Liberté, Egalité, Je Sais Cuisiner
Being an arduous lover of all things gourmet, it’s no wonder I decided to settle in France. How can you not love a country where everything you do seems to revolve around one question: ‘What’s for dinner?’ This was, at first, a revolutionary way of life for me. After all, my fellow countryman the Finn settles his stomach with any given portion as long as it’s large, without giving another thought to his taste buds. The poor things can remain comatose for all of their life span. (The Finn’s taste buds, not the Finn. The Finn is comatose only at winter, but that’s another story.)
Upon my first arrival in France, I remember staring in wonder at the French time-honored institution that is Menu Ouvrier, the working man’s menu. In any given village café, ruddy-complexioned, large-handed men eat a lunch of three or four-courses, gulping it down with a carafe of local red wine. And the menus are good. Wholesome, delicious country cooking, smelly and runny cheeses, crunchy and unctuous desserts and a dainty but strong café express. After my childhood summers spent in the Sancerrois countryside, I had to move back to Finland and then to the USA, but I somehow just knew my stomach would find its way back to the paradise it had once found – the French table.
But after settling permanently in the French countryside, I found myself willing to prove myself worthy of having a French kitchen of my own. And what could have been more helpful to a blundering novice of a Finn that I was than the Frenchman’s culinary bible: Je Sais Cuisiner.
A book of very little charm it is, judging by its cover. I was struck by its lack of the usual French subtle but tasteful design. It’s a thick, lurid yellow slab of a book with an unlikely cover illustration portraying a woman stirring a salad while intensely looking at her cook book as if she indeed needed instruction in performing her meager task. The kitchen in which she stands is a boring, white and brown plywood booth with a – gasp – microwave oven lurking on the counter. I mean, even the name of the book is straight out of my childhood cooking lessons. ‘I know how to cook’. The woman on the cover sure doesn’t look like she does. The layout of the epos is boring beyond a yawn. But do not be fooled by its meek appearance! For the recipes are the stuff France is made of. Pure culinary genius.
In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever have to open another French history book if I have this one in my home library. The history of France is luxuriously laid out on the pages of this apparently tiresome volume. Crème Pompadour: one imagines the King’s lover nibbling away at her tri-colored cream mousse with a subtle coffee flavor. Crème Dubarry: another royal mistress, but this time it’s a surprising recipe of a sumptuous cauliflower soup. There are numerous recipes à la Reine; I am particularly in awe when imagining the taste of Riz à la Reine, a masterpiece of quenelles and cream.
Contrasting with these creamy, queenly, feminine dishes are some testosterone-packed sauces destined to drown steaks or game. Sauce Châteaubriand, a deep, dark, mushroomy sauce fit for a state dinner. Sauce Cardinal, a strangely orange anchovy-and-lobster sauce for a clergyman’s pass-over fish supper. To finish a manly and historic dining experience, our book recommends Sorbet Armagnac.
The French do eat everything that moves, and Je Sais Cuisiner is full of intriguing recipes for abats, the edible offal. There is a variety of recipes for preparing a lamb’s brain or its feet. There is actually something called ‘Hoof salad’, a dish that sounds as delicious as ‘Veal-head doughnuts’ or ‘Chopped head cheese’. The traditional delicacies, tripe and roasted tongue, are not forgotten either, but I pass on to recipes that are more useful in my own kitchen.
The humble egg gets an entire section. Eggs around the world are represented. This is like egg United Nations: Eggs New York, Eggs Milanese and Napolitaine, Turkish and Turban eggs, Russian Tsar eggs, Swedish, Belgian, Italian eggs, Parisian eggs, and even something that is called an omelette Allemande, German omelette. There are other foods with nationalities, many of them. And a very colonial dessert called Négre en Chemise, the negro in a shirt.
I’m fascinated by the multitude of professions that have their own dish; Macaroni Financière, Truite Diplomate, Moules Marinière, Sauce Maître d’Hôtel. And some odd courses like ‘gardener’s tongue’ and ‘baker’s shoulder’. For equality’s sake, ‘Castle owner’s cabbage’ and ‘Poor man’s sauce’ are found side by side, as are Sauce Cardinal and Sauce Diable.
And the French do think of everything, for at the end of this respectable culinary opus there is ample advice for those that suffer of constipation. I am mystified by one piece of advice, though. It states that a person that needs to lighten up his food in order to relieve his constipation needs to make a slight change while whipping up the buttery French classic sauce Béchamel. In the diet version, water in the sauce is to be replaced with milk.
For what it’s worth, I have become a better cook and a better person because of the jewel that is Je Sais Cuisiner. I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wishes to enter, even briefly, the Frenchman’s ésprit. And yes, this fabulous book does contain the original recipe for French Fries. After a long search, I found it under the poetic yet historic title Pommes de Terre Pont-Neuf.Image credits: Artwork by Milja Kaunisto.