In spite – because of? – its name and the national range of its contributors, Petits Propos Culinaires is one of those preposterous, brilliant, unmistakably English publications. It is, according to the press release that unfurled on my desk last week, ‘the longest-running English-language journal devoted to food and food studies in the world’. Considering that it only comes out three times a year, this is a significant achievement in itself.
Alan and Jane Davidson, Elizabeth David and Richard Olney founded it in 1979. Sadly none of those founding fathers and mothers is still with us. However, their idiosyncratic editorial mix of erudite curiosity and sober-sided historicity and bonkers scholarship has been nobly carried on by the irrepressible Tom Jaine, backed by a formidable list of Editorial Advisors. Is there any other publication likely to run articles with such titles as ‘Seasonings and Flavourings in Canada before 1840’, ‘The Question of Dog Meat’, and Almonds along the Silk Road: The Exchange and Adaptation of Ideas from West to East’?
And now Tom has edited PPC 100, the hundredth edition of this great publication. It is as erudite, sober-sided and bonkers as ever, thank the Lord. So you can choose between The Rippingille T.G.I. 740 Portable Oven by David Burnett, Archestratus: Naughty Poet, Good Cook by John Wilkins and To What Extent did People Eat Vegetables in the Early Eighteenth Century by Malcolm Thick; and a Life in the Day of Alan Davidson by Helen Saberi. If I didn’t know PPC better, I might have thought these were parodies of a particular variety of food writing.
Splendid though these are, for me the keenest pleasure of reading PPC comes from the interventions of the Editor. In this 100th edition, up front there’s a splendidly bellicose biff at British Telecom; generous celebration of another learned publication, Gastronomica; and kindly recognition for those shorter-lived publications, Fire & Knives and Gin & It. Best of all, at the back are book reviews, some times waspish, sometimes generous, never boring, of which the most waspish and generous and least boring are Tom’s own. This is him coming to a ringing conclusion of his assessment of ‘Queen Bea of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross’ by Ben Downing ‘Expecting a whole lot of knockabout rumpy-pumpy (think of Norman Douglas, or Walter Savage Landor from an earlier period) it was surprisingly dry.’ I mean, who have even heard of Walter Savage Landor these days, let alone read him?
PCC is a glittering oasis of intelligent individuality in a sea of mediocrity. Each edition is beautifully produced, with a black and white illustration here and there. Each edition is a pleasure to hold in the hand, a pleasure to look at, a pleasure to ramble through. Of course, its ethos is snobbish, in the best sense of the word. Of course, there’s something preposterous about it. Of course, there are a good many that would be frankly baffled by it. But anyone who treasures intelligence, individuality and learning, anyone who is interested in the odd corners of the food diaspora, anyone who takes pleasure is reading firmly held, firmly expressed opinions, should rejoice; and take out a subscription to Petits Propos Culinaires to ensure the next 100 issues.
Petits Propos Culinaires, Alleleigh House, Blackawton, Totnes, Devon TQ9 7DL,
6 issues £40
3 issues £21
Back numbers £7