Book Review: My Life in France

My Life In France is a biography of Julia Child, one of the key figures in bringing French cuisine to America, and one of the first TV chefs. Written jointly with Alex Prud’homme, the great-nephew of Julia Child, the story starts in Paris where Julia and her husband Paul resided. As Paul worked for the US government, Julia developed an interest in cooking, eventually studied at the famous French cooking school Le Cordon Bleu. The book takes you through the culinary successes (and occasional failures), restaurant meals eaten in Paris, and the habits of other gastronomes of Paris at that time, as well as illustrating some time spent in Provence, Germany, Norway, and of course the USA. All of these experiences well-equip Julia, and her collaborators, to begin working on a cook book, which became a classic, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Eight years of hard work went into the cookbook, and the love and devotion towards it are evident.

What struck me most about My Life in France was the relentless enthusiasm about French food, wine, and gastronomy. Exact menus of meals eaten forty years ago can be recalled, with the Chateau and vintage of the bottles of wine drunk with them. Anecdotes about pots and pans and the attention given to shopping in markets help relay such passion, that it would be hard not to become more excited about food after reading this. Another enjoyable aspect of the book is the insight given on cooking at different parts of the 20th century. From cooking with different kind of stoves, to the availability of ingredients and recipes, or just the changing of attitudes towards food and cooking, you learn a lot of cultural history through considering gastronomy. A few of the couple’s photographs are printed, which help give a better sense of their experiences. Overall, the book is well written, clear, very enjoyable to read, and so comes highly recommended. 9/10.


Two Can Dine for £10

The Marks and Spencer Offer

Mrs. Oxfood and I often take part in the Marks and Spencer’s offer “Two Can Dine for £10”. For those who aren’t familiar with the offer, on various weekends, M&S give you a choice of a main course, a side dish, a pudding, and a bottle of wine (or non-alcoholic alternative) for £10. Although the weekend is often when I do a lot of my cooking, the option to just pick the menu we fancy, with little washing up or other effort, and to try something different is often a tempting one. Don’t think the food isn’t good quality food either. We’ve had beef wellington, salmon en croute, whole roast chickens, soufflés- food that would be a real effort to match in quality at home. “Two Can Dine for £10”, or, as I used to call it as an undergraduate, “one can dine like Lucullus for £10”, would be a good offer on the basis of the food alone.

So, given that you always pay more for pre-prepared food, I wanted to see if I could beat the M&S offer at home, trying to match the quality and price. I usually pay attention to the cost of food and where money can be saved, so hoped I could make the most of my £10. The first question was then how to divide up the £10 among the food I had to produce. A bottle of wine was clearly going to be the most expensive item. The M&S wines I’ve had have been pretty reasonable, and nowadays it’s hard to find a reasonable bottle of wine under £5, so half of the money would have to go on wine. After that, things get tricky. To match the M&S quality, I could have just make a simple stew, which would have been very cheap, but anything ‘exciting’ with meat in would just ruin the budget. So meat and fish were pretty much out.

However I tried to go about designing a menu, the lesson was very clear: you need to have a well stocked store-cupboard. Every recipe idea I came up with involved “a third of x” or “a coating of y”, which would bring the cost way over £10 if you had to buy all the ingredients, but if you have them already in stock, your cooking becomes cost-effective. Whenever I use a recipe with a new ingredient- even something obscure like pomegranate molasses- I’ll buy it, just so I have it for next time. Here, I’ve made use of a large bag of dried porcini mushrooms I bought, which were expensive at the time, but used in small amounts over many meals they have gone a long way. I would really recommend having a well stocked kitchen, it takes a while to set up, but will make your cooking a lot more economical.

With no meat or fish, I went for a mushroom risotto, which is one of the few vegetarian dishes I’ll often order. You only need a few ingredients, and it is easy to make, albeit not simply putting things in the oven like the M&S menu. However, it was still difficult to get a high-quality risotto to come in for much less than £5. I had to give up on the side dish, and really skimp on the pudding, going for a “posh jelly”, which looked and tasted nice, but wasn’t much more exciting than fruit and jelly. Enjoyed with a northern Italian white, the meal we had was very nice. But with all the time and effort put into it, it wasn’t a contest between my attempt and what we could have had from Marks and Spencer’s. It’s a brilliant offer, great value for money, and comes highly recommended from the Oxfood household.

Physalis and Tangerine Jellies

Wild Mushroom Risotto

20g dried porcini mushrooms (cost £1.25)
200g risotto rice (cost 50p)
200g closed cup mushrooms (cost 85p)
100g mascarpone (cost £1)
1 tbsp mixed herbs (cost NA)

1. Make the risotto. Soak the mushrooms for 15 minutes in 800g water. Strain the water through a muslin into a pan. Heat the mushroom stock, and add the risotto rice and herbs, and simmer until the rice has absorbed all of the stock. Pan fry all of the mushrooms, and add to the risotto. Finally, stir in the mascarpone.

