Cookbooks – Taste&Travel Magazine For people who love to Read, love to Eat, and love to Travel Sun, 05 Jan 2020 20:46:48 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Cookbooks – Taste&Travel Magazine 32 32 South Fri, 13 Dec 2019 16:45:50 +0000 Sean Brock shines a fresh light on the cuisine of Appalachia.

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Sean Brock (author of Heritage and the newly released South) is, undoubtedly, an important figure in the American culinary landscape. Writers like Edna Lewis, James Villas, Craig Claiborne and Ronni Lundy have covered similar ground, singing the praises of the homespun cooking of the American south, but that was before the era of the tattooed, rockstar chef and the advent of locavorism as a driving force in the restaurant industry.

The farm-to-table movement is probably the biggest trend to emerge in North American culinary scene in the last quarter century and it has proven to be remarkably durable. Alice Waters, who opened Chez Panisse in Berkley California in 1971, is the acknowledged founder of the movement and her influence continues to reverberate, with chefs honing their focus on local, seasonal ingredients, and the cooking methods – conventional to molecular — that enhance their innate qualities and flavour.

In some parts of rural America, farm-to-table is nothing new. It is the way people whose access to ingredients is limited – whether by geography, season, economic constraints or a mix of all three — have cooked for generations. But as modern chefs have pushed the technical boundaries of their profession and urban palates have become more sophisticated, country cooking is often seen as homespun and lacking in refinement.

Sean Brock set out to change all that, using only ingredients from the South in his acclaimed restaurants Husk and McGradys in Charleston in Nashville. The chef has been a James Beard Award finalist seven times, and took home the award for Best Chef Southeast in 2010.

In his latest book, and the new restaurant he is planning to open in Nashville, the focus is tightened to the cuisine of Appalachia, the region where he grew up, learning to cook at his grandmother’s side. He writes:

“The kitchen was always buzzing at my grandmother’s home in Pound, Virginia. There was rarely a time when some sort of food preparation wasn’t going on.  If you were watching television, you were snapping beans. If you were porch sitting, you were shucking corn or grating cabbage.”

The majority of recipes in South are for classic dishes – shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, catfish, slow-cooked greens, cornbread, biscuits and the like – that are cooked throughout the South and can be found in any number of cookbooks. But interpreted by Brock, whose laser-tight focus and obsessive attention to detail are legendary in cheffing circles, these standards are elevated to new levels of sophistication and taste.

One reason why I chose this book to review was because I was working in Florida at the time and knew I would have access to at least some of the ingredients Brock’s hyper-local recipes call for. Brock provides a list of his favourite artisan food producers in the back of the book but since his premise is to cook with what is native to your region, resorting to mail order seems counter-intuitive. Instead, I concentrated on recipes using ingredients I could find within a 20-mile radius of my lodging.

White Lily flour, country ham and andouille sausage were available in my local supermarket. A farmers’ market yielded pastured beef, turnips with their greens, farm eggs, green tomatoes and sweet potatoes. A seafood market on the coast offered shrimp, crabs, oysters, grouper and catfish. I couldn’t locate Brock’s recommended Anson Mills grits but Dixie Ice Cream Yellow Speckled Grits stone ground by Nora Mill Granary (established 1876) “located in the historic district of Sautee-Nacoochee Valley, 1 mile south of Helen, Georgia” seemed like a pedigree Brock would approve of. Nowhere could I find sorghum syrup or fresh lard, which disqualified a bunch of recipes.

Many recipes in South are pretty basic, but have a twist that lifts them up. Cornmeal-dusted grouper is simply dredged in fine cornmeal and pan fried – but it is brought to life with a zesty, brilliantly green herb puree. Strip steak cooked over charcoal is rested in “love sauce” (a concoction of Worcestershire, fish sauce and garlic) that adds an intriguing complexity to the steak. There are recipes throughout the book for preserves, pickles, ferments and condiments that demonstrate Brock’s knack for refining –redefining even — a rustic cuisine using its own ingredients and techniques.

