Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 16, 2016

Cooking & Travelling in South-West France, by Stephanie Alexander

Cooking and Travelling in South-west FranceLast year year when The Spouse and I were expecting to spend some time in Cognac in the south-west of France north of Bordeaux, as usual I did some reading to enhance my understanding of the culture and history of the places I hoped to be visiting.  My choice of book had been a little different to the usual travel guides:  I read Cooking & Travelling in South-West France by the inimitable Stephanie Alexander, and I wrote this review, intending to post it once we were in situ.

Well, as regular readers know, the trip was aborted when my father was gravely ill.  I never got to Cognac, and all I saw of Paris was the railway station and the airport as we dashed back from Brussels.  And I forgot all about this review, which has been lurking amongst a collection of drafts ever since…

Most Australians know Stephanie Alexander as a cook, a restaurateur, and a food writer, not to mention the pioneer of the Kitchen Garden Foundation, a school program that teaches kids about growing and cooking their own food.  I have cooked from her recipes for years, and her Cooks Companion is my bible when I try something new.  But she is also a great writer, evoking the sights and sounds and smells of the places where she sources ideas, recipes and produce, and the armchair traveller can relish all sorts of new experiences through the power of her pen.

Cooking & Travelling in South-West France begins with a discussion about the future of this region, long famed for its gourmet produce – truffles and fois-gras – but now subject to the pressures of globalisation as all farming areas are.  The photographs show the picture-postcard beauty of small villages with rustic churches and bustling markets, but the reality is that more and more farms have been bought up by large companies to effect economies of scale, and attitudes to traditional cookery have changed.

It is the grandmothers who understand the culinary traditions and maintain them, but they represent the last generation with such knowledge. Their daughters might or might not know how to, or be bothered to, prepare the traditional country dishes of their childhood, and it is pretty certain that the daughters of the daughters cannot do so and have little interest in the past. (p.16)

The chapter ‘Henriette and Women’s Business’ is an elegy for traditions lost.  Stephanie meets Henriette Deroeux, an elderly lady who represents the dying rural heart of France.  While she acknowledges some improvements such as heating, electric light and modern sewerage, she is dismissive about the quality of modern food and scornful about young people eating fast food and canned and frozen processed food.  With her community disappearing around her, her stories are nostalgic, but she is philosophical.  All the same, it is a shame to think of these traditions dying out.

(Here I must put in a word for the domestic male cook.  The Spouse took up serious cooking when he left home as a young man and missed his mother’s Cordon Bleu dishes, and he takes responsibility for all the shopping and cooking in our house.  He is master of many cuisines, and it is not just his dinner party meals that are sublime, his weekday repertoire is restaurant quality too, especially since we acquired a sous-vide.  Like me, he is mostly a start-from-scratch cook: he bakes bread and makes his own tarragon vinegar.  We keep a kitchen garden and grow a wide range of herbs as well.  I do cook, but only for fun, when I want to.  So I bake biscuits, cakes and puddings; I make marmalade and lemonade using produce from our citrus trees; I make the annual heritage Christmas pudding; and I experiment with bizarrely complex recipes like those of Heston Blumenthal.  I am better at vegetarian and leftovers than The Spouse, and because he was a bachelor for so long, I am better at cooking for large groups and parties.  All this is by way of saying that when it comes to passing on maternal traditions, he is doing a better job of that than me).

Cooking & Travelling in South-West France is lush with full-colour photographs of the picturesque, often exploring places less familiar to the hordes of tourists who flock to this epicentre of ‘the most beautiful villages in France.’  Here is Stephanie writing from her ‘Summer Notebooks’ about Chateau de Marqueyssac, at the time of writing only just opened to the public after a long period of neglect:

The château and its extensive park are just a few minutes from Domme, across the river at Vésac.  Although it rates only a glancing reference in most guidebooks, we found it an enchanting place.  The present château dates from the end of the 18th century and is charmingly described in its brochure as a ‘pleasure residence’. It was not open to the public, although we could walk around the exterior of part of it.  The château has been maintained to the highest standard. Its roof was constructed using the traditional stone, and the doorways and window shutters had been painted with a pinky violet lime wash, which set off the pale stone walls and dark grey roof to perfection.

