Cumulus Inc.
by Andrew McConnell
Publisher: Penguin Lantern (AU), Country: AU
ISBN: 9781921382406, Year: 2011
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Review

Chef Andrew McConnell, one of Australia’s most prominent representatives of high-end relaxed cuisine, has written his first cookbook. Named after the most prominent of his restaurants, Cumulus Inc. is a good reflection of this Australian style of food which has taken his hometown Melbourne by storm in the past few years. Here the reader will see interesting herbs (especially sorrel and nettle), strong use of Middle Eastern and North African ingredients (think dukkah, labne, shanklish, pomegranate seeds, barberries…), pork belly, and numerous other ingredients of the moment.

Attractively bound and printed on low-gloss paper, Cumulus Inc. is visually enjoyable. The photography by Earl Carter is strong, though quite dark on this type of paper. There are seven food chapters: Breakfast, To Start, Charcuterie, Salads and Comestibles, Fish, Meat, and Dessert.

McConnell is not a showy chef, content to let his food speak for itself. In the context of this cookbook, it means there are brief introductory comments to some recipes in the predictable “I like this because…” or “we thought of this when doing…” vein, without the shine of ego. That’s both good and bad, because there’s little distraction from the food, yet little real engagement with the reader either.

For a work which has some iconic significance, coming from a chef of such importance for this cuisine, it’s a pity the book feels a bit parochial, despite the diversity of the food. The acknowledgement of local suppliers is nice, but extends to a page of “Friend of Cumulus Inc.” local addresses and websites. Of more concern for the reader might be the fact that the recipes make a strong assumption that you will have access to a wide range of hard-to-find ingredients. Even many Australian readers would find it difficult to easily source barberries, shanklish, sorrel, sheep’s milk yogurt, purslane, pig’s blood, truffle and more. (Affordability is probably a secondary issue, given that devotees of this cuisine are not shy of spending money.) If you live in the right parts of Melbourne or Sydney (or New York or London) finding these ingredients will be only moderately inconvenient.

The range of recipes is strong and, to the uninitiated, might seem more than a little quirky. In fact, a menu ranging across “Turkish baked eggs in spiced tomato wih dukkah and labne” to “Pain d’épices with poached quince and whipped ricotta” to “Bresaola with celeriac remoulade” to “Rock flathead with shellfish and fregola braise, grilled prawns and chermoula” to “Vanilla ice cream, ginger granita and lychees” is a true reflection of what has made this style of restaurant cuisine so popular. Cumulus Inc. is intended for the people who love McConnell’s menus and I would imagine that many who buy this book will leave the harder dishes for the eye, rather than the kitchen. Some dishes are extremely simple (“Hot chocolate”, “Truffled omelette”), while others cover a number of components (“Pressed chicken terrine with English cream dressing and French breakfast radishes”). Some are small, while many are intended “for sharing”, as has become de rigueur in casual dining.

Cooking from Cumulus Inc. requires not only a well stocked larder, but also some experience as a home cook. McConnell’s recipes are clearly written, but not always strongly instructive, and it is rare for him to propose alternative ingredients if you happen to be out of, say, mojama or chardonnay vinegar. The terminology is mostly local so foreign readers will need to know what “thickened cream” is and how to manage the minefield of seafood names, yet there are occasional UK-accommodations like “zucchini (courgettes)” or the un-Australian “pouring cream”. Quantities range from nicely metric to simply “juice of 1 lime” or eggs of unspecified size or “1/4 fennel bulb”, something which will frustrate more pedantic home cooks who increasingly expect high-end chefs to be a bit more precise (as they would be in their own kitchens). Perhaps more irritating is a lack of detail for some ingredients (e.g. “coconut cream” – which can be anything from a thick paste to insipidly watery, or “gold-strength gelatine” – when it’s now widely known that brands differ in strength) to a strong recommendation of particular products (e.g. Valrhona chocolate, or a particular brand of soy sauce). The glossary at the back is brief and insufficient.

I think the devotees of the cuisine will greatly like this book, while those who are unfamiliar with it may be simultaneously stimulated by the fresh combinations of ingredients and cuisines and less-than-thrilled by the at times unnecessarily local feel of the book, and the strain on one’s pantry.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 4. Recommended – good
Visual appeal: Attractive
Suitability as a gift: If the person is really interested
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