During the last year, throughout those months of isolation and shielding and lock-down (confinement in French - a good word which describes what our lives became, I think), people like us were browsing their cook books. There was no shortage of new ones, of course, but I found myself more and more drawn to old ones.
Sir Kenelm Digby, a young man about Court when Charles 1 was on the English throne, must have been a glamorous figure. A scholar, with a particular interest in science & philosophy, well-read, a linguist and traveller - often on the business of the King or Queen Henrietta Maria as a diplomat, or as a soldier. Wherever he went he spent a lot of time in other people’s kitchen, taking notes. After his death in 1665 these notes were formed into a collection of recipes known as The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened (facsimile published Prospect Books, 1997). It makes the most delectable reading.
Wouldn’t you like to try a recipe “To preserve pippins in jelly, either in quarters, or in slices “? He obviously did, because all his notes sound as if he has tried them and give hints how to best make them work, avoiding pitfalls. How about a “White marmulate, the Queens Way”? Or “To bake pidgeons, (which are thus excellent, and will keep a Quarter of a Year) or teals, or wild-ducks”? Yes, please! I won’t continue but the tall, handsome Sir Kenelm goes to the top of the list for my Fantasy Dinner-Party. I can’t wait to compare notes.
Another attractive character I would want round that dinner table is Edouard de Pomiane who died in 1964. Only a few of his cook books are in English, all are well-thumbed in my kitchen. As a scientist at the Institut Pasteur he had an interest in the chemistry of cooking as well as the practicalities. He cannot resist explaining things but is never earnest. Here he is on why skate is habitually served with black butter: - “skate often smells of ammonia and chemists know that ammonia forms, together with acrolein, an insoluble and odourless compound. Acrolein is formed by the action of fat at a high temperature. If therefore we sprinkle cooked skate with black butter which has been darkened by the action of heat we add enough acrolein to annihilate any possible smell of ammonia”.
He was one of the first to communicate very directly with his readers via the radio. He is sympathetic with those with not much time but wanting to eat well - see Cooking in Ten Minutes, full of useful tips - eg Before you hang your hat, put on a pan of water to boil - it's bound to come in handy. His recipes always work, very often with variations on a theme. He was ahead of his time in suggesting much lighter menus prioritising vegetables, and is amusing but firm about the Duties of a Host, and those of a Guest - still apposite words. Above all he has a light touch. For a really good recipe for cherry clafoutis proceeded with poetic descriptions: - “When the cherry trees are in flower they seem to be covered with snow. In fruit they seem to be splashed with brilliant blood….” consult Cooking with De Pomiane.
If you favour a romantic approach to wine and food, I recommend The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth by Roy Andries de Groot (first published 1973, republished 1992 by The Ecco Press). With a wonderful cast of local characters, it describes the spectacular scenery, changing seasons, and 22 breakfasts, lunch and dinner menus, with their accompanying wines, and recipes of the dishes, at an auberge in the valley of La Grande Chartreuse, in the French Alps, a “High and Lovely Place”. That makes it sound a bit like a fairy story, and perhaps it is. Can such a perfect place ever have existed? And if it didn’t does it matter? The ladies who apparently run this place, sound wonderful, and the recipes tempting, but above all, it is the composition of the menus, which lead one to dream.
“Peppers and onions are sizzling gently in a big frying–pan, the goose dripping in which they are cooking gives off its unmistakable smell. A squat, round-bellied earthen pot, blackened with use, containing beans and salt pork and cabbage, seems to be for ever on the simmer. A string of wrinkled, dried, dark red peppers hangs from the ceiling alongside a piece of roughly cut ham; a bunch of little red sausages and a pitcher of yellow wine are on the table”.
Doesn’t this make you want to go, as soon as possible, and see for yourself, or at least cook the recipes that follow? It is from Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking (published Michael Joseph 1960, still in print) and is part of a description of the cooking of South-Western France.
Like all my favourite writers, she has a zest for life, and deep knowledge, which she communicates in limpid prose. If you don’t want to cook after reading her books, you never will.
My next choice is American writer MFK Fisher who spent 3 years in France at the University of Dijon. She didn’t so much give recipes to cook but more wrote about how to live & eat well. This is from her first book, Serve it Forth (published 1937), about sharing a meal with friends:
“And above all, friends should possess the rare gift of sitting. They should be able, no, eager, to sit for hours – three, four, six – over a meal of soup and wine and cheese, as well as one of twenty fabulous courses.
Then, with good friends of such attributes, and good food on the board, and good wine in the pitcher, we may well ask, When shall we live if not now?”
I imagine that conversation around her table was always engrossing.
I’ll finish with this quote from Sir Francis Bacon -
“Age appears best in four things: old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust and old authors to read.
Amen to that!