Strip Steak with Worcestershire

In Brock’s hands, humble vegetables come to life. Sweet potatoes, baked and blended until smooth with milk and vegetable stock, are brightened with fresh orange juice. Adding a dash of soy sauce to mushrooms cooked on the charcoal grill amps up their natural umami. Turnips I cooked several ways – charring them on the grill (the little globes were crisp and slightly blackened on the outside and toothsomely tender within) and cooking their greens directly on the coals. Others I braised in butter, stock and vinegar, a technique Brock says can also be used for carrots, butternut squash or onions. Finally I followed the instructions in an essay titled “How to Cook a Pot of Greens” to use up the leftover turnip tops, with delicious results.

Sweet Potato Puree

The biggest revelation came in Brock’s recipe for Fried Green Tomatoes, which I love, but which are messy to make and so often disappointing when ordered in a restaurant. As Brock explains:

“The problem with most bad fried green tomatoes is overbreading, which can muffle the character and flavour of the tomatoes.” I hear you!

He dispenses with the messy egg wash and flour breading in favour of a bath in buttermilk and a dusting of cornmeal. The secret to success is to allow the tomatoes to rest in the fridge before frying, so that the breading adheres, instead of falling off in the pan. I was so pleased with the result and amazed at the simplicity of the method that I made a second batch just to be sure it wasn’t a fluke. But, yes, I now have fried green tomatoes DOWN!

I’ve also been making Brock’s buttermilk biscuits by the batch. They’re laminated by folding puff-pastry style and baked in cast iron skillet which promotes a quick fluffy rise and a lovely golden crust. They are so easy to make and so delicious, I now understand why biscuits are a staple of the Southern diet.

The only failure I had during recipe testing was with pressure cooking grits. I followed the instructions, soaking the grits for eight hours and pressure cooking for 15 minutes. When I opened the pot, instead of Dixie Ice Cream, I was faced with a pool of gritty glue and a concrete-like mass stuck to the bottom of the pot.

As a control, I cooked the same grits using Brock’s traditional, stovetop method which involves about an hour of standing by the stove and stirring. The result was a creamy and delicious base for an improvised topping of andouille sausage, tomatoes and bell peppers.

Cooking this way from scratch is time consuming. I had to wash those turnip greens in three changes of water to rid them of sand and grit before cooking. The pretty little turnips each had to be scrubbed, topped and tailed; grits have to be soaked, dry beans hydrated. The reality for most of us is that we don’t have time to cook this way, except on weekends. It’s ironic, and more than little sad, that we go out to restaurants in order to eat as if we had cooked at home.

Cornmeal-Dusted Grouper

It remains to be seen if Sean Brock’s impact on the American culinary landscape will be as enduring as Alice Waters’ but following a (well documented) stint in rehab Brock has emerged with an evangelist’s commitment to the pursuit of a wholesome lifestyle, which translates into the type of food he is cooking. These dishes, rooted in the Appalachian foodways of his family, belong to a time and place far removed from rockstar chefdom and workaholic pursuit of perfection. They are dishes designed to renew and celebrate our connection to the land and to the relationships that sustain us.

Ultimately, South is a book for the reader or cook who has more than a passing interest in the culture, cuisine and culinary history of the American south. It goes deep and speaks of spiritual connections – to Europe, West Africa and rural America — that cannot have the same resonance for those of us who are not born of this cultural lineage. But we can learn about resilience and the importance of food and family from Brock’s Appalachian stories, and discover new kinds of deliciousness in recipes that are detailed and clearly written, and in my experience, produce excellent results. Even if you don’t buy a copy of South, do yourself a favour, invest in a cast iron skillet and bake Sean Brock’s biscuits using the recipe included below. Then offer up thanks for this Southern chef’s generous gift.


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Cucina Siciliana Mon, 23 Sep 2019 18:07:58 +0000 Sunny Mediterranean flavours from Sicily in a new edition of Ursula Ferrigno's cookbook.

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The vibrant cover, showing lemons and sprigs of fresh oregano, with its little purple flowers, strewn across a background of blue Mediterranean tiles, grabbed my attention when I first laid eyes on this book. Then the mouthwatering food shots (by photographer David Munns) within. Cucina Siciliana was full of food I wanted to eat!

