Sunday, August 31, 2008

Age of excess.

Royal Chef- Gabriel Tschumi

As a young chef staring out Gabriel Tschumi got a job, that even today would be considered a great opportunity. He was hired as a cook for the British Royal family. This is not that same Royal family that is tabloid fodder. His time in the kitchen was a little before all that. When he started in his employment Victoria was Queen.

The one thing that stands out in this book is the extravagant excess's that the Royals seemed to go in for. Judging form the menus listed copious amounts of food were a regular thing. How often does one read a culinary book where the roasting of a baron of beef is a regular occurrence?
This was the age of regal excess. The Swiss born Tschmi writes about his experiences in the royal household kitchens as an outsider. Certainly not one who lived that way(who did) but some one who did his duty. There is obvious affection for the families he served, most notably Queen Mary.

Given that it was written 1954( a year after the death of Queen Mary)this is not a salacious tell all. but simply an affectionate memoir. This is good for the reader as it is a window into a time and lifestyle that is long gone. When he started in his employment Victoria was Queen

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Feast of a Book

A Feast Made For Laughter- Craig Claiborne 

I had heard the name over the years but had been unfamiliar with his work. I was certainly I aware of the lasting influence of Claiborne.

The book it's self is a very open and honest account of the man's life. Certainly it was an interesting one. Originally from the deep south Claiborne served in the navy during two conflicts. WWII and Korea. He then attended hotel/culinary school in Switzerland. After a series of jobs he landed at the New York Times. Eventually he wound up heading the food section and transforming it to what it is today. This is at times an intense story. He does go into some deeply personal details about his life growing up in Mississippi. 

Claibrone's story takes up about half the book. The rest of the volume he has divided into two parts. The second of these is a collection of his one-hundred favorite recipes. These run a gamut (but do seem to be a little dated in some cases) from the basics for crepes and English custard to Le Cirque's spaghetti Primavera as well as Mrs. Reardys Shrimp and Artichoke Casserole. But it is the First list that is the most interesting. This is a listing of one hundred-plus 'must' haves for one gastronomic library. Granted there dose not seem to be a opportunity missed to included the works of himself or his friends(but hey why not it is after all included in his book.). It is certainly interesting to see where things stood in to mid 1970's. Especially of note is the international section. Claiborne was a proponent of what was then considered 'exotic' and which we today simply call  Hungarian and Spanish etc. Claiborne was a great proponent of broadening peoples horizons.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Forgotten roots.

The Land That Thyme Forgot-William Black 

Ah...English food there is nothing really quite like it. That statement is can be taken any number of ways. True many a joke has been made at the expense of British gastronomy and not without good reason. But like all countries England has a unique culinary heritage all it's own.

It is in fact a rich history that has somehow gotten over looked and surpassed by the negativity that has grown up around British food. Like any country there is a great deal of local diversity and numerous regional dishes and food.

Black, an Englishman, has taken it upon himself to look into British cuisine, not through the eyes of a critic but more of those of a traveler. He crisscrossed the country looking for the unique and the good. The unexpected and the endangered. 

In return the reader gets a look at a fascinating side of the UK that is often over looked. As well glimpses in to corners of the land that are well off the beaten path. Small producers are profiled and regional specialties tasted. It is somewhat reassuring that there still is some diversity out there. While at the same time one can't help but wonder how much longer some of it can last in  an overly homogeneous and highly regulated marketplace.

It might seem as if Black is on some sort of vision quest.  Perhaps he is trying a little too hard. No. He really can't be too far off the mark, after all given the chance who would not want to spent a couple of days indulging in the current London culinary scene? Fine British food had to have come from somewhere. And that is where Black takes us.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

New York at it's best.

On the Town in New York- Michael and Ariane Batterberry.

There is no question that New York is a city of great food. It has been for quite some time. 

In this book culinary couple Michael and Ariane Batterberry, founders of 'Food and Wine' magazine explore the history of the nightlife of the city. What are the reasons that New York has become such a focal point of the culinary world?Certainly the dinning scene to day bears little resemblance to the way that it was a hundred years ago. They have done a good job of tracing that change.

Certainly this is a well written and documented book. Anyone interested in food will enjoy and find this a most interesting  read. As will anyone who is interested in New York City itself. What the authors have have managed to do is to capture the essence of the place. Not an easy task. New York being the place that it is changes and evolves. A good picture has been drawn of the different stages that the places has been through. This in turn helps paint a bigger picture of the ever evolving culinary scene.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A little something for everyone.

Choice Cuts- A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History. -Mark Kurlansky Ed.

The whole 'savory selection' part of the title really does not do this book justice. This is a vast selection of some very good food writing some from very notable authors. Some of whom are well known for their writing Elizabeth David, Brillat-Savarin. Yet the vast majority however are a little more obscure. These prove to be the real strength of the book. Who hasn't heard of Proust and his madelines? But how often is Verral quoted about his views on peas? How many times have Newfoundlander's feelings about scrunchions been looked into?

Granted one might jump to the obvious question are these opinions that important? doesn't matter. The fact they have as well as many other have been included is the important thing. This is an interesting all inclusive book.

