Book Review: A Lifetime of Cooking, Teaching and Writing from The French Kitchen
Diane Holuigue shares her culinary knowledge generously
By Robyn Lewis
Picking up this book is like handling a beautifully worn artist’s tool – a sculptor’s chisel, an oil painter’s best brush, or a chef’s mortar and pestle. You just know it’s a genuine encyclopaedia of food knowledge and skill, honed by a lifetime’s culinary experience, and you can almost feel the author’s love of food and cooking within.
The title says it all. But for those unfamiliar with the author, Diane Holuigue is a food writer and teacher, originally trained at Le Cordon Bleu and L’École de Perfectionnement Lenôtre (pâtisserie and charcuterie) in Paris.
She has been dubbed a ‘living legend’ of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival for her services to the Australian hospitality industry. Necia Wilden, food writer at The Australian, describes her as ‘Australia’s Julia Child’.
This is her magnum opus.
Inspired by Escoffier and the cuisine of sunny Provence, Diane (or Di as she is generally known) established The French Kitchen cooking school at her Malvern home in suburban Melbourne in the late 60s. It still operates today. Forty years on, it’s time to put it all down on paper – 750 pages of it, encased in the signature red of her cooking school.
During the long reign of The French Kitchen, Australian cuisine has undergone a revolution – first came cuisine nouvelle and the even-lighter cuisine minceur, which ‘threw out’ heavy sauces and cream often associated with French cooking; then came Italian and Mediterranean influences, further lightening our culinary style and making it more accessible to home cooks. Travel to Asia led to the infusion of the chilli, adoption of the stir-fry, and ultimately to the multicultural, adventurous cooking style we know today as ‘modern Australian’.
But throughout all this, Di has stayed true to her roots and inspiration. Her aim is to teach the basics: “Understand that a casserole, say, is really six movements. It doesn't matter what the ingredients are as long as you go through them in the right order.” Thus she still teaches the basic logic and techniques of cooking – to over 64,000 students, and counting – for if you know the basics, creating delicious dishes from seasonal ingredients becomes easy and a pleasure, not a chore.
Traditional French techniques are perhaps something many modern cooks (and more than a few chefs) would do well to revisit. And now you can, in print – the queues for her classes are several months long – and this book will certainly last you a lifetime. In fact, so treasured is the original edition on which this book is based that there’s also a 3 month waiting list for second-hand copies.
Di is no stranger to writing. She has written for and edited many of Australia’s major culinary journals, winning Best Overall Contribution in the Food Print Media at the inaugural Food Media Awards in 1995, and has authored several books on Provençal cooking, including one in the excellent Williams-Sonoma series. So expect good prose as well as technique
This, her thirteenth cookbook, is a revised and updated edition of The French Kitchen first published in 1983, then with the title suffix: for Australians. It also incorporates parts of her essential instructive manual The Clever Cook (1995), and a selection of her food-inspired travel writing from Postcards from Kitchens Abroad, published in 1999.
It’s perhaps a no-brainer for the publishers, Slattery Media Group, and I certainly hope it reaches a wide audience, for not everyone can attend Di’s classes, and skills of this nature don’t get passed on very often, especially outside professional cooking courses.
As the publishers say: “The book covers everything from Soups, Starters, Shellfish, Fish, Poultry, Meat, Vegetables, Desserts, Cakes and Biscuits, and Bread and includes 230 never-before-published recipes”. Apparently the latter were developed for her ‘cooking school stalwarts…. a group that has been attending every five weeks for eleven years and refuses to hear of her retiring’.
The French Kitchen also has notes on planning menus, tips for the hurried cook (perhaps there are more of us in that category than the 60s?) and ‘a list of essential tools for the clever cook’. I’m already reminded of Mrs Beeton.
So let’s take a look inside. Those used to a diet of celebrity ‘lookbooks’ might get a bit of a surprise – not every recipe has a photo, and there are often four or five recipes on every double page. If, for example, you want to learn how to cook mussels, there are eleven recipes on that bivalve alone.
But to make it easier, each section has what Diane describes as ‘master recipes’ – the ones you start with, and learn to master (for example, how to roast beef), after which you can vary and experiment.
Some of the recipes have hand-drawn and painted illustrations, which add to the dated country feel and are certainly charming, if not what we are used to nowadays with ‘food porn’ photography and lifestyle props (sometimes including the chef’s family, friends and pets). The relatively scant photos are a mix of old and new, which also add to the look, and dare I say it, the book’s authenticity.
