Books of the Year: Cora Millet-Robinet

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Christopher Hirst selects his favourite cook books of 2017

 4. The French Country Housewife by Cora Millet-Robinet, translated by Tom Jaine

This year’s academic laurels go to Tom Jaine’s splendidly comprehensible translation of The French Country Housewife by Cora Millet-Robinet (Prospect, £32), first published in 1845 though Jaine has translated a revision of 1859. Obviously a labour of love for Jaine, once editor of the Good Food Guide and more recently food book publisher and editor of the Oxford Companion to Food, this 710-page edition introduces the English to a work that, according to Elizabeth David, ‘may well have had some influence on our own Mrs Beeton’. Like Beeton’s Household Management, the French Country Housewife covers much more than food. In fact, we doesn’t get to comestibles for 190 pages. Don’t be put off. The prefatory matter contains much entertainment. Millet-Robinet emerges as even more of a micro manager than her English counterpart. For example, she instructs her reader (we may envisage a newly married, socially ambitious, madame somewhere in the depths of la France profonde) about the contents of her library. Apparently, the English section should include Milton’s Paradis Perdu and Dicken’s La Petite Dorrit. Touching on the delicate matter of relations with servants, Millet-Robinet is reminiscent of Bertie Wooster’s fearsome Aunt Agatha ticking off Bertram for over-familiarity with Jeeves: ‘You must never talk of private matters in front of servants… they often judge and interpret things quite misguidedly, and you’ll be lucky if they don’t spread their distorted perspective abroad.’ When we get to the meat of the book, Millet-Robinet proves to be fashionably au courant in her advocacy of nose-to-tail eating. She proposes calf’s lung a la poulette, calf’s mesentery (a bit of the cow still banned under BSE regulations) with tomato sauce while ‘A calf’s head… elegantly served is a fine thing.’ She writes that larks with lardons ‘makes very good fare’, a somewhat different approach to the bird than Percy Bysshe Shelley (‘Hail to thee blithe spirit’), born six years before her. Many dishes remain highly practical. I fully concur with her view that jam omelette is ‘an excellent dessert’. She’s also right in saying, ’it is essential that rillettes are really fatty’. I plan to try her hors d’oeuvre of hard-boiled egg with salted anchovy, also Brillat-Savarin’s egg-enhanced fondue. Though this is a work primarily for francophiles, many others will find it intriguing and often appetising.