Why buy it?
They don’t make cookbook authors like British-born, French-trained food writer Elizabeth David anymore. French Provincial Cooking is an indispensable compendium of regional French recipes, with authoritative (at times curmudgeonly but always entertaining) cooking advice. In a world before glossy cookbooks, when recipes were less prescriptive and more of a guide, and cookbooks read like novels, David set the bar for culinary travel writing. This tome would sit equally well by the stove or on your bedside table. What it lacks in full-page photographs it makes up for in its encyclopaedic depth of regional French cuisine. First-time readers of David may be struck by an "Aha!" moment, stumbling upon a dish they may already have in their repertoire or eaten on numerous occasions, and now placed in context of its origins. The cooking of the provinces – by definition rustic, peasant and the result of the ingenuity of French housewives making do – celebrates ingredients in season, what David refers to as la cuisine terroir – "what grows together goes together" – which makes the recipes as relevant for the modern-day cook practicing seasonality as it did when the book was published 50-odd years ago.
David’s looser approach to recipe writing may vex the pedant in the kitchen, and ingredient quantities are in imperial measures, but these can be easily converted with digital scales or a phone app – small hurdles for a slice of French provincial life.
Semolina and potato gnocchi (a lighter style of the Italian version) that is baked with a scattering of grated cheese and butter for a moreish meal.
Most surprising dish
Curious cooks will be piqued by the canard à la serviette or its less evocative translation: duck boiled in a napkin. Yes, boiled! For 50 minutes!
David’s no-nonsense instruction for frying batter makes you want to coat and fry every vegetable in sight: "Sieve ¼ lb [115 g] of flour; stir in 3 tablespoons [45 ml] of olive oil and a pinch of salt; gradually add approximately ¼ pint [140 ml] of tepid water. Stir to a smooth cream. Leave to stand 2 hours. Before using, fold in the stiffly whipped white of 1 small egg. This is the frying batter I have always used in preference to any other. It is one which is light and crisp and makes only a thin coating for the food to be fried, rather than a heavy greasy blanket."
Francophiles looking for an exhaustive reference of regional French dishes – your copy will surely be food splattered and dog-eared, and you’ll treasure it all the more.
French Provincial Cooking, Elizabeth David (Grub Street, $29.99, hbk).