It's fun to discover a new series of books to collect. Browsing the net, I came across the Time Life "The Good Cook" series, edited by none other than our old friend, the great American gourmet, Francophile and food writer, Richard Olney.
I'm ashamed to admit to you that I had never heard of it before. Several foodie websites rate it as one of the best, most useful, and most comprehensive cookery books ever produced; they have a cult following. Published in hardback between 1978 and 1981, they were sold on a month-by-month basis. There are a whopping 28 volumes to collect; you'll find them on ebay and amazon priced at a few pounds each. I think the American and British editions are slightly different. Here's an entertaining American television ad for the series, I've just discovered on youtube, featuring an extremely pretty Stepford-y housewife (If you're a subscriber to The Greasy Spoon, you will have to log back on via your browser to see it):
I've ordered three so far- "Terrines, Pates & Galantines", "Hot Hors-d'Oeuvre", and "Snacks and Canapes", and from the moment the first one arrived, I can see what all the fuss is about. They're fantastic. This is serious cooking.
The first half of each volume covers technique (fully illustrated with step-by-step colour photographs), the second half has a comprehensive selection of recipes, carefully chosen from various highly reputable sources- Richard Olney, Jane Grigson, Michel Guerard, Fernand Point, Mrs Rundell, writers like that. The beauty of the thing, is that with 28 volumes covering a multitude of subjects, all the intricacies of sophisticated cookery can be explored in loving detail. I learnt, for instance, to add cold water at regular intervals to a simmering stock to stop it boiling. Sounds obvious, doesn't it?, but in the past I've just turned the heat down- and ended up with a cloudy stock as a result.
The Good Cook series is, of course, a trifle out of date (some even might consider it retro) with its emphasis on French cuisine; its detailed examination on how to disect, cook and glaze a dear little sucking piglet (presented Henry VIII style on a huge silver platter, curly tail and all), and it's obsession with layered vegetable terrines and aspic. Personally, that's part of its charm, and I can hand-on-heart say that if you studied, and followed, the instructions in these 28 volumes, you will learn a great deal.
A very different book is Charlotte and Peter Fiell's Essential Equipment for the Kitchen, A Sourcebook of the World's Best Designs which has just been sent to me for review. Charlotte and Peter Fiell are distinguished modern design gurus. If The Good Cook series is all about hands on technique, method and practical preparation, "Essential Equipment" is an indulgent trawl through a century of kitchen utensils and gadgetry (in all their immaculate glory), a bible of materialism and product placement.
Did you know that the Rex Model 11002 peeler was designed in Switzerland in 1947? That's that ubiquitous peeler which you know and love- the one that works. Or that Le Parfait jars were born in the 1930's?
Although this is an amusing- but utterly non-esssential- book to add to your cookery library, there is undoubtably the smack of perfectionism going on here. A case of 'Hey, Come Round and Have a Look at my Brand New Francis Francis XI Espresso Machine' (first designed in 1995 by Luca Trazzi, bn. 1962 if you've ever wondered).
All this reminds me of Patrick Bateman's' apartment in Bret Easton Ellis's "American Psycho". It made me have a sudden- and most juvenile- urge to seize hold of a shiny new Le Creuset L25W3-3630 wok (designed in 1992) and dribble sesame oil all over it, so that it stains. I'm afraid it is a truth universally acknowledged that there are many people out there who have shiny and immaculate kitchens, and yet never cook.
Essential Equipment for the Kitchen by Charlotte & Peter Fiell, published by Goodman Fiell RRP £19.99 is available from www.carltonbooks.co.uk and all good bookshops.