Do you remember remainder bookshops? Back in the bad old days of the Net Book Agreement, I used to hang around the plethora of pop-up shops that had spawned, like some form of bibliomanical penicillin in the Charing Cross Road. They were slighty seedy; often with open fronts, exposed to heavy traffic and all the debris of the London street scene: soggy newspapers, discarded McDonald's cartons, broken glass from the neighbouring ale house; and with an 'adult' department down rickety staircases. This was in the days when booksellers could return unsold copies to the publisher on a "sale, or return" basis. This made life easier for the harrassed rep. He could persuade the bookseller to take, say, twenty copies of Bernard Manning's kiss and tell autobiography, when the hard truth was that the bookshop might just about sell one copy if they were lucky, and on a sunny day at that. The remaining copies would be returned to the publisher to be pulped- or remaindered. It was all a terrific waste of trees.
But amongst the dross- the Z list celebrity memoirs, the regurgitated encylopedias of Ancient Egypt, gardening handbooks by people you had never heard of, picture books of The River Thames in CameraColour, Jane's "Handbook of American Warships" and "The Reader's Digest Book of English Villages", you could discover some gems. One such find was Richard Olney's "French Menu Cookbook".
Richard Olney was an interesting character. An American, he had lived almost his entire adult life in Solliès-Toucas, Provence, mingling with the Anglo-American bohemian set, including the likes of the avant-garde occultist and filmmaker, Kenneth Anger. Olney died of a heart attack in 1992. His books are beautifully written and have become highly sought after, although I see that you can currently buy my rather lovely edition of "The French Menu Cookbook" for a few pounds on amazon.
"Simple French Food' (republished by Grub Street in 2003, first published in 1974) is another Olney book well worth adding to your library. Simple it ain't. I'm looking at his recipe for Raviolis aux Grenouilles (Frog Ravioli) as I write, and it involves a fumet, a parsley, chive, tarragon and frog stuffing, and a noodle dough. He liked stuffing things, did Richard Olney. The ingredient list for his Terrine de Poissons, Crème Mousseline Tomatée (Fish Terrine, Whipped Tomato Cream) spreads out over two pages. No, this is relatively sophisticated cooking for a more lesiurely age- for a long, hot, dusty French August, with the dahlias coming into bloom- and all the better for that.
I gather that he enjoyed a mild feud with Julia Child. I love "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", but of the two of them, I think I would naturally gravitate towards Olney at the cocktail party (there was just something a bit strange about Mrs Child). Richard Olney's languid prose can be almost Proustian at times:
"Happily a stew is rarely subject to quite such a complicated and uncertain conceptual process...fired by the touching and too human desire to flatter a Sybaritic guest, to compose a menu, each of the parts of which may be of an exquisite purity, but which, in its plethoric whole, adds up to something in the way of barbaric orgy..."
From "Simple French Food"