Mastering the Art of French Cooking
La Cuisine de France
French Provincial Cooking
If any cuisine may be described as architectonic, it must surely be the French. Structured, controlled, and at its best never less than inspired, la vrai cuisine française is cooking which with some justification can lay claim to being an art. Certainly most other cuisines have been unable to resist the pervasive influence of French attitudes, techniques, and traditions.
The French culinary literature is immense. In no comparable body of work has the subject of food been so thoroughly explored. Curnonsky, the celebrated French gastronome, divided French cooking into four distinct types: la haute cuisine, la cuisine bourgeoise, la cuisine régionale, and la cuisine improvisée. His schematization is a fairly precise one although the categories invariably overlap. Which of the four one chooses to explore must be determined, unfortunately, by how much French one knows. Monumental work follows monumental work—by Carême, Dumas, Dubois, Gilbert, Reboul, Escoffier, Madame de St. Ange, AliBab, De Croze—the list is almost endless—but only a handful have been translated into English. And those, for the most part, are badly edited, clumsy, and often useless. Admittedly, the problems involved in the translation of cookbooks are enormous. Not only must the translator know French culinary terminology, but he must be familiar with such measuring descriptions, among others, as 1 verre à bordeaux (literally, a claret-glassful), or 1 verre à liqueur (a liqueur-glassful), and know that this should mean for American cooks, six tablespoons and one tablespoon, respectively. Also, he must know the dizzying differences between measuring by scales as the French do, and measuring by volume as we do. And, as if this weren’t enough, there are great differences in flours and cream: French flour is made from soft wheat, and most of ours from hard wheat; French crème fraiche or crème double has a higher butter fat content than ours, is considerably thicker, and has a different flavor altogether. The manner in which these French ingredients are reinterpreted for American use, will more often than not, determine the success or failure of a particular dish.
We must all, then, be enormously grateful for Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The authors, Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia Child, have approached their task with such enthusiasm, honesty, love, and above all, practical knowledge, that their book surpasses every other American book on French cooking in print today. For once, the architectural structure of the French cuisine is firmly and precisely outlined in American terms. And if a number of culinary areas are missed, it is only because the space available has been devoted to doing what is covered superbly. One would wish the book to be at least twice its imposing length.
Every recipe, simple or complex, clearly shows that these are authors who cook. And they have not limited themselves to la haute cuisine, either; Curnonsky’s syndrome is fully explored. On the one hand, there is a precise technical description of how to stuff a whole fillet of beef with foie gras and truffles in the elaborate recipe for filet de boeuf braisé Prince Albert, followed on the next page by a detailed exposition of the family-style boiled dinner, pot-au-feu. La cuisine régionale is represented by characteristic dishes from Normandy, the Basque country, Provence, and from many other areas. As for la cuisine improvisée, that fanciful category is far more than adequately dealt with by an extraordinary number of changes rung upon classical dishes in “Variations,” a section appended to almost every major recipe. In short, what the ladies have chosen to do, they have done brilliantly.
But even at the risk of appearing ungrateful, why, one must plaintively ask, have they suggested using dry vermouth as a substitute for white wine? Were this the case in only a few recipes it would hardly matter, but it is consistent throughout the book. And, except for the vermouth’s being described as dry and white, its type or composition is not even specified. American vermouths are usually bland and characterless. Consequently, their addition to food can hardly be considered significant one way or the other. But many European vermouths have so pronounced a flavor that, used in place of white wine, they will often take over a dish entirely.
It must be added at once that this is perhaps the only dissonant note in a master work which sounds true from beginning to end. If there are others (and one must be a perfectionist indeed to hear them), they serve only to humanize an awesome and formidable achievement.
Considerably less than awesome is La Cuisine de France by the Countess de Toulouse-Lautrec, popularly known in France as “Mapie.” Among other things, she is the food editor of Elle and Réalités, and according to the jacket copy, La Cuisine de France is the first book Mapie has written for the American housewife, “demonstrating by means of 1500 remarkably clear and easy-to-follow recipes how the French-woman of today upholds the great tradition of French cuisine.”
