Saturday, November 14, 2009

Julie and Julia/Elizabeth and me

I've just been to see "Julie and Julia" and I loved it. Meryl Streep is magnificent. Not ever having seen Julia Child's TV programmes, I've never paid much attention to her - not that I noticed, anyway. In fact I did buy the two volume Penguin edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking about thirty years ago, without particularly observing that Julia was one of the authors, as her name meant nothing to me then. I use it, too, from time to time. Well, Volume I, that is. I don't think I've ever gone so far as to tackle anything from Volume II, Advanced.

There are a clutch of easy recipes I make quite often, such as the leek (or watercress) and potato soup, or the mayonnaise. I occasionally make the hollandaise instead, but I quail at the quantity of butter it contains. The oil in the mayonnaise seems healthier, though given the quantity I eat once I've made it, it's probably not. I make it with a processor (I haven't got a blender, but the processor works fine). Julia, Simone and Louisette (though according to the film, she didn't contribute much) point out that the amount of butter the yolks will absorb if you use a liquidizer - 4 ounces (115 grams) - is only half as much as if you make it by hand! I love the way the difference is discussed:

"It is extremely easy and almost foolproof to make in an electric liquidizer, and we give the recipe on page 100. But we feel it is of great importance that you learn how to make hollandaise by hand, for part of every good cook's general knowledge is a thorough familiarity with the vagaries of egg yolk under all conditions..."

"If you are used to hand-made hollandaise, you may find the liquidizer variety lacks something in quality; this is perhaps due to complete homogenization. But as the technique is well within the capabilities of an eight-year-old child, it has much to recommend it."

Indeed. Julia spent a long time converting all the measurements to imperial - here, now, of course, it would be better if they were metric. Maybe newer editions give both. I should look for one - the print in the Penguin, beautifully set though it is in Monotype Bembo, is getting a bit small.

Every so often I tackle another classic recipe properly. This year I've made the boeuf bourguignon that figures prominently in the movie, as well as the blanquette de veau a l'ancienne ( a slow cooker is excellent for poaching the veal). One Christmas I started well ahead of time and worked my way through the recipe for duck a l'orange. It's always worth it.

Valuable though this precise masterpiece is, it doesn't get the same response from me as Elizabeth David's collected works, and I use them much more often. I also love her two collections of articles (and some recipes), An Omelette and a Glass of Wine and Is There a Nutmeg in the House?

It was Elizabeth who said "Authenticity is the only true luxury", and she's right. In these books she often protested (very wittily) against nasty commercial imitations of, e.g., mayonnaise.

If she could come back, she'd be appalled at the way the industrial food manufacturers bandy about the names of honest dishes. They know this will appeal to people who've heard of them and maybe eaten them in a restaurant. And unlike champagne, these names aren't protected, because no one owns them. So they stick them all over concoctions that bear about as much relation to the real thing as those old bottles of Camp Coffee and Chicory did to carefully roasted beans.

A while ago I was looking for fine cracked wheat in the supermarket to make tabbouleh, the extremely simple and very good Middle Eastern salad made with lots of fresh parsley and lemon juice. You can get it at Mediterranean Foods in Newtown, Wellington, but I was short of time. The supermarket used to have it, very cheaply, in the large help-yourself bin section, but that must have been too unprofitable and is long gone. All I could find was horrible and incredibly expensive boxes of what claimed to be "Instant Tabbouleh".

The makers of all this rubbish should be locked up and force fed on it until they promise never to besmirch the real thing again.


  1. I'm very attached to my copies of Stephanie Alexander's Cook's Companion (I've got both editions), and I love her blend of authenticity and practicality, and her voice coming through in the discussion of ingredients and the instructions in each recipe.

    I'm deeply unimpressed by all this "instant" stuff too. On the other hand, I have the skills and the time to make most things from scratch - I imagine that many people don't have either.

  2. Yes on the tabbouleh! I had to resort to boxed couscous the other night, and it was vile. I love Elizabeth David. Such a pleasure to read even when you're not cooking from it.