A taste of the past

<strong>Plats du Jour</strong>

Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd <em>Persephone Books, 304pp, £12</

Plats du Jour, a "classic" cookbook first published in 1957, is a collection of French and Italian recipes of "quite humble extraction". Rather than elaborate meals, Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd favoured "a system of cooking by which a variety of dishes was replaced by a single plat du jour accompanied, as a rule, by a green salad, a respectable cheese, a fruit in season, and, wherever possible, by a bottle of wine".

Unlike today's large, glossy cookbooks, Plats is small, with an old-fashioned, closely typed format and a scattering of careful little black and white illustrations. Holding it reminded me of my mother's kitchen, her dog-eared copies of Elizabeth David and the impatience displayed by both my mother and her cookbooks when faced with inexperience. "Chop some courgettes," says David's recipe. I look nervously at the efficient blur that is my mother and venture: "How many courgettes? And chopped how?"

"Oh for goodness sake," she says. "Some courgettes. Chopped. Come on, Kate."

This is the intuitive confidence of someone in whom the cooking instinct is deeply ingrained, after early inculcation and long practice. The recipes are just reminders, ideas, prompts for a skill that already exists. Because of their audience, older cookbooks tend to operate like this. A recipe for the classic cookbook would call for a good dollop of "reminder". Plats du Jour is no exception, and my apprehension is to some extent justified. One recipe begins: "Wash the pig's head, remove the teeth, singe off any bristles attaching to the skin, and scrape the tongue." Even my mother might find that a bit of a challenge.

What recipes such as this are lacking is the second cookbook ingredient: detail. Delia Smith's books have lashings of detail, and very helpful it is, too - though at times overbearing. (Her obsession with using a cloth to protect one's hands from the ravages of beetroot, chillies and slightly warm things, for instance, borders on the hysterical.) While there is, in fact, some useful detail in Plats - for example, there is a section explaining terms such as en daube and à la poêle, and practical and inspiring chapters on cheese and fungi - there is little in the recipes themselves.

There is a third ingredient, however, that Plats has in spades: lifestyle. It is often assumed that aspirational cookbooks were invented by Jamie Oliver, but just as the "reminder" ingredient is not exclusive to older books (consider how Nigel Slater encourages you to do things you're already thinking of: scraping the caramelised bits off the bottom of the pan, wiping your plate with bread and so on), lifestyle is not a newfangled thing. As well as the sweet illustrations of French onion-sellers that are some of the earliest work of the artist David Gentleman, Plats is full of juicy descriptions of the "courtyard in Siena shrouded by oleander pots" or "a trattoria behind the Piazza della Signoria in Florence".

But Plats is worth owning for its historical value alone. In the 1950s, the word "pasta" was still foreign enough to be put in italics, and the book includes this grave advice concerning spaghetti: "Don't try to break up the sticks before cooking, or to cut them afterwards in the thought that their length will embarrass your guests." It is stuffed with such gems, delivered with enthusiasm and opinionated humour. Gray and Boyd tell us that "cumin has a strange flavour that defies analysis. If cumin is distrusted, ground coriander seeds, which have a less exotic flavour, can be used." Though the authors are too kind to say so, you can well imagine their opinion of those timid types who "distrust" cumin.

The book can feel inaccessible - for one thing, old measurements such as gills have not been updated - but if you persevere, the "plat du jour" principle yields some wonderful food. My first efforts, poulet à la savoyarde (chicken braised with ceps and cream) and la garbure, a thick Basque soup, were not half bad. Even my mother was a little impressed.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change