Simple French Cooking for English Homes by Xavier Marcel Boulestin

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BOOK REVIEW

Marcel Boulestin does not skimp on the preface, peppered with idiosyncratic literary quotations, which demonstrate his own background as a journalist and translator. He appears to believe that food should be common parlance of the cultured, not shut behind scullery doors. Indeed, the preface is followed by a collection of Remarks, one of which, endorsing food’s place in conversation, I particularly liked:

Do not be afraid to talk about food. Food which is worth eating is worth discussing. And there is the occult power of words which somehow will develop its qualities.

A brief glossary, further quotes, including brilliant Brillat-Savarin on hospitality, and then we are thrown into the recipes. It is always a pleasure to decipher the French terminology, much like one might rifle through the pages of a Menu, sat at a brasserie in France. The translations given might even serve to illuminate what that incomprehensible plat du jour indeed was! A chapter on Soups, including a Pot au Feu, is followed by one on Sauces – a favoured French skill – and then Eggs; Fish; Meat; Pastries and Sweets; and a delightful final chapter Sundries in which Marcel Boulestin amasses the remainder of what he considers vital French food: Gherkins are here placed alongside Pineapple Wine and the extraordinary, and quite delicious-sounding Crème de Camembert, in which the cheese is steeped in White wine, left over night, beat with butter, reshaped and topped with breadcrumbs.

Unlike cookbooks of today, rich with lifestyle, colloquialisms and sumptuous photography, those of yesteryear such as this Simple French Cooking…, published in 1923, were manuals in the strictest sense of the term. Marcel Boulestin does not take any knowledge, or common-sense it seems, for granted. To the point that the poached egg recipe is followed by one for Oeufs Pochés Béarnaise – Poach your eggs and put them on a stiff béarnaise sauce, for Oeufs Pochés Sauce Tomate – Poach your eggs and cover them with tomato sauce. And, indeed, for Oeufs Pochés au Maïs – Poach your eggs and put them on a dish of sweetcorn. But, perhaps this is where the charm of this cookbook lies. Rife with idiosyncratic whim, it serves also as an efficient culinary reference… particularly astute at capturing those French meals of days yonder. Although not as rich in anecdote as the books of Elizabeth David, the writing is lucid, the tone eloquent and Marcel Boulestin succinctly renders French food accessible to the English cook.

The main chapters are followed by A Week’s Menu, subtitled Showing how to use up everything. Monday, for example, demands:
Luncheon – Soft roes omelette, Grilled cutlets, French beans, Potatoes boulangère, Cheese and fruit.
Dinner – Vegetable soup; Cold roast pork périgourdine; Fried potatoes; Salad of peppers and cauliflowers; Compote of apples.

Then follows an explanation of how each meal leads to the next. I was quite drawn into the subsequent Menu for a Late Supper (After and Informal Party) in which Marcel Boulestin delights with his statement:

Nothing better, say at 3 o’clock in the morning, than a boiling hot soupe au choux and cold meat […] one of those little white or pink wines from Anjou or Touraine […] strong black coffee…
This is more suitable, though, he determines, for Chelsea than for Bayswater – unless the inhabitants of this “highly desirable district” happen to feel, for once, “delightfully bohemian”.

Nor does Marcel Boulestin fail to include a note on wine and a lengthy index. Indeed, the book seems to successfully compile the sum of French living in the English home. And, once again, Quadrille Press has rendered what was ancient novel, the quixotic quirky. The book is hardbound in yellow, with gold-edged pages, looks great on the shelf and would also be a charming gift, particularly for the Francophile cook. Whether I shall use it to refer to, I don’t know. A manual it may be, but it really wins over for its dated charm, for the nostalgia it awakens and for the echo of France it invokes.

By X. Marcel Boulestin
Introduction by Jill Norman
First Published in 1923
Published by Quadrille Publishing, Classic Voices in Food, 2011
ISBN – 978-1-84400-981-7
My thanks to Quadrille for the review copy of this book.
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