Cookbooks, Food History & Politics

  • Date Posted: 16 August, 2011

Revisiting an old friend

Adele Stiehler

Every year before Christmas the cookery book market explodes with new offerings. They range from the latest British gel haired celebrity chef attempting to interpret Escoffier for the home cook to yet another attempt by local writers to demystify South African cuisine.

The selection is overwhelming and the mediocrity heart breaking to anyone who knows their brunoise from their julienne. What a relief it was to spot an old friend and colleague amidst the gastro porn of glossy pages dominated by extreme food close ups. Larousse Gastronomique. The latest edition.

In its black box, it was clearly the most serious book on the shelves and even Gordon Ramsay confesses on the cover that it is “The first recipe book I took seriously.”

Prosper Montagné compiled the first edition of this chef’s bible in 1938 and the first English version was printed in 1961. His ideal was to present a panorama of the present day and a history of gastronomy all in a single work of reference.

With publishers staying true to this ideal through every revision and update we today have a comprehensive encyclopaedia with entries ranging from Carême’s Espagnole sauce recipe to trends like molecular gastronomy.

Not every edition has been truly fabulous though with the 1999 Concise Larousse Gastronomique suggesting that beoerewors (sic) and boboti (sic) is the essence of South African cuisine (which was solely inherited from the English and the Dutch). They also attributed biden (chopped spinach with peanut flour) to our culinary repertoire. Maybe due to the French origin of the book they gave far more publicity to our wines then our food.

Ten years later and according to the chef’s bible South Africans now eat bobotie and boerewors, with mealie meal as a staple and our cuisine now reflects the “diversity of their origins: Dutch, German, English, French Huguenot, Indian, Malay and Chinese.” Maybe in the next edition they will also recognise the indigenous tribes to whom we owe offerings like veldkos.

With every revision the encyclopaedia improves in leaps and bounds, but it is quite interesting that although modern chefs like Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal have been added to the latest edition there is still no reference to umami or even a mention of a fifth taste, one of the most celebrated food discoveries in the Western world in recent years.

It was a wonderful holiday spending hours with this heavy reference source in my lap. Reminding me of the classics, arguing about what has not been included and being surprised about what did make it into probably the most referred to cookery book in kitchens. It really felt like talking to an old friend again after many years. You don’t always agree with them, but you do value their opinion.

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