"Cook dinner with Robert Carrier and you’ll need butter, cream, wine and quite a lot of cognac" Jay Rayner
It's guru week - by which I mean I have the fortnightly target of cooking something from one of my very early cooking gurus. It should actually have been last week, but I forgot about the gurus and just did 'new' instead. So I shall need to do two weeks of gurus to catch up.
This week it's Robert Carrier's turn and I have chosen to dip into his first and possibly greatest masterpiece Great Dishes of the World. I have two slightly different versions of this seminal book - the original in paperback form and the glossy 1982 hardback edition, which has a few more pictures and a few changes. I also have his much later New Great Dishes of the World which is not at all the same. It's sort of Robert Carrier mark 2 - the one who lightened his recipes a little - not quite as much butter, cream and brandy. It also included many recipes from other cooks - fully credited for their contributions. But no it's not the same book - albeit a great one.
Guru chosen, book chosen. Now to decide what to cook. Well this time, rather than go through the whole book (well so I thought) as I did with Elizabeth David's Summer Cooking, I decided to look for something with tomatoes because I currently have a lot of tomatoes - particularly some of those gorgeous big crinkly ones that I picked up from the Queen Vic Market last week.
And here I come to the Index part of this post. I've done indexes as a topic before and I'm pretty sure that I mentioned what a dreadful index the first edition of this book had - simply sections for each chapter with the recipes therein listed in alphabetical order. Which is why I got out my glossier edition because I knew it had a better - more customary index. Or so I thought.
However, when I turned to 'tomatoes' in the index, expecting to see a long list of recipes from which I could pick and choose, all I found was Guacamole; and leek salad; pissaladière; sauce; and stuffed egg and tomato salad out of which the sauce is really the only one that definitely features tomatoes as the main thing. It's only barely better than the original's index which also has the Guacamole but also stuffed Provençal [tomatoes] - which is a rather better example of a recipe that features tomatoes. The Guacamole recipe by the way is simply tomatoes stuffed with guacamole - a Robert Carrier modification/use of guacamole rather than a great dish of the world in itself. There is no picture of course - this one is a modern version. I couldn't find one in which the tomatoes had been peeled before stuffing - a somewhat fussy Robert Carrier touch.
Indexes are important. And for cookbooks you need to index every important ingredient in a recipe as an access point a well as the title itself. Because the title itself is often not very revelatory of what the dish actually is. On the whole they are much better today, but not always. Some of Ottolenghi's for example are not that great.
Surely I thought, there must be recipes in the book that are tomato focussed, so I decided to, initially anyway, trawl through the meat chapters of the book to see what I could find. Yes I did find a few, and I will come to them in a minute, but actually I was surprised at how little tomatoes featured. I knew that Robert Carrier was heavily into French, specifically Provençal and Italian cuisines and, indeed, one of the criticisms, sometimes made of the book is that it is not really about the great dishes of the entire world. It actually has a very narrow focus on France and Italy with a bit of American and Moroccan. As Jay Rayner says:
"Great dishes of the world? What? All of it? Well, no; not really. There are some startling recipes in there, allegedly representing India and China, which today would cause an international incident."
It was the Provençal thing in particular that I found very surprising. There were several recipes labelled Provençal with nary a touch of tomato. Maybe a spoonful of tomato paste. The only one with the label and the tomatoes was those Provençal stuffed tomatoes. However, they don't appear in the later edition - they are just lumped in with Provençal stuffed vegetables, which I guess is fair enough because it's the same stuffing in both. This is just a photograph I found on the net, that approximates the ones I remember eating in France, and which I have never been able to reproduce satisfactorily. Was it the tomatoes or the filling that I did wrong? Maybe this is the recipe I should try. I could kill two birds with one stone - a guru recipe and a 'never successfully made' recipe at the same time.
Whilst we are not very far from Jay Rayner's comments about recipes that would cause an international incident, let me mention Risotto Provençal. At first I thought that this might be an early version of Delia's wonderful Roasted and sun-dried tomato risotto, which I have talked about before and which I make on a regular basis. But no it's just a basic risotto and by basic I mean really, really basic. There's not even any wine or stock in the risotto, just onion and water. When the risotto is cooked you 'serve with risotto sauce'. Even I, one of Robert Carrier's greatest fans, cringe at this. Heaven knows what the Italians, or even the Niçois would say. So OK the sauce has a bit of saffron and green pepper in it, but it's just tomato sauce. And 'served with' risotto rice - I assume poured over. Dear, dear, dear.