Ursula Ferrigno is an acclaimed food writer and cooking school teacher in the UK. She is the author of numerous cookbooks — this one being a re-issue of Flavours of Sicily, which was published in 2016. At first glance the books seem much the same – Munns’ lovely food shots are still there, the Introduction and text chapters are the same, but flip to the recipe index and it becomes apparent that quite a lot of tweaking has been done to this second edition.

The letter Q has gone altogether (along with the entries for quails and quinces). Gone too are zhug, baklava, tagines, and boiled eggs with dukkah. Jams and conserves have vanished. Not one of the four recipes I chose to test from Cucina Siciliana were included in that earlier volume. Some explanatory notes to accompany the second edition would have been useful.

But on to the cooking. Some recipes look like weekend projects – Cassata, for example, which calls for making your own sponge cake and lady fingers from scratch, in addition to an elaborate ricotta, nut, chocolate and dried fruit filling, and an all-day Pappadelle with Duck Ragu – but for the most part, the recipes are suitable for weeknight cooking.

Braised Lemon Chicken

First up Pollo al limone (Braised Lemon Chicken), which came together quite quickly for supper. Bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs are dusted with flour and fried until the skin crisps, then braised in wine white with onions, lots of lemon zest, and two sprigs of sage. Once the browning step is done, the dish looks after itself, simmering away on the stove top for about an hour.

While that was going on, I made Insalata di cavolfiori (Pickled Cauliflower Salad) which relied on pantry staples (green olives, capers, roasted red pepper, sun dried tomatoes) plus a handful of parsley from the garden. The cauli is blanched briefly, otherwise no cooking required. And since I had some leftover boiled potatoes in the fridge, I also made Insalata di patata di pantellaria (Pantelleria Potato Salad), which combines the spuds with chopped tomatoes, capers and black olives. Both salads are dressed in olive oil and red wine vinegar.

Two hours after donning my apron, dinner was on the table. The chicken needed a squirt of fresh lemon to punch up the flavour and the once-crisp skin was now flabby and pushed to the side of the plate, but the meat was moist and tender and the braising liquid reduced to a lovely sauce.

The two salads were delicious, with bold flavours and pleasing textures. Served side by side they competed for attention but both are easy and excellent recipes and either one would make a tasty meal simply paired with a piece of grilled meat, chicken or fish.

Pickled Cauliflower Salad

Interspersed among the recipe chapters are short feature articles about different aspects of Sicilian gastronomy — citrus fruit, bread, fish, aperitivo (cocktail hour), gelateria – that make interesting reading and include some fascinating tidbits of information about this Mediterranean island (such as the reason for the Mafia’s interest in owning citrus groves, and the origin of the Americano cocktail).

An essay about Sicilian wine inspired me to pay a visit to my local bottle shop to see what, if anything, I could find from this region. I came back with a bottle of Tasca d’Almerita Regaleali Bianco Sicilia, a blend of three Sicilian grapes (and some chardonnay). It was one of two Sicilian whites on the shelf, and at around the $15 mark, I thought, worthy of a risk.

Provolone con olio do’livia (Pan-fried Provolone with Olive Oil) from the Antipasti chapter, seemed like just the thing to serve with the wine. The cheese (bought as a block, not the ubiquitous slices) is cut into batons and briefly fried in olive oil that has previously sizzled a sliced clove of garlic. When the cheese is getting oozy, it is sprinkled with white wine vinegar and a few leaves of oregano, and served with crusty bread.

Oh my! Chewy bread, warm cheese, fruity olive oil and a marvelous glass of vino. The wine was a lovely match — beautifully dry and crisp, with an herbal note that picked out the oregano, and just enough acidity to balance the richness of the cheese. The dish took all of five minutes to make and was utterly delectable — a simple and spectacular showstopper that transported me to the sunny shores of Sicily. If there is one recipe that justifies the cost of buying a cookbook, this is mine for Cucina Siciliana.

Pan-fried Provolone with Olive Oil

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Coconut Lagoon Tue, 02 Jul 2019 14:40:45 +0000 The first cookbook from Ottawa restaurant Coconut Lagoon.

