1 NOVEMBER 1963, Page 31

Consuming Interest

Capability's Child


IT has taken -two years for Mastering the Art of French Cooking* to cross the Atlantic. The book is the work, of three authors, Mesdames Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child. It was worth waiting for.

In the English lan- guage there has been no cookery book so con- scientious and methodi- cal since Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery ap- peared, and that was 130 years ago. In French, the only bOok directed at household cooks at all comparable is Madame Saint-Ange's Livre de Cuisine, published in 1927, and still, I believe, on its way into English.

There are analogies between Miss Acton, Madame Saint-Ange and the authors of Master- ing the Art. Born teachers all, none has made unseemly haste into print. Miss Acton laboured through some ten years of housekeeping and cookery, re-testing and re-revising every recipe she learned before submitting her manuscript to her publishers. Madame Saint-Ange's book was the result of thirty years of practical experience of household cookery and its teaching. Some twelve years ago Mesdames Beck, Bertholle and Child, who had all studied at either the Paris Cordon Bleu School, or with professional chefs, opened a cookery school of their, own in Paris. It is called 'l'Ecole des Trois Gourmandes' and is to be found at No. 171 Avenue Victor Hugo. If the classes in this establishment are as illuminating as the teachings in the book which emanates from it, then it is the place for all serious. cookery students.

Make no ,mistake. These authors, hereinafter to be called Julia Child, the member of the team responsible for the actual writing of the book, intend to make us work as their predecessors made and still make us work. For optimistic methods and the romantic approach we are going to exchange the greater pleasure of setting about cooking in a formal, measured fashion, doing the right things for the right reasons. If we fail it will not be Mrs. Child's fault. It will be because it is not in us to understand that the authentic fine cooking of France demands iron self-control'as well as skill and wits. Some- times it means that after much work and thought a dish may meet the reception so bitterly de- scribed by Evelyn Waugh; 'the sole was so simple and unobtrusive that Rex failed to notice it.'

It takes sheer physical stamina of an uncom- mon order as well as courage—the risk of boring by continual repetition of detail must be accepted —infinite patience, self-discipline and the gift of understanding the non-understanding of others for a cookery writer to act upon the assumption that each reader may be embarking on any given recipe for the first time, and that even the most experienced and intelligent can be fallible, for- getful and have blind spots.

As her predecessors had this quality of quiet persistence, so has Mrs. Child, and it• seems to me, in an enviable degree. She has style, too, and heart. She keeps vigil over every stage of * Cassells, 50s. the creation of a dish, from the choice of cooking pot, mixing bowl, stirring spoon, knife and egg whisk to the moment when it is time to check that your serving dish and sauce boat are heated, that your seasonings are ' to hand in case your sauce needs a final adjustment and that you have not forgotten to remove the strings from a roast or a bird.

It could be exasperating to find somebody con- stantly at your elbow with a reminder and a word of advice. Julia Child's presence by your side is a comforting one, kindly and reasonable. She is shedding a light, not holding a stick. She has been out shopping with you, leading you away from the chicken that tastes 'like the stuff- ing inside a teddy bear,' telling you on the way that a certain delicious dish of pouter au porto is one which will be diminished in finesse if it is prepared ahead of time (there are many dishes which do not so suffer, and Julia Child never forgets to make a note of 'which they are). She consoles us for the fiendish difficulties attendant upon getting a quenelles de brochet mixture just right by allowing that if it turns out too soft to stand up to the poaching method it may be baked in a mould in a bain-marie. It will taste every bit as good and 'you declare it to be a mousse.' One thing you do not do in Mrs. Child's company is to pretend that your cast-iron lawn dog was designed by Capability Brown.

As any writer must when setting out seriously to teach, Mrs. Child has used line drawings and diagrams to illustrate and clarify her instruc- tions. Miss Sidonie Coryn, the artist, has made her sketches an integral part of the whole extra- ordinary book. Always straightforward ancl illuminating (how to hold a knife when you chop onions, what shape to slice carrots and mush- rooms, the appearance of properly whisked egg whites on the end of the whisk)„they are some- times more. A set of drawings showing how a duck, boned and stuffed with minced veal and pork, is sewn into its skin, wrapped in pastry, made ready for the oven, has the true element of drama. So has the recipe to which it belongs. This occupies five and a half pages, not counting the stuffing recipe.

I hope I have not given the impression that Mastering the Art is a hefty compendium of daunting recipes to be cooked once in a life- time. Pates, omelettes, such things as the basic preparation of spinach and the cuts of meat appropriate to any given dish are as meticulously dealt with as the clarification of a consommd and the confection of a béarnaise sauce. Has anybody before Julia Child made the point that for the easiest and most successful scrambling of eggs the depth of the eggs in the saucepan is the crucial point and that the ideal is not more than an inch and not less than three-quarters? And who is Sylvie that she has such a beauti- ful dish named after her? A five-pound boneless cut of veal steeped in brandy and madeira is sliced lengthways and interleaved with slices of ham and gruyere cheese. When this gorgeous thing is cooked (a short recipe, this one, only two pages), the 'ham and cheese appear to have melted into the veal.' Julia Child and her com- pany, her Louisette, Simone, Sidonie, Sylvie, make one feel for the first time in years that fine French cooking truly is re-creating itself.