TThe late Robert Carrier loved butter. He loved butter like little children love puppies. At the beginning of his masterpiece, Great dishes of the world, writes: “In my opinion, there is nothing to replace butter in the kitchen.” Then it gives the margarine a fabulous eye. He also likes cream. And brandy. Lots of brandy. His friends point out that Carrier was a restless soul, moving with the times. In later years, they say, he lightened his recipes.
Those lighter recipes are not in Great dishes of the world, a fabulous book that was first published in 1963 and probably sold more copies than any of the other titles in this series. Carrier’s Wikipedia entry, which those same friends say is notoriously unreliable, states that 11 million copies were sold at 70 shillings each. “I don’t know the exact number,” says writer John Tagholm, who produced many of his television series and knew him well. “But it certainly made him a millionaire.” Cook and writer Simon Hopkinson often cooked for him at the Bibendum on Fulham Road in London. As he says, the book is “wonderful and over the top”.
Leafing through my copy, a later edition from 1986, it’s easy to see the appeal. Other postwar cookbooks covered similar classic topics, but lacked exuberance and enthusiasm. The kitchen bible Gastronomic Larousse it is a thick volume of barked orders, interspersed with truly terrible images of brown food fixed on aspic. The great Isabel David sometimes gave the impression that she was sharing the recipes she had gathered under suffering. Carrier, meanwhile, was a shameless entertainer. He introduced a post-war Britain to a table full of possibilities, through dishes that may now seem old but were a revelation at the time: mushrooms à la Grecque, duckling with oranges, rum baba… it’s all here. “Bob was a true Democrat,” says Tagholm. “He wasn’t great or snobbish. I remember Delia Smith saying she was in awe of him. “
Its clear illusion begins with the title. Great dishes of the world? That? All of it? Well, no; not really. There are some amazing recipes there, supposedly representing India and China, which would cause an international incident today. Instead, it should be taken as a wonderful compendium of post-war classics from Europe, with strong nods to Morocco, which he knew well, and his native America. “The strength of the book is in the French and Italian recipes and that reflects that,” says her close friend Liz Glaze, who launched her successful part-job for Marshall Cavendish in the 1980s. “She had made her way through Italy with the US Army during the war. “
Carrier was born into a wealthy New York State family. After the Italian campaign, he lived briefly in Paris before moving, in the late 1940s, to Saint-Tropez. There, he was taken under the matriarch’s wing of a bistro called Chez Fifine. “Bob led a pretty dissolute life,” says Tagholm, “and Madame Fifine said he really should get down to business.” Carrier would later say that she learned the basics of cooking under his tutelage. He moved to London in 1953 and established himself as a public relations man, inventing a new field of generic public relations for product categories. He rallied rival manufacturers to fund campaigns for products like flax or cornmeal (a product he continued to promote through his writing).
In the midst of bustling and vibrant London, he became famous for his dinners. In one of them, the editor of harper’s bazaar he was a guest. She was so impressed that she practically hired him on the spot as her food writer. A season in fashion followed, before becoming one of the first hires of the newly launched sunday time color supplement. His recipes there would form the backbone of Great dishes of the world. “I still do his pissaladière,” says Glaze. “And his recipe for daube is great too.”
It’s a common trope these days to dismiss the brightest of cookbooks as mere food pornography. But flipping through the cream-stained pages of this book, I cannot deny certain concerns; the desire to be a part of this butter-drenched world. One of the worst vices in food fashion is looking back and jovially mocking our unsophisticated tastes. Look at us, stumbling in the flour-thickened gravy ponds, like unsteady little children. Where is the class? Where is the style? Where is the kimchi and miso?
We dismiss that past too easily. So I decided to go the old-school Carrier decidedly starting with their soupe à l’oignon recipe. I chop 24 small white onions and then cook them slowly in the required amount of butter. Carrier suggests a little sugar that I put aside. I don’t like my onion soup too sweet. At this distance, a small accommodation seems reasonable. Follow the beef broth and a good simmer. Carrier tells me to add 90 ml of cognac. I object again and go for a third of that. It’s too early for me. I float a toasted cheese crouton on top, dip it into my spoon, and it instantly reminds me why classics get like this. It’s a deep, sensual bowl of caramelized onion beauty.
My main is boeuf stroganoff. I haven’t even thought about it in years, let alone cooked it. But now it must be done. The recipe for four calls for 1 kg of fillet or sliced rump. They are two very different things. I opt for the steak and a little less than a kilo. It’s a quick dish and, courtesy of the mushroom collision, fried steak, ground pepper, and sour cream, a disconcerting gray. But my gosh. Why did it go out of style? Now there is only one place left to go. I make pancakes with a recipe that includes both butter and brandy, then I froth them with more butter sweetened with icing sugar, orange juice, and of course brandy. Finally, I set a splash of alcohol on fire in the pan. If he were prime minister, he would make it law that all dessert menus offer crepes suzette.
Carrier, who died in 2006, had such a long career that it inevitably went out of style. But by then he had made several fortunes, ran and closed two stores, both Michelin star winners, and conquered television, even if it was not his natural medium. But it is this book that stands as an imposing monument to his work. It is page after page of good things. After all, it contains a recipe for crepes suzette. What more could you want?
Many Robert Carrier titles, including World’s Greatest Dishes, are available second-hand
The imminent arrival of alfresco dinners on April 12 has sparked initiatives. In it Hotel Corinthia, which I found so entertaining in January, the outdoor space is being taken over by Kerridge’s Garden Grill. Tom Kerridge’s head chef Nick Beardshaw will be grilling whole lobsters, turbot and the like. Meanwhile, down the street, the Stafford Hotel is using its outdoor space for the Courtyard Barbecue series featuring a roster of chefs. It starts with Matt Brown of the Hawksmoor group who will make great meaty things with, among other ingredients, Porterhouse steaks (thestaffordlondon.com).
Japanese street food operator Rainbo has expanded from delivery in London alone to the entire country. Their gyoza costs £ 9.50 for 12 and comes with a variety of fillings from chicken or shiitake mushrooms to shrimp and Chinese chives or duck and hoisin, and they are delivered frozen once a week. There are also a variety of pickles and sauces (rainbofood.com).
And a complaint. Rainbo, like so many others, uses slerp.com, a website that allows producers to create an online store. But it has an infuriating interface. You must enter your address and chosen delivery date before you can view the menu. And if your chosen date is not available, you can’t see what you might want to order at another time or place. Sailing is not allowed. If there is a workaround, I haven’t found it and have been to all of these sites. At a time when delivery is so important, it matters. Let’s go guys. Solve the problem.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism