Thursday 20 December 2012

Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne et al: Grand Tour Larousse

Okay to round up before Christmas, a few words on Larousse Gastronomique. This isn't quite a book review, more an appreciation-cum-users guide. My main point is that Larousse tends to be ignored or dismissed nowadays, which is a shame. Sure its no longer the Bible of cuisine nowadays (that is, I believe, now called T'Internet). But it's still a wonderful trove of deliciousness to be enjoyed in its own right. I do.

Knock, knock..

Nowadays it is very fashionable to knock Larousse Gastronomique, the famously frumpy French culinary encyclopaedia.

It's outdated people say (true). The recipes don't work they say (also true). Its ridiculously French they say (Good point. The entry on Great Britain rather pointedly claims "British cookery is basically medieval...").

Even after recent attempts to drag it into the 21st century, its publisher's claim to be "authoritative and comprehensive" looks risible. This is a book which has no entry for "sous vide" (even though it's a French term!), but it does provide a potted biography of Marie, Vicomte de Botherel who's only claim to fame is an unsuccessful attempt to install kitchens on buses (it goes without saying that he gets included because he's French).

To be fair, it does have an entry for Nigella, although it actually refers to a Asian spice rather than a buxon English TV personality.

Nonetheless if I had to be locked in a cell for a month with only one of my cookbooks for company, I think I'd take Larousse.

Introducing Larousse Gastronomique

The story of Larousse

Prosper Montagne: This is what sleb chefs looked like
before they started using stylists...
Larousse Gastronomique begins with Prosper Montagne, best described as the Thomas Keller of his day. Along with his (slightly older) contemporary Auguste Escoffier, he was one of the superstars of fin de siecle gastronomy. While not quite as revolutionary as the Big E (think of Escoffier as the Ferran Adria of the age), Montagne was no slouch, cooking his way around some of the biggest kitchens in France, notably the venerable Pavillon Ledoyen (currently Christian Le Squer's three star lair).

Anyhow to cut a long story short, after many decades behind the range Montagne decided to kick back a little and starting writing books. This culminated in the 1938 publication of Larousse Gastronomique, co-authored with a Dr Gottschalk and published by Larousse, leading purveyors of encyclopedias and other doorstops.

What Escoffier did for French cookery in practice, Montagne did for French cookery in print. Larousse was a staggering confection of history, dishes and recipes. The heart of the book is its coverage of French cuisine - from humble to haute. Montagne systematically went through every French region, dish, and garnish in the classic repertoire. He also provides pen-pictures of famous chefs and personalities, and added articles on history and on many notable ingredients (guess what, foie gras and truffles have some of the longest entries).

Lost in Larousse

On paper it sounds quite prosaic but in person the effect is quite staggering. If you are remotely interested in food this is a book you can get lost in.

Consider the duck...

Take your favourite ingredient - let's say Duck. Flip to the entry and you will learn about the breeds of duck (Aylesbury, Barbary, Gressingham, Long Island, Nante, Norfolk, Peking and Rouen). Then you'll hear about notable preparations of duck, which may take you on to an article on Aiguilettes (long-thin fillets of meat - also used for strips of beef). Or to an article on the Tour d'Argent restaurant, a Parisian old-timer famous for serving pressed, numbered ducks (#253,652 went to Charlie Chaplain). There's an anecdote here (and a painting) about the chef Frederic carving his famous canard au sang:
Frederic carving his famous canard au sang
You ought to have seen Frederic with his monocle, his greying whiskers, his calm demeanour, carving his plump quack-quack, trussed and already flamed, throwing it into the pan, preparing the sauce, salting and peppering like Claude Monet's paintings, with the seriousness of a judge and the precision of a mathematician, and opening up, with a sure hand, in advance, every perspective of taste.

For there you might follow an entry to the famous chef Paillard who cooked at the Tour D'Argent in the 1800s, or Claude Terrail who ran the restaurant with an iron fist until his death in 2006. Meanwhile back to the original article on duck it concludes with twenty two different recipes, including a honeyed duck Apicius-style popularised by Alain Senderens, and Rene Lasserre's duck a l'orange.

You don't get that with Nigella.

The many lives of Larousse

Lost in translation...