Visitors come here principally to admire the garden, designed and planted at the end of the 19th century by Julien-de-Cerval in the Italian style and restored by José Leygonie, a box expert and the garden manager of the nearby Manoir d’Eyrigniac, famous for its geometric garden design.  At Marqueyssac there are more than 150,000 box trees, which edge long promenades, form bushy secret spaces, describe geometric figures or are pruned into witty shapes.  The paths are raked gravel and the effect is of order, symmetry and calm.  The views over the valley of the Dordogne are spectacular. These are billion dollar views! From different vantage points we could see La Roque Gageac and the châteaus of Castelnud, Fayrac and Beynac.   In the other direction we gazed down onto a blindingly green patchwork quilt of springy cornfields, with the winding river gleaming silver in the sunlight.

In the elegant tea pavillion we enjoyed a citron pressé, that most French of drinks – freshly squeezed lemon juice served with a pourer of powdered sugar, iced water and long parfait spoons for stirring – and resolved to return another day for a longer walk and perhaps a light lunch.  (p. 26)

These pages form an ideal itinerary for the traveller wanting to follow in Stephanie’s footsteps, but since I prefer to avoid the tourist hordes of Summer, I like to do my European travels in Autumn.  Stephanie’s Autumn notebooks cover the period when she was hosting a house party at Lavalade, sharing an enchanting house with people working on this book as well as friends who included one of Australia’s best-loved cooks, Maggie Beer.  (Yes, we’ve got her cookbooks too).  This section of the book is an homage to French cheese, as well as their shared discovery of the robust dishes of the region: soups, bean casseroles, creamy ham and cheese gratins, dumplings, birds of all sizes, and tarts, pancakes and fritters using autumnal fruits. 

This is hearty food, linked to the earth and its harvest and intended for a population that rose early, worked in the fields and came home for a substantial lunch with plenty of chewy bread, then did more physical work before a lighter evening meal and early to bed.  We tried to compensate for our softer lifestyle by some vigorous country walks, but we did wake early, usually aroused by the ‘sobbing’ of a nearby donkey or the ‘barking’ of a turkey. (p. 102)

(Ah yes, the perils of enjoying peasant food without the peasant lifestyle!  We once shared a villa with friends in Tuscany and had the same blissful problem….)

Among chapters devoted to ‘Prunes & Plums’, Mushrooms’, ‘Walnuts and Chestnuts’ and the seductive ‘Markets’, my favourite is the chapter about truffles.  These are becoming available in Australia (at a price, of course).  In this book, covering travels in Summer and Autumn when truffles are not available, Stephanie draws on her previous travels, with Maggie Beer in December 1999 when the truffle industry in France was said to be ailing.  There are lovely photos from their truffle hunt, and then there is this evocative moment back home in the Melbourne kitchen:

Like many small producers, M. Martin sells a few conserves produced on the farm.  He showed us his truffle juice, tinned truffles of genuine first pressing, … truffle oil, and two other interesting products, which I bought: a small tin of cooked onions mixed with truffles and another of crushed hazelnuts mixed with truffles to form a paste.  M. Martin recommended that this last product be added to the stuffing for a goose neck (not something you would do every day), or whisked into a warm vinaigrette as a sauce for vegetables or beans, or included in a stuffing or sauce for chicken, veal or pork.

But Stephanie has other ideas:

Back home in Melbourne, on the last day of 1999 I hosted a dinner party for 10 special friends.  The main course was a mushroom and hazelnut risotto… I included dried cépes and opened M. Martin’s small tin just as the risotto was approaching a creamy perfection.  The scent was marvellous and I stirred the whole lot in.  We all agreed that the risotto was one of the most delicious dishes I had ever cooked.  I wish I had bought dozens of the little tins.  (p.272)

It’s not possible to read this sumptuous book without an overwhelming longing to pack the bags and go… but it is some consolation that at least we can cook up some of the enticing recipes in the meantime.

Author: Stephanie Alexander
Title: Cooking & Travelling in South-West France
Photographs by Simon Griffiths
Publisher: Viking Penguin 2002
ISBN:9780670893683
Source: Our recipe books collection.  It cost $65 and that was more than ten years ago!


Responses

  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  2. You make me yearn to go back there. I used to take groups of French students to France and we were based in Bergerac where I met a wonderful teacher and her husband. On subsequent visits I’ve stayed with them, toured the area and loved the scenery and appreciation of food – shopping and cooking are a real art.

    • LOL Anna I make me yearn to go there too. I love Paris, but I love being in regional France even more, I have had the best times in the Loire, in Bordeaux and in Avignon, and I was so looking forward to this part of our trip, pottering around Cognac. C’est la vie, n’est-ce pas?

  3. La prochaine fois …


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