Not a good time to start delving into traditional classic French cookery when you’re up to your eyes in a war over mince pies. (Buy? make? make from scratch? use bought pastry? Me and my super ego are having a head to head over this.) Thing is I found I hadn’t yet got to grips with Julia Child’s cookbooks that I was given last Christmas and shame overwhelmed me. More presents coming my way any day now and I haven’t … oh you know. Fill in the gaps. So I read her autobiography in the Autumn and now I am delightfully sucked into the two volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia Child, an American living in France just after the war made it her life’s work to translate into a working English-language cookbook all she learned at the Cordon Bleu school and much more besides. Here are the master recipes for the whole of French cuisine and if you feel like it you can still see her demonstrate on Youtube.
I started simple. I was certain that using these books, bursting with French culinary wisdom of centuries, I could learn to cook poached eggs which I adore. I have wasted the labours of countless hens by failing to cook them well and I was sure, this time it would be different! With Julia’s help I failed once more but in a time-consuming way. Brilliant. And still not a mince pie in sight and it’s the 20th December. I mean, come on! But nil desperandum . I am now in the grip of French cuisine and I moved on to Julia’s matchless instructions for a remoulade of celeriac in an eye-watering mustard sauce-cum-mayonnaise – one of my favourite dishes as a student in Paris when it often constituted dinner along with a stick of French bread. It was staggeringly satisfying.
But we’re not done yet. Tonight Julia really comes into her own : an absolute triumph of a Blanc de Poulet. Well it’s chicken in a white sauce to you and me but if you do it properly I can tell you every pan and spoon in the kitchen is employed; the tiny onions added at the end are poached in their own special stock with their own bouquet garni for heaven’s sake. Vermouth, cream, egg yolks and a decent slug of Cognac are also in the frame. And by gosh what a difference they make! As food has improved beyond measure in England and France has suffered from the spread of universal cuisine the gap between them has shrunk. I had in fact forgotten what France used to taste like and now here it is nestling in a big casserole waiting for me to arrange it on some rice (white rice, thank you, none of your self-flagellating will this ever cook brown) with a few slim whole carrots and maybe a little chard. It brings back to me early trips to France when the flavours and textures were such as simply did not exist back home.
Now I can’t eat like this every day with impunity so I shall soon be back on the fruit salad and white fish but it is fun to read recipes that have no shortcuts, no alternative ingredients, just clear and imperious instructions. Salad dressing? Don’t even think about shaking stuff in a jar a la Jamie, get out your special sized whisk and beat the oil into the vinegar, lemon juice, salt and mustard one drop at a time. It actually makes an entirely different fluid, a true emulsion that coats each leaf as a dressing should.
If you don’t feel like cooking you can always watch the peerless Meryl Streep playing Julia in the film Julie and Julia. Or maybe, unlike me, you can poach yourself an egg.