Sunday, 24 June 2012


                       Abraham Lincoln once said that, “17% of what you read on the Internet may well be inaccurate.” In this post, I wrote that the first recipe for cooking Brussels sprouts is to be found in Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery (1845). Yesterday, I found this in Cookery Reformed: or, The Lady’s Assistant, dated 1755. It is ninety years earlier. For this error, I apologise.

How to cook sprouts from 1755

There are books about cooking and there are books about eating. One of the earliest, and one of the best, is Jean Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste) from 1825. 

Physiologie du goût - Title page

“Animals feed, man eats; wise men alone know how to eat.” 

It is a great thick doorstep of a book, something close to five hundred pages, and one should approach it as one approaches a fine meal. Brillat-Savarin was an epicure in the word’s true sense. The Greek philosopher Epicurus taught that pleasure should be the aim of life. That is to say, in another way, that the aim of life is the absence of pain. However, some have sought to portray the Epicurean as a pleasure-seeker, a selfish, self-centred hedonist, which misses the subtlety of his philosophy. Too much is as wrong as too little – seek the happy medium, the golden mean, instead. 
“The dyspeptic man and the drunkard are incapable of either eating or drinking.” 
And this is how to read Brillat-Savarin – in measured portions, taken slowly and enjoyed at leisure, allowing oneself the time to savour his flavours, giving oneself time to properly digest him, and relishing the fine sensations and rare pleasures to the senses. He rambles on and he digresses, there are asides and footnotes, he tells tales and relates anecdotes, he satisfyingly massages your prejudices and infuriates your sensibilities, draws you in as he spins out his yarns; he reflects and recalls, diverts and deviates, meditates, remarks and remembers. And, of course, he makes your mouth water.

"Dessert without cheese, is like a pretty girl with only one eye." 

Cuisine de Paris - Title Page - Plumerey & Carême

It goes without saying that, for Brillat-Savarin, the French produced the finest foods. Prior to the seventeenth century, French cookery was much like that of the rest of Europe. A change came when François Pierre de la Varenne and Marie-Antoine Carême began to abandon the use of spices in favour of fine herbs, fresh vegetables and simpler sauces. Carême became known as the King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings, cooking for many of the crowned heads of Europe. He introduced ‘mother sauces’, base sauces (Béchamel, Hollandaise, Velouté, Tomate and Espagnole) which could be used to make ‘lesser’ or ‘secondary’ sauces by the addition of other ingredients, and he also introduced the service à la Russe (serving dishes separately, in the order of the menu), rather than service à la Française (serving all dishes simultaneously). 

A Guide to Modern Cookery - Title Page - Auguste Escoffier 1907

Carême’s work was continued after his death by Armand Plumerey, and was further refined and simplified by Auguste Escoffier, whose Le Guide Culinaire (Guide to Modern Cookery) (1905 – 1st English trans. 1907) set the standards of French haute cuisine, which became known as cuisine classique, the standard in high class restaurants and hotels in Europe, and the rest of the world, during much of the 20th century. 

Auguste Escoffier

Like it or not, a knowledge of the techniques, methods and ingredients of the French style is essential for any aspiring chef, or cook, to this day. 

The French Cook - Title Page - L Friedel 1846

The dominance of the French led to an inverted snobbery, not least by those confused by the language, with sentiments like, “ … do you think it easy to sell Irish Stew for 75 cents, per, when you can sell Navarin d'Agneau à l’Irlandaise for a dollar?” openly expressed. It is laziness. Just a couple of hours with a recipe book will give enough of an idea to find your way around most menus.

A Guide to Good Living - John Phin 1896

In Victorian times, you could even buy a pocket guide to help you. 

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