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8 best French cookbooks for a taste of the classic cuisine

Recreate the meals that remind you of holidays or brush up on the classics with these culinary delights

Stacey Smith
Monday 15 February 2021 16:45
<p>Get inspired with these tomes from Michel Roux Jr to Rick Stein</p>

Get inspired with these tomes from Michel Roux Jr to Rick Stein

French food has long held an allure. From the fussy haute cuisine of the 17th century, through to more rustic, local dishes, it was once revered worldwide as the pinnacle of sophistication.

We miss the good ol’ days where you could jump on the Eurostar and be in Paris for lunch, but until covid restrictions ease, we reckon it’s time to take matters into your own hands with one of these tried and tested French cookbooks.

So much more than wine and cheese, French cuisine is influenced by the surrounding cultures of Spain and Italy, with dishes varying massively from one region to another.

You’re likely to find seafood dishes in the seafront location of Normandy, pretty patisseries in Paris, crepes in Brittany, and sun-kissed bowls of bouillabaisse on the Mediterranean coast of Provence. 

Read more: Restaurant cookbooks for delicious lockdown recipes, from Dishoom to Leon

Typically, French cuisine has had quite a meaty reputation thanks to the likes of rabbit stew, entrecôte and duck, however, some of these newer titles aim to turn that notion on its head with quick, healthy midweek meals and simplified versions of old classics.

However, there’s still plenty of traditional techniques and decadence if that’s what you’re looking for, with restaurant-worthy cooking that will take up your whole weekend if you’re feeling creative.

When putting our cookbooks to the test, we were looking for wonderfully written recipes that were easy to follow and a joy to read. We favour beautiful photography and easy to obtain ingredients, with a good mix of every day to inspirational dishes.

So whether you want to recreate the meals that remind you of happy holidays or fancy brushing up on the classics, these cookbooks will give you a much-needed dose of inspiration…

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent. 

‘Rick Stein’s Secret France' by Rick Stein, published by Ebury Publishing

If you’ve enjoyed Rick Stein’s TV show of the same name, this accompanying book will allow you to recreate your favourite dishes. His travels begin in the fishing port of Dieppe in Normandy, before ending in Cassis in the south, and along the way he recreates some of the region’s most loved dishes. From the perfect croque monsieur to buckwheat pancakes with mushroom and eggs, we found most of the ingredients listed easy to obtain, and Rick’s writing style a joy to follow.

More substantial mains include seafood gratin with caramelised apple, rabbit stew with Dijon mustard and the veggie-friendly confit tomato and aubergine tarte tartine. There’s also a strong dessert section packed with tarts and souffles.

‘Christophe Pelé, Le Clarence: The Cookbook' (The glass and the plate) by Christophe Pelé and Chihiro Masui, published by GLENAT

Without doubt, dining at two-Michelin starred Le Clarence was one of the most memorable meals of our life. This coffee table-style book features 70 recipes from executive chef Christophe Pele, along with a series of interviews. It’s every bit as opulent as the stunning private mansion in which we dined, and even if you don’t attempt a single dish, it’s a dream to read. 

It begins with a recipe for the restaurant’s signature aged comte cheese gougeres (which as we recall, were so good we’d sell our grandmother to experience again), with chapters on milk, sea, veg and raw among others. For those with a sweet tooth, it closes with the decadent cocoa sorbet, with cocoa crumble and chocolate shavings. This stunning book is our only hope of recreating that once in a lifetime experience again. Wish us luck…

‘Provence the Cookbook Recipes from the French Mediterranean' by Caroline Craig, published by Interlink Books

Provencal cuisine is designed to be shared in a leisurely way and this book had a lovely way of making us feel as though we were enjoying a couple of weeks in the Mediterranean. Caroline shares her love for olive oil, garlic, herbs, olives, anchovies, wine and bread, with chapters neatly split by season. 

There are lots of chic salads, including white asparagus with vinaigrette, simple tasty mains such as garlic roast chicken and pretty date and orange blossom madeleines. The whole book invokes cheerful mealtimes, eating alfresco under the late afternoon sun. We can see ourselves making the courgette rigatoni on repeat this summer.

‘Sardine: Simple seasonal Provencal cooking' by Alex Jackson, published by Pavilion Books

Taking influence from Italy as well as North Africa, Provençal French cooking is a real melting pot of flavours. Alex Jackson’s restaurant (also called Sardine) was sadly unable to survive the financial impact of covid, however, this beautiful book shares the same simple, rustic ethos. We love how Alex finishes each seasonal chapter with a “Grande Bouffe” set menu, bringing all the wonderful recipes together in a feast, often centred around sharing-style joints of meat. Highlights include roast hake with samphire and tomato salad, decadent bowls of sunshine-orange bouillabaisse and the autumnal salt-baked guinea fowl.

‘The French Menu Cookbook The Food and Wine of France – Season by Delicious Season – In Beautifully Composed Menus for American Dining and Entertaining' by an American Living in Paris and Provence by Richard Olney, published by Harper Collins

When it comes to vintage French cookbooks, Richard Olney reigns supreme. This book was once voted “the best cookbook ever” by The Observer Food Monthly awards and despite first being released in 1970, still has a legion of fans today. Again, the 150 recipes centres on the flavours of Provence, and despite feeling like a relatively modern way of cooking, chapters are split by season. You’ll also find 32 menus, bringing the dishes together for various occasions – from festive meals to laidback lunches. Expect simple dishes such as scrambled eggs with truffles, crepes a la normande (with apple and brandy) and lamb stew.

‘Dinner in French: My Recipes by Way of France' by Melissa Clark. Published by Bantam USA

A favourite of food writer Diana Henry’s, this book has been written for an American audience, with measurements in cups and ounces. However, if you can overlook that, this relatively new release is a real delight. Beautiful photography is dispersed throughout, with modern takes on old classics including endive, ham and walnut salad, simple chicken paillard and the super cosy poule au pot pie.

‘The French Revolution: 140 Classic Recipes made Fresh & Simple’ by Michel Roux Jr, published by Seven Dials

Sadly, French chef and restaurateur Albert Roux died earlier this year, aged 85. Thankfully his son Michel Roux Jr., chef at two Michelin star La Gavroche, continues in his legacy. In this book, he cleverly replaces the rich, creamy sauces synonymous with classic French cooking (think hollandaise), with lighter alternatives. Although it paves the way for a more modern, French-style of cooking suitable for every day, it’s far from a diet book. There’s still plenty of decadence by way of duck confit pie and simple chocolate mousse.

‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Vol. 1' by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck, published by Penguin Books

Another French classic that will go down in history, this title was first published back in 1961 and has been an inspiration to many. There are more than 100 recipes, but we love the “How to…” chapters covering various ingredients and techniques from “How to use a knife” to “How to prepare fresh asparagus”. This pretty reprint is a trophy title to collect, whether you cook from it or not.

The verdict: French cookbooks

We’ve awarded our best buy to Rick Stein's Secret France. Not only does it cover a delicious range of local dishes from across the country, but the recipes felt very relevant to how we cook today. Ingredients were easy to find or substitute, the photography was a delight, and we loved following his cheerful instructions. 

After the passing of the legendary French chef Albert Roux, we look back at his best cookbooks to add to your culinary collection

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