Spicy fibs, served to us by the bookful

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Cuisine franche - candid, frank, down-to-earth cooking - that would be my target. And not just the cooking, but the writing about the cooking. Candour to the point of insanity. The truly helpful hints that have been whispered across a whole subcontinent - such as 'Never pick your nose when you've just been chopping chilli' - shouted out for all the world to hear.

Edouard de Pomiane is the sort of writer I respect, and he said that for a dinner 'One should prepare only one good dish', though this should be preceded and followed by 'some little thing, then cheese or a sweet course if you are in France, or pudding and cheese if you are in England'.

All kinds of cookery writers pay lip-service to de Pomiane, but not to the idea of 'only one good dish', not to the idea that a salad might just be a salad, or an hors-d'oeuvre or some small thing that you bought.

Cookery writers simply cannot resist the temptation to fantasticate. Well, it's their job. They have to ring the changes. They have to come up with new ideas. And they feel that they have to project personality and style. That is why their commonest form of fibbing is to say that they 'usually' prepare a certain dish in a certain way. If you count up the number of dishes they 'usually' make, you would run out of days of the year.

One writer had the understandable foible of claiming that certain (often exotic) dishes were great favourites with the children, until the family in question appeared to be blessed with thousands upon thousands of firm favourites.

Mysteriously missing from these recipes was any that came with the warning not to try this out on the kids, although experience tells us that children are inveterate haters of strange food. I've never seen a recipe that said: 'This is a firm favourite with adults, accompanied by a light red wine and the usual fish-fingers and Ribena for the kids.'

Recommending the active life, speaking out against laziness, the writer Bel Mooney made it into Quotes of the Week last week with the opinion that 'there is always pesto to be made or a book to read'. But devotees of cuisine franche would know that the first part of this sentence is just not true. There is not always pesto to be made because, as the fundamental adage has it, 'there is never enough basil'. And that's that. There may be basil, but there is never enough basil for pesto. This is what life is like. There is never enough basil, and there are always too many courgettes.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from cuisine franche stand such attractive and astounding characters as the Roux brothers, whose Cooking for Two (Macmillan, pounds 14.95) I have been reading.

These preposterous old coves are full of encouragement: 'Surprise your beloved with the original presentation of this elegant and delicious dish. He or she will be amazed by your talent in producing this classy breakfast.'

I should say so. The elegant and classy breakfast involves drawing a perfect oval with a soft pencil on the long side of a raw egg, cutting it out with a very sharp serrated knife, designing a crouton which will act as a stand for this eggshell, or rather four croutons for four of these eggshells, frying the croutons in clarified butter, making a sort of doll's house-sized ratatouille and some scrambled eggs, fitting a portion each of the ratatouille and scrambled eggs back into the shells without breaking them, and then decorating the result with a sprig of chervil.

Estimated preparation and cooking time? A mere 51 minutes before your beloved is due to appear at the breakfast table. But wait] A note at the front of the book sneakily admits that preparation time does not include such things as the chopping of the vegetables, let alone the gentle slicing of the egg-shell along the perfectly drawn soft pencil line. To be on the safe side, I'd suggest laying in a dozen eggs (to allow for breakages) and expect to slip out of bed a good three hours before your beloved.

Why do I buy these books? I buy them because they catch me at Waitrose just when I am most dissatisfied with what I usually cook (as opposed to what I 'usually' cook) and I think this book might reform me or refresh my style.

And what do I find in these books when I get home? I find this beatific vision of the Roux brothers, and their habit of going, in turns, to see their aged mother in the Vendee, and how she always brings them coffee in bed, and how 'we each like to start the day walking hand-in-hand with her to market' where they inspect the new baby vegetables, the quails, the skewers of frogs' legs, and how Mother never fails to remark that 'there's nothing to beat freshly-bought food which has not been kept in the fridge'.

So what I've bought at Waitrose is the same old corny fantasy about not shopping at Waitrose, plus a new fantasy about cooking for an aged French mother who always, always approves wholeheartedly of what I do with the raw materials, as she chills my sparkling cider (which I forgot to look for in Waitrose) to exactly the right temperature.

And this new version of the French fantasy can take its place on my shelves alongside all the other versions I have flicked through, including the most surprising of all - the misleadingly titled Simple French Food by Richard Olney.

Mr Olney, the most exacting of all cookery writers in the peasant style, describes the morning breaks (charcuterie, cheese, red wine) he enjoys with the working-class men who have been employed at his Provencal house - masons, carpenters, truck-drivers, plumbers, blacksmiths and such like .

And these men invariably get talking about the food they remember their grandmothers making - traditional regional dishes, things like mutton tripe, which their wives no longer cook. And with astonishing regularity, Mr Olney tells us, these horny-handed sons of toil ask Mr Olney to write down the recipes so that they can pass them on to their wives.

The wives, of course, are not always best pleased, as Mr Olney admits freely. Perhaps they don't like an American telling them about their own cuisine. Or perhaps, belonging to the real world as constituted outside the charmed folkloric circle of men, the wives have other things to do than think, dream, reminisce about cookery.

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