Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Larousse Gastronomique" by Prosper Montagne

When fellow blogger C.B. James (who has an amazing book blog that features his book-eating dog Dakota) asked me to review Larousse Gastronomique as one of his Wednesday Wonders, I instantly got sweaty palms. You see, reviewing my favorite culinary tome of all times could be likened to reviewing the Bible, or War and Peace. How to do it justice? But with a glass of Bordeaux in hand, I pledge to try.

In the spirit of the holidays and gift-giving, this is perfect timing. If you know someone that has a passion for cooking, and equally a passion for literature, look no further for the ultimate gift. Originally written in 1938 in the French language, with 8,500 recipes and over a thousand pages, Larousse is THE world authority on anything remotely related to the culinary arts. It is almost beyond comprehension that this much information could be contained in one book. In 1961, it was translated to English for the first time, which is the edition that I own, and is the picture shown at the left. I found this edition on EBay for less than $20, but trust me that it would be one of the first things I grabbed if my house caught on fire. I received the book with yellowed pages and large splatters on it (wine? sauce? blood?) which even made it more precious to me. Today, Larousse can be found in any superior restaurant and owned by any culinary expert worth his salt.

Larousse would officially be named an encyclopedia/cookbook. To describe it this way, however, is sacriledge. What subject of cooking do you dream of knowing more about? How about agaric fungi, its number of species, where to find them, which are edible, and how to prepare and with which sauce best complements its flavor? Maybe you need to know about alcoholism and all its forms, just to make sure you're OK. A bit of poetry, perhaps, by the French poet Berchoux who prefers to write about gastronomy. And what kind of French reference guide would it be without all things vino? You can take a trip through any of France's divisions and regions, Guyenne, Champagne, Provence, Marche, etc., learn about the culinary specialties of each, as well its wine production. Like eggs? Larousse has over 400 ways to prepare them. You want to butcher your own cow, pig or lamb, or at the very least understand all the cuts? Look no further. If you have any leftover parts, like a pig leg, you will have wonderful advice on how to make good use. Maybe you are a history buff, and would like to better appreciate the evolution of cooking over the ages, from prehistoric times through the present day. Nothing is missed in this little treasure.

One downside of Larousse, if I were pushed to come up with one, would be that it assumes the reader knows something about cooking. Recipes are not laid out in step-by-step detail like you might find in a common cookbook. I also feel that later editions (which you can find anywhere from Barnes and Noble to Williams Sonoma), each one just a little more modern and pristine, loses a little of that shameless passion that you see in the 1961 edition. And to me, that is what cooking is all about.

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