In her chatty Introduction, the author defends her departures from the great traditions, makes unmistakeably clear her relationship to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (he was the cousin of her father-in-law), and decides, in conclusion, that “good cooking is accomplished only by love; love of one’s husband, of one’s children, and of one’s friends.” Charlotte Turgeon, Mapie’s editor and translator, takes a sterner, more practical tone. She explains in an editorial note that it has been her task “to make [certain] adjustments and to suggest substitutions without distracting from the author’s delicious and uncomplicated recipes.” Thereafter, the reader is never quite sure where Mapie begins and Turgeon ends.
La Cuisine de France does French cooking a disservice. Little could Curnonsky have realized to what use his category of la cuisine improvisée might be put. “Originality,” Mapie explains, “has helped me overcome the difficulties of certain recipes…,” and she proceeds to describe such dishes as a chicken braised with raisins, Roquefort cheese, and champagne; braised veal with anise, white wine, and bananas; lamb chops sauteed with orange and grapefruit; fillets of sole with grapefruit juice and bananas; braised tuna with apples, cherries, and lemon. The author’s maxim appears to be, “when in doubt, use fruit.” She forgets (for she must know) that good French cooks seldom use fruit in main dishes. Although Mapie makes her obeisance to classical cooking with a chapter on sauces and a number of standard recipes like pot-au-feu, homard à l’armoricaine, boeuf bourguignon, carbonnades à la flamande, and the rest, her directions are so telescoped, oversimplified, and marred by inaccuracies, that there seems to be little reason to use her book for these dishes instead of other, far more reliable cook-books. Her suggestion that the cook baste roast beef every five or ten minutes with hot water is absurd, and her advice to the cook making mayonnaise to beat into one yolk “as much oil as you like” is even worse. Mapie has evidently never made mayonnaise by hand or she would know that the maximum amount of oil a large egg yolk will absorb is three-quarters of a cup. Beyond that, the mayonnaise will either thin out or curdle.
Here and there are evident lines of demarcation between the contributions of Mapie and those of her editor, Charlotte Turgeon. One might more easily forgive Mrs. Turgeon’s ineptitudes as an editor-translator were her culinary knowledge and skills of a superior order. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Mapie’s recipe for croquettes de mouton aux artichauts appears twice, once in the entrée section, and again in the meat section under lamb. The recipes are identical, except that the second version lists the ingredients in a different order and, for no apparent reason, calls for more lamb than the first. The reader can only assume that Mrs. Turgeon was merely careless, or thought, perhaps, that the croquettes were two different dishes.
Mrs. Turgeon copes with problems of translation by evading them. She translates plat de côtes nivernais avec ses crapiaux as short rib pot-au-feu nivernais with crapiaux. Crapiaux is an obscure word not listed in culinary dictionaries, and unknown to most French chefs. But had the translator investigated Austin de Croze’s What to Eat and Drink in France she would have discovered that les (not ses, by the way) crapiaux is a local specialty of Morvan, in Burgundy—pancakes made with a heavy batter and spiked with lardoons of Morvan ham. Another regional dish, fouée champenoise, as translated by Mrs. Turgeon, is still fouée champenoise. Again, with a little effort she might have discovered and told us that the fouée is an unsweetened pastry specialty of Burgundy (not Champagne) and that Mapie’s version departed radically from the original.
When Mrs. Turgeon must translate ingredients from French to American measurements, the results are not only inaccurate but frequently ludicrous. Suggesting four pounds of asparagus to serve four people is, by any standard, a prodigious amount; two pounds is the usual quantity. And four pounds of Brussels sprouts for the same four people would be enough to make them forswear sprouts forever. Even two pounds is too much. Whether these mistakes are the result of arithmetical miscalculation on Mrs. Turgeon’s part or due to Mapie’s carelessness in her original manuscript we shall never know.
It is, of course, interesting to imagine how the Comtesse de Toulouse-Lautrec’s book would have fared in the hands of a more knowing editor-translator. But, unfortunately, there are few such specially trained people about. Perhaps an important aspect of the problem of measurement translations is that publishers prefer to speculate in cookbook potboilers which will recover their costs rather than risk substantial amounts of money on accurate translations of really important cookbooks.
One great book which has suffered from such parsimony is Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. It is curious that England, a country hardly celebrated for the quality of its cooking, should produce so rare a phenomenon as Mrs. David. And it is even more curious that we Americans, who need her as much as the English do, barely know her. Of Elizabeth David’s five published books, all of them culinary and literary landmarks, none has been translated into American measurements or American cooking terms.