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Coconut Lagoon is a restaurant in Ottawa that specializes in South Indian cuisine. Its owner and principal chef is Joe Thottungal, a native of Kerala who has called Canada home since 1998.  Coconut Lagoon is his first cookbook, penned in collaboration with Ottawa-based writer and restaurant reviewer Anne DesBrisay.

I know them both. Thottungal won gold in the Ottawa round of the Gold Medal Plates competition in 2016 (now rebranded as the Great Canadian Kitchen Party) and was a fellow judge when I joined the judiciary panel in 2017 (that year Thottungal also won silver in the national Canadian Culinary Championships.) DesBrisay, one of the most respected figures in the Ottawa restaurant scene, has been a contributor to and senior editor of this magazine since its inception in 2011.

It was a proud moment when Thottungal and DesBrisay presented a copy of Coconut Lagoon to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Rideau Hall in April this year, soon after publication. Perhaps not so surprising — it’s rumoured that the PM may have slipped into Coconut Lagoon, the restaurant on St Laurent Boulevard, incognito from time to time.

But none of this matters in a cookbook review – it’s about the book, and more importantly, the recipes.

Thottungal is a master in the kitchen and it fell to DesBrisay to translate his culinary vision into words. A chapter called The Road from Kerala traces Thottungal’s journey from his family’s pepper plantation in India to Canada, by way of Mumbai and Saudi Arabia. DesBrisay has a gift for the human story and tells Thottungal’s with an immediacy that touches the heart. While not exactly a rags-to-riches saga (Thottungal’s family were considered middle class) it is the story of a self-made man who had the initiative and drive to carve out a career quite different from the one that was expected of him. DesBrisay sensitively conveys the combination of innocence and ambition that drove a boy who was happy doing chores in his mother’s kitchen to strike out for an unknown land and a career that has ultimately brought him a slew of accolades.

South Indian cuisine is characterized by the use of ingredients such as coconut milk, cardamom, curry leaves, mustard seed and peppercorns, native to this coastal, tropical region of India. Other spices and flavourings may be less familiar but a chapter devoted to Keralan ingredients explains their uses and gives advice on substitutions where appropriate. Two items you will definitely need before starting to cook from this book — a jar of coconut oil and a supply of curry leaves (frozen are okay).

The recipe chapters are divided thus: Basics, Breads, Appetizers, Earth, Sea, Land, Rice, Drinks & Desserts. The titles are a bit whimsical but once you figure out that Earth means stuff that grows in it, and Land is creatures that live on it, you’re good to go.

The first dishes I chose to cook were Broccoli Thoran and Masoor Dal and Spinach Curry from Earth and Nadan Khozi Curry from Land. The score — after much chopping of onions and measuring of spices — three out of three. Broccoli, stir-fried with chilies, grated coconut and spices, was simple to prepare and delicious. The dal, laced with green ribbons of spinach and finished with coconut milk, was creamy and rich. Made with quick-cooking red lentils (masoor dal), it was also a snap to prepare.

Masoor Dal and Spinach Curry

The chicken curry was a bit more work, most of it measuring and prepping the 20 ingredients called for. But the bone-in chicken pieces, cooked in their bath of spice-laden gravy, emerged tender and deeply flavourful, a result worthy of the labour that went into the dish. Indian cooking is not difficult but it can be complex — made up of a lot of little steps that require some forethought and planning. You’ll spend a lot of time chopping onions, garlic and ginger, for example, so it would make sense to get out a food processor if you’re intending to cook more than one recipe, and to make the sub recipes (ginger-garlic paste, garam masala, ghee etc) in batches.

I invited dinner guests for my next round with Coconut Lagoon.

The menu: Beef Curry (Land) , Pumpkin Erissery (Earth), Kerala Raita (Basics), Masoor Dal and Spinach Curry (repeat!), Mango and Sago Mousse (Desserts). And in a fit of confidence I decided to try my hand at Malabar Parathas (Breads).

The beef, cooked with curry leaf, coconut milk, tomatoes and a host of spices, was delicious. Thottungal uses quick-cooking beef tenderloin at his restaurant but says that stewing beef will work as well. He suggests a pressure cooker for the tougher cut but I used a Dutch oven on the stove top with a fine result.

