In today’s food obsessed culture, when new cookbooks hit the shelves faster than we can whip up dinner, claiming any one cookbook is the greatest ever is audacious to say the least. That such an accolade should be awarded to a book written by a Frenchman who died in 1955, is likely to come as a surprise to many of today’s foodies. Little known in this country, Fernand Point is considered to be the father of modern French cuisine, and his cookbook, Ma Gastronomie, is regarded by many famous chefs as a gastronomic bible.
No less an eminence in the field of gastronomy than Thomas Keller (of the celebrated Napa Valley restaurant “The French Laundry” and New York’s “Per Se”) says of him “I believe Fernand Point is one of the last true gourmands of the 20th century. His ruminations are extraordinary and thought-provoking. He has been an inspiration for legions of chefs.” Not only that, but every new hire at Keller’s famed restaurants is required to read Point’s book as a condition of employment.
Point’s restaurant, “La Pyramide” in Vienne, south of Lyon, was awarded three Michelin stars and served as the training ground for a generation of French chefs, including Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Georges Perrier, Louis Outhier and the Troisgros brothers. The man himself was the epitome of a gourmand, being considerably overweight, a devotee of butter and cream and so fond of champagne that he’s reputed to have responded to a doctor’s diagnosis of water on the knee with the declaration that it couldn’t be because he drank only champagne.
Ma Gastronomie, first published in France in 1969, is described as part cookbook, part autobiography. It has established itself as a culinary classic as much by virtue of its author’s “bon mots” and priceless aphorisms on food, as for its actual recipes.
I first discovered some of these in Gay Bilson’s book Plenty, referred to in Let Them Eat Cake Part 1. She devotes a chapter to Point and lists his 50 “rules” for cooking, as quoted in his book, all of which are not only relevant to today, but should be framed and hung in every kitchen, domestic or professional.
Here’s a sample:
A fine meal has the harmony of a symphony and is as finely constructed as a Romanesque church
A cook who thinks every action makes him a great chef is like a man who repaints his garden gate and thinks he is an artist
Having been granted expensive ingredients, it is our duty to prepare them properly and serve them with ceremony
It is a chef’s duty to pass on all he has learned through his own practice to the next generation.
Goodwill is no substitute for training and competence in the running of a restaurant.
Suffer with equanimity those who turn up their nose at your food.
Butter is the foundation, the centre, the heart of my cooking.
The first time I dine at a restaurant, I always shake hands with the chef before I order. I know that if he is thin I will eat badly. If he is not only thin but unhappy, I flee.
One of Fernand Point’s popular recipes is Potato Gratin (or Gratin Dauphinois), and recently I decided to give it a try. With the greatest cookbook in the world as my guide, how could I go wrong I figured. Suffice to say, I could and did. The brilliance of my photographic skills are such that the end result looks deceptively delicious. Seriously, this dish did look and smell divine.
It was only in the slicing into it, and ultimately the tasting that the truth was revealed. Sadly, my gratin had “split” – a term which means, for the uninitiated, separated or turned into scrambled eggs. As well, in accordance with something I read somewhere, I chose to use Kipfler potatoes (yellow, waxy and bearing a resemblance to small rodents). I later discovered such a dish would be far better served (pun intended) by using floury potatoes. The Kipflers looked good. Sliced as thinly as humanly possible the end result was textbook perfect in appearance.
Previous experience with similar potato treatments encouraged me to expect tender, delicate slivers of potato resplendent in a rich, creamy and subtly garlic flavoured sauce. Instead, I got potatoes al dente forte (a newly invented culinary term that means strongly chewy) suspended in gluggy scrambled eggs that reeked of garlic. Fernand would have wept into his champers. Oh well. It wasn’t his fault. Although he advocated the inclusion of eggs (I normally wouldn’t) and the exclusion of cheese (I normally would big time), I take responsibility for choosing the wrong kind of spuds, undercooking them at too hot a temperature (is that possible?) and going overboard on the garlic. Plus it was a bad hair day in the kitchen. That was the weekend from memory I whipped up a batch of peanut cookies that came out like stones.
In case you’d care to replicate my experiment with Potato Gratin, below is the recipe according to Fernand Point. I wish you better luck than me. If you do give it a go, please let me know how it turns out.
- 1 clove
- FInely chopped garlic
- 1.2 kilograms thinly sliced potatoes
- 2 large eggs
- ¾ cup whole milk
- 2-3 tablespoons heavy cream or creme fraiche
- Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- Salt and ground white pepper to taste
- 3½ tablespoons butter
- Preheat oven to 180 degrees C
- Rub the sides of a large ovenproof dish with the garlic clove and butter liberally
- Lay thin layers of potatoes in the dish
- In a separate bowl combine the eggs, milk, cream, grated nutmeg, salt and pepper and whisk
- Spread a thick coating of this mixture over the potatoes in the dish, adding some knobs of butter
- Bake for around 45 minutes or until the potatoes are slightly brown
- Open the oven door and let the dish set for a few minutes before removing
- Serve very hot
by Anne Green