Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 6, 2009

Plenty (2004), by Gay Bilson

What a pleasure it was to see Gay Bilson in conversation with Geraldine Doogue on Compass tonight!

Bilson is the renowned chef of Berowra Waters Inn on the Hawkesbury River, and the author of Plenty, Digressions on Food, which won the Age Book of the Year in 2005.  Astute readers of this blog will have noticed this book (in its first edition cover) on the blog masthead – it’s the only non fiction book there, earning its place because chez Tim and Lisa we value food much as Gay Bilson does – more than fuel for the body, food is an adventure, and an expression of affection and love.

Bilson said tonight that she has been surprised to learn that readers see Plenty as a memoir.  Perhaps that is because even those of us who never had the opportunity to dine at Berowra Waters still perceive her as the embodiment of all that is fine and honest in the restaurant business and that her life is inextricably linked to food and the digressions she writes about.

It was lovely to see her living a life of contentment, – still cooking, and harvesting produce from her beautiful garden.

Update 11.9.09

I wrote the above late on the same night that I saw the program, and should have included some of my favourite quotations from Plenty…

Quoting Dallas in Kettner’s Book of the Table, Bilson writes that taste is distinct from the other senses:

because, unlike them, it ‘is made for marriage, and smell is its better half’.  Whereas the other senses increase when one or other of them is deprived, taste works in  tandem with smell and sight and touch, it needs the others to heighten its pleasures.’ (p80)

This is so true, and so self-evident, and yet we take this splendid sense that brings us so much pleasure almost for granted!  I remember reading something in one of Oliver Sacks’ books about a man who had damaged his perception in some way, and could only see his world in sooty greys.  This ruined his enjoyment of food because everything looked ashen – oranges, salad leaves, tomatoes.  The simple everyday pleasure of good food, well cooked, was denied to him.

My favourite chapter is, predictably, the one entitled ‘Books and Cooks.  I was amused by her anecdote about the French chef Fernard Point, (1897-1955) who apparently said, ‘when his doctor diagnosed a painful joint as water on the knee… it couldn’t be because he drank only champagne.’ (p230)  Bilson has translated  Point’s aphorisms because she thinks that they are ‘universal and wise observations’ (p233) These are my favourites:

On gastronomy

2.  Silence may be golden, as the proverb says, but one must talk about gastronomy.

13. A fine meal has the harmony of a symphony and is as finely constructed as a Romanesque church.

18.  After a strong pre-dinner drink, even more after two, the palate can’t distinguish between a great wine and a bottle of plonk  (True: but Tim’s martinis on a Saturday night are truly splendid.)

23. To criticise a foreign cuisine or a regional speciality is to deny the legitimacy of wide-ranging tastes.  (Yes, except for hamburgers.)

26. A cook who thinks every action makes him a great chef is like a man who repaints his garden gate and thinks he is an artist.

46.  Cook for your friends, not for television.

On Cookery

28  Budgeting and haute cuisine are mutually exclusive, but shopping with an eye for cheap produce is no hindrance to good cooking.

34. All cookbooks share family traits.  The best one is the one you write for yourself.

40.  All craftsmen, but especially cooks, never stop learning.

And wise advice that applies beyond the kitchen:

41.  Listen to your critics, but dismiss those who bear you a grudge.

There is so much to browse through and enjoy in Plenty!

Author: Gay Bilson
Title: Plenty, Digressions on Food
Publisher: Lantern, Penguin 2004
ISBN: 9781920989033
Source: Personal copy, $49.95






  1. I saw this programme too and really, really enjoyed it. Must order myself a copy of the book.

    Ross and I once went to the restaurant because we’d heard it was good. Was before children so it must have been in about 1978-ish. Days before credit card use and ATMs. We’d never done the fixed price thing. Just had enough money for dinner for two but no wine and a very low petrol tank to get home again. Magic to catch the boat across the river. Divine ambience. To-die-for meal!

