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Cookery: Simply French

Pursuits | By Elisabeth Luard | October 2017


Hot news from the land of chlorinated chicken and hormone-inflated beef: the geeks of Silicon Valley don’t eat that stuff either, preferring a swig from a screwtop, throwaway, biodegradable plastic bottle of Soylent. Which, in case you’re wondering, is a nutritious blend of protein isolate, high oleic sunflower oil and a slow-metabolising disaccharide –with no trace of five-a-day or roughage. The latter is a bit of problem.

No matter. The antidote is to be found in Tom Jaine’s magnificent and timely translation of Cora Millet-Robinet’s Maison Rustique des Dames, published in 1859 and now available for les rosbifs as The French Country Housewife (Prospect, £35). France’s Mrs Beeton is literate and witty – a pleasure rarely found in Mrs B – offering robust advice on pig-killing (pay the butcher the going rate), cleaning intestines (take them where there’s plenty of running water) and salting the meat (wait a couple of days; less if the weather is hot). 

Having established how to instruct the servants both inside and out, Madame Cora takes charge in the kitchen.

‘Cookery, on which some have bestowed a vainglorious status of art, presents no real difficulties. To do it well, you must have good supplies, care, and address… It is absolutely essential that the mistress of the house knows how to cook… and [thus] avoids imposing on her family a strange and sometimes unwholesome diet.’ Quite so.

As befits a countrywoman, she’s good on river fish and woodland game, but particularly sound on vegetables served as a separate course, as is usual in France. Useful for veggie grandchildren, as well as the rest of us, come the revolution.

Beetroot with wine

‘Peel the roots raw and cut into thin slices. Put some butter into a saucepan, add the beetroot [at least 1kg] and three sliced onions; cover tightly and cook over a low flame for three hours. Add a spoonful of flour, salt and pepper; stir. Moisten with one or two glasses of good red wine; leave to simmer for two hours. Serve.’ Note: beets can be cooked, even more thinly sliced, with onion and enough water to cover, for 4-5 hours in a closed earthenware pot in a very low oven.

Pumpkin purée with onion

Peel, chunk and cook the pumpkin with very little water and a little salt, drain and sieve (or liquidise). ‘Brown one or two finely sliced onions in butter; when they are nicely coloured, add the purée and leave to simmer a little.’ A modest grating of nutmeg wouldn’t come amiss.

Gratin of cauliflower

Firm instructions are provided on separating out the florets and peeling tough stalks before cooking, though not overcooking. ‘When the cauliflower is cooked, place in a heatproof dish; scatter small pats of butter over the florets as well as fine, soft breadcrumbs; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover the dish with a Dutch oven [or cover with foil and place in an oven at 150°C/300°F/Gas 3] and cook gently until the cauliflower has taken on a golden tint.’ 

Her cauliflower cheese is similarly prepared, with grated cheese (three parts Gruyère to one part Parmesan) replacing the breadcrumbs.

Peach salad

‘Peel the peaches and slice them. Put them in a compotier after coating both sides well with powdered sugar; sprinkle a little decent eau de vie over everything. Toss like a salad at the moment of serving.’


This story was from October 2017 issue. Subscribe Now