April 23, International Book Day, has me thinking about books that influence our travel.
In Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, I found his descriptions of the daze of excess silence spellbinding. A desire to see Greece was intensified after reading Lawrence Durell in the 70s and last summer paging through Leonard, Marianne and Me made me want to return. Haruki Murakami’s novels piqued an interest in modern Japan, The Tale of Murasaki its ancient past, Alex Kerr’s books for what has been lost. The Rings of Saturn and Kingdom by the Sea inspire walking in England. But I think we may owe the greatest debt to the travel pleasures of visiting markets and restaurants to French Regional Cooking by Anne Willan & L’Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, purchased in 1981. And you, has a cookbook inspired your travels?
In 1981, Magellan and I had never drunk espresso, tasted croissant or even heard of ratatouille. We had been to Europe; Magellan was in London on a stopover from Iran in 1975 (I know!) and the three of us had a Christmas skiing holiday in Switzerland four years later.
I didn’t own many cookbooks in 1981. Perhaps I bought Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking when Total SA gained majority control of the company Magellan was working for. A year later we made our first trip to France.
The recipes in this book, sourced from a dozen regions in France, are mostly simple with few ingredients and straightforward techniques. Authentic versions of familiar dishes like boeuf bourguignon and quiche Lorraine hold delightful surprises. Like caraway seeds in the Zewelwai version of quiche Lorraine and rather than potatoes, croûtes fried in oil and butter with boeuf bourguignon.
“A dish does not happen by accident but is the product of the place and the people: of cooks who have had years of practice with an appreciative audience and with ingredients that are just right,” Anne writes in the introduction to French Regional Cooking. She was ahead of her time in recognizing that “chefs increasingly serve the same impersonal food everywhere. Yet rural France is tenacious…and the affection for local culture and tradition remains strong, especially in the home kitchen.”
Magellan’s paternal ancestors were Hugenots from the Loire who escaped to England in the sixteenth century. A summer classic at chez Sully Vancouver is Anne’s recipe from the Loire for Tarte aux Fruits, fresh raspberries on chilled pastry cream atop a sweet crust. Make it and guaranteed you will be transported to a restaurant, a friend’s table or an outdoor café where you’ve eaten a delicious fruit tart.
We’ve never been to Brittany but Anne’s recipe for Coquilles St Jacques au Cidre led us to seek out a restaurant in Paris with a menu focused entirely on dishes from the Breton peninsula accompanied by cider instead of wine. Jane, a friend in Lyon, says we must go to Brittany but for now, making this dish every winter is our closest taste.
Anne’s book introduced us to one of the most renowned cherry desserts in the world, Clafoutis Limousin. And to Cassoulet from Toulouse in Languedoc, an area she quotes the playwright Jean Racine describing, in 1661, as “where twenty caterers could make a living but a bookseller would starve to death.” Anne’s cassoulet, another household favourite, brings back memories of a Middle Eastern version with lentils instead of white beans at Café des Artistes in New York in the 80s, a California take on it at Chez Panisse a decade later.
It’s clear that a great many of Anne Willan’s recipes have been copied or adapted by chefs around the world over the last forty years, that the origin of so many meals we’ve enjoyed while travelling and at home come from regional French cooking.
How recipes evolve over time is a polymathic study in culinary arts, philosophy, economics and politics. Take Blanquette de Veau, for example. Anne’s recipe from the French Alps calls for veal breast, including the bones; Food and Wine’s recipe from 1997 specifies boneless veal shoulder or leg, more expensive alternatives. Baby onions, a bit fussy to prepare, have been replaced by leeks in the modern version. Surprisingly, the amount of crème fraiche has doubled in the more recent recipe; ditto for the quantity of mushrooms. The last time I ate this dish in a restaurant was alone at lunch in Paris fifteen years ago, the veal grisly, the broth thin. Metaphoric for the city itself?
Anne ends this cookbook with recipes from Provence, the “market garden of Europe,” the region of garlicy aioli, olive tapenade, bouillabaisse and tarte au citron.
