Eric Chavot swears on Saturday Kitchen – I get traffic!

The Capital Hotel’s Eric Chavot played a blinder on last weekend’s Saturday Kitchen. He was amusing, watchable and enigmatic, and the dish he created looked fab. Shame he let slip the f-word towards the end of the show and thus gave the Daily Mail free rein to vilify him …

My terribly clever WordPress dashboard registered a healthy dollop of traffic around Eric’s name after the programme, which spurred me to explore the chefs and cookery writers delivering the best footfall for me on this blog. So, pop pickers, here is my top ten of Lewis blog foodies. Dah Dah, da-da Dah, der der der, der der der, Dah Dah, da-da Dah … etc.

But what does this tell me about the relative pulling power of food stars, and the nature of chefdom, apart from the fact that I should clearly cook a dish from Marcella’s classical Italian repertoire every night if I want to grow my audience?

First, isn’t it interesting that two of the darlings of the food scene, Fergus and Alain, are way off the pace? Both are great chefs, and Alain occupies a place in the stratosphere of chef legends; but clearly their entrails and extravagance haven’t struck a chord with my visitors. Could it be that few domestic fridges harbour foie gras or trotters?

Second, how revealing that the top three should be booktastic, all, Madhur and Marcella having forged long and glittering literary careers from producing standard texts, Jun having only weeks ago brought out a popular new tome, Simple to Sensattional?

The message is that producing books of recipes that are attainable, tasty and rooted in a specific regional cuisine ensures a loyal following. In years to come, Jun (a really nice fellow) might have built up such a canon or work. Meanwhile, I would expect his name to be searched on less and less in the coming weeks, as more of his peers bring out new books. Ah, but “Fame is a fickle food upon a shifting plate”.

[The post was brought to you by Emily Dickinson and WordPress]

Culinary Pleasures by Nicola Humble

Culinary PleasuresI’ve just started reading a book that aims to trace Britain’s culinary evolution through the lens of its cookbooks. It’s called Culinary Pleasures, and is by Nicola Humble. Already, having only read the introduction, I’m hooked.

The other day I wrote about the introductions to Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food. Cook books, I argued, “can offer well-written prose; evoke a time or place fondly remembered (the cook book as travelogue); and reflect the society and culture of the historical period when they were written”. In the case of David’s introductions, I pointed out how readers can discern the longing for good food caused by the effects of rationing and the war; and the excitement felt by the general public, as shops and supermarkets broadened their culinary product base.

But Humble expresses the link between cookbooks, culture, society and history for more eloquently than I did in my post. Here’s an excerpt from her introduction:

This is not primarily a history of food, many excellent examples of which already exist; it is rather a cultural history of the cook book, examining it in both its most typical and its most outlandish forms to see what it has totell us about the hopes and fears, the tastes and aspirations, the fantasies and paranoias, and the changing social roles of its particular historical moment.

Already, I’m compiling a list of cook books that sound worth seeking out, from reading Humble Pleasures. These include:

  • The Constance Spry Cookery Book
  • Marcel Boulestin’s The Conduct of the Kitchen
  • Beeton’s Book of Household Management
  • Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families
  • Escoffier’s Guide to Modern Cookery

Elizabeth David and the cook book as historical document

olivesgarlicCulinary aids they may ultimately be, but cook books can also can also reward readers who have no intention of attempting their recipes. They can offer well-written prose; evoke a time or place fondly remembered (the cook book as travelogue); and reflect the society and culture of the historical period when they were written.

This last aspect was at the forefront of my mind as I read the prefaces and introductions to the various editions published of Elizabeth David’s first book, a Book of Mediterranean Food, which was first published in 1950 by John Lehmann.

“The cooking of the Mediterranean shores”, the book’s introduction begins, “endowed with all the natural resources, the colour and flavour of the South, is a blend of tradition and brilliant improvisation. The Latin genius flashes from the kitchen pans … ‘it is not really an exaggeration’, wrote Marcel Boulestin, ‘to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking'”.

By the time she came to write the preface to the first Penguin edition of the book, in 1955, David admitted that when the book was first released, “almost every essential ingredient of good cooking was either rationed or unobtainable.” In other words, the book has been published as pure food escapism, as a culinary aide memoire for those individuals lucky enough to have toured the Mediterranean before the start of the Second World War. “Even if people could not very often make the dishes here described”, David wrote, “it was stimulating to think about them; to escape from the deadly boredom of queuing and the frustration of buying the weekly rations”.

For a generation of shoppers used to buying olive oil, olives, garlic, saffron and basil in their local supermarket, it’s amazing to read David exhorting cooks to make expeditions to Soho or “the region of Tottenham Court Road” for their tahina paste, stuffed vine leaves and mozzarella, as if these places were themselves foreign and far-flung.

The UK’s food culture had moved on apace by the time David penned her introduction to the 1988 edition of the book. Now, she pinpointed the “spirit of defiance” in which she had written her recipes – defiance at a system of rationing that had left “lemons, oranges and tomatoes as rare as diamonds, commodities such as olive oil, rice and imported pasta no more than exotic memories, and fresh fish something you stood in a queue for …”

Given all this, it’s easy to look back on Elizabeth David and her peers as early food activists, stirring up a demand for unusual ingredients that has spawned a ‘foods of the world’ aisle in every supermarket. I suspect David herself would be amused to have pointed out to her the direct lineage from her post-war writings to the shelves of miso soup, Thai paste and tajine spices  we can choose from today. Afterall, her intention was only to take “refuge from reality in writing down memories of the food I had cooked and eaten during my Mediterranean years”.

An Omelette and a Glass of Wine

omeletteMy first recipe from a cook book since I started this blog, and Elizabeth David seems a mighty fine place to start. Wikipedia has the following to say about her:

“David is considered responsible for bringing French and Italian cooking into the British home (along with now ubiquitous items such as olive oil and the courgette). In a Britain worn down by post-war rationing and dull food, she celebrated the regional and rural dishes of the Mediterranean rather than the fussier food of the gourmands and aristocrats. David’s style is characterised by terse descriptions of the recipes themselves, accompanied by detailed descriptions of their context and historical background, and often laced with anecdotal asides.”

As usual, the great God Wiki is right. In An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, she recalls how diners at the Hotel de la Tete D’Or in Normandy would rave about the lightness and beauty of the omelettes made by the hotel’s proprietress, Madame Poulard, early last century. Did she mix water with eggs? Was cream the secret ingredient? Or had she reared a hen breed unique to her back yard? When Mme Poulard revealed her secret, the truth was rather more prosaic: “I break some good eggs in a bowl, I  beat them well, I put a good piece of butter in the pan, I thow the eggs into it, and I shake it constantly”. So much for secret ingredients.

David’s essay ends with a mightily calorific cheese omelette recipe she came across in Avignon, requiring Parmesan, eggs, pepper, butter, cream and Gruyere. I’m going to try it tonight – with the requisite glass of wine, of course. I shall report back.