Five Books on French Cuisine

The Whole Fromage

The Whole Fromage

Look, I like cheese a lot. But didn’t think I could get into an entire book on the subject. And as I read the first few paragraphs of The Whole Fromage, my suspicions were almost confirmed and I was considering putting it down because, like cheese (which I’m surrounded by on a daily basis – and I’m not complaining!), a well-edited selection is usually my preferred way to enjoy it. Fortunately I kept going and found myself completely absorbed in the book on les fromage, the subject of Kathe Lison’s obsession. And her book is a series of interesting essays as she traveled around France, visiting cheese producers, from the mountains of the Jura to the caves of Roquefort.

It’s hard to write about cheese because the scents and flavors that come to mind, used to describe the taste and smell of les fromages, aren’t often very appealing; barnyards, cattle pens, rotting milk, and the laundry bin in men’s locker rooms after the big game, often come to mind. But Kathe Lison visited some of the most intriguing cheese regions in France – from Langres to Beaufort, and recounts her visits cheese caves, curd tastings, meetings with artisan cheese producers, and an occasional brush with a cranky character or two.

Especially interesting are her observations about how cheese, while a product of the earth, is now sometimes the result of high-technology, such as Roquefort, where technology help determine how the cheese is fabricated and ripened. As the book winds down, there is an interesting discussion of how a country that was once so anti-fast food that a farm advocate bulldozed a McDonald’s (which has been rebuilt, and the lines are now three-deep at the counter) has embraced technology and standardization to a large degree, including in cheese production. Yet that scientific attention to precision can yield consistently excellent cheese, in addition to the hundreds of other cheeses produced in France – some made in small batches with the milk of local goats, to the giant wheels of mountain cheese ripened in larger facilities up in the alps, then shipped all over the world.

As a cheese-lover myself, it was interesting to read her personal stories as she traveled across France to uncover what makes French cheeses so special. I found the book a terrific read because it was so well-written and explained French cheese from a narrative (and opinionated) point of view – with an obvious deep affection for her subject.


0670025992

Mastering the Art of French Eating

I met Ann Mah a few years ago when she was volunteering at the American Library in Paris. At the time, I had no idea that she had recently married an American diplomat and was biding her time, trying to figure out where she belonged in a city where she’d been left by herself, while her husband was stationed in Iraq. While it may be everyone’s dream to be stuck in Paris, it can be a challenging place, and Ann had to overcome learning the language, and finding out where she fit in. So she decided to take on French gastronomy and learn more about the different foods, which helped her to understand France and master the most famous foods from this country.

Each chapters touches on a different French food – from Salade lyonnaise to Andouillette (which I think you have to be French to enjoy), Ann takes a trip to the regions and learns from the sources the origins of these foods, and how they should be prepared. Each chapter ends with a recipe which helped her make use of her new-found knowledge. The title, and the book itself, Mastering the Art of French Eating, gives a generous nod to Julia Child, the most famous American expat who tackled French cuisine and brought it to cooks in America. And while Ann certainly isn’t comparing herself to la grande dame, there are parallels to both their stories and she credits her as inspiration for someone coming to terms with her life, courtesy of la cuisine française.


The French market Cookbook

The French Market Cookbook

La cuisine végétarienne used to draw snickers when people talked about France, thinking that it’s a country of meat-eaters with little tolerance for anyone who forsook the pleasures of the (animal) flesh. Thankfully times have changed and one sees more and more vegetarian restaurants (or at least meatless options on menus) than in the past, although I’m still waiting for someone to open a major restaurant in Paris that celebrates the bounty of fresh vegetables rather than the rather sad meal I had a few weeks ago where a vegetable tart was covered with dried rosemary (in July!) and dessert was so dark, dense and heavy, it brought back memories of whole wheat and honey-laden desserts best left back in the 1970s.

In the meantime, Clotilde Dusoulier presents 90 recipes in The French Market Cookbook, culled from her Parisian kitchen, which are a breath of fresh air. Everything is easy to tackle, and even the most inexperienced cook could work their way through this book with ingredients that are easily found – no matter where you live.

French cooking is more than just steak-frites and Bœuf Bourguignon, there’s Couscous with Vegetables, which, as she mentions, is as close to a national dish of France as Blanquette de veau. (Pass the harissa!) Tomato-mustard tart sounds like a good way to use up those extra bags of summer-ripe tomatoes, which get baked on an olive oil crust smeared with spicy Dijon mustard. And I’ve got the Chocolate Berawecka (page 193) bookmarked, an Alsatian confection packed with dried fruits, nuts, spices and chocolate. Vive les légumes!


