When I was in my twenties, my parents sold all that they owned, took a suitcase of money and moved from New Zealand to the Dordogne valley in the south of France, where they bought an 11th-century chapel that had been converted into an impossibly romantic dwelling.
I was living in London at the time and late in the summer of the year after their move, I spent a week with them, sleeping on a cot bed beneath a stained glass window in the attic of the church. There was a massive fireplace in the main chapel, a sacred spring in the cellar, a lean-to kitchen and an outdoor bathroom with a claw-foot tub screened by a trellis of roses.
One morning my father and I drove to a nearby hilltop village – an ancient one with stone ramparts — and sat beneath an arbour of grape vines in a cobbled square, enjoying a glass of pastis and a few slices of chewy saucisson. Later we visited a glass-blower’s shop and I picked out a green, long-necked wine jug with bubbles encased in its walls. We followed the winding course of the Dordogne River on our way home, stopping at the market in Sarlat for cheese, baguette and Périgord foie gras.
I have eight of Tessa Kiros’ ten books and until now had never cooked from them. Kiros is a cook with the soul of a poet, and a writer unlike any other. I reach for her books — usually with a cup of tea or a glass of wine in hand — not because I’m looking for a recipe but because I want to dream and drift, to be transported by her whimsical, impressionistic prose to faraway places and perfect remembered moments, like that summer with my Dad.
Kiros has an unparalleled ability to capture the sensory aspects of travel. Like her previous volumes (covering Venice, Tuscany, Greece, Portugal and Scandinavia, among other locales), Provence to Pondicherry is also beautifully styled, with evocative photography and graphic design elements that recreate the feel of a personal journal. Turning the pages, it’s easy to slip into the romantic landscapes of her imagination.
As the subtitle Recipes from France and Faraway indicates, Kiros follows the path of French maritime explorers, examining how Gallic culinary influences have melded with local cooking culture, ingredients and traditions in territories that were colonized by the French. She begins her journey in Provence, travels to Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, Vietnam in Southeast Asia, Pondicherry in India and the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, ending her journey back in France, this time in Normandy.
Determined, for the sake of this review (and to give Kiros her due as a recipe writer), to get out of my armchair and into the kitchen, I pledged to cook one recipe from each of these lands (they are presented in the book as chapters).
Of Provence, Kiros writes: “I had always read of these Provençal images: the closed shutters, sun shining through the leaves of plane trees and their shadows that fell onto surfaces. The sounds of cicadas and pastis glasses scattered on bar tops. Life flowing from one calm day into another….”
I made Entrecôte à la Anchoïade – steak with an anchovy salsa. “Anchoïade is a wonderful thing: intense and lovely” says Kiros. And so it is. Anchovies and garlic, mellowed by a sizzle in olive oil, then mixed with thyme, parsley and red wine vinegar. It was excellent on the grilled steak and the leftover sauce, as she suggests, is good with boiled potatoes, and even better on toast.
On to Guadeloupe: “Boudins, daubes, ratatouilles — at first glance dishes directly from the kitchens of France, but closer up there are local ingredients and sunshine mingling in the marinades.”
I liked the sound of a sunshiny marinade and Poisson Grillé et Sauce Créole delivered. A whole fish, marinated with herbs and chillies, grilled and served with a lime-spiked garlicky sauce. Kiros calls for red snapper, which she ate on the beach, but landlocked in Canada I used a lake trout caught by my neighbour – not from the sea but certainly fresh. The Créole Sauce (or chien as it is also called in Guadeloupe) kicked that ole trout right into the stratosphere. My kitchen was filled with the aroma of frying garlic and chillies, the perfume of fresh herbs and the tang of freshly squeezed limes. The sauce was bright and zesty – a chien with just the right amount of bite. (A minor quibble with this recipe – there is no need to peel a tomato if you are going to grate it. Just cut it in half and grate the cut side and the skin will be left behind in the palm of your hand.)
In Vietnam Kiros muses: “I have eaten young rice and broken rice and sailed on the perfume river. Dreamed of eating duck with kumquats. Watched people drinking snake blood and swallowing the heart, eating live-fried silkworms and duck embryos. Coffee with frozen yogurt and coconut. Mung bean cakes with tea. And all the time I kept thinking it was a dream.”
Mercifully, no fried silkworms in this chapter but you will find the duck with kumquats and the superb Iced Coconut Coffee. The recipe calls for cold, strong Vietnamese coffee (I substituted espresso) and a simple ice cream made with coconut milk and sweetened condensed milk. This was a delicious, exotic treat, perfect for a dinner party, especially if served a la Kiros, in a French glass tumbler with an antique spoon. In this chapter I also bookmarked the recipe for Bo Sot Vang — a marvelous sounding beef daube with red wine, flavoured with Asian aromatics and served with rice noodles.
Next, Pondicherry: “Nowhere to stop and take a breath, no break from the sights and sounds and smells. It is hyperbole and surprise all the way. Everyone holding hands, pressing through tailors, animals and flowers to get on with routine things. Drivers announcing their arrival on every corner with the horn.”
There are many appealing dishes in this chapter, for curries and dal, dosas and the like but I was drawn to one of the simplest – chapatti – because although I’ve mastered naan, I’d never made these more basic, unleavened breads. They came together, as promised, in minutes and blistered nicely in a cast iron skillet.
Kiros makes her penultimate landfall in Réunion where: “We swirl on towards the ancient, extinct volcano with its open crater in the middle – like a switched off oven on the moon. There must be a million species of flowers and trees out here among the gorges, valleys and waterfalls, many of them seemingly untouched by human hand.”
On my terrestrial stove I made Catherine’s Rougail Saucisse — pork sausages braised in a tangle of onions, bell peppers and chillies. Kiros suggests serving it with rice but I had the warm chapattis at hand so I used those. Many Réunionese are of Indian descent, we learn in this chapter, so it didn’t seem too much of a stretch.
Finally, the bucolic countryside of Normandy: “The scenery here is an open menu. Rich pastures studded with dappled cows, plump with milk, cream, butter, caramels and cheeses-to-be.”
I was tempted by the recipe for sea salt caramels, but settled on La Teurgoule Normande – rice pudding.
I love rice pudding, but not the overly sweet watery stuff I have had in America. Kiros’ recipe calls for just a scant ½ cup sugar in a dish that serves six. This is a hands-off dessert that cooks for three hours in a low oven after you’ve boiled the milk. My oven runs hot and the pud was a bit more solid than I would have liked but this was easily solved by topping it with the remains of the Vietnamese coconut ice cream, which melted into a sauce.
In her chapter on Provence, Kiros writes: “If you write down the dishes of Provence onto bits of paper, mix them up, pick one, then a couple more – then mingle the whole lot together – you will see. How you can slide one into another, swap one for the other. The colours, the fabrics, the food. Seamless. Nothing is out of place. Quite extraordinary. Chapeau!”
The same can be said about cooking across the chapters of this book, mixing and matching recipes from different lands. For this cook, the proof was indeed in the pudding; the flavours on my plate more than a match for Kiros’ beautifully crafted words.