French Cooking for Men by Len Deighton
Years ago, while cycling the route of the Tour de France, I allowed myself only one book for the journey: ‘ABC of French Food’, by Len Deighton. At a bistro in the Pyrenees, le patron snatched the book from my hands, examined it, and sarcastically commented: ‘So how long did this writer spend in France. One week?’
Actually, Len Deighton – now 81, best-known as an author of spy thrillers, such as The Ipcress File – had an illustrious career as a cookery writer, started visiting France in 1946, and lived in Provence then the Dordogne. He developed an obsession with French cooking which led to his cartoon-like ‘cookstrips’ appearing in The Observer, which he drew himself (this particular renaissance man had also previously worked as an illiustrator).
This ‘new’ book is therefore an update on an earlier collection of cookstrips and narrative, called Où est le garlic?. Fifty of the best cookstrips are included, together with more detailed explanatory notes. The cookstrips are very clear indeed, easy to follow and foolproof, and explain either cookery techniques, a dish, or a process.
Chapters are devoted to such basic concepts as the different ways that heat can be applied to cook food; French cuts of meat; French and English culinary words; and the various sorts of fats and oils, and when you use them for cooking. This is, of course, basic stuff, which brings us to the book’s title. Why ‘for Men’? Deighton’s response is: ‘The real motive is the hope that the ladies will want to know what I am telling the blokes.’
As a bloke who cooks (sometimes), I find Deighton’s cookstrips reassuringly familiar, reminiscent of assembly instructions, familiar from Airfix kits or Haynes manuals. But best of all, the writing is as terse, suspenseful and as witty as his novels, while at the same time spelling out the essentials without being patronising.
It’s a first stop for the novice French cook in a way that Larousse, Julia Child and countless other worthier tomes will never be.