A French lesson for les rosbifs

The new <i>Larousse</i> is oddly dated and often quirky. Anyone for lark pie?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

If any food book could be likened to the corpulent Mr Creosote of Monty Python fame, then, surely, Larousse Gastronomique would be it.

If any food book could be likened to the corpulent Mr Creosote of Monty Python fame, then, surely, Larousse Gastronomique would be it. In the 17 years since the last edition the culinary bible (first published in France in 1938), has managed to put on an additional 150 pages taking it to a shelf-busting 1,193. Unhappily, its price has more than kept pace with this enlargement, swelling from £25 to £60.

On the plus side, the latest edition boasts a more elegant design, with a stylish, monochrome cover featuring a Parisian waiter who might be Sartre's more cheerful brother. And inside, there are around 400 new entries. Aimed at giving the book a more international appeal, these range from Dundee marmalade to sushi, from kulfi to Mongolian firepot. Oddly, snoek, the unpalatable tinned South African fish that was a wartime standby, gets in for the first, but belated, time.

French readers are unlikely to be converted to British cuisine by the entry for shepherd's pie ("a traditional way of using leftovers from the Sunday roast"), but there is a stout defence of the Scotch egg: "When home-made, with excellent sausage meat, the combination is a very successful one."

In order to make way for such treats, a number of old entries have been curtailed or booted out entirely. Sadly, the Breton speciality called youp gwad ("a porridge of oats in milk to which is added fresh pig's blood") has been given the bum's rush. The entry for "lark" has been much diminished, merely quoting the unenthusiastic view of one Grimod de L~a Reynière ("larks are hardly more than a little bundle of toothpicks, more suitable for cleaning the mouth than filling it"), whereas the previous edition gave recipes for cold lark pie, lark brochettes and larks in bread crust. In case it appears that this change indicates a strain of political correctness in the new Larousse, I should point out that it still maintains "the song thrush makes excellent eating".

Despite its new-found interest in kippers and Lancashire hotpot, Larousse remains French to the core. In the new edition, almost three pages are devoted entirely to confréries (French associations of wine makers and food lovers), though we are no longer given colour illustrations of their uniforms. The lengthy entry on cookery books finds no room to refer to Elizabeth David, M F K Fisher or, indeed, anyone else who isn't French.

Though Larousse claims that "every entry is completely revised and updated", the numerous biographies of obscure French gastronomes, such as the journalist Curmonsky ("Language was no mere form of words to him") and the lawyer Berchoux ("A poem is never worth as much as a dinner"), are utterly untouched. We're also informed about a substantial number of long-deceased Parisian eateries. And many Italians will, no doubt, take issue with the biased entry on the truffle, which starts "The most highly esteemed is the black truffle of Perigord", only later conceding "The white truffle of Piedmont enjoys a measure of popularity."

Despite the dust-jacket trumpetings of Jamie Oliver ("A real must for any serious chef") and Terence Conran ("It should be on every kitchen shelf for immediate reference"), the Larousse Gastronomique is actually a specialist work, heavily biased towards traditional haute cuisine. As revealed in the off-puttingly gaudy photos, the recipes tend to be on the stodgy side, clogged with cream, butter and foie gras. (The entry on foie gras extends to three pages.)

Though the book is going to be referred to in catering colleges for its useful entries, such as "Food" ("A substance eaten to sustain life") and "Cup" ("A drinking receptacle manufactured in various shapes, sizes and materials"), Larousse will be of most use to putative head chefs of posh, old-fashioned joints like the Gavroche or Savoy. It is very good about cooking techniques such as boning, stuffing and trussing. But for most readers, the recipes, like calves' sweetbreads régence (studded with truffles and accompanied by fried foie gras) or partridge Monselet (with, of course, truffle and foie gras), will be of academic interest only.

For those wanting information about the wonderful variety and sheer oddness of much human consumption, the Larousse does not begin to compete with Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food (£40). Take "Emu", another newcomer to Larousse, where it is merely described as having "a taste reminiscent to game". Compare this to Davidson, who draws attention to the "enthusiasm, almost an obsession" for the bird displayed by the Australian explorer Leichhardt, who "used to eat a kilo of emu meat for breakfast, the same for lunch, and almost the same for tea".

Though his book does not contain any recipes, Davidson is profoundly informative about British food. In this area, the information in Larousse is often dubious. It suggests that suet (rather than dripping) is "famously" used for frying fish and chips. Similarly, we're told angels on horseback are "fried oysters on croutons" (there's no mention of bacon) and "the average British cook is just as likely to serve... couscous as boiled potatoes". On top of this, it appears that lark pie is one of our "humble traditional dishes". Lark pie and couscous, anyone?

Though there are 3,500 recipes in Larousse Gastronomique, it's hard to find anything you really want to make. The 19 scrambled egg recipes should offer tempting possibilities, but they turn out to be either rather obvious (with smoked salmon) or, as in the case of scrambled egg Rossini, require you to slip out for a few truffles and a spot of foie gras. Most of the recipes are impossibly fancy.

Since I didn't feel like rustling up a spot of civet of hare à la flamande or ballotine of lamb in aspic for lunch, I simply looked up "Sandwich". There were just three. The basil sandwich (you use toast with chopped basil in the butter), filled with chopped hard-boiled eggs, sliced olives and marinaded red pepper, proved to be most acceptable.

For dinner, I had a bash at something more hard-core Larousse: loin of lamb à la bonne femme. You fry bacon, potatoes and button onions in butter for an indeterminate time, then you brown the lamb in butter, after which you combine the two and casserole for an hour. The result was richly flavoured and unctuous in texture, if somewhat unhealthy for regular consumption. You could imagine getting it in an old-fashioned brasserie on the rive gauche, but, as a rosbif, I'm not sure that I wouldn't have preferred plain grilled lamb chops with parsley butter.

'Larousse Gastronomique' (£60) is published by Hamlyn