It is, in every sense, a big book about cooking. In my kitchen, I have a black granite work surface. I swear I saw it tremble under the weight of Grande Livre de Cuisine, the latest master work of superstar French chef Alain Ducasse, a man with possibly more Michelin stars than I have types of pasta in my cupboard. Containing about 700 beautifully produced recipes across more than 1,000 glossy pages, the book is even too heavy for my kitchen scales, so I borrow my neighbours' bathroom scales to get its weight. For the record, it comes in at 5.5kg, more than 2kg heavier than its nearest heavyweight competitor - the venerable Larousse Gastrominique.
Grande Livre de Cuisine is surely gastro-porn of the highest order, for which its publishers are hoping we will soon shell out £159 - yes, £159 - for the privilege of owning a copy. But, on the basis of a road - or should that be kitchen - test on behalf of Independent readers, I'm frankly dubious as to why anyone would want to buy it when it finally hits the shelves on 30 March.
The best recipe books - whether you are a big on Rick or Nigella or remain loyal to Elizabeth David and Alan Davidson, or just have a load of stuff ripped from magazines and jotted down on napkins - must be dotted with the stains of culinary adventure, and well thumbed for instruction and pleasure. This is not such a book. Okay, it will look glorious on the bookshelf or coffee table, but both will have to be pretty strong, because, I suspect, once the novelty of owning this culinary trophy has worn off, this is where it will stay. And it's not a book for cooks: it takes up too much space on the work surface and you can't hold it in one hand, at least not for very long. What's more, the dinner party host will simply have to spend too much in the kitchen, so complex are some of the dishes. Maybe that is because Ducasse is a chef who, well, doesn't do much cooking any more. After achieving three Michelin stars in Paris and Monaco, he now develops his brand, presides over his expanding empire and supervises his protégés.
So, are the recipes any good? Well, as might be expected for a man who charges around £200 a head at his restaurants, they are full of the kind of expensive ingredients that are staples of such places: endless recipes with truffles (black and white); foie gras; caviar. But while the ingredients reek of old money, the recipes are strong on modern, Mediterranean lightness and flavour; the use of butter, flour and cream is restrained.
But whether the recipes are baroque - Skewered Thrush Breast, cooked on the coals with Wild Apples and Sarawak Pepper Foie Gras anyone? - or simple - Leeks Vinaigrette - there is great emphasis on presentation, with separate instructions, usually running something like this: "Present the pheasant forequarters in a serving dish, slice the breasts in front of the guests and place towards the bottom of the serving plate. Place the galantines on top of the plates and the braised salsify criss-crossed on the side; glaze the tops brown." There is also much attractive drizzling. This is restaurant food for big plates, served individually; there are no casseroles, stews or roasts here.
Even the simple recipes are rendered in such exquisite detail as to make them almost forbidding. Most chefs wouldn't bother to tell you to chop parsley, let alone give instructions on how to, but not Ducasse: "Stalk the parsley, wash and dry the leaves. Finely chop the parsley leaves, place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and store in a cool place.'' But in some places, detail is omitted: why should lemon rind be blanched three times?; for how long or in different changes of water? We are not told.
But for a true marker of the book's value, I decide to prepare a dinner party based on Ducasse's instructions. But what to cook? This is where panic sets in, because of Ducasse's strict adherence to certain ingredients: where does one find Colonna bacon, Taggiasca olives and Jabugo ham? Certainly, not in my local Tesco or even farmer's market. Once I eliminate the out of season or unavailable (asparagus, turbot), the stupidly expensive (white truffles) and the ethically difficult (thrush, ortolan, veal), the choice diminishes dramatically. Finally, I decide on a simple starter of Scallops Grenobloise - the shellfish baked in the oven, with a sauce of browned butter, lemon, capers and croutons - and something more challenging for a main course: Grilled Wild Mediterranean Sea Bass with Olive Fritters and a Tomato Marmalade.
The scallops are, and you have to take my guests' word here, "a triumph" made possible by simple, detailed instructions, including a caution on getting the timings exactly right. But the main course is more problematic. At least I don't need to follow the precise filleting instructions for the (dolphin friendly) sea bass, because the fishmonger does that. The marmalade was easy and could be completed in advance. The fritters - slices of potato with a tapenade filling, bound with eggs and potato starch and deep fried - are fiddly, take ages and come out soggy. And the triangles of skin, kept, as instructed, in a bowl of cold, slightly salted water, just fail to crisp. Apart from the skin, it looks alright on the plate, with a drizzle of this and that, but as one guest sums up: "The component parts are fine, but they just don't work together as a whole dish.'' The consensus among four moderately foodie people is that they see no reason to buy the book; the fifth says she would like to try some more of the recipes because "they look so gorgeous" - but then she's an Aussie and knows no fear.
This is not a book for the average, or even adventurous, domestic cook. Aspirant Ducasses might want it; Gordon Ramsay, I suspect, is working on one of his own. And it is not, as the subtitle - Alain Ducasse's Culinary Encyclopedia - implies a reference book. There is a glossary at the end, but if you've bought this book, one feels you ought to know that tuna is a type of big fish and asparagus a spring vegetable.
Bizarrely, there is no mention of deserts. It is as if a whole French tradition of pâtisserie and baking never existed. Maybe that's volume two. So, for my desert, I cook a simple chocolate mousse, to a familiar recipe for which I need a reminder via telephone, that is scribbled on a Post-it note. It's sublime, so I am told. Now that's what I call cooking.
Grande Livre de Cuisine: Alain Ducasse's Culinary Encyclopedia (published 30 March, Harry N Abrams)Reuse content