While putting some books away—notably foreign cookbooks—I came across one I have had so long, I no longer remember how I acquired it. I do know that a few years ago when my sister & I, along with her son Cody and my grandson Ethan, met our niece, Leslie, in San Diego with her son Blake—we found a wonderful used cookbook store and bought literally stacks of cookbooks. Leslie was buying all the French cookbooks she could find and I remarked, offhandedly, that I had a lot of French cookbooks that she was welcome to, as it isn’t one of my favorite foreign cuisines. Later on I mailed two boxes of cookbooks to her. So, how did I end up with a copy of Alexander Watt’s PARIS BISTRO COOKERY? The copyright on this cookbook is 1957 and although the dust jacket is worn and torn in places, at least it’s there. This small cookbook was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1958 and appears to be the first edition.
My first thought was “What is bistro cookery and how does it differ from other French cooking? Good question! From visiting Bing and finding some definitions, I learned that French bistro food caught on in the U.S. in the ’80s, when we realized that we loved the simple, homey cooking found in those small, casual eateries the French call bistros. An alternative to haute cuisine, this is hearty, rustic, everyday stuff, often characterized by regional roots: crisp roast chickens, savory tarts, hearty stews and robust salads.
A bistro (/ˈbiːstrəʊ/), sometimes spelled bistrot, is, in its original Parisian incarnation, a small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in a modest setting. Bistros are defined mostly by the foods they serve. French home-style cooking with robust earthy dishes, and slow-cooked foods like cassoulet, a bean stew, are typical. According to Wikipedia, bistros likely developed out of the basement kitchens of Parisian apartments where tenants paid for both room and board. Landlords could supplement their income by opening their kitchen to the paying public. Menus were built around foods that were simple, could be prepared in quantity and would keep over time. Wine and coffee were also served.
The origins of the word bistro are uncertain. Some say that it may derive from the Russian bystro (быстро), “quickly”. According to an urban legend, it entered the French language during the Russian occupation of Paris in 1815. Russian officers or cossacks who wanted to be served quickly would shout “bystro.” However, this etymology is not accepted by several French linguists as there is, notably, no occurrence of this word until the end of the 19th century. Others say the name comes from a type of aperitif, called a bistrouille in (or liqueur coffee), served in some reasonably priced restaurants.
Then I discovered on the cover in much smaller print “50 of Paris’s best small bistros—a cook’s tour with 100 recipes of their specialities de la maison” (so much for such a small book!) On the inside of the dust jacket, I read “Here is a title to look at twice—for it has a double meaning. This is at once a guidebook and a cookbook It is a collection of moments savored in those wonderful but often hard-to-find Paris islands where magnificent food is served—and eaten. It is, as well, a collection of the secrets of the chefs who make those islands as singular as they are…”
Cookbook author Alexander Watt was the food and wine expert of the London daily telegraph and knew Paris inside the kitchen and out. In Paris Bistro he cut through to the root of the French cuisine. Covering a wide cross-section of Paris, Mr. Watt took his readers on a tour of fifty small inexpensive bistros that he personally had discovered, tested, and approved. Granted, this cookbook was published over fifty years ago and I have no way of knowing whether any of the 50 still exist more than sixty years later. Reading the dust jacket, something nudged my memory banks – what other book had I read along similar lines? I’ll think about that as I continue on.
Author Alexander Watt took us on a tour of fifty small, inexpensive bistros that he personally had visited, bringing to life the ambiance of each bistro, recapturing the atmosphere, the particular nature of the cooking, the regional dishes for which the restaurant may be famous. He not only described the specialties of the bistro, but also offered a representative menu, suggesting the right accompanying wine, cheese and liqueur (or digestif, as the French would say—to settle a superlative meal. Then Mr. Watt went on to outline the making of several of the dishes for which each bistro is famous.
Mr. Watt is a Scotsman who—at the time Paris Bistro Cookery was published—had spent 25 years of his life in Paris. Watt was a food and wine expert for the London Daily telegraph and a contributor to Vogue and other international magazines. He was an exacting gourmet and an acknowledged connoisseur of food and wine. In 1954, Watt published with James Beard his first book titled PARIS CUISINES. In 1962 Watt published the Art of Simple French Cooking. I have been unable to find any additional cookbook titles for Mr. Watt. There are, curiously, a number of non-food titles that may or may not belong to this same Mr. Watt. While exploring his name, I found a number of Alexander Watts going back in history; most of the dates are too old to be our French expert Alexander Watt.
