No pictures yet today – the USB cable for my camera has gone walkies. You’ll have to make do with the magic of the written word.
My very dear friend Lorna got married on Saturday. (I am still recovering from the stupid decision I made to try to keep up with her new husband’s Irish friends once the drinking began in earnest. Congratulations to Lorna and Stephen, who are currently eating things in bikini and trunks on their honeymoon in Sicily.) Lorna, clearly having got this being a bride thing back to front, gave me a present the week before the wedding.
We were sitting in a café when she handed over the book she’d bought me, and on opening it I proceeded to get so excited that an old gentleman at an adjacent table got up and said how delightful it was to see young people still able to get excited over books. I immediately stopped being delightful and instead became very self-conscious for about ten seconds before going all twittery again, for this is a seriously, seriously fabulous book. André Simon’s Concise Encyclopaedia of Gastronomy is a real treasure trove of esoteric and quirky information for the obsessional foodie. It was started in 1938 by Simon, a champagne dealer, wine writer and all-round bon-viveur, and was planned for release in three sections a year to be lined up attractively on your bookshelves. Sauces, the first section, was published in 1939. With the breakout of the Second World War, paper shortages and conscription at his English publishers slowed the publication of the next eight sections, but by 1946 the work was finished, and a couple of years later a single-volume edition (the one I was chirruping about in the cafe) was published.
André Simon’s exhaustive treatment of what he calls ‘Gaster-the-belly . . . that temperamental furnace . . . the seat of the soul’ is by turns fascinating and hilarious, and remains useful for the modern cook, with its concise recipes, its instructions on handling different ingredients and its exploration of some truly unusual foods. (I am pretty sure that readers in 1945 had never eaten an agouti, much less enjoyed its ‘best part, the grizzled fur’. I certainly haven’t.) We learn that the flesh of the squirrel is seldom eaten in England . . . and we’re given two recipes for a casserole and a pie. We discover that the fat of the Bastard Antelope ‘quickly becomes cold and clogs in the mouth’. Here is a consomme of swifts, there a roast swan. There’s a recipe for The Bishop, a Cambridge University wintertime concoction of oranges and port. There are pages upon pages of short descriptions of cheeses, some now extinct. And, wonder of wonders, a few hundred early cocktail recipes. (I like the sound of the Jack Rose – the juice of half a lime, a teaspoon of grenadine and a jigger of apple-jack, shaken over ice.) There are edible birds I’ve never heard of (the Tufted Pochard? The Godwit?) There’s a recipe for rabbit in brandy which I’m determined to cook. There’s a detailed history of the Bath Oliver biscuit. A garnish for sweetbreads involving truffles cooked whole in Madeira, hollowed and refilled with quenelles of chicken forcemeat and the chopped centres of the truffles. And there’s a thoughtful instruction to make sure that the only aardvark that I allow to pass my lips should be smoked.
It’s worth looking at some second-hand websites for a copy of this magical book. Simon laments that: ‘Gastronomy in England and in the United States of America has a very limited appeal; it certainly has none of the fascination which Nutrition has for a vast number of people. And yet Gastronomy is to Nutrition what health is to sickness. All who enjoy good health, which means, happily, the great majority of the population, could and should enjoy good food and drink, the fuller and happier life which is the gift of Gastronomy for all normal people: that is to say people who are blessed with all their senses and a sufficient measure of common sense to make good use of them.’ I hope he’d find the food landscape in Britain a bit more congenial these days.