I want to go to Provence. In 1970.

There was a secret shared, and in time, the secret was widely shared. It was beautiful. Tasty and life-affirming, too. And many of us benefit from it every day of our lives.

Before 1970–give or take a few years either way–we ate frozen and canned foods, modern conveniences for the busy family. Fresh food wasn’t on the radar (and certainly not on the Radarange). Restaurants weren’t modern, not yet focused on locavores, or for that matter, shared cuisines beyond, say, a local pizza or Chinese restaurant.

What changed? Lots of cultural norms–greater awareness, shifted sensibilities, a focus on nutrition and fresh foods. This didn’t happen magically. It may have begun, in earnest, in 1970, when several iconoclasts gathered in nearby homes in the south of France. They changed the way we think about food, and if food is life, they changed the way we think about life, too.

They were Julia and Paul Child, whose rough contours were sketched in the film Julie & Julia. And, to a lesser degree, Simone Beck, who co-wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” with Julia, and whose insistence upon classic French tradition emboldened Julia to think more clearly about the real world of American moms (few American dads cooked–except outdoors). There was the travel / food / free spirited writer M.F.K. Fisher and the American food expert  James Beard, struggling through an extensive survey of our unique and sometimes inexplicable cuisine. And several others who cooked together, argued, and savory the good life that was making its way to Sonoma and Napa.

Their story is told by Ms. Fisher’s nephew, Luke Barr in a book that’s becoming quite popular. It’s called Provence, 1970, and it provided a  winter weekend’s entertainment. There are menus, and they lead into wonderful stories of friends building meals together– serious cooks experimenting and showing off for their foodie friends. It’s loose and informal, and I kept fantasizing about what it might have been like to join them, if just for a night. Few nonfiction books draw me into the story in quite this way, and it was fun to be a part of it, if only as an observer nearly fifty years later.

It’s now available in paperback, but there’s something about the hardbound edition that’s even more appealing.

Enjoy!

BTW: The complete title is “Provence, 1970: M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste.” Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of NPR.

M.F.K. Fisher, clearly enjoying life.P.S.: I think I need to read more by M.F.K. Fisher. One intriguing title is a 1942 book called “How to Cook a Wolf.” I found a review of the book when it was new in the digital catacombs of The New York Times. They wrote:

Mrs. Fisher writes about food with such relish and enthusiasm that the mere reading of her books creates a clamorous appetite. She also writes with a robust sense of humor and a nice capacity for a neatly turned phrase.”

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Stinking Bishop, or Why British Food Rules

The cheese is named for the Stinking Bishop pear, which is used to make the perry used to rinse the cheese at it ages. The cheese is soft, produced in limited quantities from the milk of once-nearly-extinct Gloucestershire cows. The great care associated with this special cheese is not unusual. In fact, special attention to local foods was a hallmark of my recent journey through the Cotswolds, the English countryside just east of Oxford. Never have I taken a trip where fresh food was so abundant, so front-and-center. If you’re still caught up in the mythology about lousy British food, reality has passed you by.

While we’re on the subject of cheese, I should note two very special cheese shops, one in the Cotswolds railroad village of Moreton-on-the-marsh (beautiful old main street, endless shops and old inns, railroad just a few blocks away). The Moreton shop is called Cotswolds Cheese Company; the one on swanky Jermyn Street in London is Paxton & Whitfield. In  Moreton, I tasted my first Single Gloucester (mild, classy and grassy, but nothing to get me excited about), and my first Double Gloucester (lots of fresh character, earthy, stronger and richer flavor), and also, a Burford (a simple, smooth cheddar). I bought a small hunk of each, a baguette and a blackcurrant-apple juice, and ate lunch on the short train trip to Oxford. In the second, I tasted Stinking Bishop and then benefitted from a very friendly cheesemonger who introduced me to several British cheeses, including an ale-washed Caerphilly that I happily munched whilst window shopping along Jermyn Street (where their London store is located). Great cheeses, all local to Britain, most produced within a two hour drive.

When I visited the Cotswolds, it was asparagus season, and, seemingly everywhere I went, delicate smoked salmon was available. I combined the two, as an appetizer, at Bourton-on-the-water’s Rose Tree Restaurant, and learned something about the taste of fresh English asparagus. It’s sweet. The taste resembles American asparagus–even my local variety here at home–but only somewhat. The flavor is delicate, and welcoming. And, apparently, May is its favorite time of year. I followed by Beef Wellington with local mushrooms and local beef. This was in keeping with another modern, organic restaurant in the same village, The Croft, where I enjoyed one of the beefiest, freshest tasting hamburgers I’ve ever eaten, and also, a tasty Steak and Ale Pie, the latter being a house speciality also available with chicken or fish. Of course, the ale was local.

If there was any lingering doubt about the quality of British country food, a visit to Daylesford Organic presented an extraordinary argument in favor of the flavor and beauty of fresh food. (To learn more, here’s a whole page filled with videos.) I wanted to try every gorgeous fruit and vegetable, then sit down for a proper dinner to enjoy the local, organic fresh meats, and then, dessert. But it was just 10 in the morning, and all I could fit into my post-breakfast appetite was a delicious little scone. Next time, I will build at least one day’s meals around a visit to Daylesford.