Certainly there is no shortage of information. The selections here range from a whimsical few lines to several detailed pages. The dates range anywhere from 300 BC to close to present day. Despite this impressive collection it is all neatly condensed in to chapter by subject from chocolate to bugs; from eggs to the Germans. What more could you want?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Stuff of Legend(s)

Great Chefs of France-Anthony Blake, Quentin Crewe

In the thirty years since publication this book has gained an almost cult like status. Why? Not exactly too sure. Not that it isn't an interesting book. However it is certainly not the first or the last book to have been written about French chefs. But there is a certain mystique contained within these pages.

Perhaps in part it is due to the timing of the book. It was published in 1978. And while not a chef the formidable Madame point is featured in the book. Half of the others featured worked in her husbands kitchen. Several others wanted to but did not get the chance but it is clear that they were influenced by the man and his work. Not that this is a tribute to Point, at lest not intentionally. 'Great Chefs' chronicles and bridges that moment in time. Things on the French culinary scene were changing 'Nouvelle Cuisine' was all the rage. Gastro-tourism was on the rise and Chefs were getting to enjoy a certain new found celebrity status. In turn these chefs have influenced a whole new generation, or two, how to cook.

The book can be divided into two parts. The first being a profile of the chefs and their restaurants. The reader gets to learn first hand just what it is that has set these people and places apart. The second half is devoted to more practical information. Words form the chefs about cooking, wine, the specialties of the region, and even advice about running a restaurant.

It could also be in part of the photos taken by Blake, documenting both the front of the house and the goings on behind the scenes. They are striking in both black and white and color. Providing glimpses into the professional and person life of a restaurant family.

There can be no doubt that this book can seem dated. Half of those featured have since passed on. Others have retired and sold their restaurants. Yet it is this documentation of a unique time in modern gastronomy that makes this book so interesting.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Part 2...

Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume Two-Julia Child, Simone Beck,

This is the forgotten sibling of the ground breaking volume one. People know it is out there but the first volume gets all of the glory. It is like that Baldwin brother that you have seen in something but can't quite place and doesn't get mentioned by the others. Not that it in anyway is undeserved. It was the book that launched Julia Child and got America into cooking. And like a 'part 2' of a classic film it will always be looked at with some scepticism.

Following the phenomenal (and continuing) success of their first book Child and Beck after buying out the third author in the project Louisette Bertholle, published this follow up book. While the format and layout remain the same it is genuinely considered to be not quite as user friendly. Perhaps it is. Not that all of volume 1 was is entirely for beginners. Volume Two takes into account the it's readers have gotten the basics, which were the platform for volume 1, in hand. This book intently moved beyond all of that and looks at things, to name two, such as bread baking and charcuterie. While both these things are certainly staples of the French table they are not the basics that the average home cook will be needing on a daily basis.

Certainly the reader, weather challenged by the recipes or not, will experience first hand the passion and drive that set Julia Child so far ahead of all others.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Unlikely Idea.

"Spotted Dick S'il Vous Plait" An English Restaurant in France-Tom Higgins

Lyon is considered the gastronomic capital of gastro-centric France. Numerous Michelin three star establishments are but a short drive away It takes some doing to open a restaurant in the city. With so much to chose from one really has to find a way to stand out in the crowd. In 1986 a man with very little culinary experience decided to do just that. As an expat he wanted to cook the food of his home land. The was certainly a niche market as until then there was not much call for English food. None the less Tom Higgins persevered and eventually opened just such a restaurant.

While English food is currently riding high thanks to the visibility of chefs such as Ramsay and White. Perhaps it has even gained some respect in France. This however was not the case when Higgens undertook his project. The feat was documented in his book "Spotted Dick S'il Vous Plait" An English Restaurant in France.

At times one really feels for Higgins and the troubles he has in dealing with French perceptions (not entirely unfounded) about English cooking, and the everyday bureaucracy found in France. Yet it is with a warmth and humor as well as an appreciation for his adopted home town that he tells his story and that of 'Mr Higgins'-his restaurant.

(Several of his most popular recipes are included in the back of the book.)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Devil in the Kitchen

Devil in the Kitchen-Marco Pierre White + James Steen

As far as ‘tell all’ autobiographies go this one seems to tell more that most. There are no groundbreaking revelations. But it is nice to have a celebrity/author talk openly about events from his past without trying to gloss over things. In this case White gives the reader a ‘right or wrong this was the way it was’ point of view. No justification forth coming.

White’s career is legendary, the perfect culinary storm. He was a young dynamic English chef cooking French food in a small out of the way restaurant. The myth was enhanced with the publication of his first cookbook White Heat and the iconic black and white photographs within further added to his mystique. White would go on and become the first British born chef to win three Michelin stars. His personal life became tabloid fodder.

With the publication of this book white talks openly about the his childhood. About what it was like being in the middle of that storm that was his ascent. He freely admits that sometimes things did get out of hand and even explains why it was so. All the while the reader does not feel a sense of someone playing the victim. Instead with White's own eloquence the reader gets the feeling that if anything it has been an interesting and enjoyable ride.