Monday, March 28, 2011

Old cookbooks, new lessons

I love old cookbooks. I love them because of the insight they give us into life as it was lived years ago. My boyfriend inherited his mother's copy of 'Mrs Beeton's Family Cookery' and I've spent hours leafing through its quaint descriptions of life in the England of the 1950s/60s.

Take this for example: "The spirit of the home is mainly the business of the housewife. It is hers to inspire a feeling of comfort and happiness, to see that all runs smoothly, that meals are punctual and well cooked and the house kept clean, tidy and as beautiful as possible, and that the well-being of each member of the family is considered."

For me, these words conjure a time when much remained to be challenged, where a woman's place was most definitely in the home. She was expected to be like the lady on the cover: perfectly groomed, in charge of a house that was spick and span and able to produce what look like multi-coloured meringues at the drop of a hat (or should that be polka-dotted oven glove?)

While I could continue talking about Mrs Beeton (and one day, I may devote a post entirely to her), today's post is supposed to be about someone else entirely.

Quadrille Books have recently issued a new series called 'Classic Voices in Food'. It's a series that offers an insight into the tastes of times gone by through republishing some of the most popular cookbooks of the era.

One of these is 'Madame Prunier's Fish Cookery Book'. Madame Prunier came from an illustrious line of restaurateurs. Her grandfather Alfred Prunier opened a restaurant near the Madeleine in Paris in 1872 and quickly gained a reputation for his fine fish and shellfish. His son Emile continued the family tradition with a restaurant on Rue Victor Hugo, which Simone - or Madame Prunier - took over on his death.

Simone decided to bring her fine fish to London in the 1920s and opened a restaurant on St James' Street which soon become the most renowned seafood restaurant in the city. During her time in London, she discovered the English had a peculiar attitude to fish. They were wary of it. They were reluctant to cook it at home. And beyond a few familiar favourites - cod, salmon, eel and smoked haddock - they were very unadventurous. This book is her attempt to win the English over to eating more fish.

It is divided into eleven sections. The first chapter contains useful information on buying fish and shellfish and tells you everything you need to know about examining a fish for freshness. It also gives clear and precise instructions on the basic rules of cooking fish: how to grill, fry, poach and braise as well as how to make different types of court bouillons, batters and pastries.

The second section is devoted to garnishes, many of which can be adapted for use in a wide variety of dishes. There are potato dishes such as Pomme Duchesse (potato purée with salt, pepper, grated nutmeg, butter and egg yolks); instructions on how to make a mushroom duxelle; recipes for aspic and much more.

Section three opens with a plea to the English to embrace sauces. She assures them that a sauce can make all the difference to a dish. And what sauces she suggests! There's a range of savoury butters - including recipes for everything from anchovy butter and almond butter to beurre blanc, horseradish butter and truffle butter. There are many sauces including classics such as béchamel, béarnaise and hollandaise and more unusual sauces such as fennel sauce, shrimp sauce and gribiche.

Next up are hors d'oeuvre. From Madame's suggestions, the ones I'm making soon are toasts spread with her fish butters, soused herrings and anchovy fritters.

Her soup chapter is just as illuminating. She says that the only fish soup popular in Britain at the time was oyster soup. I've never even heard of this soup and will have to find out more about it. In the meantime though, I might also try Madame's clam chowder, crab bisque and her oyster and okra soup.

The two chapters devoted to freshwater and ocean-going fish are informative and inspiring. Madame starts by telling her readers about the fish. For example, she says that bream can be lacking in taste and so needs a highly seasoned accompaniment. She then suggests a huge range of recipes. One that I'm planning to try very soon (because it's one of my favourites) is skate with black butter and capers.

The next chapter may not be quite as useful for modern-day cooks. Madame admits that her readers are unlikely to cook turtles, terrapins, frogs or snails but she gives us recipes for them just in case. While some of you are bound to be enthusiastic cooks who have explored with using frogs' legs and snails, I doubt if many of you will need to know how to slaughter a turtle, what to do with the carapace and the flippers and then make a soup with the leftovers. In the unlikely event that you do, Madame Prunier is here to tell you.

The second to last chapter is devoted to some of the restaurant's most popular dishes. There are recipes for fish omelettes, Boston tournedos (steak served with six poached oysters), sheep's trotters, chocolate pots, kirsch mousse and orange pancakes. You know me and my sweet tooth. I'll have to try some of Madame's desserts for myself.

The final chapter is a note on pairing fish with wine and has quite classic suggestions.

Overall, I found this book to be a revelation. I expected it to be entertaining, offering an insight into a bygone age in London through the medium of food. This it most certainly did but I didn't expect the food to be quite so enticing. Turtle soup aside, I picked up lots of useful information about fish and discovered lots of dishes that I simply have to try. Thanks to Madame Prunier, I can't wait to read the next book in the 'Classic Voices in Food' series.


  1. I love old cookbooks. I always rummage in used bookstores for them. I found a book called The Art of Fine Baking by Paula Peck and it's my go-to recipe for genoise. Also The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum is so excellent and has the easiest and most consistent buttercream recipes. Bread For All Seasons by Beth Hensperger is positively filthy from use...:)

  2. You should put more tags on your blog. It helps them turn up on search engines.

  3. Wow, Sharon. Those books sound great. I'll have to add them to my wish list!
    And I'll follow your advice on tagging. Thanks.