Family portrait: 2009 edition (rear), 1988 hardback (right),
much-thumbed 1990 paperback (left)
There have been a number of editions of Larousse over the years (for a more detailed treatment see this article). After the original in 1938 the most important revision was the 1984 edition. This gave the text a thorough overhaul, masterminded by Robert Courtine of Le Monde, adding colour pictures and updating it with the latest trends in nouvelle cuisine. The last major update was in 1996 when a culinary committee of the great and the good (headed by Joel Robuchon) overhauled some of the entries, although the changes were nowhere near as significant as those twelve years earlier. There was a further update in 2007.

These changes are reflected in the English editions. The first English edition was in 1961, adapted from Montagne's original. Similarly in 1988 the Courtine version was translated into English (also released as a natty paperback two years later). The Robuchon version made it into anglais in 2001, with an update in 2009. These two are the versions you're most likely to come across today.

Larousse - key editions you are likely to find

Party like its 1988...

La Belle Patissiere
I actually own three copies - a reprint of the 1988 hardback, a dog-eared copy of the paperback version (quite excellent for taking on long backpacking trips), and the 2009 edition which I found going cheap online.

I actually prefer the 1988 version over the more recent versions. For one thing the entries they added to bring it "up to date" are pretty superficial (as I said - articles on Adria, Heston but nothing on sous-vide or spherification; they do seem quite proud to have an article on tonka beans though). For another the pictures in the newer version tend to be pointless Dorling-Kindersley fluff.

In contrast the 1988 is stuffed with fascinating paintings and drawings which where chopped wholesale in the later version. For example the painting of Frederic and his quack-quack above is gone, as is Joseph Bail's ravishing La Belle Patissiere accompanying the Patisserie article (yes I look like that when I make pasta too :-p ).

Non-French food (according to French people)
Also the 1988 still has outbreaks of hilarious French sniffiness which have been shamefully bowdlerised in more modern versions. So you have the article on Great Britain where they point out that out food is basically medieval and the best thing to happen to British cuisine was actually when Careme and Escoffier turned up in London to teach us how to cook.

In the piece of Australia and New Zealand the author goes to great lengths to talk about Aboriginal traditions which include the cooking of such animals as cockchafer grubs, bats and lizards. Kangaroo-tail soup is considered to be a delicacy whilst adding that Fish and shellfish, often giant-sized, are very popular but are not cooked with any gastronomic refinement.

Rather pointedly the page on North American food (actually more like 3/4 of a page - roughly the same space the book devotes to the town of Lyon) begins It would be wrong to dismiss American cuisine as being confined to the fast food and the snack-bar, and to believe that its contributions to gastronomy are limited to cocktails, ice cream, corned beef, and hot dogs. Yeah right...

Now a lot of this has been amended in later versions (the USA gets its own article for a start) but actually I find these sections some of the funniest bits of the book. Its a shame they've been cut in favour of banalities like Far too vast and varied to be comprehensively described in a few paragraphs, the food of the United States is as rich as diverse as its people.

Changing attitudes to American food!

Real men eat salad

Larousse is basically a book about French people saying how great their food is and being rude about everyone else's cooking. Let's enjoy it for what it is! I love Larousse precisely because its a quirky, opinionated snapshot of classic Frenchness. In particular I was very  annoyed to see Lucien Tendret's glorious recipe for a mixed salad left out of the latest edition. In the name of culinary artistry I've reproduced it in full:
Put into a salad bowl some olive oil of the best quality, some white wine vinegar, 4 tablespoons roast turkey juice, 1/2 teaspoon tarragon mustard, the inside of a lobster, salt, and pepper. Stir until the mixture is perfectly smooth. Then add slices of lobster flesh, slices from the breast of a braised chicken and the breast of a roast turkey without the skin, the breast of three young partridges (keep the best slices for decoration), some thinly sliced truffles cooked in an excellent dry white wine, some mushrooms prepared in the same way, and a number of shelled crayfish. Cover with a layer of blanched endive (chicory) leaves. Add a second layer of the mixture, then a further layer of endive. Then on top tastefully arrange the reserved slices of meat, a few strips of ham from which the fat has been removed, a few large slices of truffle and mushroom, a border of shelled crayfish, a tablespoon of capers washed in white wine, and a cupful of stoned (pitted) green olives. Put a mound of thick mayonnaise in the centre with the largest truffle on top. Serve with the finest dry champagne, very cold but not iced.
That's my kind of salad (apparently Jeremiah Tower once served it at Chez Panisse). Mr Ritz and Mr Waldorf eat your heart out...

