Category Archives: Handbooks

Plats du Jour

Plats Du Jour, or Foreign Food – Patience Gray & Primrose Boyd. Illustrated by David Gentleman – 1957

Plats du Jour was published half-way between Elizabeth David’s Summer Cooking in 1955 and French Provincial Cooking in 1960. Although not as well-known as David’s books, initially at least, it outsold both of them. And by “foreign food” Patience and Primrose meant mainly French and Italian. This was 1957 after all.Plats du Jour

By all accounts Plats du Jour is a very practical book. It describes a range of cooking methods from braising to roasting by way of larding and poaching. And there are chapters on Pots and Pans, Stoves and The Store Cupboard.

When it comes to the recipes, the authors laid out their stall in the opening lines, “In this book we have tried to set down the recipes for a number of dishes of foreign origin, in the belief that English people may be stimulated to interpret them, and in doing so find fresh interest in the kitchen.” This is not a million miles away from a sex-therapist recommending that a long-married couple should look for ways of finding fresh interest in the bedroom.

It’s a book I wish I’d owned when I learned to cook at university in the late-70s. My flat mate had a much weightier cookbook, the Good House Keeping Cookery Book; literally weightier, it was a whopping doorstep of a book.0852231377 Mark and I vowed to work through as many of the 2000 recipes as we could. I suspect we managed about 20 between us, including an ill-advised attempt to recreate the glossy chicken and ham pie on the cover. As this was the 70’s, the book contained several references to foreign food. My signature dish was Liver Mexican. There wasn’t much that was Mexican about it and the liver was the cheapest we could buy from the indoor market in Cardiff. I shudder to think what animal it came from.

How we’ve moved on. These days I’m a confirmed Master Chef fan. You wouldn’t get me to enter it, but I watch all three versions; amateur, professional and celebrity. In every show we’re treated to a display of cookery styles from around the world, reflecting the true multicultural nature of the UK in 2020, more than 60 years on from the publication of Plats du Jour. I wonder what Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd would have made of Neil “Razor” Ruddock working alongside Zandra Rhodes on the lunch service at one of London’s top Korean restaurants.


Plats du Jour didn’t rely on the gleaming, full colour plates that made the Good Housekeeping book so alluring back in 1978. It’s beautifully illustrated by David Gentleman whose work can now be seen in Tate Britain, the V&A and the Northern Line platforms at Charing Cross station. Gentleman’s cover illustration of a family of ten sitting around a huge table reminds us of the sheer joy of eating and drinking together. It’s especially poignant on a day when England’s pubs and restaurants prepare to open for the first time in three and a half months.

Chosen Words

Chosen WordsChosen Words – Ivor Brown. Cover by Derek Birdsall, 1961.

Chosen Words is a collection of notes about various words in the English language from accidie to zymurgy. There is no particular theme linking the words, other than that they interested Ivor Brown.

Brown, a Shakespearian scholar writing in the mid-twentieth century, clearly loved words. Chosen Words is part of a series of eight books with titles that would have impressed the producers of the Carry On films: A Word in Your Ear; I Give You My Word; No Idle Words. You get the idea…

The notes, supported by quotations, touch on etymology, construction, and history; but Brown is particularly interested in how the words were used when he wrote his books. And of course, had he been able to think of enough punning titles – and been granted immortality – he could still have been writing them today. This is because the English language, unlike most Shakespearian scholars, has a remarkable capacity to evolve in a very short space of time.

spamThe name for a newly coined word or phrase that is in the process of entering common use – but that has not yet been accepted into mainstream language – is neologism. It can be a new use of an existing word (spam), a combination of existing words (website) or an acronym (scuba).

Neologisms often come from popular literature: cyberspace, McJob or nymphet. Sometimes the title of a book becomes the neologism, for example, Catch-22. Occasionally, it’s the author’s name; Orwellian or Kafkaesque. Another category is words derived from famous characters in literature:  quixotic or scrooge.

DonquixoteThe last two examples demonstrate that no one, to my knowledge, has defined the amount of time a neologism has to exist before it is considered fully part of the language.

But a word – in any language – isn’t just a sound or a handful of letters; what makes it interesting, what makes it a word, is that it has a meaning. And, if a neologism gives a name to, or describes, something that exists but that has no name or description, it must be considered a useful addition to the language.

So, here’s my own attempt to add something useful to the English language – relaxaction – a word which, reassuringly, is not recognized by the Microsoft spellchecker. Relaxaction, like spellchecker, is a classic, compound neologism. I use it to describe the act of relaxing the mind or body through some kind of physical action, as opposed to relaxation which means doing as little as possible.

It’s a concept most people recognize, although the action of choice differs from one person to another. For me it’s chopping logs. Others have suggested mowing the lawn; having vigorous (or not so vigorous) sex; going for a run, singing in a choir or driving off-road on a remote dirt track in Oman.

If you’d like to add your own favourite form of relaxaction to the list, please let me know.

Soft Fruit Growing

Soft Fruit GrowingRaymond Bush, 1942. Penguin Handbook No 1, 1945.

Soft Fruit Growing was first published as the third of Raymond Bush’s “Fruit Growing Trilogy”. The other titles were Tree Fruit Growing Volume 1: Apples and Volume II: Pears, Quinces and Stone Fruits. The three books were originally among the 10 Penguin Specials published in 1942 but migrated to form part of the new Penguin Handbook series when it  was launched in 1945.

Soft Fruit Growing became the first of the Penguin Handbooks, a series which eventually included 700 titles, all carrying the green barred cover design of the original Specials. The Handbooks, particularly the gardening and cookery titles, were popular in a post-war Britain still coping with wartime austerity, including food rationing. Who knows how popular Penguin Handbook No. 1 could have become if Penguin had used Bush’s full title: Soft Fruit Growing for the Amateur: What to Plant and How to Prune and Manure. With a Chapter on Nuts, one on Mushrooms, and another on Composting ? Bush’s definition of “soft fruit” was, clearly,  very broad.

“Fruit can be grown almost anywhere”, claimed Bush, “if you are prepared to take the trouble. However, quite often the most intelligent and ardent gardener can go wrong simply because the trouble he takes is ill-directed”.

Bush approached his subject methodically and the general questions of aspect, soil, nursery material and planting procedures are reviewed first. There follows a detailed discussion of  various soft fruits. His range is wide and ambitious. Besides the familiar blackberries, currants, gooseberries, raspberries and strawberries, Bush discusses fruit which must have seemed very exotic to the post-war amateur gardener in Britain;  figs, grapes, mulberries, cranberries, barberries, melons and passion fruit. Bush also delivered on the promise of the book’s full title and included chapters on manuring, the use of the compost heap, and the need for, and practice of, spraying. In those days spraying fruit was a hazardous occupation, involving the use of a lead arsenic preparation before the relatively safe DDT became widely available.

Stephen Hayes is a prolific blogger on handbooks for fruit growers, especially those which deal with apples. He describes Bush’s style as “very down to earth” and “trenchant”. Bush was not afraid to advocate tough love and suggested that when faced with an orchard in which cropping levels have fallen, the grower should consider cutting down every other tree.

That sort of no-nonsense, practical advice would have made him an excellent candidate for the panel on the BBC’s Gardener’s Question Time, the long running radio show in which amateur gardeners put questions to a panel of experts. The show was first broadcast in 1947 as How Does Your Garden Grow butsadly, I can find no record of Raymond Bush taking part. However, he would certainly be a member of my all-time GQT fantasy panel, taking his place alongside Pippa Greenwood and Bob Flowerdew, all under the jovial chairmanship of Clay Jones.