Food & Drink: And once more with Freeling

Number One Son kindly brightened my Christmas by giving me the two just-reprinted (in the United States) cooking classics by Nicolas Freeling, The Kitchen Book (1970) and The Cook Book (1972). But then I suffered a crisis of conscience.

Freeling, like the characters in his admirable crime novels, is a tough man, a trained cook who worked his way up from the bottom, and he is not sparing in his opinions. He is particularly deadly about food writers, genteel cooking 'schools', kitchen gadgets, 'experts' and snobs. 'You cannot teach cooking out of a book any more than you can carpentry . . . No good writer on food gives formal recipes,' he states, quoting Le Figaro's James le Coquet to the effect that 'a recipe has a hidden side, like the moon'.

Hence my crisis. Would I fall under one of his many interdicts? On the basics, Freeling is indubitably right: practice is what makes the good cook - practice, knowledge and the ability to improvise. The aspirant cook, he says, should be left in a kitchen with a cooker which does not work very well, a few beaten-up pots and some leftovers: 'In the fridge, two grilled pork chops, three eggs, some cold boiled potatoes, a dried-out piece of cheese and half a packet of butter. In the rack, half a cabbage, two wilted carrots and an apple. In the cupboard, a tin of sardines, a packet of spaghetti and a few tins of herbs that have lost their labels . . .'

I am a latitudinarian in such matters. I think there are many paths to salvation, and many useful ways (keeping in mind Freeling's dictum that 'a kitchen book should create an appetite') to write about food.

But all truly good food writers are people of long experience. The best books about food are retrospective, and to some degree nostalgic. They often describe meals long ago eaten and unlikely to be replicated.

One may come to writing about food from the direction of the professional cook or that of the informed eater. The professional cook is not always an eater, the eater is not always a cook, but each must have a love of the anecdotage of the kitchen and the dinner table. They must be sharp observers of human nature and of appetites of all kinds.

To be a chef requires a knowledge of human nature; it also, as Freeling eloquently points out, demands hierarchy. There has to be someone 'in charge'. The saucier may be brilliant but profligate; the vegetable man may drink; the tournants, in charge of roasts and grills, may be prodigiously lazy; each may loathe the others as much as they do the customers.

Even for the solo cook, method has much to do with human economy: you are now creative genius, now desperately bored, and your task is to subordinate the different parts of your character to efficient food preparation.

The same is true of the eater, who has to deal with appetite, anticipation, choice, time, appreciation, distraction and conversation. The professional cook has the advantage in technique, consistency; the amateur eater comes at the same craft from the opposite end and his experience of eating is likely to be greater. But, specialist or generalist, the object is communication; the subject, the pleasure and pain of cooking.

And we all have our surly side. Unlike the wonderfully funny Ludwig Bemelmans, Freeling does not so much celebrate the past as distrust the present he grew into. He was brought up as a cook under 'the system', which was the epitome of French cuisine. The system had to do with the management of the preparation of food, and all those who worked within it considered, equally: efficiency, economy, cleanliness and, if possible, profit.

This could not last in the post-war period, with its new, less knowledgeable customers, its corner-cutting chefs, and its accountants. Kitchens lost their eccentricity; we all lived amid motorway gastronomy, homogenised food, homogenised manners. Cuisine bourgeoise died, and Freeling memorably marks its passing, quoting a marvellous line of Bemelmans about the new kind of restaurant manager, whose face was 'like a towel on which everyone has wiped his hands'.

Freeling chastises food writers who claim authority and who seem all- knowing. But those who begin writing about food as eaters do know: they know what they have eaten and what they feel about it. And recipes are not wrong per se; it is just that too many cookery-book writers do not take into account the variability of ingredients, pots, and cookers.

That is why the best writing about food - and Freeling is one of the very best - is no more than suggestive, and always humble.

The Kitchen Book is available in paperback (Andre Deutsch) at pounds 7.99.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    ICE ICT: Lead Business Consultant

    £39,000: ICE ICT: Specific and detailed knowledge and experience of travel sys...

    Day In a Page

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map