Life is Meals

Life is Meals

Erudite is a word I don’t think I’ve ever used. (And heck, I don’t think I even know what it means.) But from what I gather in my crowded little head, it means something about people knowing more than I do, or being more literate. If so, that would be the case for Life Is Meals by James and Kay Salter. I’ve had the book on my shelf for at least a year and was a little put off by the subtitle: “A food lover’s book of days” as I imagined it to be a book of wispy little vignettes designed to be cheery, but ending up just being a little too-too.

So I was happy to find that the book covered more than just the usual happy notes of gratitude about finding a second layer of chocolates in the bottom of the chocolate box (which, I’ll admit, makes me happy and grateful as well), but I really enjoyed the mix of well-written stories, entertaining and cooking tips, and food and travel-related reminiscences that this couple shared through their lengthy marriage and partnership. There are dips into French culture, like how Alexandre Dumas slipped away for 6 months later in his life to write a wonderfully inaccurate, yet classic, cookbook. How Vatel was put in charge of an important feast and celebration, but when things started going wrong and an order of fish didn’t arrive as scheduled, he’d had enough and threw himself on his sword. And how Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake.”

But those only make up a fraction of the 366 references to days of the year, which also include the day an American president’s daughter was born (and had a candy bar named after her, the Baby Ruth) and how Irma Rombauer, while recovering from her husband’s suicide, wrote the Joy of Cooking, printed three thousand copies at her own expense, and then the book went on to sell over fifteen million copies.

My favorites parts involved truly wise tips on entertaining. Instead of tired ideas like, “Make whatever you can ahead” or “Ask guests to pitch in!” there are real-life stories, like, don’t bring wine to a dinner party because the host may have already chosen one and they will feel uncomfortable if you bring something and they don’t open it, especially if it’s expensive. As a host, make sure you don’t invite “a writer who’s been panned by a critic” to the same party. (Which could easily happen to me because I have a friend who is good friends with a critic who once ripped me a new one – yikes.) And there are cross-cultural observations, such as at a meal in America, we begin eating after everyone else has been served, but in France and elsewhere, it’s more correct to go ahead to dig in.

I also liked (and agree) with the advice about wine since I have a blanket dislike for wine rules, including the one about only drinking red wine with cheese. And for those that can’t be bothered with all that mumbo-jumbo, some feel you can’t go wrong with the simple rule – “White with lunch, red with dinner.” Reading through Life Is Meals is like someone really sharp and wise, telling you 366 really, really interesting things. And I was happy they included that 366th day for leap year as a bonus.


52 loaves

52 Loaves

Although not specifically about French cuisine, bread is certainly a vital part of the French diet and arguably, no other country is associated with bread more than France. In 52 Loaves, William Alexander decided to tackle the elusive art of making the perfect loaf of bread at home. Although seemingly simple (after all, it’s just a wad of flour, water, and yeast), making a good loaf of bread isn’t at easy as it seems. Getting the crust brown and crisp and the interior soft and chewy at the same time took the author a full year, during which time he did everything from grow his own wheat in his backyard, to traveling to North Africa and then France, braving train strikes, French verb conjugations, and bags of “pre-conditioned” flour (with additives meant to speed up bread-making, that they’d bought in anticipation of his arrival) to teach a group of monks how to make their daily bread.

I had this book on my shelf for a while and am not sure why I waited so long to read it, but it was hilarious, honest, self-effacing, and sharply written. With the author’s dry sense of humor, each of the fifty-two chapters creates a perfect story in one man’s quest for the perfect loaf. I’m fortunate to have a slew of bread bakeries to choose from, but for those up to the challenge, the author ends the book with sharing his recipe for the perfect loaf of pain au levain as well as instructions for a French baguette. Neither is especially simple (the instructions for the starter takes up 4 pages, includes 17 steps, and spans 4 days), but for those up for the challenge will likely feel the same sense of accomplishment that William Alexander did when he ended his quest. (As did his long-suffering family, that supported his year-long obsession.) But for those who don’t want to tackle a loaf themselves, the reward is a great read nonetheless.


You can find the book listed online or at your local bookseller.

46 comments

  • Ah David, just when I thought I couldn’t possibly want/ need any more books on French cooking… I have (and love) Clotilde and Ann’s books but now I am pushing 52 Loaves up the list it’s already on and, I mean, Life is Meals? How could I NOT want that?

    • I found his book surprisingly hilarious – he’s writing a book about learning French which should be equally funny. He has a rather dry sense of humor, but his writing is really clever and well-crafted. I also enjoyed Life is Meals as well, which was a good book to take on vacation or for a more casual read since it’s shorter stories.

