One of my greatest culinary desires is to own Julia Child’s iconic cooking collection, along with that of Margaret Fulton, Nigella Lawson, Stephanie Alexander, Maggie Beer and Martha Stewart. I’ve already put a major dent in the latter author but the rest are shamelessly under-represented in our house.
On second glance at this highly desirable wish-list, it’s dawned on me there’s not a single white male amongst them. Nor brown, black or yellow male, for that matter. This is probably because these categories are already well-represented. I have Gordon, Jamie, Bill, Luke, Rick and Nhut – even Gérard Depardieu in my house, yes I do.
But over the years, I’ve gradually risen like a well-oiled soufflé and begun to desire lighter, more delicate, more ethereal culinary exposure. Something, I suppose, more feminine.
Of course, this doesn’t mean female chefs can’t be earthy, gutsy, even downright ballsy – but there is that certain relationship with food I find women do so well – that intimate, intutive connection that imbues food with emotion and intensity. That love-connection, not to mention how good they are at making things look pretty.
Frenchwoman Ginette Mathiot’s cooking bible – I Know How To Cook – is another feminine tome I’ve greatly coveted. It’s the layman’s Larousse Gastronomique. It’s the French equivalent of Italy’s Il Cucchiaio D’argento (The Silver Spoon). It’s the parallel of UK darling, Delia Smith’s, How to Cook. It’s the representative of Aussie Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the US.
It’s a book that’s been passed through three generations of French home cooks since it’s publication in 1932, and now it’s here for us, in English for the very first time, thanks to the good people at Phaidon. Adapted by contemporary French food writer Clotilde Dusoulier, the book has been re-released in consultation with a team of international cookery experts and – most happily for those of us who adore authenticity – its replication has been kept masterfully close to the original.
Having a well-earned reputation for complicated dishes, French cuisine is often complicated, sophisticated and somewhat intimidating to many chefs, let alone the humble home cook. Just ask Julie Powell of the Julie/Julia blog project and her hellish year of attempting to master the art of Julia Child’s French cooking.
I Know How to Cook, however, takes us deep inside the plat de cocotte to a time of simplicity – there are classic French dishes here for sure, but there are also rustic, basic, time-honoured recipes that are surprisingly easy to prepare. Sure, you’ll find coq au vin, but there’s also rustic bean and rice dishes, a fabulous array of salads, even fresh corn on the cob (the French secret is to add a little milk to the cooking water).
Mathiot’s recipes are divided helpfully into sections, beginning with sauces and hors-d’oeuvres, through dairy, soup, meats, vegetables, rice and pasta, and concluding with fruit, milk & egg puddings, ices and cakes & pastries which is my favourite chapter, brimming with all manner of known and unknown delights. There’s even instruction on home-made pastries and the French version of the humble sausage roll – puff pastry wrapped around chipolata sausages – naturellement!
Finishing the book with sweets, preserves & drinks, readers will delight in learning more about almond milk, syrop de thé (tea syrup), orange syrup, even raspberry vinegar. There’s also recipes for mead, mulled wine, and a tipple the author calls ‘grog’, though its ingredients are certainly far more refined than the images conjured in your Aussie head at this very moment – French ‘grog’ combines cognac, boiling water, sugar and lemon. Drunk by the fire in a pair of Argyle slippers.
It’s très French that a cookbook intent on simplicity and many a humble origin should also be très sophistiqué. Although the book is as fat as a brick, the layout is clear and simple and the book has ribbon markers to help keep your place. Photographic evidence of the recipes is not prolific but probably not necessary due to the simple instruction, and would have made the book as fat as two bricks, and therefore unworkable.
Over 1,400 recipes are instead dotted with charming, 60s-inspired block-printed illustrations by French comics artist Blexbolex, which give the book a must-have quality in terms of aesthetic design. His divine illustrations also head chapters and the removable dust-jacket can be unfurled to reveal a delectable Blexbolex poster worthy of any art-loving chef.
At the beginning of the book, Mathiot provides notes on cooking utensils and carefully explains cooking methods and ways to maximise their effectiveness. She guides us through masterful wine selection (and which foods to serve them with) and seasonal food recommendations which, unfortunately, remain hinged in the northern hemisphere (Phaidon are a US publisher). Switching the months around in your own head, however, will only take a nanosecond or two.
The author also discusses flavourings such as herbs and spices and souring agents (such as lemon and capers), and provides a wonderful glossary on food terms such as ‘al dente’, ‘clarify’ and ‘bard’, which means to cover meat or line a pan with strips of bacon to prevent the meat from drying out.
I love the sheer Simplicity turned Great of this book. The recipes are almost shockingly concise, direct and easy to follow, yet the end results are mighty impressive. Ingredients, cooking times and servings are listed in a side column – and a word of warning: cooking times can be considerable, but don’t let this turn you off.
Firstly, remember these recipes come from a time and place where infusing meals with love and lengthy attention was de rigeur (as opposed to slapping a microwaved dinner in front of the fam in egg-timer fashion). Secondly, remember that a lot of the cooking time is in utilising slow-method procedures such as braising, roasting and stewing. This, of course, means you’ve got plenty of time to gad about while things essentially lie in a pot and take care of themselves.
But the prevailing tone of this book is the excitement one feels when holding it in hand. The almost gleeful feeling that you’re being let in on a treasured secret. Now that the barrier to complicated French instruction has been stripped bare to English, all the meaning comes tumbling free and we can revel in the roux, the jus and the beurre blanc. It’s all there – naked and delectable and baring itself for our unabashed use. Finally, we can sharpen our knives and join in with the myriad of fabulous French home cooks who’ve been hiding this beautiful tome in their teensy Parisian and rambling provincial kitchens for decades.
Rejoice, lovers of good cooking. Enjoy every juicy moment. Cuisine heureuse!