The Cooking of Southwest France: Recipes from France's Magnificient Rustic Cuisine Hardcover – Sep 30 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
When it comes to French food, many Americans know little beyond the bistros of Paris or the herbs of Provence. But many of France's most delightful culinary traditions are to be found near (or nearish) the Pyrénées. For example, there is nothing more enticing than a jar of foie gras, a baguette and a glass of Vin de Cahors; even a simple bowl of Périgord walnuts and a snifter of armagnac can make an immensely satisfying dessert. These combinations can easily be reproduced in an American kitchen-all you need is a good supermarket and plenty of cash-but for more complex dishes, like a Béarnais bean stew, you need a guide. Enter Wolfert and this expanded revision of her 1983 classic, replete with a handy index listing dozens of internet shops that sell everything from truffles to snails. Not only is this is a useful book, it's also interesting to read. Wolfert includes a chapter on the "Tastes of the French Southwest," with informative sections on cèpes, regional cheeses and truffles, just to name a few. And the recipes do not disappoint. Some standouts include Morue Pil-Pil, a spicy, slow-cooked salt cod dish recipe from the Basque region, and Cèpes of the Poor, chunks of eggplant sautéed to replicate the texture of costly mushrooms. Be advised: although Wolfert does allow for less fattening substitutions, like olive oil for duck fat, this is not a cookbook for dieters. And many of these recipes will take hours, if not a full day, of preparation, but the food is worth the wait, and the weight.
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Now about those recipes: Richard Olney has long been my standard for great cooking instruction. His recipes manage to be clear and opinionated, true to the region [in his case mostly Provence] but manageable in a big-city American kitchen, relentless in their pursuit of pleasure, dismissive of the narrow and purse-lipped health obsessions of the food-as-medicine Anglo-Saxon crowd, and deeply informed about the ingredients per se. Paula Wolfert, to my knowledge, is the first writer of cookbooks to equal Olney's contribution. Her style is more broadly journalistic and less opinionated, but her recipes are equally true to their sources.
That being said, her sources are French. French farmhouse kitchens and French starred restaurants. So these recipes can be arduous, a real stretch for the average American home kitchen. Many recipes require not only equipment most Americans don't own, but techniques that are dificult to master and even harder to research. But we welcomed Julia Child by spending more time in the kitchen and more money buying kitchen tools, and Wolfert's recipes deserves that same dedication. As Richard Olney said, paraphrased: "The best food requires effort and skill and a sensitivity to the raw materials". So, after stretching my well-equipped kitchen to the limits this last weekend making a beef daube with cepes-prune sauce, stuffed onion a la Michel Bras, and God knows what other multi-page recipes only He can forgive, I can say that if your stove can't sloooow simmer, if you don't have a fine seive, if you don't have access to real cepes, if the idea of reducing two bottles of Cahors to two cups of sauce makes you shudder, and if you don't want to stand at the stove skimming and re-skimming, then this book isn't for you. Don't just open this book on the evening before the boss is due for dinner. Start a week ahead and plan well, and know that your efforts will be rewarded if you are true and steadfast.
The range of her book covers, according to her map of the `Greater French Southwest', about two fifths of the country, from La Rochelle in the northwest to the Spanish border, then north along the Mediterranean coast to Montpellier on the Gulf of Lion, then north to include the provinces of Auvergne, Limousin, and Perigord in addition to the southwest heartland of Guyenne, Gascogne, and Languedoc.
While Provence and the rest of the French southeast is devoted to the use of olive oil and the French north loves its Normandy butter fat, the defining fat of the French southwest is animal fats, primarily lard from pork, duck fat, and chicken fat. These lipids are so central to the cooking of this region that many of the recipes look more foreign to our modern culinary sensibilities than recipes from Southeast Asia with its reliance on peanut oil.
