At the end of the nineteenth century, when Auguste Escoffier compiled Le Guide Culinaire, he distilled the innovations, recipes and techniques of the classical French kitchen into a single collection, a book that has stood alone for generations. It would shape both the course and style of French cooking well into the twentieth century, and even today, it is regarded by many, as the ultimate authority on French cookery. Put simply, it says all there is to say on its subject. And of course, such a book is extremely rare.
But in Sauces:Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making, James Peterson has created a book of fascinating detail and enormous breadth, so that it is clearly marked out as the stand alone, definitive book on sauce making for a generation. It is, like Escoffier's Guide Culinaire , primarily a tool for the professional chef, a reference book for anyone to check on the technique or ingredients of a given sauce. For this alone, it earns its place on the bookshelf of every chef's office. (This weighs in at six hundred pages, by the way, so make it's a decent shelf). Yet this goes much further than a recipe reference book, due to it's intelligent structure and the way in which the recipes themselves are introduced and used.
Sauces was first published in 1988, but concentrated on the classical French techniques only, hardly surprising given the author's own time spent living and working in France. (His respect for France and its culinary heritage, shines through). This second edition has been expanded to cover also the respective sauce making traditions of other parts of the world. So, Italy gets a whole chapter to itself, while Japan, Korea, India and China, among others, all get a look-in, in the Asian section. If this makes the book sound like a rigidly structured set of Rules To Be Obeyed, think again. While there are chapters structured by type, dealing with, say, ethnic sauces (Thai curry pastes, Vietnamese nuoc cham for example), or hot emulsified butter sauces, this is not the whole picture. Sauces is organized to allow each chapter to deal with the core techniques involved in the preparation of a style of sauce, as much as the ingredients themselves. Hence, salsa verde, Cumberland sauce and a Mexican salsa can all be found in one section (under Cold sauces and Vinaigrettes), because the techniques applied, if not their ingredients, connect them. The recipes in a chapter serve to illustrate the concept and methods described. This is not just a long list of sauce recipes.
In practice, what could have ended up as a narrow and dry reference book for professionals, becomes, instead, a tool for almost anyone with a serious interest in cooking. Peterson uses his background as a chemist to provide an understanding of how ingredients behave under different conditions, and why. This is especially vivid in the chapters dedicated to liaisons, butter based sauces and mayonnaise style sauces. On top of these insights is a survey of sauce making from ancient Greece and Rome, through medieval Europe, right up to the twentieth century. Combined with the excellent, detailed survey of ingredients at the outset, Peterson remains true to his opening stated goal: to give the individual the knowledge, confidence and techniques required to improvise, "to become creative and spontaneous cooks in an even wider domain than before." In reality, though, this is as much history book as cookbook, and certainly, it is the benchmark against which all other sauce books should be judged.