The Kitchen Thinker: Alan Davidson's Petits Propos Culinaires

Date:10-05-2014 07:58:05 read:1

The Kitchen Thinker: Alan Davidson's Petits Propos Culinaires

Celebrating the 100th issue of Alan Davidson's journal of "little culinary matters"

'Apart from the corned-beef lunches there were excursions to Rococo for his favourite chocolates and to "the Algerian shop" for coffee' Photo: RUTHLEWISILLUSTRATIONS.COM

"Alan liked retro food and foods from his childhood. One of his favourites was corned beef salad. We kept it authentic – corned beef from a tin, limp round lettuce leaves with sliced tomato, sliced boiled egg, beetroot and, naturally, salad cream."

The Alan in question is the late Alan Davidson, who spent 20 years writing The Oxford Companion to Food, a million words of pleasure and information. His collaborator Helen Saberi has now written a memoir of his working days that makes you wonder how he ever finished it. Apart from the corned-beef lunches – often rounded off with trifle – there were excursions to Rococo in the Kings Road for his favourite chocolates, to "the Algerian shop" for coffee and "to Chinatown to buy Chinese slippers". He also took frequent naps and enjoyed watching screwball comedies of the 1930s.

This memoir is one of the many delights in the 100th issue of PPC, the food journal Alan and his wife Jane set up 34 years ago. It's a miracle that PPC has survived all these years, given the parlous state of independent publishing. Fire & Knives, a much-admired "foodie-odical" sadly folded in November. Yet PPC endures, despite having a weird title and devoting its pages to some pretty out-of-the-way food history.

PPC stands for Petits Propos Culinaires, which translates as "little culinary matters". The French title was one of Alan's many jokes. The magazine itself – in the format of a quality paperback – is deeply British, with articles on such questions as the origin of stilton, the history of Chelsea buns or how "elevenses" started (it was "first recorded as an 'elevener' in 1823").

If you can get beyond the title, PPC is a great read. The current editor, the witty and opinionated Tom Jaine, has a horror of "turgid" academic prose, so although the articles may be on obscure subjects – the current issue has one on "The Rippingille TGI 740 Portable Oven" – they are always readable. PPC has that rare quality – charm – helped along by chatty segments of news and reviews. ("From the day you were born it was self-evident that most processed food was filth," gives you a taste.)

Issue 100 is more than usually meaty. Here are scholarly accounts of how Cornish pasties evolved and what distinguishes a "bistro" from other restaurants in France. There's an engaging short piece by Jojo Tulloh on the scribbled notes Elizabeth David kept in her cookbooks, such as "Why say crispy when crisp is more expressive?"

The main reason I feel happy when PPC thuds on to the mat is I know I'll learn something new. This time it was an essay on the popularity of vegetables in the 18th century. We tend to imagine we eat more veg now than in the past, but 250 years ago the gentry enjoyed "early peas" and unusual lettuces and the poor ate "comforting snacks" of radishes or pease pudding. I don't see many people eating such "comforting snacks" now.

If food history is your thing, I heartily recommend subscribing (from Let's try to keep this eccentric institution going for another 100 issues.

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