  • “at a meal in America, we begin eating after everyone else has been served, but in France and elsewhere, it’s more correct to go ahead to dig in.”

    I’d like that to be true, but unfortunately I have never witnessed a meal in France where people don’t wait for everyone to be served… Even if sometimes the usual sentence “Please, go ahead it will get cold” is heard, the other diners will usually still wait with a grin.

  • Wow, what a great review. Excellent timing with holidays coming up (for my list of course!). I still love a good cooking book even with the availability of so many recipes online.
    The The Whole Fromage will be a must. Eating cheese for dinner last month in France for al least 5 of 14 nights was just divine. I even offered “my cheese guys” on Rue Montorguiel to come back to NY with me but alas they wanted to leave the fromage behind! No deal! Wasn’t sure I would make it through customs smelling like all of those fine cheese adjectives….

    Thanks!

  • I’d add Goose Fat and Garlic to the list!

  • Coincidentally, I’m reading the Whole Fromage right now (I’m right in the middle of it) and while the information in the book is fascinating, where is this girl’s editor? It is COMPLETELY disjointed without any flow, even in the middle of an essay.

  • What do you think of Rachel Khoo’s Little Paris Kitchen — I bought in Paris last year….

  • Have to say Bouchon baking is my favorite, although I haven’t read any of these (yet). Just find that everything I make from Bouchon turns out perfectly :)

    Rosie x

  • Kristen: While the book does go from place-to-place, and from idea-to-idea, I didn’t find that a problem because I liked the content and information. I thought there were a lot of original thoughts in the book, which was what appealed to me, although I can see where folks might find it a bit ‘jumpy.’

    Katie: Rachel is lovely and I haven’t seen the book because I was working on a Paris-based book at the time and generally don’t others on similar subjects. But I’ve heard it’s a terrific book and she has a new one coming out as well.

    Sarah1313: If it was the cheese guys at La Fermette on that street, I can see why you’d like the take them home with you (!)

  • I had to smile at your remarks regarding The French Market Cookbook. We’re French immigrants, so I grew up eating ‘normal’ French food, and yes, we ate a lot of fruits and vegetables. Even today, there’s always a basket on the counter filled with apples, oranges and other fruit. I think I’d love this book and can’t wait to check it out. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  • Thanks for the recommendations! I’ve enjoyed others of yours before and will surely follow that lead. I can’t help thinking though about a “Vanity Fair” article that I just recently read about how we in the US tend to gobble up any advice that the French offer on life. Given my longstanding albeit superficial appreciation for French ways and means I had to privately grant the author a touche nod (sorry, I’m weak on my accent-keystrokes).

    • There are a lot of books about France that tend to glorify life in France/Paris, which are very popular. But I also like reading more in-depth books, because I find flaws and imperfections more interesting than stories about stick-thin women and how they entertain, or how they are able to tie a scarf properly, etc. (There are plenty of things the French do well, but there are also things they don’t. Which is true of every culture.) There was a great anthology that I wrote up a while back, Paris Was Ours, that struck me because the stories were so diverse and varied, and reflected some of the complications of a city as rich in stories as Paris.

  • May I send you a copy of Cuisine Niçoise? Regional French, to be sure, but a style of cooking so worthy of notice.

  • I ADORE “Life is Meals” and have given it to my foodie friends.
    It’s the kind of book one can dip into when one wants to read a little something but doesn’t have time to sit down and get into that article or novel.
    You start by looking up your birthday…see what’s listed for that day…and every other significant day in your life, etc.
    I, too, agree with David about the entertaining tips, very helpful, and from the descriptions of their meals and the meals their friends serve, I would so like to be a guest at their table.

    • I found it very interesting, although considering the author’s backgrounds, it should not have come as a surprise. I read it while on vacation & it was the perfect book to sit in a lounge chair under a tree, and reading. (Where I wish I was right now!)

  • Hi! Thanks for these book recommendations; I look forward to reading the four I don’t know. However, as a long-time fan of Clotilde Dusoulier, I had pre-ordered her book from Amazon.fr and it arrived in my Paris apartment this summer, where I immediately made a couple of her terrific recipes. (Can’t remember which ones, unfortunately, and now I’m back in Berkeley and the book is still in Paris — I should order a second copy for here!)

    I just thought you might want to mention that Ms. Dusoulier has a terrific website, which I discovered (just as I discovered yours) through web searches for recipes and then signed on. Like Ms. Dusoulier herself, it’s completely bilingual, and bears the intriguing title of “CHOCOLATE AND ZUCCHINI”. I urge all your readers to check it out! (It’s not at all in competition with yours, IMHO.)