Let's move up the ladder in quality just a tiny bit to Steak alla pizzaiola. Actually we move up more than a tiny bit, because this is actually an 'authentic' Italian recipe, and it's also one of those really, really simple recipes that you often find in Robert Carrier's books, which is amazingly good. Having prepared your steak you top it with the following sauce:
"Sauté one sliced garlic clove in 2 tbsp olive oil until transparent. Add 1 400g can peeled Italian tomatoes and salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste, and cook over a high flame for 15 minutes. Stir in 2 tbsp finely chopped parsley and 1/4 tsp dried oregano. Pour sauce over steak and serve immediately."
Simple and probably really depends on the quality of your steak and how you have cooked your steak. Mind you he's using tinned tomatoes. Surely they should be fresh?
Next up in the simplicity stakes is Spaghetti alla Bersagliera which seems to be a variation of the simple oil and garlic sauce with the addition of chilli and tomato. However, his version is a bit different because he also adds salami to his sauce and provolone cheese and there's no chilli. Probably very nice though. I might try this one.
Next come Paella and Jambalaya for both of which he has an 'authentic' proper version and a quick version. However, I won't be doing either of these, because they both involve prawns which we all know is not on in this household. I think I actually made his quick jambalaya once many years ago, but without the prawns. I may have substituted chicken. Both genuine 'great dishes of the world' though and if I was cooking for a crowd I would have a go. You do need a lot of peopler these dishes, because there are lots of things in it. They are from opposite sides of the world, although you can see how the jambalaya happened. It's a migrant dish.
Moussaka - another 'great dish of the world' but David's not that keen on eggplant so we'll give that one a miss. Ratatouille - well we haven't had it for a while, so a maybe perhaps. I try to make it at least once in a year and I'm sure his recipe is pretty authentic. But I don't have any eggplants, so maybe not this week.
Meatballs and spaghetti - boring. It is such a massive family favourite that we have it all the time. There are several Robert Carrier dishes that are true family favourites and this is perhaps the greatest.
So now I am down to two dishes, neither of which I have made. Well I may have made the first one - Chicken en cocotte - which is basically just a chicken casserole in red wine and tomatoes. I very probably made it way back when I was learning to cook. I don't think I would have been brave enough back then to make the other one - Moroccan Kefta in tomato sauce. Which is odd because it's really the same as our Italian meatballs. Just different spices and serve with rice or couscous instead of spaghetti. And David does love lamb. Rolling all those meatballs is a bit of a pain though.
So ultimately there were at least a dozen recipes to choose from and all of them enticing in different ways. And none of them in the index in any kind of relationship with tomatoes. You can't even tell from the recipe titles which did indeed have tomatoes as a main ingredient. I have to wonder though whether he was really a fan of tomatoes or not, because of their absence in so many places where you would have thought they would be.
But he did love butter:
"The late Robert Carrier loved butter. He loved butter the way small children love puppies." Jay Rayner
Lots of those dishes included butter - even the Moroccan kefta and you would have thought the Moroccans were not big into butter.
Cream and brandy too - they appear often and in quantity. And I have perhaps inherited his inclination to add a bit of cream to things, although in recent years, particularly with pasta, I have learnt to replace the cream with pasta water.
I love this book though. It has given me so many great things to eat in the past. Some of those recipes are commonplace nowadays - Spaghetti bolognaise, onion soup, and Jay Rayner's favourite Crêpes Suzette, but they are not to be mocked.
"One of the worst vices of food fashion is to look to the past and sneer jovially at our unsophisticated tastes. Look at us, stumbling about in the flour-thickened gravy ponds, like unsteady toddlers. Where’s the class? Where’s the style? Where’s the kimchi and miso?" Jay Rayner
And here's a completely irrelevant aside since we were talking about crêpes. As I was trawling the net for pictures - there must have been robert carrier in the search term - up came this rather nice painting by one Louis-Robert Carrier-Belleuse entitled The Crêpe Maker. I had never heard of this particular painter but he was obviously working at the same time as the Impressionists. Not an Impressionist though I think.
Not at all relevant but a little thing you learn on the way through life.
As to old cookbooks. I went to Doncaster today to pick up a book group book I had ordered, and so couldn't resist checking out cookbooks here and there. But I resisted in spite of one about the food of the Veneto on the Readings bargain table. So when I came across the following quote in The Guardian which was also talking about past masters of the art I felt that like the author perhaps the real treasures are to be found in the op shops these days:
"I'd far rather find an old Ambrose Heath than spend the best part of 20 quid on some vacuous, ghost-written drivel on why 'eating raw' is the next big thing." Tom Parker Bowles
Or maybe the treasures are already on my bookshelves.