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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, October 12th, 2003


The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy: Twenty Years of the Best Food Writing from the Journal Petits Propos Culinaires

by Alan Davidson

A friendly bow to the French

A review by Bee Wilson

Along with kiwi fruits, tiny portions on large plates, fanned-out duck breasts and flourless sauces, the nouvelle cuisine of the early 1980s just adored pink peppercorns. These exciting little berries seemed designed for the new way of cooking. They were — or so the chefs thought who sprinkled them with such abandon — not only decorative and non-fattening, two important aspects of nouvelle cuisine, but also wonderfully new. Black pepper was boring, no matter how big the grinder; bottled green peppercorns were hackneyed. Pink was in.

Few of us who embraced the expensive pink peppercorn — or the red peppercorn as it was known in the United States — had any idea what it was we were eating, assuming that these crunchy dots were simply black peppercorns at a different stage of ripeness. It took an obscure British periodical produced out of a broom cupboard in Chelsea to establish the truth. An article in the curiously named Petits Propos Culinaires by Alexandra Hicks pointed out that, contrary to what everyone thought, pink peppercorns were not at all new: having been used at least since the time of Apicius; not pepper, but the berries from a common shrub, the Shinus terebinthifolius; and not ideal eating matter, since they were closely related to poison ivy and could cause digestive upsets, itchy rashes and vomiting if more were eaten. As a result of this discovery, the US Food and Drug Administration suspended imports of the once-fashionable corns; though they are still widely available in Britain, for those cooks nostalgic for the coulis years.

Hicks's article is the first in a new collection of writings from PPC, an anthology which effectively reminds us of the singular delights of this periodical, which has been published for more than two decades, even though it first began almost by accident. In 1979, the food writer Richard Olney (author of Simple French Food) was vexed when his publisher, Time/Life, told him they would only print recipes which had already appeared elsewhere. This annoyed him because there were certain recipes he was keen to include in his huge Good Cook series — such as a rich aubergine gratin made with ricotta and basil — which had never been published before. Over lunch one day, a group of food minded friends — Elizabeth David, Jill Norman and Alan and Jane Davidson — came to his rescue. Why not create an ad hoc new food journal through which Olney could print recipes, and thus appease Time/Life? The name Petits Propos Culinaires was devised, as Davidson recalls, "to sound modest and to make a friendly little bow to France". Olney smuggled his aubergine recipe into the very first issue, as well as one for crayfish a la bordelaise. But already, as is the way with such things, the journal had surpassed its original brief. Here, too, were articles by Elizabeth David on ice cream, on hay and on the authorship of a seventeenth-century receipt book; by Elizabeth Ortitz on Coriander; by Caroline Cookson on the technology of cooking in Britain before the use of gas; and by Alan Davidson on culinary bibliographies.

The same congenial mixture of enthusiasm and scholarship carried on in subsequent issues, of which The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy gives a good cross-section. PPC has been almost entirely responsible for the creation of the subject of food history in Britain, yet it does not suffer from the deathly jargon of professional historians and sociologists. PPC has always combined a charming amateurishness with a love of truth more ferocious than you will find in any academic journal. There have been long exchanges, for example, on the true origins of summer pudding; on the niceties of eating udder; or on the exact meaning of bois de panama, a name confusingly given to two different things, one an American bark and the other a European root, both of which produce a thick white foam when boiled in water, used in Middle Eastern confectionery. So many pages — all reprinted here — were given over to this bois de panama mystery that more impatient readers might find themselves asking "who cares?", or "what has this got to do with cooking?". But such accuracy does matter. Until PPC's coverage of the subject, it was commonly thought, even by professional sweet-makers, that bois de panama was the same as soapwort, when in fact the latter is even more toxic than pink peppercorns, and can potentially cause muscular paralysis.

With so much food writing now veering towards callow suggestions for aspirational dinner parties that will never happen, it is refreshing to read about the great Norwegian porridge feud of the 1860s; or of food in Chekhov; or of the "curranty doo" cakes of Durham. The preoccupations and personality of PPC were largely shaped by Alan Davidson, author of the marvellous Oxford Companion to Food, who, with his wife Jane, was the editor for most of the journal's history. In an article on Jane Grigson reprinted here, Alan Davidson remarks that however much she knew about a given subject — usually, a great deal — "she never seemed to be talking down to anyone". The same could be said of the Davidsons themselves, whose culinary passions contain not a trace of snobbery. Later this year Alan Davidson will be awarded the Erasmus Prize in Amsterdam for his contributions to food history. Previous winners of the prize, which is given in a different field every year for excellence in European culture, include Charlie Chaplin, Isaiah Berlin, Ernst Gombrich, Henry Moore and Dame Ninette de Valois. The prize is worth 150,000 euros. It seems a fitting honour for Davidson: rare, brilliant and just a little peculiar.

Bee Wilson is a Research Fellow in the History of Ideas at St John's College, Cambridge. She writes about food in the New Statesman.

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