Customer Review

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Cookbook you can Read, March 14, 2007
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This review is from: The Cook and the Gardener : A Year of Recipes and Writings for the French Countryside (Hardcover)
Amanda Hesser is well known for her excellent food columns in the NY Times. A few years ago she spent 12 months working as cook for Anne Willan at the Chateau du Fey, a seventeenth century estate located in Burgundy, France.

This book is a narrative cookbook - part novel, part cookbook, part local history. It revolves around a year in the chateau garden, lovingly tended by the elderly, reticent Monsieur Milbert. We learn of his traditional gardening methods and way of life, read interesting snippets of folk lore and get a feel for the surrounding countryside. As the produce is grown, the cook (Amanda) devises recipes that best use the fresh, seasonal ingredients she is so lucky to have at hand. For her too, it is a time of learning about the seasons in the garden and the origins of the food she uses.

'The Cook and the Gardener' is a nice big hardback, my edition has 632 pages. It's very attractively laid out in earth tones, decorated throughout with sepia illustrations on good quality smooth, creamy paper. There is a little seasonal fruit or vegetable drawing at the top of each page, which makes you feel that each page is special. There are no photos but there are a few blank end papers which you could use for jotting down notes.

The book is divided into seasons and then there is a chapter for each month, starting with spring and the month of March. Each chapter starts with a few pages telling us what is happening in the garden and what M. Milbert is up to. Following this are about 20 indexed recipes for each month, many with introductory notes. These notes include anecdotes about shopping in the local markets, stories about the ingredients used in the recipes, cooking tips, gardening lore, serving suggestions and information on buying, storing and preparing produce. Most of the recipes look enticing and there is a good mixture of simple, traditional and modern recipes as well as basics such as stocks, sauces and preserves. Many of the recipes use fresh herbs and are influenced by Hesser's experience cooking in other countries such as Italy - olive oil, for example, often replaces butter. The recipes are inspired by the produce she found in Burgundy, rather than being traditional Burgundian cuisine.

The recipe for pumpkin soup in this book is fantastic, and it is forever being requested by friends and family. The flavor base is a lovely reduction of white wine and leeks. Other recipes that caught my eye include asparagus with tarragon vinaigrette, baby potatoes in hazelnut oil, green beans with cracked black pepper, sweet chestnut soup, pancetta-rosemary rolls, roast duck, peach marmalade, apple-walnut batard, sautéed figs with honey cream and dark chocolate rosemary soufflé. There are recipe for everyday ingredients such as chard, brussel sprouts, zucchini and cabbage, as well as recipes using uncommon ingredients such as purslane, persimmon and gooseberries. Whether you already like using fruit and vegetables as a delicious focus for a meal, or are interested in doing so for health reasons, this book has a lot of appeal. There are about 240 recipes all up.

Because of the chatty style, the recipes often start in the middle of a page and go over several pages, which is not ideal for cooking, especially as the book is too thick to fit into an average cookbook stand. There are no pictures of any of the recipes - the illustrations are all of the produce, the garden, the people or the local surrounds.

On the negative side, I felt that the author was actually looking down on M. Milbert - not about his wonderful gardening knowledge, but in regard to his personal habits, personality, hygiene and lifestyle. I don't think she meant this to show through, but it did. What is more, she did this while simultaneously exploiting him as a marketable character. Without the Milberts, the book could not have been written. I have to say that was the one thing in this book that struck a discordant note to me. In all other ways I really enjoyed it.

If you are interested in the Willans and their culinary school, please note that although the book is set on their estate, they are never mentioned. This does not detract in any way from the book.

This book is recommended for anyone who enjoys food writing, gardening, has in interest in France or enjoys cooking with fresh produce.
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