|Cooking & Travelling in South-West France|
|Publisher: Lantern, Country: AU|
|ISBN: 9781920989248, Year: 2002|
|Link to publisher’s page or site|
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|This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.|
“(T)he book vividly evokes the country households of two generations ago. It includes personal opinion, trucs and tours de main (personal tricks), even alternative versions of the same dish, all offered in a warm, practical and personal voice.”
That was Australian chef and food icon Stephanie Alexander on La Mazille’s La Bonne Cuisine du Périgord, but I would say much the same of Alexander’s own work, Cooking & Travelling in South-West France, published in 2002. A record of Alexander’s visits to the region between July 1999 and November 2000, this is part travel diary, part cookbook and 100% addictive.
I can pick it up and read it again and again without the deadening déjà vu that often comes with re-examining lesser works. In many ways, re-reading Cooking & Travelling in South-West France is like revisiting a favourite holiday destination with different company – there is always a greater understanding achieved, another little nugget of useful information or vignette of idyllic but fast disappearing country life.
The book is very well set out, and works through its subject matter in a methodical fashion. A few words about the heritage and history of the region, followed by in-depth focus on the region’s most famous (and also esoteric) products – foie gras and confit, mushrooms, walnuts, truffles and wines – before a rather perfunctory final section on “eating out”. The sections are interspersed with charming anecdotes of her encounters with the locals, including wonderfully charming neighbours and gruff farmers.
The perfectionist streak that Alexander admires in La Mazille is also present here, noticeably in the section on canelés de Bordeaux. Here, Alexander provides no less than four pages of detail as to her various experiments, failures and successes with the little fluted cakes, followed up with two recipes, one adapted from Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of South-West France and the other from Régis Marçon, the three Michelin-starred chef and Meilleur Ouvrier de France. Also of note is Simon Griffiths’ photography; his subjects range across cheeses, landscapes, portraits and food preparation procedure, all captured with remarkable feeling.
I do not want you to think that this book is perfect. When describing architecture or historical sites, Alexander’s language strikes me as being stilted, and loses its evocative quality. I suspect this arises out of the need to provide a view on aspects of the region apart from food, and that Alexander perhaps has little interest in these subjects. Also, I feel that Alexander sometimes over-relies on seminal texts such as Wolfert and La Mazille, for example, in the chapter on walnuts and chestnuts, a full third of the recipes are translated directly from La Mazille (properly attributed, of course). Much of the folk wisdom recounted in the book is also taken from La Mazille, though in the context of trying to give her book a strong feeling of place, one can perhaps forgive this slight shortcoming.
That said, this book is ideal for anyone who loves French regional food and travel. It can sit on the coffee table where my copy proudly rests or it can be a practical guide to the produce and cuisine of the region if you do travel there and find yourself with a kitchen and nearby markets – Alexander makes no concessions to the non-availability of some ingredients in certain other countries (raw whole foie gras, anyone?).
The book is getting on a little in years, but I think it remains as relevant as ever. The concerns expressed in the book (such as the disappearance of artisanal tradition and rural-urban migration) are still as pressing today if not more so, and the recipes, even Alexander’s originals, never stray far from their classical inspiration.
|: 4. Recommended – good
: Quite nice
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