"Books are so much more than simply a collection of words. They are glimpses into an epoch and the author's soul."
François de Melogue/Simple French Cooking
My first recipe posts are a constantly evolving thing. Originally I meant to look at and expand upon the first recipe in a book in my collection. I am working my way methodically through them all and today it's the turn of this book and the chef Roger Vergé - a groundbreaking chef who died in 2015 at the age of 85. This book - his first - was written in 1978, and the English version was published the following year.
My other intention of the first recipe, writer's block breaking device, was to see whether one is at all influenced by the first recipe when you buy a book. Why that particular recipe has been chosen I guess.
Inevitably, however, it has transpired that the first recipes are often very similar, as the majority of cookbooks are still generally arranged in the same way - beginning either with appetisers, soups or basics. And this one is no exception to that rule - well it is from an era when more adventurous ways of arranging cookbooks were yet to come. And so, along the way, although I have tried very hard to stick to that first recipe as the main event, as it were of the post, I think I have begun to stray a bit into other questions, insights, call them what you will, that arise from the book - and sometimes from the recipe itself.
Roger Vergé was a Michelin three star chef, who ran his restaurant Le Moulin de Mougins in the south of France for many, many years, before retiring in 2003. Apart from the wonderful food that he served there, he is most famous for being one of the founding members of the Nouvelle Cuisine movement - a lighter kind of cooking that focussed on seasonality. Vergé called his style of cooking, Cuisine Heureuse, a concept he describes as:
"the antithesis of cooking to impress - rich and pretentious. It is a light-hearted, healthy and natural way of cooking which combines the products of the earth like a bouquet of wild flowers from the meadows." Roger Vergé
or as Daniela Galarza of Eater says:
"essentially Mediterranean fare enhanced with vegetable essences and fruit reductions"
As we all know now Nouvelle Cuisine came to be ridiculed by satirists, probably because enthusiastic followers, perhaps missed the point and thought that it was all about less is more. Vergé himself deplored this trend:
“It is a joke. It is nothing serious. Now it looks Japanese: large dishes, small portions, no taste, but very expensive.”
Yes, Japanese - that's sort of my idea of Japanese food. Not that I am at all an expert on Japanese food.
Interestingly the French title of this book is Ma Cuisine du Soleil - the British publishers have left out the 'My' part of the title, which is sad, because his Foreword is a very personal introduction to his philosophy. The Americans missed the point altogether and called it Cuisine of the South of France. Now how boring is that? Roger Vergé simply becomes an author. There is nothing distinctive about it - just yet another book about Provençal food. With the introduction of 'ma' or 'my' into the title the book becomes an independent, individual thing and the introduction of the word 'soleil' - 'sun' is joyful. Somebody, in the many tributes I have now read, described him as the happiest person he had ever met. So why didn't he call it La Cuisine Heureuse?
Apart from his individual style of cooking - fundamentally Provençal but influenced also by the time he spent in North Africa - Vergé was also unique in his desire to share what he knew with ordinary people. He had a cooking school attached to his restaurant - which, admittedly, would not have been for 'ordinary' people as I'm sure it would have been pretty expensive, but he was also:
"one of few chefs of that era who saw that sharing his skill set would benefit the cooking world as a whole. Many French chefs of the day were famously reluctant to divulge recipes or techniques." Daniela Galarza/Eater
So he wrote books that shared his recipes, and indeed he makes that clear in his introduction:
"The more knowledge we share, the more the cuisine is enriched; we succeed if we make what we love popular." Roger Vergé
That after all, is how we get new produce and ingredients on the supermarket shelves. The celebrity chefs of today have definitely played their part in that evolution.
So what about that first recipe? Well people I"m ignoring the first one - Chilled artichoke soup - simply because I don't like artichokes. I'm being personal here. So I am passing to the next two.
The next one is Little pots of chervil cream, and let me say right away that this is not it. This is a creamed chervil soup from chef Thomas Sixt, but I can imagine that Vergé's soup probably looked a bit like this - without the fancy thing on the side.