    Sooooooo memorable.


    • Ohhhhhhhhhhh, Steph, envy! Once or twice I thought of having a weekend up there but the budget was never up to it (travel + accommodation + dinner + mortgage = too hard). I did make it to Stephanie Alexander’s and Mietta’s restaurants for a couple of special birthdays, though, and last week we went to Vue de Monde – which is the most astonishing meal I’ve ever had. We were right up near the kitchen, where they have one of those angled mirrors so that you can see everything, and had a wonderful time watching how they made such imaginative dishes. I wish I’d taken photos – but we were too busy eating!
      And yes, I remember dinners out pre credit card with the boyfriend in the days when they paid, terrified to order anything expensive in case he didn’t have enough $$ and the night ended up in the kitchen doing the dishes!


  2. I’ve wanted to read this book for a while. Didn’t see the Compass program this week – what a shame – maybe it’s on iView. I think we were tired after big Fathers Day lunch at the winery.
    Anyhow, Len and I greatly regret that we didn’t organise ourselves to get to BWI, particularly as my parents lived not all that far from it. We did go to the very pretty but casual Berowra Waters Teahouse a couple of times and planned the bigger adventure. Never got past the planning stage. However, in the last couple of years we’ve done some fine dining in Sydney – Rockpool, Est, and Tetsuya’s. (First and third have been – still are I think – in the world’s top 50 although maybe Rockpool is no longer as it’s changed style now I think). All wonderful in different ways – but I’m starting to feel a bit guilty about the money they cost. Should I spend that much on a meal or donate it and have a nice meal at half the price. Decisions, decisions!


    • Oh, enjoy yourself. I don’t feel guilty for two reasons: firstly I give generously to various philanthropic causes, more than the percentage that Peter Singer recommends for someone in my income bracket, and secondly, we’re choosing to dine in fine style very occasionally rather than eat often at fast food outlets and pubs. And when I’m an old lady having to eat pap in a nursing home, at least I’ll have fond memories of great meals in great places!


  3. I too saw Gay Bilson being interviewed by another of my favorite women,Geraldine Doogue. I am inspired by Gay’s philosophy of letting go and living in the now. This is something I’ve been struggling with for the last few years. My greatest fear is letting go of work. (Am I identified by my work? ) I hope not. I have my food and flower garden, and my chooks, on a peaceful block, with my partner who is now retired. But me? I’m tied by a silver thread to my 50 hour a week job. My respite from work comes on the weekends,when I cook great meals. I have ordered Gay’s book and can’t wait to get my teeth into it.


  4. Hello Lorraine, and thanks for your comment. Yes, it’s a tough call, that decision about when to retire, especially when economic times are uncertain, and even more so when you love your work. Sometimes part time is a way of winding down, which can defer the crucial point, which is as you say, to do with how we define ourselves.
    PS This weekend’s papers have the news that there is to be a movie about the life of Julia (Mastering the Art of French Cooking) Child – that will be a must-see for those of us who love to cook!


  5. You know, the contemplation of letting go of work is harder than the actual doing of it…I loved my job too (and the sense of contribution and respect I got from it) though must admit was getting tired of politics and games. There was real pain in giving it up but it didn’t last long – you can find other ways of being meaningful and productive, ways in which you are in control. The world’s your oyster way more when you are retired than when you you are tied to a job!


  6. I sooooo agree with Sue- ‘the contemplation of letting go of work is harder than the actual doing of it’. Provided you feel comfortable with a retired ‘wage’, and that is a subject for endless debate, speculation and evaluating of what your real values are. I don’t regret stopping work for one minute, and forging a new identity on a blog has been an interesting journey. Gay Bilson’s book is going on my Christmas wish list-if I manage to wait that long! Reading about how others choose to strike out into the unknown future, is such a comfort.


  7. where can I get a copy of ‘Plenty’ from?


    • I don’t know, Phil. Try some of the bookshops in the links in the RHS menu.


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