The Country Cookbook: seasonal jottings and recipes
by Belinda Jeffery
Publisher: Penguin (Lantern), Country: AU
ISBN: 9781920989965, Year: 2010
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

Belinda Jeffery is an Australian author who has published other collections of her recipes (Mix & Bake, Belinda Jeffery’s 100 Favourite Recipes, Belinda Jeffery’s Tried-and-True Recipes) and contributes regularly to delicious magazine. She has had a long history working in various media and as a chef and teacher. The Country Cookbook chronicles her move to the country, the hinterland behind Byron Bay in northern New South Wales and, in her words, is both a celebration of and a thank you for the kinder and simpler life she and her husband have found away from the city.

Review

Structured as a monthly diary it begins a little idiosyncratically on 1st December, the first day of the Australian summer and also the anniversary of their move to their new country home. I’m not a great fan of the diary format. Despite the fact (a) Belinda and her husband Clive sound like the sort of people you would enjoy having a meal with, (b) the stories of people they meet, the places they go and the wildlife that they encounter are interesting enough in a bucolic sort of way, and even given that (c) the diary notes are well written (not too florid or effusive), I’m not sure that I really want to wade through all those words! Reading someone else’s diary is a bit voyeuristic and although I appreciate that this format suits the author’s intentions and I will concede that she paints a very inviting picture of the area in which she lives I’m not really convinced this is the best approach. Perhaps I am just overly anxious that it is necessary to read every word in case there is some hidden treasure of information somewhere that I might miss.

That said, this is the only real negative comment I have. Grouping the recipes together to suit the seasons obviously makes a lot of sense and there are enough recipes for each month to give inspiration to use what is fresh and at its best.

There is a feeling of the Country Women’s Association about this book, and I mean that as a compliment. From the ‘knitted’ spine and the simple and very attractive photography to the straightforward recipes themselves, this book radiates safety, comfort and reliability. It actually feels like the kinder and simpler life it celebrates. In fact, I was so beguiled that I even tried one of the recipes (Rainbow Chard, Cheese and Almond Tart) which requires making pastry – something I normally avoid like the plague – and the results were very satisfactory. Altogether it is a very classy presentation, well illustrated (cute drawings by James Gordon of bugs, beetles, plants and nests on some of the pages, photographs of not just food but the location and the local wildlife by Rodney Weidland who is also a character in the story), and well set out with easy to read ingredient lists and step by step instructions.

There’s nothing challenging or frightening about the recipes here, no complicated methods or fancy ingredients (although you might be unfamiliar with rosellas, the fruit not the parrot, and not everyone has access to banana leaves). Which is not to say that they are boring or uninteresting, although there isn’t necessarily anything dramatic and unconventional either. There are classics like shortbread, scones and Christmas cake alongside hearty soups and casseroles, salads, cakes and desserts. Star Anise Chicken and Fragrant Coconut Salmon in Banana Leaves* sit next to An Autumn Casserole of Lamb Forequarter Chops with Red Wine and Thyme and classic Cauliflower Cheese. And on the sweet side for example there’s Pastel de tres Leches, a simple Apple and Cinnamon Crostata (more pastry!) and a truly tempting Flourless Chocolate, Pecan and Prune Truffle Cake. For me Thai-Style Chicken ‘Rissoles’ with Chilli Dipping Sauce pretty well sums up Ms Jeffery’s down-to-earth Australian approach – a rissole is a good old rissole, not a ‘pattie’ or a ‘cake’ but that doesn’t mean it can’t be tasty and modern [Editor's note: for Australians, 'rissole' is a simple, out-of-fashion word for a large, very thick meat pattie or ball.]

Two things about this book really won me over. First and foremost, the care and attention Ms Jeffery has given to writing the instructions for each and every dish is outstanding, and is testimony I think to her experience as a teacher. Her hints and explanations take you through every step of the process, what to do and what not to do, what to watch out for and why. The result is the next best thing to having the author in the kitchen with you. Instructions like these should inspire confidence in even the most hesitant cook – even I can make pastry that works with Ms Jeffery to guide me.

But the real cherry on top for me was the ’sippets’. I don’t think I have ever seen this word in print before and the only person I ever heard utter the word was my mother, who saw no point in glorifying chunks of fried bread with the fancy title of ‘croutons’ when there was a perfectly good and much more suggestive word like ’sippet’ available. (Belinda Jeffery uses them as a garnish for another classic Split Pea and Ham Soup.)

This is a book very much grounded in a particular place and celebrates a particular lifestyle which might limit its appeal, although keeping the secret of the life to be had in northern New South Wales might not be such a bad idea for those who want to continue to enjoy the peace and quiet. The recipes and ingredients are not limited to a particular time or place (except perhaps the rosella jam which is a bit of a novelty for most Australians) and the range of good, solid ideas here would make this book a very good choice for anyone new to cooking. Without getting too involved in the hoary old issue of what constitutes Australian cuisine this book demonstrates what is best about cooking in Australia – access to an amazing range of fresh produce and flavour influences from all over the world.

* I know this makes me sound like a grumpy old pedant but if Fragrant Coconut Salmon in Banana Leaves can be indexed under ‘f’ for fragrant and ‘c’ for coconut why isn’t it also under ’s’ for salmon and perhaps even ‘b’ for banana leaves?

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 4. Recommended – good
Visual appeal: Attractive
Suitability as a gift: Likely to be strongly appreciated
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Rating: 3.5/5 (4 votes cast)
The Country Cookbook, Belinda Jeffery | 2010 | AU, 3.5 out of 5 based on 4 ratings

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