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.

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.

Book Review: Hot Sun, Cool Shadow- Savouring the Food, History and Mystery of the Languedoc

The Languedoc is a region in the south of France with a rich gastronomical history. Perhaps this is not surprising, though, when you consider the proximity to Spain and the rest of the Mediterranean, and the wars that were fought there whenever the religion of the day swapped. Hot Sun, Cool Shadow- Savouring the Food, History and Mystery of the Languedoc looks to tie some of these ideas together, considering the food, the food’s origins, and how the Languedoc developed. The author and her husband moved to the region after having spent several summers there, and discovering the local towns, markets, and restaurants. Each chapter is based around one or two local dishes, like cassoulet or duck confit, using the food as a springboard to discuss a certain area of the region, or cooking tradition, and one or two recipes are provided at the end of each chapter, should you wish to try to create the experience for yourself. Since the region has contributed a lot to French cuisine, there are plenty of things to talk about.

Hot Sun, Cool Shadow- Savouring the Food, History and Mystery of the Languedoc is a well written book, very easy to read, well researched, and full of interesting facts- did you know Vermouth was invented around there? You really do want to go out to the supermarket to buy the food which is focused on in the chapter you are reading, and a cottage for a couple of weeks in the south of France is something I’ll be looking at for my next holiday. The book doesn’t talk about wine very much, if at all, which is a little disappointing, as the wine trade has been a key characteristic for the region over the last 40 years, going from producing cheap plonk to becoming an up-and-coming wine region; I think you need discussion of wine for a complete picture of the region. But overall, a fun read, and I learnt a good deal, well recommended. 8/10.

Book Review: Relish- The Extraordinary Life of a Victorian Celebrity Chef

How French food flourished since the 18th century, the development of some of history’s greatest chefs, and how these ideas were brought to Britain are exciting topics. Relish- The Extraordinary Life of a Victorian Celebrity Chef discusses the life of Alexis Soyer, who was born in Meaux-en-Brie in France, but came to fame for his culinary skills in England. After working for some of the upper class of Britain, he came to work for the Reform Club in London, where he began to build his reputation. He established many entrepreneurial and charitable projects, including looking to modernise and improve the quality of food in soup kitchens, publishing several cookbooks aiming to make cooking more accessible for the masses, and creating a culinary experience house for The Great Exhibition. He worked with manufacturers to develop new type of gas cookers for the domestic kitchen, the earliest forms of what we have today, and created portable versions of these gas cookers for the troops in the Crimean War, where he went to pioneer their use and assist the army. Not without the celebrity that his position afforded, he had various love affairs and variable personal relationships which add spice to the history. These relationships, and his considerable contribution to gastronomy, make his life a truly interesting one to read about.

Relish is a well written book, especially well researched, and easy to read- perhaps not surprising, since the subject matter itself can easily keep interest. There is good insight into culture and society at the time, particularly into the limitations of cooking equipment and how culinary teams worked, and the view on The Great Exhibition from a chef’s perspective is very interesting. You don’t need to know much about culinary history to appreciate it either. A thoroughly enjoyable read, well recommended. 8/10.

Book Review: Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas

It might seem strange to review a book which is seemingly about Christmas, when, well, the date isn’t anywhere near Christmas. But in this book, Christmas is simply a vehicle to discuss French food culture, and the family occasions brought together by a meal. Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas is the story of an Australian man, married to a French woman, trying to impress his in-laws by putting together a spectacular Christmas dinner. Utilising traditional French cuisine, as well as some more modern twists, he travels to a few different places in France to pick up the right ingredients, with some nice anecdotes about the French approach to food and selling it. Then, of course, we witness the Christmas dinner in all its glory, everybody eating and drinking their fill. and in-laws are suitably impressed.

It’s a fun book. Not particularly long, or discussing much about French culinary history, it’s a light read with some nice stories. Well written, you enjoy the dinner they have as if you were a part of it, and you remember back to your own Christmases with family and friends, as well as the effort made over the meal itself. You get a nice insight into French culture with Christmas, and in general. The book doesn’t contain much gastronomic detail about cooking the meal, but for what it is, it’s an enjoyable read.  6/10

Book Review: The Kitchen As Laboratory

Molecular gastronomy books have a very tough task in balancing readability, scientific detail, accessibility, and applicability of any results to the domestic kitchen. One the one hand, you have “popular science” books, easy to read, but often little more than a collection of anecdotes. On the other hand are more technical books, like Harold McGee’s excellent McGee on Food and Cooking, which aren’t the kind of book you might want to sit down and read for an hour. As molecular techniques begin to become more readily reproducible at home, there is a need for great books which hit all of the spots above. Enter The Kitchen As Laboratory.

Written as a collection of essays from many leading food scientists, each of the thirty-three chapters discusses a part of food science, from the more common topics, like the Maillard reaction or meringues, to less common topics, like the effects of Xanthan gum or “bloom” in chocolate. Often, experiments are carried out – like trying to make a meringue out of nothing else than milk – to illustrate the principles involved; so you can actually look at the results of some very strange creations. But don’t let these experiments, or some of the pictures from cakes put under microscopes, make you think it is too “sciency” a book. The book is very readable, and I am sure that somebody with a limited science background could still get a lot out of the read.

I’d highly recommend this book for anybody interested in cooking, and certainly for those interested in molecular gastronomy. I hugely enjoyed reading it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it became a classic book in food science. It’s not often you find a book of this quality. 10/10.