    • Thanks. I always try to link to the author’s website (if they have one) and did link to hers under her name (rather than the name of her site) – but thanks for mentioning it and glad you liked her book so much.

  • I love Clotilde’s recipes! When she came to Toronto, she was one of those authors I was actually nervous to meet because I was such a fan of Chocolate & Zucchini. Completely underrated in the world of cookbooks but deserving of Ottolenghi hype – at least on my bookshelf.

  • You are awesome!! I LOVE reading your blog. Whatever subjects it maybe, it takes a busy mom away from the everyday “sameness” to Paris. I “see & smell” everything you describe.

    Thank you.

  • Oh, I just finished (as in only a day ago?) Anne Mah’s “Mastering the Art of French Eating”, to which I’d been alerted by the ever-smart Heather Robinson (who, as you probably know, blogs at “Lost in Arles”).

    Mah’s memoir (I know….not an adequate term) was just as fine and interesting as I’d been led to believe. It’s right up there with your own work in terms of (and this matters to me) making it clear that REAL life in Paris (my partner, who’s French, and I own his grandmother’s apartment there and, so, know plenty about long-distance plumbers’ bills and other ugly facts of life) necessarily entails a lot more than six weeks of Rosetta Stone (or, for that matter, five summers at the Middlebury Language Schools) and/or memorizing the address of the Ritz. Mah’s book is very REAL….ad quite useful.

    I just ordered several more copies of it, for friends who have spouses in the military and wonder what does one productively do with one’s self during obligatory and agonizingly prolonged separations? That aspect of Mah’s book is really touching and convincingly honest.

    Sincerely,

    David Terry

  • I might have picked up one or two of these on my own, but the way you described them, makes me want to hit the buy button for all five on Amazon right now!

  • Unfortunatelly the food in France changed (and changing) as well. Au revoir the home wholesome slow cooked dishes – people here as well do not have much time to cook, and bienvenue à precooked, processed foods (and McDonalds, Quick, Subway, KFC, you name it are doing very well, merci beaucoup)

  • Just when I thought I couldn’t possible have any more cookbooks! It’s awful in this day and age with the internet because I always end up getting my recipe inspiration online and totally forget about written cookbooks. This is a great reminder!

  • Aloha David, I will be in Paris for two weeks in Nov. I wondered if you would like some macadamia nuts and a bag of Hawaiian salt (good stuff if you’ve never had any)? I am bringing some things to the owner of the apartment I rent and it would be my pleasure to bring something to you as well.

    • I’m fine on everything. In fact, I have too much food – just had two cases of chocolate delivered, which is just in time for the holidays!

  • To me a perfectly balanced meal is a rocher and a tarte framboise. Ann’s book got my vote this year; has something for everyone. Just got back from a 3 week trip around France where I sampled duck, aubergine & fois gras in many permutations, meals that are hard to come by locally. Thank you for suggestions for future reads.

  • I always look forward to your postings. Last night, I was surprised and pleased to see you featured on the television show “The Getaway” having dinner with the show’s hostess.
    You looked very handsome indeed.

    • I haven’t seen the show but Aisha was wonderful, and a native San Franciscan! We had lots to talk about it (that probably didn’t make it) and she was kind of enough to share her fries. Glad to heard I looks (almost) as good as her! : )

  • Ann sounds just like Julia and look how well that turned out !!

  • Thanks David! Your new book keeps popping up on my Amazon recommendation list already! Wish it was out now.

  • So interesting to see 52 Loaves on your list. I read it a while ago and have re-read parts of it. The best part is, I have made his bread and it is the best. The highly hydrated dough is almost sensuous to handle and rises beautifully. Not for those in a hurry. Can’t wait for his new book to come out. He’s even better than Peter Mayle to read at times because he doesn’t drink his way through what he does.

  • 52 Loaves has been sitting on my bookshelf forever (okay, for a year) too! I think you’ve convinced me it needs to get shifted higher up my “to read” list.

    • Definitely pick it up, it’s a great read. I also want to read his previous book, The $64 Tomato – and am looking forward to his next book.

  • David,
    Thank you for the book recommendations. I can’t wait to read all of them. I must say that if I were writing this list, I would add The Sweet Life in Paris… but I suppose you wouldn’t want to be so bold!

  • I see there are two of us named Laura who’ve commented on this post. (I’m the first one — I haven’t had “52 Loaves” unread on my bookshelf, but I would be capable of such a thing, I admit.)