Pumpkin Erissery was a surprise hit at the dinner table. The squash is cubed and cooked down to an almost mash, then mixed with adzuki beans (that have been soaked and cooked beforehand), spices, fresh chilies and toasted shreds of coconut. The chilies packed a wallop that welcomed the cooling Raita made of yogurt, tomatoes and spices.

Pumpkin Erissery

Spinach dal was on the menu because I had so much of it left over from round one! The recipe (to serve four) yielded easily enough to serve eight or more. But reheated, with a little extra water to loosen it and a fresh cup of spinach stirred in, the dal was every bit as good – better even — as the first time around.

There is always a risk when restaurant recipes are scaled-down for the home kitchen. Thottungal cooks for 50 or more people at a time in his restaurant and presents his food buffet-style. A serving of dal might be a cup or more for a vegetarian, and just a spoonful for someone who wants a little taste of everything. I ran into the same scaling problem with dessert, which yielded way more than we could eat. Fortunately my niece loved the creamy mango pudding so much she went home with the leftovers.

And then there was Paratha. After much needing, resting, stretching, rolling and apprehensively winding strips of dough around my finger, I heated up a cast iron skillet and waited for the magic. Paratha are laminated breads, like croissants, and a good one is a rich, flakey delight. They are one of the stars of the south Indian culinary repertoire and I’d never had the courage to try making them. Now I know why. Mine were tasty enough (slathering on ghee will see to that) but the layers didn’t separate and puff up the way they should. I don’t think this is a fault of the recipe as much as it is a matter of mastering a centuries-old technique. My dinner guests thought the meal was fantastic and my copy of Coconut Lagoon, now spattered with ghee and coconut oil, gets an unequivocal thumbs up. But when I next need a paratha fix, I’ll hop in the car and head down St Laurent Boulevard to Coconut Lagoon.

Beef Curry

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Atelier Sat, 13 Apr 2019 15:46:43 +0000 On the making of Atelier, the cookbook.

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Marc Lepine is an award-winning Canadian chef, owner of Atelier restaurant in Ottawa, and with this 2018 publication, a cookbook author. He’s also, as anyone who has experienced his cuisine can attest, a chef with a singular interest in doing food differently. His style has been dubbed ‘Modernist,’ ‘Contemporary Canadian,’ ‘Innovative,’ ‘Molecular,’ but none of these captures fully the artistry and playfulness he brings to plates.  His dishes are bold, combinations of ingredients are thoughtful and often unexpected, and the knock-your-socks-off factor in plating is ever-present. But it’s the obvious fascination with the ‘fun’ element that keeps the experience of an Atelier 12-course dinner rolling merrily along.

Koji Aged Beef
Koji Aged Beef

In my former role as restaurant critic for the Ottawa Citizen, I’ve written about the experience of Atelier’s 12-course tasting menu many times over the restaurant’s ten years of life. As a judge at both the 2012 and 2016 Canadian Culinary Championships where Marc Lepine secured top honours (the first time in the history of the competition that a chef won twice), I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing his cuisine reach and wow a wider audience.

Two years ago, as Atelier was approaching its tenth anniversary, Marc Lepine asked if I would help him write a cookbook. He felt the time was right to answer some of the many “So how the hell did you do that?” questions he’s been asked over the years. And besides, he told me, it would be fun.  He would take care of the recipes. Would I help him tell the story of Atelier?

Clearly, if you were to ask me for an Atelier book review, I’d bring an obvious bias. (It’s fabulous, by the way: instructive, gorgeous, amusing, inspiring. You’ll love it.) But setting aside the subjective, I think it would be more productive to share what I — a food writer, decent home cook, and long-time student of restaurants — learned during the months worked on this project.  So, here are eight things Marc Lepine said to me that will forever stick in my mind (and might also stick with you).

Marc Lepine
Marc Lepine
  1. KISS (keep it simple, stupid):

“Keep it simple. What does that even mean? It’s a thing you hear all the time in cooking and it’s never made sense to me. Why would I ever want to keep it simple?”

  1. Taking the stage at Grant Achatz’ Alinea restaurant in Chicago:

“It was life changing. In a matter of days, the clear direction for my cooking was locked in. I was in the presence of genius, and I learned a ton in a short time.”

