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A guru in retro fancy mode

"This is a book for the discerning host or hostess who takes pride in serving attractive, memorable meals with that extra 'touch of class'.

It's guru week and middle period gurus at that. So it's Beverley Sutherland Smith's turn with this book - the second one of hers that I bought I think - A Taste of Class.

Now I'm a huge fan of Beverley Sutherland Smith and consider her somewhat underrated in comparison to other Australian celebrity cooks such as Stephanie Alexander, Maggie Beer, even Karen Martini. Like Belinda Jefferey she's more of a home cook I think, and I have rarely had a failure with any of her recipes, whether old or relatively modern. However, in this book, at least superficially, she is competing with the likes of Robert Carrier and Fanny Craddock - showy, flamboyant and posh. She is in fancy food mode, complete with little line drawings to show you how to stuff a chicken breast or fold it up in filo pastry. Mind you, at the time I was in full executive wife mode and so, in a way, this was an entirely appropriate book.

It's not a book for the everyday cook, although if you start to look closely at some of the recipes you might find that some of them are actually amazingly simple, even ordinary by today's standards. Take for example this dish of Tagliatelle with sautéed vegetables. Basically it's just pasta - in this case the possibly classier green tagliatelle -with some sautéed eggplant, zucchini and tomato tossed through with cream and cheese. The kind of thing that anyone, and I mean anyone, might concoct for a weeknight dinner. But put it in a silver dish with a cover, serve it with a silver spoon and it looks posh. And maybe it was back then, although actually I think not. The book was published in 1980 and I'm sure that by then we were all cooking such things - without a recipe. I mean you just chop stuff up, mix it with cheese and cream and then mix with your chosen pasta and dinner is on the table. I don't know how many times I would have cooked something similar for my teenage boys when in a hurry and exhausted after a day at work.

Something like this ratatouille pappardelle in this month's Coles Magazine, for example - hardly a posh publication. No silver service here, but to my mind it looks equally delicious, maybe even more so. It's even marginally more fancy in that there are capers in the mix as well - but a bottled pasta sauce, rather than the fresh tomatoes - so they get a bit of advertising money as well. And it's not even really treated like a proper recipe by Coles. They simply show the picture and write the very brief instructions on the same page.

Silver service is old-fashioned is it not? Do they do it anymore? Well I'm sure they do in some posh restaurants and in the homes of the rich and famous. Mind you I do remember one of the most memorable meals of my life - in France - in the town of Cavaillon. I'm not talking Paul Bocuse or any other eminent establishment. We were there on holiday in a nearby village, on holiday with our sons, one son's then girlfriend, now wife, and some family friends. We were there because it was cheap and recommended. Well the food was absolutely superb. Some of the best I have ever eaten and it was served in silver dishes with domed lids.

My younger son kept saying throughout the meal, "how can they do it for the price?". Well now that I think about it maybe the food itself was not so expensive to prepare - I remember cassoulet, and a beautiful tomato soup, but like Beverley's tagliatelle, put it in a silver dish and it looks expensive and fancy. We loved the place so much much we revisited it a few years later with other old friends and it was just as good. We tried again many years later but it was closed that day. And here it is. I believe it's still there, but very probably with different staff. I think it was a family affair with mum and dad in the kitchen and son on the floor, whisking off those silver domes with panache. I suspect the silver domes have gone and I think the picture is of the downstairs area, not upstairs where we dined..

But back to Beverley Sutherland Smith and her posh food. Let me offer another couple of examples to show how times have changed. On the left Moulded seafood which to my eyes at least now looks somewhat ridiculous. On the right, from the Women's Weekly Christmas Cooking with the Weekly - and therefore largely fancy - is Salmon with herb and walnut salsa. In both there is silver, but so much more discreet today, and also a much simpler looking, although not necessarily easier, presentation. But a mould - or a mousse. Whatever happened to the mousse - particularly the savoury ones?

Example number two - canapés from the same two books - the original on the left and the modern on the right. Well it's obvious isn't it and I probably don't need to say any more.

I never cooked like this. Well perhaps I tried. But I never had the silverware and I was more influenced by the Elizabeth David school of cookery and the accompanying Arabia tableware. I still have it and never use it, which is stupid. What will happen to it when I die? I'm sure my children won't be fighting for it. And yet we went to such pains to obtain it - ordering it from overseas I seem to remember - a massive collection for twelve I think. Obviously even then we were planning big dinner parties. And I did 'do' dinner parties for several years. Executive wife ones at which we would mix our friends with some of David's favourite customers. I did silly things like keep a book of who came with who and what I served them. It would be interesting to find the notebook now, but I think it is lost along with other treasures all in the same box - like Robert Carrier's columns in The Observer - or was it The Sunday Times? Stupidly I live in hope that one day it will just turn up.

The aim of guru week is not necessarily anything to do with this blog, it's more an attempt to get myself to cook from an actual recipe in an actual cookbook. So what am I considering? Two with a picture, one without - Bacon and lettuce quiche - which has a slightly different approach to my usual one; Fish with white wine and tarragon sauce - we don't eat enough fish and this is pretty simple; or Chicken breasts with ham and spinach? Then there's Chicken with lemon sauce as well - no picture. Well now that I look at that one I might try that - it was a little bit different.

I guess what this book demonstrates is two-fold. One that we had a different idea of what looked posh back then. There was lots of silver and crystal and French and British crockery with delicate designs around the edge. We liked a bit of faff when we were 'entertaining' properly, which meant that some dishes truly were a bit of a faff. The second thing is that sometimes it's all in the presentation. When you look at the actual dish it's not that hard. No harder than anything by Jamie, Nigel, Ottolenghi or even Adam Liaw or the Coles Magazine.

Style was different back then. This is Fanny Craddock and her husband Johnny who perhaps epitomised the over the top nature of Entertaining with a capital E - as she cooked in her cocktail gear, leading to that delicious lampooning by Richard E. Grant in later years. But you know her food wasn't all that bad. Robert Carrier too was very dapper and also lampooned in that film with Peter Sellers and Goldie Hawn whose title I can't remember. There's a Girl in My Soup? Maybe one day somebody will lampoon Ottolenghi and co and they will also look ridiculous. Nigella and Jamie are probably ripe for a project like that.

But we shouldn't make fun of our heroes and gurus. They made us interested. They taught us to cook - delicious things. For that I, at least, am grateful. Chicken with lemon sauce here I come. But tonight - just soup made with leftovers.

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