Mastering the Art of French Cooking, book cover

Timeless Guide to Traditional French Cuisine

Like Elizabeth David, Julia Child popularised French food across the English speaking world. Many cooks have used Mastering the Art of French Cooking as their bible.

Originally published in 1961 Mastering the Art of French Cooking has been relaunched by Penguin as a paperback and it still deserves a place on any serious cook’s bookshelf. Cookery books have been steadily getting glossier since Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published but few are as authoritative. As a result this book is now more than a book of recipes but is an important reference book for cooks and chefs.

The authors sum up the importance of French cuisine in the dedication: “To La Belle France whose peasants, fisherman, housewives and princes – not to mention her chefs – through generations of inventive and loving concentration have created one of the world’s great arts”.

Traditional French Dishes and Recipes

In most of the English speaking world French cuisine is still the basis of the fine dining experience and Mastering the Art of French Cooking has all the traditional classic dishes. When it was published in 1961 it must have been a revelation to readers in the UK or North America and even today it has many interesting variations on well known dishes, for example peaches as an alternative to orange or cherries with duck. Or staying with the theme, a simple dish of Duck with Turnips ­– a meal in itself.

Classical Techniques and Equipment of French Cuisine

Even with the popularity of food styles from around the world and the consequent development of fusion dishes classic French techniques still form the basis of much fine food. No serious western cook can claim to be a master of the art without understanding French cuisine.

For those in college, or the serious amateur, Mastering the Art of French Cooking will provide a course in the classical skills needed to produce fine food. The techniques are described, illustrated and cover everything from basics of cooking a proper omelette or classic sauces to butchery and more sophisticated techniques. The importance of the right tools is also explained with the proviso that a good cook should be able to produce fine food with even basic equipment.

Simply Illustrated

As already said Mastering the Art of French Cookery is not lavishly illustrated. Simple black and white drawing are used throughout and are invariably sufficient. It leaves cooks to bring their own creativity to bear on the presentation. In any case in the nearly 50 years since this book was published presentation styles and portion sizes have changed considerably. Not showing the final presentation allows Mastering the Art of French Cooking to be genuinely timeless. Like Mrs Beeton’s work there is no reason why this book should not stay in print for another 50 years and beyond.

With its follow up volume this is an essential reference for the serious cook or food lover. Combine it with the Penguin Companion to Food and one would have a comprehensive reference to fine food, at least for Western food styles.

One should leave the last words to Elizabeth David, the doyenne of French food, and her quote used on the cover of Mastering the Art of French Cooking: “The most instructive book on fine French cooking yet written in the English language”. Who would argue with Elizabeth David on such matters?

Mastering the Art of French Cooking ,Volume 1 (originally 1961, this edition 2009, ISBN: 978-0-141-04941-3) by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle is published in paperback by Penguin at £12.99 – a snip.

Books that would be useful companions are:

  • Anything by Elizabeth David especially her Mediterranean Food, French Country Cooking and a recent title: At Elizabeth David's Table

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