  1. Where the creative process starts:

“For me, the plate is always in my head. Other chefs are driven more by ingredients or technique, but I see the dish — its colours and shapes, the flow of it, how the eater might interact with it and react to it — before I see what’s in it.”

  1. Getting things wrong isn’t so bad:

“We’ve failed so often we’re good at it. (Duck fat ice cream comes to mind…) Failures prompt us to seek different approaches, and they help expand our knowledge base as we seek solutions. When we fail, we just go back to the drawing board… Edible maracas are the latest challenge.”

  1. Kitchen toys:

Atelier’s kitchen has been called an anti-kitchen: it has no grills, no fryers, no heat lamps, no exhaust system — every tool in it can be tucked away in cupboards or taken on the road.

“A machine in any kitchen must serve the purpose of improving the food: making it more delicious, extracting a purer flavour, or adding enchantment to an ordinary ingredient. Otherwise, it’s just a gimmick.”

  1. Top toy:

“A dehydrator is my favourite piece of kitchen equipment: I can use it to manipulate shapes of ingredients, intensify flavour, and, most importantly, bring many of my ideas to life. The most dramatic dishes… wouldn’t exist without it. When chefs call me up for advice on dehydrators, I can keep them on the phone for hours.”

  1. A funny thing about eating:

“I believe a high-end dining experience can be thoughtful without being self-important. It sounds like a paradox, but at Atelier we take whimsy seriously. It’s not unusual to hear laughter around a dinner table. But to laugh at the food itself is, admittedly, odd. And things that are odd interest me.”

  1. Ottawa? How come?

“Ottawa is a terrific city, and I wouldn’t want to be a chef anywhere else. We’re comfortable here as a restaurant. The dining public is well educated and incredibly supportive of chefs, and particularly of a new restaurant and fresh ideas in food.”

Chocolate Pomegranate Mango
Chocolate Pomegranate Mango

It was Lepine’s goal in creating this book to introduce the approach, specialty equipment, and techniques used in many of the recipes on his tasting menus, and then to share those dishes through images and meticulous instructions.  There’s no doubt, this book is aimed at confident, competent cooks looking to up their game, and play around with new tools (and maybe invest in a dehydrator).  Many will make each recipe to completion and draw inspiration from their assemblies. For others, the techniques will be too much, and the equipment required not on hand. The good news is that every recipe in this book has sub-recipes that are easily mastered and may well become treasured in their own right.

And then there will be those who simply gawk at the stunning photographs by Christian Lalonde, keep the book central on the coffee table, and then reserve a table at Canada’s most innovative restaurant. That works too.


Ball of Yarn
Ball of Yarn


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Wild Asparagus, Wild Strawberries Thu, 10 Jan 2019 20:26:21 +0000 A review of WIld Asparagus, Wild Strawberries.

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When Barbara Santich and her husband John relocate from Australia to France, packing up their infant twins and without jobs to go to nor a place to stay, caution is thrown to the wind. It was the seventies; the world may have been no safer than it is today but to many it seemed that way. A mixture of naivety and optimism carry this little family through two peripatetic years in France, during which disaster and delight are delivered in almost equal measure.

Santich is a highly respected Australian food writer, academic and culinary historian, with nine previous books to her credit. In 1977 she was an aspiring food writer who’d fallen under the spell of Paris during a student visit three years earlier and yearned to return. Cajoling her new husband with charcuterie and French cheeses, she convinced him to play along. “In hindsight, it was rash, selfish, scatter-brained, impulsive, improvident, impractical, foolish and ill-advised,” Santich writes. “At the time it seemed perfectly reasonable to leave Australia on a one-way ticket to Paris.”

Barbara and John purchase a second-hand Citroen and travel to the south of France in search of a house to rent. They end up in the village of Nizas, about half way between Toulouse and Marseilles, where their presence raises eyebrows among the local populace. Santich describes the village women peering into the twins’ strollers “poking the children as if they were rabbits in a pot.” Thus begins the slow, often awkward or comical, but ultimately joyful, integration of the Australian family into the life of the village and Santich’s education in cooking the French way.

