Dirt: Adventures in French Cooking By Bill BufordJonathan Cape £18.99

Dirt has a bad name. What a shame that the UK publishers didn’t change the monosyllabic title of Bill Buford’s knotty, gripping memoir of restaurant kitchens in Lyon for British readers.

In the great anthropologist Mary Douglas’s dictum, dirt is “matter out of place”. The London Wellcome Collection’s imaginative 2011 show Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life revealed that dirt can excite disgust, moral outrage or sexual excitement. What Buford and speakers of American English mean by “dirt” is “soil” or “earth”, not refuse, detritus or excrement, but the medium in which plants grow; and Buford’s book is an encomium to it, an encouragement to conserve, improve and cherish it.

Another related term for “it” is terroir, the useful concept the French use to indicate geographical location, climate, soil type and other features of wine and food. In parallel to his last book Heat, about learning to cook in Italy, Buford is alluding to the four elements: earth, air, fire and water; he’s a formidably good journalist and travel writer but the scheme is too subtle by half.

As the former editor of Granta and a writer and editor for the New Yorker, Buford had the wherewithal to pack his and his family’s bags and start life anew where fancy led him. This time it meant taking his linguistically gifted wife, Jessica Green, an aspiring Master of Wine, and their twin toddlers, George and Frederick, to live in urban Lyon for enough years that the boys’ mastery of French had almost replaced their English.

Some of the best passages of the book are about the mundanities of finding housing, and a school for the twins. Living steps away from Lyon’s best boulangerie, whose proprietor Bob became a friend and instructor, gives Buford matter for fascinating passages of lyric and even moving prose.

The plot is simple. Inspired by his friend, the Washington DC chef Michel Richard, Buford obtains a rare place at the expensive professional cooking school L’Institut Paul Bocuse. He is chronically late for his classes, but gets a terrific restaurant kitchen grounding, following which he pulls an apron string or two to secure a six-month stage in the kitchen of La Mère Brazier, a famous Lyon eatery with Michelin stars. Relying on friendships with chefs in America, such as Daniel Boulud for elaborate introductions, his ambition, though a tad confected, is to meet Paul Bocuse.

Buford regards Bocuse, who died in January 2018, as the pope, the leader of the faithful who believe French cuisine is the ultimate expression of French (perhaps all Western) civilisation. There’s a little credulity-stretching going on here, as (the reader can’t help but suspect) Buford has sufficient celebrity of his own to effect a meeting with Bocuse. (In my own more modest journalistic career I met Bocuse so frequently that he bestowed a nickname on me: the imposingly large chef called me “Petit Paul”.)

A major theme of Dirt is whether and how much Italian cuisine affected French cooking. Buford has the temerity to take on Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, the doyenne of the Oxford Symposium on Food, who scorned the idea that the 14-year-old Catherine de’Medici brought so many Italian chefs with her on her marriage in France that she revolutionised French food. (“She deals with this Queen Catherine nonsense in a brisk, diminutive two pages.”) There’s a daffy innocence in the way Buford tries to sharpen this old saw, and make his own arcane researches.

Nevertheless the Oxford Symposium, which has encompassed as members most of the leading authorities, has discussed this question (along with many others) on and off for the 40-plus years of its existence, and its proceedings are published (Oxfordsymposium.org.uk). Those on the French side of this argument say the other side lacks “preuves incontestables d’Italienités”, and this is one of the few components of Dirt in which the reader catches a tiresome whiff of smouldering midnight oil.

Buford does not lack scholarship, or a sense of history. He is evenhanded and accurate, for example, about the nouvelle cuisine movement. Bocuse was not the leader of a rebel gang, he points out, but the saviour of the traditional Lyonnais recipes in his insistence that change must not be to make them new but to make them better.

Buford did well to take his family to Lyon (instead of Paris or Provence, say), as Lyon with its (former) six Michelin three-star restaurants was the crucible of the nouvelle cuisine, of which the lasting effects have proved to be for the good.

Among his eating-out ventures is a pilgrimage to La Pyramide at Vienne (a 40-minute drive from Lyon), where the fabled Fernand Point presided over the restaurant’s many fins becs, including Joseph Wechsberg and Curnonsky, regarded as the best in the country. Here Buford negotiated vigorously to order one of the most celebrated dishes, poularde en vessie, a Bresse chicken cooked with black truffles and foie gras in an inflated pig’s bladder.

Point’s successor, Patrick Henriroux, took the order, equivocated, saying that a poularde was too big for a single diner, and finally refused on the grounds that “it needs to be ordered in advance”. (Snap. Forty years ago, Point’s widow, Mado, refused to serve me Pyramide’s famous dish of omble chevalier, on the grounds that the char, fished from the nearby lake, was too large for one person.)

Giving the odd cooking tip, Buford claims he learned to hypnotise lobsters, giving them a painless death; also he recounts the supererogatory chef’s trick of peeling (not podding) green peas. And he merits his own kitchen nickname, “Billou”. The book’s structure is more a ragoût than a straightforward steak or chop and Buford is more an artful writer than an elegant one. As in Heat, he manages to lard his text with pathos and emotion. He encounters plenty of kitchen bullying, even by women chefs, and bad temper amounting to rage. In an epilogue, “Just About Everybody Dies”, we have the heart-tugging sadness of the death of Bob the baker, but also the pomp of the state-like funeral of Pope Paul Bocuse.

There’s wry humour, often at the writer’s own expense, and the book leaves a fine, good taste in the mouth; but an index would have provided the cherry on top.