Physalis and Tangerine Jellies

1 pack tangerine jelly (cost 40p)
1 pack physalis (cost £1)
whipped cream to garnish (optional)

1. Make the jelly. Peel the physalis, leaving two left over to garnish. Put them into the bottom of a glass. Make the jelly according to the packet instructions, and pour on the physalis. Leave to set for 4-5 hours. Garnish with the remaining physalis and whipped cream if using.

Wild Mushroom Risotto

Book review: Vino Italiano

Italian wines can be confusing at the best of times, and with a large number of different grape varieties that aren’t grown much outside of Italy, it can be difficult to know where to start. Vino Italiano, by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch, fills this hole nicely. It breaks down Italian wine region by region, discussing red, white, sparkling and sweet wines, and the different methods and regional styles for each. There are many useful wine maps, both of Italy and given regions, and well designed summary pages for each region, which are useful if you just want to use the book as a reference.

What jumped out at me though was the book’s accessibility. It doesn’t assume you know anything about Italian wines or grape varieties. Each chapter begins with an anecdote about the region of interest, talking about the people, climate, and history, so you really get a taste for the region, rather than just a list of facts. For each region, there are designed tastings, so that you can go through some wines with guidance if you want, and a section on food with the wine, with recipes for local cuisine. There is serious discussion on wine-making and viticulture too, with a discussion on a few producers thrown in if you want to go deeper.

If one thing disappointed, it was that this book is clearly written for an American audience. Often there was discussion about what was or wasn’t imported in the US, or current US wine trends. All of the guided tastings are designed to be wines you can get in the US, and the recipes for the local cuisine are measured in cups. Obviously the content about the wine and grapes is country independent, but if you are looking to access some of the tasting material, this is worth considering.

Overall though, I was very pleased with the book, and at the price I paid for it (around £8), it represents excellent value for money. I learnt a lot about Italian wine, and, rare for a long wine book, was able to read it cover to cover. If you are looking to learn something about Italian wine, it is difficult to see a better place to start. 9/10.

Restaurant Review: Folly Bridge Brasserie

The Folly Bridge Brasserie is an easy place to overlook. I’ve been in Oxford for six years now and never been there, or even heard it suggested as a place to go for dinner. Formerly an Indian restaurant, it is hard to imagine that somewhere with such a great riverside location would not be much more popular than it was. Perhaps because The Head Of The River is just across the way, or the fact that it’s a bit of a walk to get there, or that it is not particularly easy to spot just walking around- the Folly Bridge Brasserie is just hard to find. Recently, though, I got the chance to discover it when a friend suggested that our research group go there for our Christmas dinner.

FollyBridge_StarterSpecialising in French cuisine, The Folly Bridge Brasserie has a varied menu, with dishes like ‘Escargots de Bourgogne’, ‘Game Terrine’, ‘Rabbit and wild mushroom tagliatelle’, and ‘Chocolate and chestnut yule log’. We had our meal from the Christmas party menu, which required us to order in advance, given there were so many of us. To start, I had a goats’ cheese salad- goats’ cheese, chutney, toast, and salad- well presented and good quality cheese. For the main, Calvados 
pheasant, which came with 
the usual Christmas dinner fixings, all cooked well and delicious. In particular, the roast potatoes were some of the best I have had. To finish, an apricot tart, sprinkled with almonds and blueberries. At £20 a head, very good value, and I would be happy to eat there again.

FollyBridge_PuddingWe started the drinks off with a complimentary glass of prosecco- not quite as fruity as some of the other prosecco I’ve had, but light and delicate, so fine for an aperitif. With the meal, we bought bottles to share around the table. The house white was Sicilian, which seemed strange, given the restaurant was French, and it wasn’t particularly good either. I’ve often said the mark of a good wine list is that the house wine is of good quality, so a little disappointing here. The red we ordered was a Bordeaux, a much better (but more expensive) bottle, which I like, and the wine worked with the pheasant well. Overall though, it looks like the wine list is a little generic, trying to cater to popular wine styles. I’d much rather see a solid French list, for a French Brasserie, designed to go with their food.

Although we were the only people earlier in the evening, the restaurant became very busy later on. With the river right out the window, and low lighting (hence the dark photos), even for a winter’s night it was very pleasant. The staff were very friendly and helpful. It felt like a relaxed restaurant, but without loads of personality- perhaps it is just not established enough to have put its mark on the place. Overall, a nice place to eat, with very good food, but just missing a little something. I would be very happy to come back, but is it my new favourite restaurant? Possibly not.

Restaurant Review: St. Aldate’s Tavern

In my undergraduate days, St. Aldate’s Tavern was our college pub. I’d meet up with our rowing crew there for a pint before a rowing dinner or crew date, or just head down there in the evening with friends. It was never the most glamourous pub, never the most upper-class clientèle, but it was our pub.

