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Classic Voices in Food is a new series of cookery books from publisher Quadrille. The nostalgic series rediscovers great cookery writers and heroes from as far back as the nineteenth century and is aimed at modern day cookery enthusiasts looking for a taste of times gone by. 

Publications which have been unavailable for decades, except to those ruthless collectors dropping lucky in a charity or second hand book shop, are being respectfully re-issued, unabridged, and given a new lease of life. Many are still relevant today and with interest in good food continually growing this series lets us revisit the books which started the food writing trend.  

The first two titles in the series launching this Spring are Madame Prunier’s Fish Cookery Book and Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families. The next two titles, Simple French Cooking for English Homes and The Gentle Art of Cookery, will be launching in September.

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Madame Prunier’s Fish Cookery Book was first published in English in 1938. Simone Prunier quickly became THE authority on fish cookery in England. She opened her restaurant in London in 1934 where she gained a reputation for cooking impressive and innovative fish and shellfish dishes. 

The book is mainly a collection of recipes from her father, Emile Prunier, himself a renowned restaurateur in Paris, who shortly before his death had collated his recipes and prepared an outline for a book, but failed to publish it before he passed away. His business partner, Michel Bouzy, was the first to publish Emile’s collection of recipes in 1929; Simone’s Fish Cookery Book is a revised version of that publication. 

‘If Madame Prunier has her way, English people will soon become much more “fish-conscious”, and by asking for cheaper and more unfamiliar fishes will soon find that a demand is created.’ Ambrose Heath, original editor of Fish Cookery. 

It is sad to think that what Madame Prunier was hoping to achieve from publishing the book is still a battle for fishermen and chefs today. The chapter on salt-water fish starts with the editor’s introduction ‘She has always been a little puzzled why it is we cannot as a rule get fishes such as Bass, Gurnard, Sea-bream and so on in the fishmonger’s shop, and I am inclined to think that the reason is that even if we were to see them there we should neither recognise them nor know what to do with them if we bought them.’ Whilst a wider range of fish is more readily available in our shops today, it is probably still true that people do not recognise nor know how to cook many of them. 

The likes of Rick Stein and Mitch Tonks, and more recently Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver with the fish fight campaign, continue the fish heritage the Prunier family brought to English home cooks. Times have changed but much of what Prunier was encouraging people to do back in 1938 is no different to what chefs are shouting from the seashores and fishing boats now. 

She includes recipes for herring, mackerel, whiting, gurnard; inexpensive fish at the time which were, until she included them on the restaurant menu, neglected by her well-off clientele. It is these same fish which are being championed now as sustainable and affordable alternatives to cod, tuna and salmon on which we’ve got ourselves hooked. 

Much the same as Mitch Tonks in his Fish cookbook and more recently with his Eat Fish iPhone app, Madame Prunier gives heaps of sound advice on buying fresh fish and shellfish, basic rules for cooking them and help with what to serve with them. 

Buy it fresh, cook it quick, keep it simple, though by all means adorn the fish with a classic sauce, for which there are plenty of recipes in the book. She, as Mitch is saying today, proclaimed that all you need is a bit of knowledge and a little experience and fish really is nothing to be frightened of. 

In addition to the advice and information, sauces and accompaniments, a note on pairing wine with fish and original illustrations, there are hundreds of recipes for hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, soups, fresh-water, salt-water and shellfish as well as turtle (now illegal), frogs and snails. Many of the recipes are timeless classics widely found on menus today. They are concise, descriptive and elegantly written, making the simplest of dishes sound decadent. The chapter introductions are personal, simple accounts and musings as well as frank and sometimes humorous observations. 

Except for the style of writing, definitely a sign of the times, this book would not be out of place on book shelves alongside modern works from Nigel Slater, Nigella Lawson or even Raymond Blanc. The re-publication of Madame Prunier’s Fish Cookery Book in the Classic Voices in Food series has given the Prunier family a new stage from which to passionately encourage us all to embrace the fruits of the sea.

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