Fast food: How a book of rapid recipes by a French scientist became a cult classic

It was published decades before Jamie's 15-minute meals. Alasdair Riley explains why it still endures today.

Jamie Oliver is going to have to get his skates on – and his cod, and his salmon – if he is to get up to speed in the fast-food stakes. He set the kitchen timer at half-an-hour with his 30-Minute Meals, which has sold almost two million copies since it was published two years ago. Now he has halved his time at the stove with 15-Minute Meals.

But he will have to trim his timing by a further five minutes if he aims to catch up with Edouard de Pomiane, a Polish-Frenchman who published Cooking in Ten Minutes in France 82 years ago, with an English translation appearing 18 years later.

The late Elizabeth David was a fan: "I find Docteur de Pomiane such a beguiling writer. I know of no cookery writer who has a greater mastery of the captivating phrase, the detail indelibly imprinted on our memories!"

After her favourable review of his book back in 1956, he wrote a Thank You note: "If you were French, I should give you a kiss. But I believe in England that is not done."

Raymond Blanc also waxes lyrical. Pretention alert: as the last century was drawing to a close, at his Michelin two-star restaurant Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxfordshire, Blanc gave me a copy of de Pomiane's book.

On the inside title page, he scribbled "One of my most loved heroes."

In his foreword, Blanc praises the author for being "irresistible, funny, sometimes hilarious, always objective and to the point. This book will make you happy".

De Pomiane, who died in 1964 aged 89, was a scientist and dietician who lectured at the Institut Pasteur in Paris for some 50 years. Disdaining elaborate French cuisine, he made cooking and cookery writing his second profession and was much loved by his French public, who devoured his articles and radio broadcasts. Television producers today would be knocking at his door.

He gives more than 200 recipes that can be conjured up within the magic 10 minutes, using ingredients that can be bought in the local market – from what he calls "Ultra-Rapid Soups", through "Fish Which Only Ask To Jump From the Pan Onto Your Plate! " to "Some Delicate, If Hasty, Meat Dishes".

The first rule, according to de Pomiane, is to put water on to boil as soon as you get home. It is bound to be useful, for cooking, washing up or making coffee. Gas is your ally, he says, with a minimum of two burners, possibly using both simultaneously, for two hot dishes. A third dish should only need warming up, while you eat the first two. And if you are planning to fry something in fat "don't wait to take your hat off before putting the pan on the fire". He recommends three methods for speed cooking: boiling, frying and grilling, discarding roasting and steaming as impossible within the 10-minute rule.

My paperback became well-thumbed and food-spattered soon after I enrolled as a mature student for the one-year masters course at the University of London Institute in Paris. My apartment was three floors up in rue Montorgueil, the old oyster hub off the late lamented Les Halles covered food market. Perfect. It takes barely 10 minutes to walk along this pedestrianised street if you are in a hurry, but time is meaningless for the food-loving flâneur.

There are more than 30 café/restaurants, almost 10 delis and takeaways, three butchers, shops selling nothing but cheese, three wine merchants, one fishmonger and the Palais du Fruit with pyramids of fruit and veg like art installations. There are four bakeries – one, next to me, where queues snake into the street waiting for the next batch of the famous flûtes Gana baguettes fresh out of the oven. Expensive treats can be bought at Stohrer, the landmark pastry shop established by the eponymous pâtissier in 1730 after leaving the royal household where he created liquor-soaked rum babas and puits d'amours – "wells of love", round puff pastries filled with vanilla cream and caramel – for Louis XI.

Spoilt for choice, that's the problem when sitting on a café terrace, deciding what to buy and cook that evening, and how to set about it. De Pomiane is here to help you.

He writes: "My book is meant for the student, for the midinette [seamstress or salesgirl], for the clerk, for the artist, for lazy people, poets, men of action, dreamers and scientists, for everyone who has only an hour for lunch or dinner and yet wants half-an-hour of peace to watch the smoke of a cigarette whilst they sip a cup of coffee which has not even got time to get cold."

Cooking in 10 minutes was not a competition for de Pomiane. It was foreplay to the main event: pleasure. Having dined on the menu given here, he advises: "Fill a warm cup with coffee. Sink into your comfortable armchair; put your feet on a chair. Light a cigarette, send a puff of smoke slowly up to the ceiling. Close your eyes. Dream of the second puff, of the second sip. You are fortunate. At the same time your gramophone is singing very softly a tango or rhumba."

De Pomiane was not a lonely bachelor with a stopwatch. His menus can be for one person, two people, or more. He writes: "I dedicate this book to Mrs X, asking for 10 minutes of her kind attention."

Cooking In Ten Minutes by Edouard de Pomiane is published by Serif at £7.99.

A taste of a de Pomiane menu

Cheese omelette
Fillet of veal with green peas
Salad
Fruit
Coffee

De Pomiane asks: "Would you prepare the different dishes one after another in the order in which they are given?" No, he insists, for that would be courting disaster. Here are his instructions:

1. Put the large saucepan of water on the gas. Cover it. (This is an invariable rite).

2. Open the tin of peas. Empty into a bowl. Put it on one side.

3. Beat the eggs in a second bowl, salt and add grated cheese.

4. Put the lettuce leaves, washed, into a salad bowl. Add oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, without mixing. Stand on one side.

5. Grind the coffee and put it into the coffee machine. Put on one side.

6. Heat some butter in a frying pan until it smokes, brown the fillet on one side and then the other. Eight minutes are sufficient. Add the peas, draining off the water first. Leave it on a low fire.

7. Move the saucepan of water to one side. Heat some butter until it smokes. Pour in the eggs and make the omelette; three minutes.

8. Sit down to table. Eat the omelette while the peas are warming. The fillet reaches perfection and reclines, golden brown, on a jade green carpet.

9. Put the pan of water back on the fire. Stir the salad and eat it. 10. A slice of Brie with a curl of butter will delight you.

11. Before skinning your orange, pour two cups of boiling water on the coffee which is massed in the filter of the machine. It will draw out all the aroma while you are eating the fruit. Put the coffee pot back on the gas for 20 seconds. Watch it like a lynx. Whatever happens the coffee must not boil.

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