In the foreword to Paris Bistro Cookery, Mr. Watt writes “By ‘a small bistro type of restaurant’ I mean a small restaurant where the activities of Le Patron, or La Patronne, replace those of the chef, the head waiter and the wine waiter. This, at once, implies a friendly ‘enfamille’ atmosphere or ambiance as they say in French, which characterizes the bistro type of restaurant with its sawdust and simplicity, as opposed to the carpets and comfort of the one, two-, and three-starred establishments…”
“What exactly is bistro?” Mr. Watt asks. “Few foreigners, or even Parisians can define the word. The origin is an interesting one and dates back to the time of the fall of Napoleon, when, in 1815, the Allies occupied Paris. Hungry and tired, the Russians, who were then encamped on the Place de la Concorde, felt need to be restored, (hence the origin of the word ‘restaurant’) so they used to wander around the adjoining streets in search of food and drink. ‘Bistro, bistro!’ they would shout as they entered the cafés, meaning in Russian ‘quick, quick’ …give us something to eat and drink. And so the word stuck and now signifies a small café where meals are served simply and rapidly…”
“The clientele,” Watt continues, “consists of the local tradesmen and shopkeepers who have to eat their midday meal ‘’bistro, bistro’. As often as not, there will also be a gathering of discerning French and foreign gourmets who have come out of their way to enjoy a good quality meal ‘lento-lento’. The bistro proprietors generally do a very good business and remain on friendly terms with their regular clientele who form a sort of family circle of faithful attendants….”
Watt says this should not discourage the gastronome from getting to know these fascinating out-of-the-way bistros—especially those owned and run by the friendly couple, the one serving at le zinc the bar), the other working in the kitchen—who will welcome a new client if he adapts himself to the unaffected atmosphere and exhibits a ready interest and appreciation of the wines and specialites de la Maison. (This reminded me of a well known Maison Gerard in North Hollwood, where some of us frequently went to eat at lunchtime – they were famous for the French Onion Soup).
Before beginning your adventure in Bistro restaurants, Watt offers a chapter of Hints on Culinary Procedure in which the author places emphasis on the cook (you) having the proper kind of cooking utensils—namely, in France, copper bottomed saucepans and pots and seem to think most American kitchens would not contain expensive copper bottom pots and pans for “thin aluminum pots” will cook too rapidly he wrote. I was bemused by this chapter as for myself I use mostly stainless steel cookware (and cast iron skillets) and don’t know anyone who cooks with aluminum nowadays. That is a singular example of how far we’ve come and advanced with our cooking tools, some sixty years later.
There is a chapter on French Recipe Terms as well.
Follows are the50 bistros with a little introduction to each. I can’t pretend to know very much about French cooking but I was pleased several basic recipes for making puff pastry, Crepes, and a veal reduction. There is an extensive chapter on “choosing a cheese” and a Glossary of the dishes found in this cookbook which may be the most useful to a novice cook or anyone wanting to learn how to make some French recipes. (and of course, there is always Julia Child’s famous cookbook).
Amazon.com has come pre owned and collectible copies of PARIS BISTRO COOKERY—the cover shown is not the same as mine. It took endless entries onto Google to learn anything at al—the website continuously brings up ads for all sorts of unrelated information. I went to Bing.com and found the books listed on Amazon. Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon, has a red-covered copy of Paris Bistro Cookery with a backorder of $205.50. Powell’s also answers the questions uppermost in my mind: they note that many visitors who arrive in Paris expecting to eat well in the bistros the city was once famous for, find many have closed or turned into sushi bars. But although these small restaurants with zinc counters serving delicious traditional “spcialitis de la maison and plats du jour” under the watchful direction of the Patron have all but disappeared from Paris, they live on in the pages of this delightful book. It offers a hundred recipes from fifty of the best authentic Paris bistros, collected in the 1950’s when these establishments were at their height. Part guidebook and part cookbook, this volume gives the address and description of each bistro as it was, and its colorful denizens, followed by its signature recipes. A work to savor.
Before I close leaving you to wonder –should you or shouldn’t you attempt to find a copy of Paris Bistro Cookery, I’ll give you an article more accessible to find – Endless Feasts –60 years of Gourmet Magazine—edited by Ruth Reichl—has an article titled Paris Report, by Don Dresden, which offers a more realistic view of Paris restaurants following World War II when the author had gone back there to live. Paris, it seems, was and is equally famous for its food, not just the wines. Anyone who has been there and wants to talk about it – I am ready to listen. Paris Bistro Cookery—with or without the recipes—is a fascinating little book to read.
Sandra Lee Smith