Ms. Wolfert is quick to assure us early in the book that pork and duck fat is actually less saturated and less cholesterol laden than is butter fat. For the sake of enjoying this book, I will accept this and warn you that to fully appreciate the recipes in this book, I suggest you search out a good source of lard and duck fat. To aid you in this quest, Ms. Wolfert includes one of the best listings of Internet sources I have seen in a long time. The other rare ingredient you will need or be able to produce is verjus (sour grape sauce) which is a remarkable throwback to the cooking of ancient Rome. I recently queried my local megamart and could find no trace of this product.
The other hallmark products of the region are foie gras from both geese and ducks, black mushrooms, walnuts, chestnuts, cepes (porcini mushrooms in Italian), Bayonne ham (not available in the United States at all. Procuitto or Serrano hams are very acceptable substitutes), chicken, baby eels (available from Spanish speciality stores), snails, salt cod, verjus (sour grape juice) and red wines (Bordelais).
Aside from devoted Paula Wolfert fans, those who will find this book most useful are people who are especially fond of dishes with duck, geese, and chicken. Close to half of the main course dishes involves one of these three birds. The only catch is that the best duck for most of these recipes is the Moutard, which is both more expensive and harder to find in the United states than the common Pekin and Muscovy ducks easily obtained from D'Artagnan in your local megamart. The book is also an important authority on those most important dishes of the area, Garbure (a meat and bean stew), Terrines, Rillettes (shredded meats), and Cassoulet. And, it has more variations than I have seen anywhere else on the theme of chicken in a wine sauce. Most of these recipes use baby chickens (poussins) rather than elderly male chickens.
I appreciate Wolfert's books not only for their terrific insights into important European and Mediterranean cuisines, but in quietly competent way she goes about presenting her material, with just the right amount of detail and compromise to what can be done in an American kitchen without loosing all touch with her subject's `terroir'. The recipes are done with all the right amount of detail, but not too much so that you become bored with the repetition. You will find no extravagant or breathless statements. Everything is done with a depth of knowledge which is unmatched by any other contemporary writer I have read. While you can get the broad outlines of this region's cuisine from surveys such as Elizabeth David's `French Provincial Cooking' and Waverly Root's `The Food of France', you simply cannot get from these works the fine details of preparing these recipes.
And, Ms. Wolfert never goes off message. Unlike many books of Italian regional cooking, there is no coloring outside the lines by bringing in recipes from Provence or Dijon or Normandy. Among Ms. Wolfert's other books, I would rate this better than `The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen' and at least as good as `Mediterranean Grains and Greens'. It is probably as good as her `The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean', and it is more interesting in that it's subject is much more compact and coherent than the whole of the eastern Mediterranean.
Part of her not straying from her core subject is the fact that there are no bread recipes and relatively few dessert recipes. The recipes come from professional chefs of the region, amateur chefs living in southwest France, and Wolfert's adaptations of local recipes based on her own experiences in the region. And, she is scrupulous in identifying from what source each recipe comes.
A fine index is provided to all recipes by region and by course in addition to the conventional index.
Simply reading this book is a treat. Cooking from it may be just a bit of a challenge until you get a reliable source of duck, cured ham, and verjus, but this should be no more difficult than requirements of cooking, for example, Vietnamese cuisine.
An especially valuable addition to the literature on French cooking.
Even if you are not up to cooking these great dishes, this book is one of the most useful books if you plan on going there. Wolfert covers many specific places you may want to visit. She locates some important restaurants and chefs (even in San Francisco). She tells you what to eat in many cities. She tells you about things you may want to bring home, including some of the specialized pots which are very hard to obtain here; one exception is the U.S. maker of the pot on the cover. You can order the "Diable Charentais" by Googling and selecting the translation of the potter's page. Wolfert shows you how much diversity there is within short distances across this region.
For the cook as well as the traveler, no book in English is so perceptive, comprehensive and accurate. With attention, you can reproduce "the truth". She is also helpful to those of us who cannot assemble the authentic equipment and ingredients.
The importance of this new edition is the current information on people and places, and especially on the sources now accessible from home.