In the four tea chests of belongings Barbara and John ship to France are a few precious cookbooks, including Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and “all of Elizabeth David.” Despite the fact that these authors were credited with introducing authentic French cooking to the American and British publics respectively, Santich soon comes to realize that recipes have been adapted and compromises made in respect of ingredient differences as well as cultural preferences. She starts looking for recipes locally, picking up a brochure at the market, tearing out columns from women’s magazines, talking to new-found friends and picking up tips from shopkeepers and market vendors. Gradually, by observing, listening and tasting, her understanding of French cuisine develops and dishes like Boeuf aux Carrottes, (beef with carrots) clipped from a local newspaper, become part of her regular repertoire.

Santich takes a quasi-scientific approach in her study of French ingredients, buying the cheapest pâté and working her way up the price scale, paying attention to the subtle variations in taste and quality; and conducting side-by-side taste tests of supermarket butter (Elle & Vire wins). “Butter-tasting is a serious test demanding much concentration and quantities of baguette,” she writes. “I focus my senses, searching for differential nuances of flavour and texture.” She gives the same close attention to fish, chicken, cheese, wine and other French staples, ultimately concluding that “in France, and in food, quality and price have a direct relationship.”

After Nizas, the family rents a house in Provence and a cottage in a forest on the outskirts of Paris. Each lodging presents new challenges and each move is beset with obstacles but Santich has a perennial inclination to see the glass as half full, cheerfully regarding each setback as an opportunity to learn. When the cost of heating their final French abode throughout a damp, cold winter consumes the entire household budget, the family exists primarily on a sack of potatoes, purchased at bargain-bin price from a nearby farm. “At least four evenings a week our dinner is potatoes in one form or another, and I discover how versatile they can be,” Santich writes, including two of her favourite recipes — Pommes de terre au lard (sauté potatoes with smoked speck) and Gratin dauphinoise (potato gratin).

Santich echoes Elizabeth David’s style of recipe writing – conversational, descriptive, and lacking in instructional detail. You’ll need to know what goes into a bouquet garni and that it should be tied with a piece of string; how to peel a tomato (blanch it first), and how to eyeball quantities of ingredients such as olive oil and herbs.

While this vagueness of recipe writing may be frustrating to cooks who are used to the more didactic, North American style, I found that cooking from Wild Asparagus intensified my pleasure in reading it. This is how she must have felt, I said to myself as I followed Santich’s instructions for Haricots verts a la provençale (Green Beans, Provençale-style) and winged my way to producing a cup of tomato purée “made with fresh tomatoes, garlic and herbs.” The bean dish was lovely, fresh and summery, the kind of recipe that is designed for just-picked, seasonal produce at its peak of flavour. I was equally successful (and pleased) with the loosely written recipe for Boeuf aux carottes.

Boeuf aux carottes
Boeuf aux carottes

I don’t know if Santich kept a diary during her years in France; if not, her recall is extraordinary. Her recollections are so crystal clear and full of detail that the sense of time and place conveyed is immediate and immersive. The characters she meets and interacts with, from the haughty butcher in Nizas “Those are not lamb chops, madam, they are mutton chops,” to the vivacious Vivette, a vintner’s wife, come to life on the page with an engaging authenticity.

Santich writes with an ease and fluidity that belies the underlying craft. Words are carefully chosen, prose is evocative but never overblown. Santich wears her erudition lightly (she has a degree in Medieval French Literature, among other academic achievements) but her intelligence infuses every chapter. A keen observer, she is not happy just to look at her surroundings and the people she meets, but seeks to understand them, to unravel what makes people think differently from one another, to walk in their shoes.

Perhaps the most salutary lesson we can learn from Santich’s memoir in our current climate of  xenophobia is that, if approached with a generosity of spirit and an eagerness to learn, the meeting of cultures need not involve clash or conflict. As Santich concludes after two years in France, some like their beans with some snap, others like them stewed. Vive la difference.

Haricots Verts a la Provençale
Haricots Verts a la Provençale

Wild Asparagus, Wild Strawberries is published by Wakefield Press in Australia. To purchase internationally, visit Book Depository –

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