Vergé's recipe is so interestingly different, in that it begins with making an infusion of four bunches of chervil. First you plunge the stalks into boiling salted water and boil for ten minutes, then you strain the liquid into a jar into which you have put the leaves - pressing down on the actual chervil to get as much 'essence' as you can from it, and leave to infuse for 10 hours. The next day, strain and press again. You make the soup by pouring the heated liquid over an egg yolk and cream mixture, Cook below boiling for a little and chill. Add chervil to each bowl before serving. Very, very simple really - if you have a jar big enough and you can get chervil. If indeed you could get chervil. Why oh why can't we get chervil here? Surely it's easy to grow and produce. I first met it in France and was entranced. So pretty and with such a distinctive aniseed taste. Yes it's a bit precious, but I bet it tastes good. And he concludes the recipe with this very enticing quote: "This Chervil Cream has all the delicacy and fresh aroma of a beautiful Provençal morning." Now doesn't that tempt you to have a go?
The second soup is rather more achievable I think - Curried fresh pea soup - it's a bit like a liquid petits pots français dish with the interesting additions of that curry powder, and a chicken stock cube of all things. Decorated with croutons.
His recipes are very clear - very rarely are there pictures, but there are those occasional personal notes, and the method part - which might look long - is long because he explains everything - like - as in the pea soup recipe: "Don't cover the pan, whatever you do, because the vegetables must remain very green."
In his Introduction he has this to say about recipes in general - and here he shows other ways in which he has influenced modern recipe writing:
"A recipe is rather like a piece of music. Although the notes may be read and reproduced faithfully the result can still be crude, mechanical or just uninteresting. ... One never makes a recipe in precisely the same way for two days running ... A recipe is not meant to be followed exactly - it is a canvas on which you embroider, Improvise and invent. Add the zest of this, a drop or two of that, a tiny pinch of the other. Let yourself be led by your palate and your tongue, your eyes and your heart. In other words be guided by your love of food, and then you will be able to cook."
A fine example of this is this Tian Provençal - a new and fresh way of making ratatouille then, that you might see every now and then in a recipe source near you. He created this, it was fiddled with by chef Eric Ripert, and then this version was adapted by Annie Falk on her website Creating Occasions to Remember. In her introduction she recounts how her children liked it so much that they too have fiddled with it producing their own versions. Roger Verger would have been proud.
Annie Falk admits, that it does require a certain amount of skill:
"The challenge—slicing the vegetables quite thin, by hand, so that they were all precisely the same size, and arranging them in careful layers, over sweet, tender caramelized onions. Then, drenching the summer vegetables in an aromatic, fruity olive oil and covering them in fragrant garlic and Herbes de Provence—a method that insures the perfect melding of the earthy zucchini, sun-sweetened tomatoes, and summer-ripened aubergine—the great achievement of a well-made tian"
However, it's surely not that difficult - I have seen versions in the supermarket magazines.
I'm also offering another recipe Olive Tart Mouginoise from the website Simple French Cooking. There is no picture and I cannot find any equivalent - even nearly equivalent version to it. The pastry is an olive oil dough flavoured with herbes de Provence and the filling is simply onions, olives, and silver beet, flavoured with nutmeg, garlic and thyme and held together by eggs and cream. Every other version I saw included some form of cheese. This is purer than that. Next time I have olive lovers visiting I may have a go.
Roger Vergé was an original. He was one of the first to introduce fruit into savoury dishes in French cuisine - one example being the rather grand sounding Hot oysters on the half shell with orange sections and orange butter - apparently one of his signature dishes. His restaurant was haute cuisine - the few photographs in the book show fairly fancy presentations like this Nage of freshwater crayfish tails with beurre blanc. Indeed, in contrast to the usual situation of a picture stimulating a desire to try the recipe, pictures like this tend to put me off. It's a fine example, in fact, of that quote at the top of the page, of books being a glimpse into an epoch.
And an artist's soul. You have to read the Introduction to get the glimpse of the artist's soul, but one thing is very clear if you do - that this artist did indeed have a soul:
"Selecting quality vegetables is only a small aspect of eating. A great meal is so much more, it is an emotion."
My title mentions two men. The second is the writer of the Simple French Cooking website - one François de Melogue - a French chef living in America, who, I think, has now given up cooking professionally. In his piece on Roger Vergé he mentioned that he had just moved house which meant moving thousands, literally thousands of cookbooks, and this had prompted him to dip into some of them - hence his piece, which was eminently readable and quote worthy. I have added his website to my list of websites to investigate sometime. In the meantime, I close with further words from him. This time, a particularly relevant one for my First recipe process of trawling through my much smaller library and revisiting 'disremembered books'. And, of course, it doesn't just apply to cookbooks.
"The benefit is coming across books I had forgotten we owned. Maybe forgotten is the wrong choice of words, what I really mean is disremembered." François de Melogue/Simple French Cooking