Back to Bourton. Here’s dinner at the Dial House, known for its local cuisine and extremely creative dishes (a completely delicious meal, worth the drive to Bourton the very next time you visit Britain):

  • Canapes – Ballantine Ham hock with cornichon (French gherkin) gel on top, smoked butter foam with poached mussels
  • Cauliflower with white truffle oil
  • Homemade – carmelized shallots with garlic and cumin
  • Salmon with lemon air with fromage blanc, keta (caviar), crispy salmon skin, panacotta and cucumber
  • Cornish Brill with cep purée (mushroom), sea aster (flower resembling a daisy)
  • Yuzu (Japanese lime/lemon) with coconut sorbet and chocolate strands
In fact, you should stay over (I did, at the Halford House, a B&B owned by the Dial and just blocks away), if for no other reason than to head for nearby Bibury and the fresh smoked trout (from the trout farm just down the road), and the excellent smoked salmon, both served at a fancy local establishment called The Swan.
Bourton-on-the-water and other Cotswolds villages are not very far from London, just about a 90 minute train ride to another world, a place largely untouched by the industrial revolution, a place whose focus is now shifting toward serious local food. One chef behind this trend is Rob Rees, a visionary I met over tea at Sudeley Castle in Wynchcombe; his unabashed promotion of the region and its stunning food is something you ought to know more about. Rob speaks eloquently about the importance of farm foods, and a local food economy, and more broadly, about the importance of proper food for growing children. He brings industry, government, and family kitchens together in ways that are altogether unique, as explained on his web site.
Oh, I nearly forgot about the side trip to Canterbury, which is on the eastern side of London (Cotswolds are on the west). Take the train to Canterbury West (there are two train stations), and when you walk out of the station, look immediately to the left. You will see an old train shed turned (six days a week) into a local farmer’s market called The Goods Shed. Sample the smoked haddock, made just outside of town, and note the smooth, non-fishy, salty-sweet flavor. Try the fruit-enhanced Florentine cookies. Taste the apple cider, also from nearby. Then, do the cathedral and your shopping, and return for dinner (here’s the spring 2012 menu). Mine included perfect scallops. The restaurant menu is built from produce available at the market.
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Me, I’m just back, ready to write some more about British food (a topic I never thought I would ever write about), this time from Cardiff and Pembrokeshire. More later. Meantime, enjoy Bourton-on-the-water in the photo below.

Food: The Meta-layer

Past few months, everybody’s talking about the meta-layer. We don’t just watch TV. We add a meta-layer, tweeting about the Academy Awards, commenting on comments–ideas piled on ideas. We’re learning to comment on everything, with or without the requisite knowledge of the facts involved, rarely with the research needed to form a coherent opinion.

Not so with Mr. Gopnik, whose past stories about his young family’s life in Paris (Paris to the Moon) and their return to Manhattan (Through the Children’s Gate) are among my most-recommended books, and whose 2011 book, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food has provided several months of nourishing food for thought, or thoughts about food, probably some of each.

Where did restaurants come from? Who came up with the idea of not just eating outside the home, but dining there? (Long answer, begins around the French revolution). Quite rightly, he compares the restaurant customer to an aristocrat, accustomed to being served (and served beautifully). Gopnik delights in grazing through the thoughts of Brillat-Savarin and Grimod–two early, influential writers about food and dining–but I like the bit that he found in Robert Frost best:

“Home is a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. A restaurant is a place where, when you go there, they not only have to take you in but act as though they were glad to see you. In cities of strangers, this pretense can be very dear.”

This is a book in which New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik thinks about food, and thinks about how others think, and have thought, about food. He goes deep, with some chapters so mired in philosophy or history that they eventually become indigestible. Fortunately, these are exceptions. And when the going becomes thick, he pauses for to write an email to Elizabeth Pennell, who wrote with intelligence and wisdom about food about a century ago; these chatty emails cover the true benefits of cinnamon, the best ways to cook lamb, the extraordinary use of hot air in the hard-to-find and hard-to-cook pommel soufflés, his dog Butterscotch’s love for steak, and other lighthearted stuff.

Adam Gopnik is a regular contributor to The New Yorker.

This is not a book to read over a single meal. It is, instead, book to be savored, bit by bit, over several months. There is simply too much information, too many glimpses and meta ideas, too much richness and provocation and serious research, to be enjoyed quickly. It is slow food for the brain–imagine that, in an era of emails and tweets–much of it about topics I’ve never really thought much about.

For example, Gopnik compares “cook it at home” recipe books that restaurants sell with the home game version of, say, Hollywood Squares. Certainly, there is a resemblance, but the resources and the spicing are entirely different, and so is the experience. He tells a long and funny/odd story about his search for a live chicken that can be purchased, cooked, and eaten within the bounds of New York City, and another about the cleverness of farming tilapia to feed large urban populations, then adds the zesty meta-layer, invoking Adam Smith and the total cost associated with what he believes to be a current fad for localism. And so:

“If Kenyan greens take less total energy than Plattsburgh tomatoes, then we should revel in them no matter how far they have to travel.”

And so it goes, through questions about whether we really can taste the differences between wines (or whether the situation and the artifice overpower the actual human capacity for taste), the imperfection of memory as it applies to the fancy French restaurants of 20th century Manhattan, why sugar was used mostly to flavor tea in England but became the impetus for the pasty industry in France, the various ethical arguments for and against the slaughter of animals for human consumption, and so much more.

As with his own food choices–today, spicy beans and rice, tomorrow, a complicated and challenging attempt at a classic French dish from a century ago–some sections are rich with friendly storytelling and some are thick with pretense, serious thinking, and historical reconsiderations. Unlike Twitter, you need not absorb every idea in an instant. There is time enough to consider the meta-layer, to appreciate the fine writing that has long been Gopnik’s strong suit, time enough to think about what Gopnik has said about what others have said and done, and perchance, to learn something about their ideas by reading Brillat-Savarin in the original (on my list, but not for this year).

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