Happily, Mrs. David’s most recent American publishers have at last taken a tentative step in the right direction. They have issued the present American edition of French Provincial Cooking with notes and Introduction by Narcissa G. Chamberlain. They could not have chosen a more knowing annotator. Mrs. Chamberlain is one of our best American food writers, with as many books, if not more, to her credit, as Mrs. David. Her years of housekeeping in France and her consequent explorations of French cooking at its source, parallels Elizabeth David’s experience to an astonishing degree. But, as Mrs. Chamberlain must very well know, her notes, informative and sympathetic as they are, barely come to grips with the essential problem: how to make clear to an American cook the complexities of a French dish described in British measurements by an Englishwoman.
For Mrs. David to have arrived at workable English versions of her original French recipes was a truly gargantuan achievement. Her task involved, among other factors, the breaking down of kilogrammes into pounds and ounces, and litres into pints, tablespoons, and dessert spoons. For the American version the task becomes even more formidable. Pounds of solids have to be conceived in measurable volumes and the English 20-ounce pint retranslated into the 16-ounce American pint. Even if one allows for the fact that most cooking measurements, except for pastry, can be somewhat flexible, it is most unlikely that the average American cook using these formulae for complicated dishes would end up with anything approaching Mrs. David’s original recipes.
Mrs. Chamberlain has devised for French Provincial Cooking a fine table of the comparative meat cuts of France, England, and America. This is a decisive help to the American cook ordered by Mrs. David to purchase an eye of silverside, a topside of beef, chump pork chops, the best end of neck of veal, and the like. But Mrs. Chamberlain’s abilities as a cook, translator, writer, and editor could have been put to even better use had she been engaged to translate the complete text of Mrs. David’s recipes into workable American terms. Of course, that would have meant resetting Mrs. David’s book in its entirety, but what a book for American cooks that would have been!
Despite its practical limitations for us, French Provincial Cooking so thoroughly, elegantly, and profoundly explores the maze of French regional cookery, that it can be read with pleasure and profit not only by Americans but by almost everyone else, including the French. Nowhere is Mrs. David’s gift for evoking a country’s culinary ambiance more apparent than in her introductory section on the cookery of each of the French provinces. She writes of Provence as passionately and lyrically as did Ford Madox Ford but with a more purposeful discipline. It is, after all, food with which she is concerned.
Provence is a country to which I am always returning, next week, next year, any day now, as soon as I can get on a train. Here in London it is an effort of will to believe in such a place at all. But now and again the vision of golden tiles on a round southern roof, or of some warm, stony, herb-scented hillside will rise out of my kitchen pots with the smell of orange peel scenting a beef stew.
And she is equally persuasive when she describes a Norman marketplace in Rouen:
The fish is particularly beautiful in its pale, translucent northern way. Delicate rose pink langoustines lie next to miniature scallops in their red-brown shells; great fierce skate and sleek soles are flanked by striped iridescent mackerel, pearly little smelts, and baskets of very small, very black mussels. Here and there an angry-looking red gurnet waits for a customer near a mass of sprawling crabs and a heap of little grey shrimps. Everywhere there is ice and seaweed and a fresh sea smell.
This is a far cry from the writing of most of Mrs. David’s contemporaries. And she surpasses them, too, in her technical skills and insights Not since the incomparable Madame de St. Ange has a cookbook writer gone into such meticulous, meaningful detail regarding the preparation of a pot-au-feu: the choice of vegetables, the type of pan, the quantities, the preparation of the ingredients, the cooking, the serving, the left-overs, how to store the broth, and finally, the Provençal variations of the dish. Paragraph after paragraph is illuminated by her direct experience and knowledge. Her point, in another recipe, that flaming meat with spirits burns up the excess fat in its sauce is a revealing one, too. And her description of beurre blanc, that deceptively simple but treacherous butter sauce of Anjou, is done not only with the greatest authority, but also with compassion for the mistakes she knows you will surely make.
Curnonsky said that in really good cooking “ingredients taste of what they are.” Elizabeth David’s position is as uncompromisingly severe. Never does she complicate a dish needlessly nor disguise it with a spurious originality. In French Provincial Cooking, her vigorous concern is always with the honest materials, the dishes, and the traditions of the country whose cooking she loves and understands so well.