    Just wanted to thank Elaine for mentioning your appearance on “The Getaway.” I just found the link to the short-but-intriguing segment: http://tv.esquire.com/videos/70579-the-getaway-aisha-tyler-devours-classic-parisian-bistro-cuisine Chapeau !

    P.S. What happened to David Terry’s post about Dorie Greenspan? I came on initially to defend her, because not only do I have a signed copy of her cookbook, but Dorie has eaten dinner in my apartment in Paris! (I wasn’t there; I had some wonderful tenants with great connections.) Her recipes are terrific, although I ended up preferring the original “lyonnais” mustard tart she referenced (with tomatoes) to the one she concocted (with carrots and leeks).

    The author of the comment is a huge fan of Dorie, as am I, and his message was intended to give her major kudos (if folks read to the end.) But to avoid people getting the wrong idea, the comment was modified to avoid any confusion. -dl

    • Dear “Laura M”,

      I was joking. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would believe that I seriously thought that “Around My French Table” signified the decline & fall of Western Civilization as we know it. Quite frankly (and no joking), I doubt that any book could do so these days; there’d have to be a lot more folks who actually still read books.

      In any case, (and just for the record?) I admire “Around My French Table” enough to have bought about ten copies for Christmas presents last year. It’s engagingly written, flawlessly (as far as this editor can tell) organized/formatted/illustrated, and genuinely inviting for folks (such as many of my friends) who are a bit intimidated by the usual run of cookbooks. In that regard, it’s a lot like Child’s “The Way to Cook” (I have no idea how many copies of that particularly fine & useful book I’ve given away over the years).

      Sincerely,
      david terry

  • “just had two cases of chocolate delivered”

    Hehe, did you splurge on the “ventes privées” Valrhona offer as I did ?

    It ruined me, but I am happy.

    (sorry to drift off…)

  • If you enjoy Life is Meals, read some of James Salter’s fiction and memoir. A long-time Francophile and under-appreciated American master.
    You wrote, “Andouillette (which I think you have to be French to enjoy.)” Or African-American or Vietnamese, etc.

  • I’m reading Ann Mahs book now and just finished her chapter on andouillette — I like her easy honest way of writing — very pleasurable to read. Also have Clotilde’s cookbook but haven’t used it yet but looking forward to cooking from it soon.

  • If you enjoyed William Alexander’s 52 loaves – you absolutely have to read his $64 Tomato. It is hysterical!

  • So many thank yous for the link to the NY Times article on Paris, then on to London. And do please give us a recipe for that dried-fruit-laden, nutty, seedy, chocolate Alsatian concoction. Sounds terrific to make the day after Thanksgiving.

    Visited Berkeley, dined at Chez Panisse, couldn’t stop imagining you at work near the ovens.

  • Completely off topic, but I just made your milk chocolate ice cream and added vanilla and about 2-3 tablespoons of espresso, and it is so very delicious, I had to write it. Thanks for a wonderful book (and blog); oh, and I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago and had coffee and custard tarts at Comme a Lisbon, it was as good as you wrote.

  • The advice “not to bring wine to a dinner party” is based on misperception of that gift’s intent. A guest brings wine NOT to serve at the dinner, but as a gift, for the host’s cellar. It is never expected to be served then (but may be, if the host wishes.)

    There is no need for the host to be embarrassed not to serve it.

    As for the “tired advice” to make some courses ahead, it is still tried and true. The ability to whisk up gougères while chatting with guests and keeping tabs on a roast is not easy.

    Sometimes it is not the advice that is “wrong”, but the social context in which the advice is interpreted.

  • I agree with la Duchesse. Those of us who have not trained at e.g., Chez Panisse aren’t capable of whipping up three or four courses with guests at the table (or at least I’m not). Planning a menu that includes some items that can be made ahead — at least in part — is essential for a convivial dinner party.

    As an example, I once stupidly cooked a risotto for eight in my Paris apartment. It turned out to be memorable [see http://www.randomhouse.com/crown/features/bittman/recipes/01/asparagus_risotto.php?printable=true but for me it was mostly because one of my very kind guests spent 40 minutes helping me in the kitchen. My other guests barely saw me!

    As for bringing wine to a dinner party, I agree that it is not in poor taste and that the host is not expected to open it. Cela dit, a Parisian friend once informed me that the French traditionally bring flowers — not wine — to dinner.

    P.S. For the last several years I’ve offered to bring dessert when invited for dinner, and my Parisian friends — none of whom are professional bakers — have never turned me down. (Usually I bring a gateau “de chez Bazin” but sometimes I bake my famous carrot cake.)