Nature: Simple, healthy and good.
by Alain Ducasse, Paule Neyrat
Publisher: Hardie Grant Books, Country: uk
ISBN: 9781742700502, Year: 2011
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

Alain Ducasse is a phenomenon, more than just a chef and a restaurateur, he is a force to be reckoned with in French cuisine. This latest book to be published in English is his attempt to ‘come back to the bare essentials and regain the pleasure of cooking simple vegetables, cereals and fruit that are so key to a healthy and balanced diet’. A laudable aim but not entirely successful. Although there are some good ideas here, ‘Nature’ seems to have lost something in translation.

Full review

Alain Ducasse is a bit of an overachiever. He trained with the likes of Roger Vergé and Michel Guérard in the 1970s; he runs an empire made up of restaurants (all over the world, twenty five at last count including Benoit in Paris, New York and Tokyo, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, Mix in Las Vegas and Le Louis XV in the Hotel de Paris, Monte Carlo), inns (such as La Bastide de Moustiers – a twelve bedroom country inn in Provence which features in the book under review), cooking schools (including a social enterprise foundation for training chefs from ‘deprived backgrounds’) and consultancies. He has more than enough Michelin stars to his name to start his own constellation and still finds time to publish – he is perhaps best known for his ‘Grand Livre de Cuisine’, described as his attempt ‘to establish himself as the next great codifier of French cuisine’. (Michael Steinberger, ‘Au Revoir To All That. The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine’ p. 169).

‘Nature’, however, is not written for the chef. It is, and it certainly presents as, a genuine attempt to provide simple, healthy recipes, albeit with a bit of French flair, which will be well within the grasp of the average home cook. The book begins with two chapters entitled ‘For the Larder’ and ‘Condiments’ which give between them basic recipes for staples like chicken stock, preserved lemons, tomato sauce and anchoide, some of which are referred to in later recipes. The following chapters then cover grains and cereals, soups, vegetables, sea (fish and shellfish), land (eggs, poultry, rabbit, veal, lamb, etc) and finally dessert (mostly fruit based). Whilst Ducasse’s name is in big print on the cover the recipes are ‘executed’ by Christophe Saintagne, chef at Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athéné, where he has been responsible for introducing a new menu emphasising a ‘back-to-basics’ approach.

I really wanted to like this book, but it just doesn’t work for me.

First off, it looks attractive – pleasant photographs (although perhaps a few too many of M. Ducasse who seems to spend a good deal of his time smelling vegetables) and cute line drawings scattered throughout. But herein lies the first problem: The book is written by Ducasse and a nutritionist, Paule Neyrot, and each recipe is introduced by their comments and a line drawing of each of them. This might be cute but it seems quite unnecessary. I don’t think it does much for the credibility of either author to see them depicted as cartoons and what well might be vital snippets of information are relegated to text which some readers may never bother to read.

The recipes themselves are attractively laid out, but rather than a separate ingredient list, the ingredients are highlighted in coloured print in the text. Now I can see some benefit in this approach – for one thing you have read through the recipe at least once to make sure that you have noted all the ingredients – but it seems a deviation from the norm which in the end serves no real purpose. I would also suggest that in some cases there needs to be more contrast between the text and the background for the highlighted words to really stand out.

The main problem is with the recipes themselves – something has been lost in translation or rather a more thorough Anglicisation or universalisation (if there is such a word) was required. One oft-used ingredient is Piment d’Espelette, not something you would expect to find in every kitchen but no alternative is suggested. Other recipes specify Rousillon apricots, fresh Brocciu (Corsican cheese), potimarron squash, whelks, Palourde clams, and what about einkorn, fonio and quinori (a mixture of red quinoa, long brown rice, chickpeas, white quinoa and sesame seeds). Good editing would have either eliminated some of the specificity or provided a glossary or notes on substitutions.

Instead of listing potato varieties – Monosque, Mona Lisa, Charlotte – why not a clue as to whether they should be waxy or not? Just how much yogurt is ‘2 plain yogurts’? Can’t I just substitute couscous for ‘durum semolina’, ‘corn semolina’ and ‘millet semolina’? Aren’t ‘coco beans’ what I call canellini beans? And some recipes are very specific – 5g salt, 10 mint leaves, 5 tarragon leaves, 16 white Chasselas grapes – why so precise? Whilst there is nothing complicated about any of these recipes some still have that chefy feel to them – they seem to rely on perfect ingredients and careful execution, a rather too fragile balance of flavour and texture to translate well to the home kitchen (at least to my home kitchen). Roasted asparagus with black olives for example hardly seems to warrant a recipe as such but perhaps it is the Taggiassche black olives which make all the difference.

Maybe I am being a bit precious. By no means all the recipes call for some esoteric ingredient and all of them are, as the title suggests, simple enough and fresh and healthy, but they just don’t sound very exciting or offer anything new. Perhaps they are a departure for M. Ducasse and perhaps they offer fresh and original ideas to his French readers but for me something like Yotam Ottolenghi’s ‘Plenty’ is much more inspiring although probably also a lot less subtle.

Opinions may differ, but for me, taking these points all together, they add up to make this a book something I felt many home cooks could do without. If however you have ready access to Piment d’Espelette and Brocciu or even Brousse de Brebis you may beg to differ.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 3. Recommended – some flaws
Visual appeal: Beautiful
Suitability as a gift: Quite nice
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Rating: 4.7/5 (3 votes cast)
Nature, Alain Ducasse | 2011 | UK, 4.7 out of 5 based on 3 ratings

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2 Comments

  1. Lizz1155
    Posted 21 Feb 2012 at 04:30 | Permalink

    The reviewer does make some good points about the nature of the book, regarding how it deals with difficult to find ingredients, often without offering substitutions, explanations or translations. However, I would like to mention that there is a low-fat pate brisee recipe in this book, which some people may feel merits the entire cost of this book alone. ( Although this recipe can be viewed on the “look inside” option on Amazon, making actually purchasing the book unnecessary). Also, the ratatouille recipe contains easy to find ingredients and is delicious.

  2. Nicki
    Posted 10 Mar 2012 at 00:54 | Permalink

    Ducasse does say that you can substitute hot paprika for Piment d’Espelette and he says that most of the ingredients in the book can be found in a large grocery store or the internet. I can find the ingredients in his book at my grocery store or other stores in my area. I for one find it fascinating to read what kind of cheese, potato, or pepper a famous French chef would use. If I can’t find the exact food I will substitute what I find in my area or order from the internet. Just looking at the book, most of the recipes are made from everyday ingredients (you fail to point this out in your review as well). As for his enthusiasm for simple, healthy food it seems like we as a culture have somehow forgotten what that means. And it is wonderful to see a famous French chef write a book to help us get back to that concept. I love cooking simply with fresh ingredients and letting the natural taste of the food shine through. That is the concept he is talking about. I love this book and cook from it often — it is a valued addition to my library.
    As an award winning designer I know that Christine Roussey is the kind of illustrator that comes around maybe once in a generation and I thought her illustrations were charming. They reminded me of the way cookbooks were illustrated in the 50’s. And it is a wonderful reflection of French style in publishing.
    Also I like the fact that he encourages experimentation. Not all cultures cook with an exact recipe and his book reflects this when he says use “two plain yogurts”. That said the recipes that I have used have specified exact measurements and have turned out very well.

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