Living with Larousse

So to close a few more things I've learnt after twenty years of living with Larousse:

Larousse can be really really random

Quite good for picnics, apparently...
Part of the fun of Larousse is that its like rummaging through an elderly uncles very very random attic. The text is sprinkled with little gems, from a culinary appreciation of the Elephant (The feet and trunk are of the greatest culinary interest: their flesh, which is muscular and gelatinous, resembles ox (beef) tongue) to the Street Cries of Paris (Crapois y'a for salted whale meat, apparently) to Queen of Sheba, a chocolate gateau made especially light by the use of potato flour and ground almonds. For all its failings Larousse has a magpie-like mind that should please anyone who confuses significance with obscurity.

Never cook any recipe from Larousse

To be fair the recipes in Larousse are notoriously unreliable. I remember trying to cook French food from Larousse during my gap year in China (I took two books: Larousse and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Shakey never stood a chance). Complete nightmare. Scrambled egg custard for the ile flottante (OK that maybe I shouldn't have tried to thicken the liaison in a makeshift wok). Disintegrating liver dumplings. Never again. Everything they've told you about how unreliable Larousse's recipes are is true.

There are multiple reasons for this. Montagne wasn't writing for home cooks for a start - the recipes are rudimentary at best (very similar to the brief one-para ones in Escoffier actually). I don't think the translations have helped either - sometimes recipes are newly translated for the 2009 edition, sometimes they are recycled wholesale from the 1988 translation (or earlier). With so many authors across so many editions I doubt there's any consistency as to what kind of recipes got in (and whether they were ever tested). If you want a cookbook, read Nigella.

You can read it online. Now

Hit and look up the 2001 English edition. They hit "Click to Look Inside". Normally Amazon offers you a page or two and the author puff. But lo and behold pretty much the whole damn thing is available to browse. Okay there's a page or two they've held back but I figure 90% of the book is there to browse through. Go have a look if you don't believe me.

Get lost in Larousse

Look you can keep Larousse on your shelf and haul it down as an occasional reference when you need to figure out what a Pate de Pezenas is, but that's a waste. Larousse deserves more than that (incidentally, a Pate de Pezenas is a sweetened pie of mined mutton, shaped like a cotton bobbin which is sometimes served as a dessert).

What you should is brew yourself a nice cup of tea and sit down on the sofa with your Larousse and a plate of cooked pork products (preferably crispy ones). You may want to prop up Larousse on a separate table to avoid knackering your knees.

Then pick your favourite ingredient or region and start reading. Every time you find a funny French term or cross-reference to another article flip look it up and continue reading. When the trail of articles runs dry, back up and carry on reading the original article (you may want to deploy Post-Its to keep your place). Continue for an hour. Or two. I guarantee you will come away hungrier than when you started.

As I said at the start, this is the book I'd most like to have if I were locked away for a month. You can use it to embark on numerous culinary voyages, and never have the same trip twice.

And to finish some nice Pate de Pezenas and a glass of wine...


  1. you thumbed the Sat Bains book?

    1. Hey not yet! Stilling waiting for it to pitch up at retail so I can eyeball it first; if you've seen it anywhere let me know! Although may yet take the plunge sight unseen (still kicking myself for not snapping it up when Foyles were listing it at forty quid last year).

      Availability seems to a bit funny actually - the publisher is Face (the guys who did the Andrew Pern Star at Harome books) but they don't seem keen to actually sell the book anywhere apart from direct! Strikes me as a little perverse but perhaps they would rather not get gouged by retail dicounting. From what I know, Face do very customised publishing deals which give author a lot of control.

      Would be interesting to have a look though. Sat has been (relatively) quiet for late - I note that while Simon Rogan has been raising his profile in London (and the London blogeratti) in the last few years, SB (Electrolux aside) has stayed closer to base. I'm sure must be also thinking of doing a Rogan/Bosi/Outlaw and having a crack at the Big Smoke....