Nicholas Clee is the author of Don't Sweat the Aubergine, and is writing a book about the racehorse Eclipse (to be published by Bantam Press). A former editor of The Bookseller, he writes for The Guardian, The Times and The Times Literary Supplement. Nicholas has a food blog - Sceptical Cook. Here he writes about Richard Olney's Simple French Food.
Nicholas Clee on Simple French Food by Richard Olney
Most cookbooks are inspirational only in the sense that they might encourage you to cook one or two recipes from them. Very few inspire you to cook in general. Elizabeth David's early books offered a thrilling introduction to Mediterranean flavours for readers whose food was still rationed. Today, Nigel Slater portrays cooking as a celebratory aspect of everyday life, and of the cycle of the seasons, rather than as a social or familial obligation. Roughly half way between these two, in the 1970s, came the book that has most inspired me: Richard Olney's Simple French Food.
Olney, who died in his early 70s in 1999, was an American based in Provence. Like that other fastidious expatriate, Henry James, Olney wrote in a style that was more European than that of the Europeans: one showing a baroque precision of vocabulary and syntax, and a lofty irony. The novelist John Lanchester told me that the prose of the gourmet narrator of his first novel, The Debt to Pleasure, was in part based on Olney's - with the obvious qualification that Olney was a good deal more sympathetic than the murderous Tarquin Winot.
Here is Olney:
Consider the cassoulet, a voluptuous monument to rustic tradition: the beans are cooked apart, their flavour enhanced by prolonged contact with aromatic vegetables, herbs, and spices; the mutton is cooked apart, slowly, the wine and other aromatic elements refining, enriching, or underlining its character; apart, the goose has long since been macerated in herbs and salt and subsequently preserved in its own fat; a good sausage is famously allied to witchcraft. All of these separate products are then combined; a bit of catalytic goose fat - with the aid of gelatinous pork rind - binds them together in a velvet texture, and a further slow cooking process intermingles all the flavours while a gratin, repeatedly basted, forms, is broken, reforms, is rebroken, a single new savour moving into dominance, cloaking, without destroying, the autonomy of the primitive members.I treasure many other passages from Simple French Food. 'Few people toss a salad well and it is a matter of no small importance'; 'The line dividing a [fish] soup from a stew is often infirm'; 'The purists proclaim it criminal to scale, gut, season, or oil a fish before grilling it... the high priests of the order are an unbending lot (a whole family of them operates a celebrated and very silly restaurant in Marseilles)'; and - if you are squeamish, look away now - 'Cut off the head [of a rabbit] and split it in two symmetrically (it will add flavour, and many people enjoy nibbling at the cheeks and the brains).'
Simple French Food, you will see, is a work of culinary philosophy. Olney is not simply presenting a collection of French recipes, but advocating an approach to food. 'Simple', in this context, is not basic, but it is the opposite of fussy: it is a style that respects ingredients, which may be humble. It finds its best expression in regional cuisine.
Olney offers portraits of dishes in their social contexts: of the Provencal aioli, for example.
Each summer Provencal villages organize festivals lasting three or four days each, involving orchestras, dancing, music-hall attractions, local talent shows, and fireworks, the final day winding up with an aioli monstre in the public square, the entire population turning out to pile plates high with boiled salt cod, potatoes, carrots, green beans, artichokes, chick-peas, beets, hard-boiled eggs, snails, squid stew, and huge globs of garlic mayonnaise, liberally moistened with the local rose.The book contains recipes too, of course. Lanchester said to me: 'It ought to be called Incredibly Complicated French Food.' Certainly there are terrines and other dishes here that require a good deal of fiddly preparation. But there are many more that are straightforward - indeed some, such as the leek and potato soup, are a little too rudimentary, in my view.
However, the main value of Simple French Food is that it teaches you, with patent authority, the techniques of classic French cooking. Here are the definitions and principles underlying stews and roasts and grills; stocks and court-bouillons; beurre blancs and sabayons. You learn the difference between a saute and a daube, a chaudree and a cotriade.
These techniques are all simple, by most definitions including Olney's. On their foundation, you can improvise, without recourse to elaborate recipes. 'By knowing and accepting rules, one frees oneself of rules,' Olney summarizes. That is the most exciting lesson a cook can learn.