Personally though, I am not sure that the inclusion of vignettes from the Postcards from Kitchens Abroad works so well, or perhaps it’s just the sepia background wash highlighting them, which my husband unromantically observed ‘looks like someone has spilt wine on the pages, but not in a good way’. But does it matter? They read well, add a certain pre-loved look to this new edition, and capture not only Di’s travels but genuine food moments and inspiration from locations as diverse as France’s Basque country and Italy’s Genoa to Penang, California and Vancouver Island.
Back to the recipes. Di’s view is that “You really can't look in 14 cookbooks just to find a recipe that goes with your leftover raw ingredients, but if you understand these formulae, these processes, you can make something delicious … you're fine.''
Which begs the question: has the internet overtaken books like this?
Despite the plethora of recipes on the net, many (even on big food websites) are untested or a bit dodgy is some way or another – for example you may find they are in American measures when you use metric (or Imperial), or vice versa. Or the oven temperatures are different, or just plain wrong. Others are written by people who can neither teach nor write recipes. And then, there is always someone who leaves out that vital ingredient….
There are no such issues here – these recipes are thoroughly tested and honed, the ingredients and methods precise.
And how on the internet do you find the BEST recipe for any given dish? You simply can’t, not unless you are very experienced yourself, in which case you can probably just read a recipe simply to know if it will work or not, and have a fair idea how the end result will look and taste.
For me, trawling the internet is great for ideas and inspiration, but when it comes down to technique, it’s not often so good. It’s to volumes like this that we need to turn. And with a new generation of ‘home cooks’ – including a growing number of men, bloggers and those for whom cooking is their new weekend hobby – coming along, the need is great. Learn the principles in The French Kitchen and you are set for a lifetime of culinary successes.
Sure, you can then update your plating and presentation with microherbs and other garnishes du mode, but before you can reinvent a recipe, as we have seeen on TV cooking shows, you need to be familiar with the original, and existing variations.
As also befits the current decade and the evolution of Australian cooking since Di’s school opened, neither are all the recipes French. There’s lots of Italian (including a whole section on pasta), and more than the odd touch of Asia, from fusion salad dressings to dishes such as an oriental Carpaccio of Tuna and Sticky Rice with Pandan and Mango. The Deep-fried Wasabi Pea Squid makes even Salt-and-Pepper Squid look dated.
I especially love the Fish section. European cookbooks naturally focus on fish species obtainable there, which often don’t translate to Antipodean waters. Instead, there are recipes for flathead, snapper, ling, barramundi, salmon, snapper and Murray perch, to name but a few, as well as traditional French dishes such as Skate with Beurre Noir and Fish Quenelles with Beurre Joinville.
Ditto Seafood (and a warning, if you love seafood, don’t read this section when you are hungry, you’ll quickly be salivating!). In fact, the whole book is the same – the more you look into it, the better it becomes. But at 3 kg it’s not an easy bed-time read.
There is in fact enough material for a number of cookbooks here. The Cakes and Breads section alone would be a fabulous volume, with its tips on what do to if you have a ‘failure’, and the Vegetables section can be enjoyed as mains for vegetarians and as sides alike. But this is a culinary bible, although it would have made a good River Cottage series....
Over her career Di has clearly not lost her love of innovation – on page 557 I chanced across Poached Pears with Fresh Basil (or green peppercorns if you prefer), a dish not far removed from one I sampled in a very modern restaurant’s degustation menu recently. I’m sure over time I’ll find plenty more surprises and delights.
So yes, there are plenty of new ideas too – if you are ever tired of the randomness of internet searches, or want the truly tried and tested as your culinary foundation, A Lifetime of Cooking, Teaching and Writing from The French Kitchen is for you.
It’s sure to become a family heirloom – grab it while you can, lest in future years your children reprimand you for your shortsightedness. Teach them from it, too. And be assured you have a true culinary artist and teacher’s toolbox in your hands.
A Lifetime of Cooking, Teaching and Writing from The French Kitchen by Diane Holuigue is published by Slattery Media Group (Richmond, Victoria; 2012; hc, 750 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$89.95.
View the links below for three recipes from The French Kitchen – one a classic French, the others more modern.
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