In the decade or so that Total SA controlled the company Magellan worked for, we travelled to France at least once a year, returning for business trips in later years and to meet up with friends in my first jubilado year. While we don’t have a desire to go back (too many other unexplored places), wherever one travels, the basics of French cooking are on the menu. Artichoke tapas in Spain, very like Anne’s recipe for artichokes stuffed with mushrooms and ham. Anne’s Brandade de Morue, identical to Cod Paté we ate in Norway. And everywhere, everywhere, many, many variations of lemon tarte.
Anne Willan has written more than 30 books that have been translated into almost as many languages, hosted the 26-part PBS program Look and Cook and been awarded the rank of Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor for her accomplishments in promoting the gastronomy of France. Imagine my delight when I came across this interview with her from The Boston Globe.
Q. Of all the books you wrote, is there one which you return to the most?
A. For recipe reference, it’s “French Regional Cooking,” which is the first book I wrote about country cuisine in France. It appeared in 1981 and to compile it — it has about 350 recipes — Mark and I drove around France and really explored the depths of the countryside. It was when nouvelle cuisine was really at its height and nobody was cooking regional food. Everybody’s looking for country dishes now and really enjoying simple foods and local ingredients, locavore and all of that, but in those days, not at all. So we bought little locally published regional cookbooks and we looked in the pastry shops and the charcuteries and that was where you found what the locals ate. I quite often go back to that book for things like confit and tarts from different regions and funny things like kouign-amann from Breton. That’s puff pastry, made of course with butter, but when you’re doing the last two rollings, you roll it with sugar. So you have this wonderful puff pastry but with sugar all interweaved. It’s really pretty difficult to do.
Q. Every cook has a few things they make regularly. What are yours?
A. Absolutely, tarte Tatin. And we always have in the freezer for guests or emergencies, my Aunt Louie’s cheese balls, which only take three ingredients. We often have financiers [almond cakes], which have now become famous but when we first made them at school, they were not very well known. We make oxtail stew; we made some just last week. And French roast chicken, of course, nearly every week.
I am hungry for travel. In the meantime, let’s have dinner.
“To Eat is to Travel: Around the World in 26 Cookbooks.” Suitcase. January 10, 2022.
How many books did you read last year? Kenneth Whyte, founding editor of the National Post and author of the SHuSH newsletter, says a Pew survey showed that Americans read an average (mean) of 14 books in 2021 and the typical (median) number was only five—the same as in 2011. What is truly devastating though is he says the Writers’ Union of Canada found that the average Canadian writer made $9,380 last year, down 78% from 1998.
Willan, Anne & l’Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, Paris. French Regional Cooking. New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1981. Anne was born in Newcastle, England, and received her Masters degree from Cambridge University. She studied and taught in both London and Paris before moving to the US where she was associate editor of Gourmet and wrote for the New York Times. A multi-award-winning culinary historian, cookbook writer, cooking teacher and founder of La Varenne Cooking School in Paris, Anne has given cooking demonstrations and lectures throughout North America as well as Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Chile. Her cookbooks have received many accolades, including the Gourmand Hall of Fame Award and the Jane Grigson Award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) and two James Beard Cookbook Awards. Anne’s induction into the James Beard Foundation Awards Hall of Fame puts her alongside world legends like Julia Child (who was a friend and investor in La Varenne) and Elizabeth David. Anne’s memoir, One Soufflé at a Time: A Memoir with Recipes, won the 2014 IACP Award for Literary Food Writing. The name for her cooking school comes from François Pierre (1618–1678), who signed his name La Varenne. His fame comes from writing Le Cuisinier François (The French cook), the first of a new generation of cookbooks to document changes in French cuisine during the first half of the seventeenth century when cooks replaced medieval and Renaissance spices and cooking with local herbs like parsley, thyme, bay leaf and basil. His was the first French cookbook to be translated into English (1653).
Yoder, Glenn. “Anne Willan reflects on her years of French cooking.” The Boston Globe. October 13, 2013.