Short Books £8.99 (284pp) £8.54 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Cooking for Claudine, By John Baxter
This beguiling book concerns a single meal cooked by the author. No great hardship there since Baxter announces that "a capacity to cook will see you across more frontiers, make you more friends, win you more admiration – love even – than any language or skill."
Still, it was a daunting task to produce a Christmas dinner for the "formidable" family of his French wife. Baxter, an Australian film journalist with no food training, admits he grew up at a time when his homeland "thought of itself as an outpost of the British Empire and ate accordingly."
Fortunately for his guests, Baxter discovered greater culinary pleasures during a peripatetic life. Even England made a contribution in the form of the excellent apples he discovered while living on the former estate of Randolph Churchill in Suffolk. (This diversion produces a good anecdote about the Churchillian tearaway. When an accountant suggested he should economise by dispensing with his pasty chef, Randolph's appalled response was: "Mayn't a man have a biscuit?") In France, home of the inappropriately-named Golden Delicious, the nearest Baxter could find to Cox's Orange Pippins were "clochards" (tramps), windfalls from a friend's orchard. Caramelised apples were a vital accompaniment for the centrepiece of Baxter's grande bouffe.
His decision to cook a suckling pig is a rich source of material, from persuading a French butcher to sell pork with crackling to the conundrum of fitting a 62cm animal into a 60cm oven. Baxter's solution was to ring a surgeon. The procedure for breaking a spine involves cutting below the last big vertebrae and applying pressure.
With such a likeable, readable book, packed with humour and quirky knowledge, it may seem churlish to point out errors, but one or two should be excised from future editions (of which there should be many). Baxter does not appreciate the vital distinction between dripping (beef) and lard (pork). Writing that "dripping was an invaluable ingredient of the best pastry", he actually means lard. More mysteriously, he claims to have enjoyed crème brulée with fruit "at the restaurant of the great Elizabeth David". This reviewer would like to have eaten there as well but, sadly, the great David never had a restaurant.
Nevertheless, when Baxter presented "fruits brulés" at the end of the meal, "the table erupted in applause".
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