But times changed. The Royal Blenheim re-invented itself a few years ago and in the process became the college pub for a new generation of students. The college bar was re-done so more students stayed in college for the evening pint. With The Old Tom serving great Thai food, or pubs like The Chequers nearby having a better selection of beers, it was no surprise that St. Aldates had to find a new image to stay alive in Oxford. But find a new image it did.

Returning for the first time in years for lunch this week, I was pleasantly surprised at the transformation of the once-grimy pub. Clean crisp decor, chic bar stools, and jazz playing in the background, you could now order your drink from a nice wood-backed bar. The building was just a lot brighter, and the toilets were now somewhere you might want to visit. Really a different place.

The food and drink served were notably different too. Now with daily menus printed, the bar snacks looked genuinely interesting- salted pig’s ears, or home-made scotch eggs, for example- rather than the usual boring fare. For lunch, I ordered a parsnip, apple, and sage soup, which came with a freshly cooked bread roll, and a pork and apple sauce roll, which came with chips or salad. The soup was filling and flavourful, with the sage really coming through- just the thing after walking through Oxford in the cold. The bread was well made, and the pork well cooked. Coming in at £4.50 for the soup and roll, and £5 for the pork roll, my lunch was good value for money, and I was nicely full. A friend I was with had some meatballs which were also well rated.

At the time, St Aldate’s Tavern was having a real ale festival, and there was a good selection of beers. After sampling one or two beers to help choose, I enjoyed a Henley dark ale, which was fruity with tastes of caramel. Also available was a German wheat beer on tap, as well as the usual pub fare. Similarly, they served Stowford Press cider by Weston’s, one of the better ciders out there, in my opinion. The wine list was nothing special, but there were one or two nice choices at the more expensive end. I imagine that most discerning drinkers would find something they like here.

Overall, I was impressed at the turnaround, and would definitely come back. It’s not the pub that it was in my undergraduate days, but maybe the pub it is now is a better one.

Book Review: Cooking for Kings: the Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef

Antonin Carême was a nineteenth century French chef. Born in the slums of Paris, Carême worked his way through the ranks of pastry boys and pâtisseries to become the most influential cook of his time. At this time, the restaurant hadn’t really reached fruition as an establishment, and the best chefs were employed by the richest people of the day, and to taste their cooking was invitation only. During the tumultuous time around the French Revolution, Carême worked for Talleyrand, a famous French minister, King Louis XVIII, and in London for George IV. Besides the responsibilities that come with jobs of that station, like catering banquets for ten thousand people, Carême published cookbooks, invented pastries that we still see today, and produced his famous piéces montées, large edible pastry sculptures of Paris architecture or Chinese palaces, designed to impress those visiting. His life sadly cut short by the fumes from too many cooking stoves, there might have been others who produced great food before him, but Carême really put the cherry on royal culinary entertaining.

Cooking for Kings: the Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef details the life of Antonin Carême, many of his menus, culinary adventures, and political effect. It’s an enjoyable read, pitched just right, so that food enthusiasts can get a lot out of it without concentrating too much on the historical side of things, but, equally, those interested in the politics or culture of the time can still find interest looking through the lens of cooking. As the cover says, a “biography with recipes”, there are a number of recipes provided so that you can try to make Carême’s style of food at home, if the ingredients don’t cost an arm and a leg (truffles, anyone?). Overall, I learned a lot from this book, and if you are interested in French cuisine, or the culture of France at that time, I would recommend giving this a read. 8/10.

Book Review: Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Considering the evolution of humans in the context of food and cooking is a fascinating subject. Why do we eat the foods we do, as opposed to the food chimpanzees eat? How did we develop cooking, and what effect did it have on our morphological development? Why do we like the flavours of the foods we do? ‘Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human‘ examines the hypothesis that it was actually the development of cooking which was a major evolutionary transition. The physical composition of cooked food is different from that of raw food, changing the costs of digestion like chewing, resulting in different developments in humans, like smaller jawbones than chimpanzees. Similarly, the way societies evolved, and the community structure we have is based around the collection and distribution of food. There were a lot of key advances in human society due to culinary developments, and ‘Catching Fire’ is one of the few books I have seen that looks at them.

Perhaps more of a popular science book than a food book, you won’t find any recipes or many applications of the evolutionary ideas to modern day cooking. But you will find a good amount of theory- well sourced and ideas clearly explained- concerning our culinary development. I might have hoped for a little more detail in developing the ideas, and perhaps some discussion of how these ideas affect our gastronomy today- the book has a large font and, without the ‘notes’ sections, only totals around 200 pages. There are many interesting examples for each idea presented, looking at tribes which developed society independently of ours. Overall, there are a lot of good ideas presented, and it’s worth a read, from both a science and a culinary perspective. 8/10.

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