Elizabeth David is one of foremost writers on food in the latter half of the 20th century and this book has her most celebrated writing. For this reason, I was inspired to write this modest review when I saw Amazon feature the volume as an offering, 43 years after it's first publication in England.
It is a coincidence of no small meaning that this book appeared within two years before the publication of Julia Child et al's landmark 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking'. Child was even worried, when David's book appeared, that it may steal a lot of the thunder from Child and her colleague's effort. The fact is, the two books are very much like the Wittgensteinian 'duck rabbit' optical illusion in that they deal with the same subject but from different points of view.
One distinction is that while Child's book is simply a cookbook of French recipes, David's book is a long essay on French cuisine, offering the sketches of recipes more as exercizes to be completed by the reader than as true recipes. In fact, it is one of the most enduring legacies of Child's book that it redefined the detail to which a recipe writer should go in order to adequately communicate the process of preparing a dish.
A second distinction between the two is that they deal with two different facets of French cuisine. As David recites from work by Curnonsky, there is haute cuisine, la cuisine Bourgeoise, la cuisine Regionale, and la cuisine Improvisee. David discourses on the third while Child, et al present the second.
For many, including such luminaries as Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters, Elizabeth David is the fountainhead of thinking on the French notion of 'la cuisine terroir', sometimes interpreted by the notion 'what grows together goes together'. For David, this is the heart of regional cooking, and the thing which most distinguishes it from cooking at restaurants where clientele arrive at any time of the year or the day and expect to be able to order virtually any well known French speciality.
One of the passages which best characterizes David's approach to a lot of cooking is her opening statement on the perfect omelette: 'As everybody knows, there is only one infallible recipe for the perfect onelette: you own.' I'm sure this would not work for Daniel Boulud, but it works just fine for me, after having seen about five (5) different, contrary techniques on how to make the perfect omelette.
It's interesting to constantly encounter reminders that the book was written before the widespread distribution of Teflon coated cookware, as there is no mention of it, even for egg cookery. I believe the book is all the more valuable for this fact, in that it paints a picture of a cooking style which has irrevokably been changed by technology. A second technological change brought upon the world by the French themselves is the 'robot-coupe' or food processor. It's noteworthy that the device is only mentioned in Notes to the 1985 edition where it is pointed out that the device was a major contribution to both the good and the bad aspects of nouvelle cuisine.
As stated above, the recipes are not as much presented as a blueprint to reproduce every dish cited, but rather to illuminate the discourse. One of my favorites is the entry for Salade Nicoise, where not one but four (4) different variations are given, including the variation of Escoffier.
The sections on French kitchen equipment and French techniques appear to be quite complete and absolutely essential if you embark on reading a cookbook written in French. The book has a short essay on each of the major culinary regions of France, starting. Almost obviously with Provence which is blessed not so much with great culinary talent as a great source of produce, similar, perhaps to the situation in California where the 'la cuisine terroir' could take root much more easily than in Toledo or Albany. The largest portion of the book is chapters on cuisine by type of foodstuf or type of preparation such as:
Hors-D'oeuvres and Salads
Eggs and Cheese
Pates and Terrines
Composite Meat Dishes
Poultry and Game
The book ends with a bibliography which alone is worth the price of the paperback volume.
This book begs to be read from cover to cover. The only other writers who come to mind of a similar caliber are John Thorne, M.F.K. Fisher, and Harold McGee. Elizabeth David's books belong in the library of anyone who loves to read and prepare food and this is her best.