Saturday, August 09, 2008


Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Vol 1) is the first serious cook book I ever owned and I know I have mentioned it elsewhere on this blog. A couple of years ago I found myself at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery and in one session I spoke up from the audience in defence of this book and its authors, two French and one American, the American being the incredibly famous Julia Child.

I can't really remember why I thought it necessary to defend these three, but I've got a feeling the presentation was something to do with soufflés and feminism and the soufflé wasn't coming out of it too well.

This was the book that told us where we could leave off slaving over a hot stove, let the food rest, for an hour, for a day, until we were ready to take up cooking again. With nary a colour photograph, this was the book that painted a picture of culinary glory for the faint hearted. This was the book that said “you can do this…just read these six pages on how to make a soufflé and you’ll be fine.” And we were empowered.

The first time I came spoon to spoon with MAFC was when I was working for Terence Conran’s Design Group in London and a colleague told me she was going out to buy what she needed to make a cassoulet. “For tonight?” said I, having no idea what a cassoulet was. “For Saturday” she said. It was Wednesday.

I had never come across a dish that took three days to make. Read MAFC and you will understand why. I bought the book on the spot.

I then proceeded to cook my way through it, starting with a spinach soufflé. Not that easy, but with the six pages of soufflé instructions that preceded it I felt someone was on my side.

Lately I have been reading “Julie and Julia” by Julie Powell, who, approaching the watershed of 30 years and with her biological clock ticking, decided to cook her way through the entire canon of MAFC in one year, in a tiny New York flat, with a heroic husband. Now, I have to admit that I did not cook every single thing in the book when I was starting out. Anything involving kidneys, rice and mushrooms was to me hors de combat. As was anything that required making a difficult sauce only to reduce it and turn it into something completely different.

I’m always sorry that Julia Child seems to have filched all the plaudits for the book, despite the fact that there were two perfectly good Frenchwomen involved in it, but there you go. So, here I am reading the bit where Julie is making braised beef a la Julia Child, and here’s me with a bit of rather indifferent beef in the fridge waiting to be cooked. Julie prepares hers; I prepare mine.

How long is it since I actually marinated a chunk of not great beef in thinly sliced carrots, onions and celery, with garlic, herbs, red wine and olive oil? Too long, I tell you. I even sliced the vegetables on a mandolin, such was my enthusiasm.

The scent of the marinading beef floated through the house, scenting the damp August air, but that was nothing to the perfume that trilled about the place once the dish went into the oven.

I re–read the recipe; and I re-read Julie’s commentary on her own efforts; and I suddenly remembered the last time I made it myself.

My in-laws were coming. Julia Child calls for a veal knuckle, or a calf’s foot, split, to go into the braise to unctuate (is that a word?) the sauce. I spent a fortune in time and petrol finding a calf’s foot in Soho, getting them to split it, then scrubbing the silken hairs more or less clean. I say more or less, because throughout the cooking there was just the faintest scent of, how can I put it, the byre. And, as Julie has it, at the end of the evening, a fleeting zephyr of hoof. My in-laws were worryingly polite.

This time I didn’t even bother to go and look for a bovine metatarsal, but in deference to my current rather poor quality piece of beef I was generous with the aromatics and the seasoning. It was winey and herby and garlicky and the outer garments were just great. Unfortunately no amount of gussying up can really disguise an indifferent raw ingredient. I’m sure that Julia Child, in her Parisian garret, newly married and in love, would have had the good fortune to start off with better stuff. Revenons a nos moutons, or, as they say in France, let’s get ourselves some decent beef.

The jus, however, was fab!

Meanwhile...back at the soufflé...

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