“Throughout the history of civilization, food has been more than simple necessity. In countless cultures, it has been livelihood, status symbol, entertainment – and passion. In the GREAT FOOD series, Penguin brings you the finest food writing from the last 400 years, and opens the door to the wonders of every kitchen.” (Book jacket)
There are twenty volumes in the series, some being: A Taste of the Sun – Elizabeth David, The Campaign for Domestic Happiness – Isabella Beaton, The Joys of Excess – Samuel Pepys, Murder in the Kitchen – Alice B. Toklas
You can buy the series as a boxed set.
As well as being the author of The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas was also an enthusiastic gourmand and expert cook. His Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, published in 1873, is an encyclopaedic collection of ingredients, recipes and anecdotes, from Absinthe to Zest via cake, frogs’ legs, oysters, Roquefort and vanilla.
Included here are recipes for bamboo pickle and strawberry omelette, advice on cooking all manner of beast from bear to kangaroo – as well as delightful digressions into how a fig started a war and whether truffles really increase ardour – brought together in a witty and gloriously eccentric culinary compendium.
This is a very slim volume, only 98 pages so it doesn’t take long to read. It is certainly an eccentric compendium. Most entries appealed to me but some more so than others.
The entry on Eggs is one that I enjoyed. Dumas was obviously a “free range chook” exponent:
There are people for whom an egg is an egg. This is a mistake. Two eggs which are laid at the same time, one by a hen which runs about in a garden, the other by a hen which eats straw in a farm-yard, can be very different in taste and palatability.
He then goes into detail on how to cook the perfect egg and how to store eggs for winter. This is followed by several egg recipes.
I was disappointed that Tomatoes only had an entry worthy of three lines whereas the Truffle entry was five and a half pages. Kangaroo was given detailed treatment, not necessarily correct, on two pages :
. . . the taming of the kangaroo, as several experiments have already shown, requires practically no trouble.. . . .The flesh of the kangaroo is excellent, especially when it has grown up wild . . . good quality meat, greatly preferable to that of the cow or sheep in that it is much more tender than the first and much more abundant and nutritious than the second.
His entry on Stews begins:
Stews, above all, were responsible for the brilliance of old French cookery; yet it is stews which bring disgrace on contemporary cuisines, especially that of England. Never will a cuisine, other than our own, attain the heights reached by our piquant sauces, or the delicacy of our blanquettes or our poulettes.
In the same way you can take a trip around the world and you will not find a cook, be he cordon rouge or cordon bleu who can make you an omelette as good as that made by the mother of a family for her husband’s and children’s dinner.
I originally bought this book because I was swayed by the beautifully designed covers. I thought it would make an excellent collection but after buying just this one I don’t think I will be buying any others. It would be an ideal gift to give someone who enjoys cooking and the history of cooking.
Dumas wrote the dictionary “to be read by the sophisticated and used by the practitioners of the art.”