A surprising find

My grandfather was an exceptional cook. He was also a passionate fisherman and a keen shot, which went hand in hand with his skill in the kitchen. He almost exclusively cooked things he had grown, shot, caught or found. He was absolutely adored by his grandchildren because he was hilariously funny and incredibly mischievous and he lived a life that fascinated us all. His bootroom walls were lined with glamorous and exotic photographs of beautiful, empty beaches in Mexico, skiing in Grindelwald in the 1930s, stalking in Scotland, fishing in Ireland and motor racing in Monte Carlo.

While we thought his life was mesmerizingly exciting, it was also fabulously frugal – a strange and, as far as his sniggering grandchildren were concerned, a highly amusing combination.

He would think nothing of buying a couple of lobsters for a recipe but he would insist that we ate the almost-rancid butter with our toast for breakfast because he wasn’t going to throw it away. He would make a batch of cheese straws because he had found an old block of cheese in his larder that to him needed eating but to us looked like a serious health hazard.  The cheese straws would then appear at the end of dinner to be consumed alongside an exceptional bottle of vintage port.

He would often invite us to stay with him individually when he would spoil us each in turn with delicious food.  Dinner would always comprise a minimum of three courses – something along the lines of home-smoked salmon or homemade gravad lax followed by mouth-watering seasonal game, something made with fruit from his garden for pudding and then a savoury to finish, such as cheese soufflé or Scotch woodcock. We were always intrigued by the bottles of wine that would be brought out of the cellar and ceremoniously left to warm up on the back of the Aga.  They were always thick with dust, rotting labels barely legible, and as children we put them into the same category as the blocks of moldy cheese frequenting the larder. As we grew up, we discovered that these magnificent bottles of vintage Chateau Branaire-Ducru and Lafite Rothschild were something considerably more noteworthy.

When my grandfather died two and a half years ago, my father asked each of us if there was anything of his that we would like to keep for ourselves as a special memory of him. I chose a beautiful old spice rack from his kitchen, which is now groaning under the weight of dozens of spice jars in my own kitchen – and his recipe books, one of which I just couldn’t resist writing about here.

It is actually a box of recipes that he must have collected from Harper’s Bazaar during the early 1960s. The box is full to bursting with hundreds of colourful recipe cards – it’s like a mini culinary museum and an intriguing insight into food of the time. There are some real finds in there, which I fully intend to try out and others that I can say with absolute certainty I will never be cooking.  It is very surprising how many of the cards include really quite complicated techniques and unexpectedly diverse ingredients. (The first instruction in a recipe for Canard à la Mode is ‘Blanch a pig’s trotter and a calf’s foot.’) Despite our relatively recent fascination with cookery programmes, recipe books and celebrity chefs, these recipe cards from the 1960s assume a far greater knowledge of cooking than one would expect nowadays. There are numerous recipes that don’t include quantities at all, presumably leaving that up to the cook.  There is one recipe that includes a demi-glace as an ingredient with no further instruction.  I am certain there are many chefs who would struggle to make a demi-glace without referring to his notes. Another instruction that caught my attention was ‘Sautez the potatoes’.  I have never seen a recipe in English before where this common culinary term has appeared with the correct French conjugation!

Having said that, I found one recipe simply entitled ‘Caviar & Smoked Salmon’.  Ingredients – caviar & smoked salmon.  It is not hard to imagine the method. A great number of the recipes have a ‘What to Drink’ section at the bottom where an appropriate accompanying drink is suggested.  They range from ‘your best claret’ to simply ‘cocktails’ to the less auspicious ‘nothing very good, possibly lager’.

There are some recipes that are outrageously decadent – imagine a Waitrose recipe card for ‘Homard Mario’ for instance…


Ingredients for 4 people

  • 2-4 lobsters according to size
  • ½ pint of white truffles
  • ½ pint of white button mushrooms
  • Double measure of brandy
  • 1 oz. butter
  • 1 pint double cream

There is a recipe for Pheasant à la Gunzbourg (a heady concoction of pheasant, snipe, truffles and cream) for which the suggested wine is Château Latour 1920. I did research this one to see what it would cost me to follow it to the letter. A single bottle of this wine fetched US$1,800 at Christie’s in New York in 2010. I think it’ll have to be ‘nothing very good, possibly lager’.

There are others that are funny simply because of the way they’re written.

“Butter some greaseproof paper.  On it put the sea bream…Fold up the paper, cut off the ends and seal them with white of egg, leaving at first a hole in one corner.  Inflate the bag (not very hygienic) and seal the hole up.”

“Now add dry red wine (one of the rougher Italian ones)”

I haven’t even scratched the surface yet – and I wonder how many my grandfather cooked – quite a few judging by the floury fingerprints and spots of oil on some of the cards. If I had more time, I’d love to do a Julie & Julia and cook the lot. Donations for the Chateau Latour 1920 gratefully received.

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