French Provincial Cooking

My 35 year-old copy of E.D.’s classic

When pondering what to serve dinner guests this coming Saturday I reached for my disintegrating copy of Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. Not because I expected to copy a user-friendly recipe but because it is chock-full of ideas. First published in 1960, this kitchen classic has run to countless editions and is still going strong.

Elizabeth David started writing about food in the 1950s, when Britain was emerging from rationing and the tedious – if comparatively healthy – wartime diet. Olive oil was something you bought at the chemist’s for medicinal purposes, e.g. treating earache. Nobody considered using it for cooking. Aubergines and zucchini were considered exotic vegetables and sundried tomatoes were not even a gleam in someone’s eye. I had to smile when David tells readers brightly that chorizo sausage “can be bought in Soho shops and quite a few delicatessens.” The problem today, of course, is that many ingredients are universally available but often of sub-standard quality.

Package holidays and mass-market overseas travel were still in the future. So David’s evocative descriptions of tempting meals she had enjoyed in France were a revelation to cuisine-starved Brits. And she is pretty scathing about the type of food served in English restaurants at the time. But David acknowledges that you can eat badly in France, too, and gives some toe-curling examples. Alas, this is increasingly common today.

Her book is more than a cookbook. Granted, it contains recipes, quite a lot of them, but I have rarely followed one. She is on occasion superbly vague about quantities, oven temperatures and cooking techniques. But the book is also an erudite exposition of how cuisine developed in the different regions of France, liberally sprinkled with literary quotations, historical references and anecdotal titbits. The bibliography runs to 16 pages. In fact, I recommend anyone to read the first 65 pages or so of introduction. It includes David’s discovery of French food when lodging as a student with a family in Paris.

I was lambasted a while ago by a French reader when I said that the French talk about food at dinner parties. Of course, they talk about other things, too. But in my experience they give the attention to food that British people do to house prices at such social occasions. This is neither a criticism nor a suggestion that theirs is superficial chitchat. Food is part of the fabric of French society, as David recognised. And our French friends’ descriptions of the part it played in their grandparents’ lives is a riveting lesson in social history.

David is not without her detractors. An article by A. A. Gill in The Sunday Times more than 10 years ago criticised her for introducing inappropriate cuisine into a country that had been brought up on steak and kidney pudding and jam roly-poly. He has a point – to a certain extent. Eating aïoli under Mediterranean skies probably loses a bit in the translation to leaden skies in Goole, for example (if you live in Goole, please don’t write in).

Equally, David was only in the vanguard of a movement that would gather pace as people started to travel more outside Britain. Why shouldn’t they want to eat at home the food they had enjoyed on holiday? And, as David herself observes:

If a dish does not turn out to be quite as it was at the remembered auberge in Normandy, or at the restaurant on the banks of the Loire, is this a matter for despair? Because it is different, as by force of circumstance it must be, it is not necessarily worse.

David never takes prisoners. If she doesn’t like something, you certainly know about it. I saw her give poor Jancis Robinson a hard time as an unresponsive interviewee many years ago on TV. And I suspect she was a snob. However, her writing is readable, vivid and never dull. So I sometimes pick up French Provincial Cooking just for a good read, not necessarily to find a recipe.

Saturday’s menu? Pork with prunes, I think. A good, classic French dish from the Loire. Okay, we are in the southwest but made with locally-reared pork and pruneaux d’Agen, I don’t think anyone is going to complain too much.

Copyright © 2012 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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14 Responses to French Provincial Cooking

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  3. Denise says:

    I want my copy back…it looks exactly like yours, but it was in pretty good condition. A box of books have been taken away to the salvation army depot…nice Xmas present for someone though..sure I had mine for 40years,

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    • nessafrance says:

      That’s a shame. It’s a classic to hang onto. Mine is so well-thumbed that it is in poor condition but, as I said in the post, I rarely cooked the recipes. I just enjoy reading it.

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  4. Not being much of a cook, I don’t possess an Elizabeth David cookbook I have to confess. However, we do have a couple of French seasonal cookbooks that my daughter gave us one Christmas. They were cheap ones from the supermarket but have some wonderfully French recipes, such as for coings and artichokes and walnuts. Even a very basic cookbook here is in tune with the importance of using fresh, local ingredients, very impressive.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Well, you don’t have to be much of a cook but her books are a wonderful way into the French culture. And it’s always good to be introduced to local ingredients in their prime. It used to annoy me when we first moved here in 97 that you couldn’t get things that were available in the UK. But then I reasoned that it’s no good trying to cook with out of season produce. So we make the most of asparagus or Gariguette strawberries when they are in season.

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  5. Her ‘French cooking’ was on my mothers shelf throughout my childhood and she used it frequently. I’ve since learned that my mother’s father was brought up as biligual by his french resident parents. I imagine my own mother grew up with much french influenced food hence her love of this book.
    I agree absolutely with your analogy between the English and ‘house’ talk and the French with ‘food’ talk. Quite true. I think I prefer to talk about food; somehow more warming and less financially motivated (though I admit to talking about both)
    I do remember sitting in my mothers kitchen and reading bits of ‘Elizabeth David’ when young; but it’s been a long time, Time to get a copy I think.

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    • nessafrance says:

      It’s interesting how many people “grew up” with Elizabeth David. I have often been tempted to replace my battered copy of FPC but am too attached to it, even though it’s falling apart.
      A French reader was terribly cross when I suggested some time ago that French people talk about food. I think he thought I was being critical and was trying to give the impression that is all they talk about. Not so. Like you, I find it more interesting than house prices. And it’s an important part of social history as well.

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  6. Elizabeth David is probably to Brits what Julia Child is to Americans. Hats off to them both.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Duplicate deleted! Yes, David took a lot of the mystique out of French cooking for British people, who had previously thought it was terribly elaborate. I still love reading her book because she is so entertaining. She was rather good on Italian cooking, too.

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  7. susancarey says:

    Hope the dinner party went well! Roast pork is one of my favourite dishes. The beeb did a film of David’s life, think it was on BBC4. She was an extraordinary woman. Quite damaged I think, but an amazing gusto for life and food!

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    • nessafrance says:

      I’ve seen various programmes about her. Not an easy person and she didn’t have an easy life but she always plunged into whatever she did with enthusiasm.

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  8. I love the E David books. Her one on Italian Cooking is extremely authentic and the recipes exactly as I learned to make, when I was cooking for an Italian family in Florence. When I was keeping pigs, I hugely impressed my Italian friends by making delicious terrines and paté from the FR Provincial Cooking …. so her recipes travel very well to other countires and cultures. I am always amused by her footnote, in the Italian Book, that you mustn’t soak spaghetti overnight before cooking!

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    • nessafrance says:

      I also have her Italian Cooking and find the recipes rather more user-friendly than those in French Provincial Cooking but it’s less erudite. I think she spent more time in France, perhaps. But she is always a good read.

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