random QuoteThe feeling of our time is for simpler food, simply presented; not that this is necessarily easier to achieve than haute cuisine; it demands less time and expense, but if anything a more genuine feeling for cookery and a truer taste.  It is the kind of cooking which, once more, was meant by Curnonsky when he repeated, over and over again, that good cooking was achieved when ‘ingredients taste of what they are.’ 

Review:  I grew up reading through cookbooks as if they were novels.  I spent a lot of time in my Seattle grandmother’s kitchen, or my family’s kitchen, sitting on the floor and reading cookbooks and looking at pictures (when I wasn’t doing sous chef duties).  Cooking or baking occurred throughout these times, as did conversation on many topics, but the cookbook in my lap always had a lot of my attention.  I still read them like novels.

I learned to cook and bake through osmosis – watching and helping and eating and talking about all kinds of good food, what made it good, and why certain choices were made.  Once I was on my own I really started cooking.  My primary tools were The Joy of Cooking and Escoffier along with others that I picked up on my own.

Still I often think of Elizabeth David, especially reading A Taste of the Sun on a rainy winter evening, or even a bright summer day.  She’s up there with Julia Child and James Beard as my favorite writers of what we call food porn in my family.  There’s something so lovely and conversational about Ms. David, always writing in clear precise prose with sketches of recipes rather than the precise lists that we’re used to – Ingredients/Serves/Recipe.  I realized when reading this book again that that’s the way recipes are shared over the table.  “How’d you make that?”  “Oh, I took the chicken and did this with it with these herbs and oils and cooking techniqued it for however long.”

My father and grandmother were very fond of this kind of recipe exchange and for a long time I had sketches like this on the back of envelopes or on notebook pages or whatever else came to hand – these lay around in various places until I wanted them.  Once I committed them to memory (by cooking them over and over again) they went the way of all things on the backs of envelopes.

If you haven’t read David, you must.  She’s probably more familiar in England than here (although that may have changed).  Her style is anecdotal, but exacting – full of details that may seem picky, but that prove their worth when you use them.  Honestly, I think Nigella Lawson wishes she was Elizabeth David – not to criticize Lawson, but David is obviously the template for much of what she does.

I can’t complete a review of a cookbook without providing a receipe.  This is for an utterly simple roasted chicken.

Poulet Rôti au Beurre – Chicken Roasted in Butter

Stuff a plump 5 lb. roasting chicken (dressed and drawn weight) with a large lump of butter, about 2 oz., into which salt, freshly-milled pepper and, if possible, a little chopped fresh or dried tarragon have been incorporated.  Place the chicken on its side in a baking tin and rub more butter plentifully over the exposed surface.  Put in a fairly hot over, Gas No. 6, 400 deg. F., and, after 20 minutes, turn the bird over.  Add more butter.

After 20 minutes more turn the bird again, and baste with the juices in the pan.  In 1 hour altogether the chicken should be cooked, and will be a most beautiful golden brown all over.  The only sauce needed is supplied by the butter and the juices in the pan, which are poured off into a sauce-boat and served separately.

What a wonderful read and a great book for building technique and ideas.  One word about format – I bought this for my Kindle for the ease of novel reading, but may buy a printed copy depending on how well cooking from this goes.  I’m not sure the e-book format has the right feel for cookbooks which should be hefty, well-used, and covered in places with sauce stains.

FTC Disclosure:  Purchased for my Kindle by me

Publishing Information:  Grub Street – Febuary 1, 2009


Reading Challenges:  European Reading Challenge, Foodies Read 2 Challenge, Mammoth Book Challenge

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