Reviewed by Robert Brown
In the 700 or so years of the history of culinary books, what publishers call food narratives are mere babies. After eliminating cookbooks, diet and nutrition books and those that politicize food, what you have left pretty much can be called food narratives. The general sub-categories are books about wine; ingredients; travelogues; first-person observations and memoirs; biographies; culinary histories; chefs and restaurants; and gastronomic landscapes be it whole countries or regions of countries. Before there were efficient means of travel and communication and economical color printing, you couldn’t really have the profusion of food narratives that now unfold on-line more than in book form.
The modern-day food narrative, as it would seem, began in the late 1930s with M.F.K. Fisher and went on to include other Anglo-Saxons as Elizabeth David, Waverly Root, Roy Andreis de Groot, Samuel Chamberlain, Richard Olney, A.J. Liebling and the wine writers Alexis Lechine, Frank Schoonmaker, and André Simon, all of whom began before 1975. Soon after that, the food narrative genre expanded with new categories such as the hybrid great chef recipe/ coffee-table book and other vanity books subsidized by authors and culinary enterprises; and behind the scenes, slices-of-life at Restaurant XYZ or great winemaking property such and such.
Among the earliest along-the- gastronomic-trail” books is Samuel Chamberlain’s “Bouquet de France: An Epicurian Tour of the French Provinces (1966), while Waverly Root’s “The Food of France” (1958) is an example of the “Here’s what you find where” treatment. Robert Fresson chimed in 33 years ago with the heavily-illustrated “A Taste of France”, as much a coffee-table book as anything. Since then there have been several “you are there” travelogue books in which the author hops around to outdoor markets, vineyards, restaurants and other culinary resources, examples of which are Peter Mayles “French Lessons” and Michael Steinberger’s “Au Revoir to All That”. As a restaurant maven, I am partial to works such as “ Great Chefs of France: The Masters of Haute Cuisine and Their Secrets” (1978) by the photographer Anthony Blake and the journalist Quentin Crewe and “Dining in France” (1986) by Christian Millau, which was also the companion to a 12-part PBS series. Both of these books are replete with photographs that show what the French called “restauration” at its highest level and, depending on when you were born, having yourself asking why you weren’t born sooner, or will I ever see this kind of food again (which you won’t). In my opinion, however, the mother of all French culinary landscape books is “Guide Gourmand de la France”, an early collaboration of Henri Gault and Christian Millau that Hachette published in 1970. It deserves a lengthy article all by itself, but for the time being, imagine a 1112 page book that is a “Guide Bleu” or “Blue Guide” tome devoted to a street-by-street description of both historic and current culinary resources in Paris followed by, just as in the old Blue Guides, the gastronomic resources including restaurants, regional-specialty food shops, vineyards and more on the highways and by-ways found in 128 itineraries between and through cities, towns, and villages the length and breadth of France.
Into the mix of a major book publishers slowdown of food narratives in general and French cuisine in particular, we nonetheless have a work by a writer-publisher revered by culinary connoisseurs, Edward Behr. His quarterly publication that recently went from paper to on-line, the “Art of Eating” (A of E), evokes a reverential admiration from food professionals, ] amateur cooks and gastronomic travelers who view Behr as the keeper of the flame ignited by the early wine and food writers.
Derived from articles Behr wrote for A of E that he has revised and up-dated, as well as newly-written chapters, “The Food and Wine of France: Eating and Drinking from Champagne to Provence” carves out a unique niche in the genre—that of honing in on a highly-specific regional food or wine and analyzing and describing it in expansive detail in the context of his visits to the best and most-expert practitioners, all without Behr’s telling you more than you would want to know, but all that you need to be much more than superficially informed.
While Behr is not a flashy, acrobatic “New Journalism” practitioner, he isn’t a syrupy sensualist or a member of the “Isn’t food fun” school whose minions take up quite a bit of the gastronomic space. Instead Behr comes to his visits obviously well-prepared and well-read, armed with a fluency in French (useful because nearly everyone he talks with are farmers, artisans or tradesmen) and a pen and notebook for his fast note-taking. His greatest strength is his clarity of explanation and having the exposition unwind in logically-sequential fashion.
Of the 32 chapters in the book, 25 are devoted to specific foods and wines found in such locales as Alsace, Champagne, Provence, Roquefort, Versailles, the Jura, and several more. Behr also pays tribute to Richard Olney, visits a few down-to-earth restaurants emblematic of their surroundings, and delves into the state of present-day gastronomy in France. My personal favorite chapter, and one which has always stayed in my mind from when I first read it as part of my subscription to A of E, was Edward’s visit to a small croissant baker in Paris’ 14th Arrondisement named Michel Gerstenmeyer. Like one of those rare jazz solos that unwind seamlessly and cohesively, Baer’s treatment of Gerstenmeyer’s personality, the history of croissant-making, what accounts for a memorable croissant, the ingredients and the making and baking made it a challenge for me to finally chose this paragraph to pass along.
“Gerstenmeyer had, as always, made the dough the evening before, and he described the method. He kneaded together flour, milk (warm in winter, cool in summer), sugar, salt, and cake yeast. He kneaded only briefly, so the dough wouldn’t develop too much elasticity, and if a batch of flour nonetheless made the dough too strongly elastic, he would add a little water to dilute and weaken it. He would roll out the dough, spread 250 grams of soft butter over it, and then fold the dough over the butter and seal the edges to make a flat, rectangular package. He would give this pâton a first “turn,” folding it over onto itself to multiply the number of layers and then rolling it between the cylinders of his electric laminoir. The number of folds in a “turn and the number of turns varies with the pâtissier and the texture of the dough. The layers can’t be too thick or the result will be tough, but they can’t be too thin or the dough will disappear into the butter”.
If you take the time to absorb and re-read or slowly read passages like this throughout the book, the way you regard a piece of Roquefort or Comté, a bottle of the “vin jaune” Château-Chalon or Champagne or Île de Ré sea salt or Orléans red-wine vinegar, your sense of enlightenment becomes profound. Behr has chosen enough subjects to make his book extremely worthwhile for denizens of the United States and other countries to use at home, given that wine travels well, as do certain USDA-approved cheeses, not to mention what constitutes well-made bread and pastries. It makes you want, for example, to go to the nearest major wine store and buy one of the aforementioned wines and read about it as you drink it. Then, of course, there is the option of reading “The Food and Wine of France” straight through as I did, an activity that I greatly enjoyed.
Behr’s love for what he describes doesn’t preclude him from intellectual honesty. On several occasions he lets his readers know that some of the products he writes about have been altered or diminished in purity, quality or availability. He writes about the virtual disappearance of the flat onion Jaune Paille and the plum Reine Claude de Chambourcey. and quotes a charcutier outside of Troyes who laments that there are only two or three charcutiers making andouilletes de Troyes. Behr tell us that “Today nearly all of the Lorraine cheeses are made in just four big laiteries (“dairy plants”). Unfortunately, most of those cheeses are made from pasteurized milk, which subdues flavors and slows ripening, and gives a heavier texture.”(Speaking of cheese. my candidate for noteworthy inevitable extinction is my favorite blue cheese “Bleu de Termignon” from the Haute-Savoie. Apparently there is but one woman left producing it). On the more macrocosmic level, one of Baer’s subjects talks about how young people don’t want to enter apprenticeships because they would rather spend time staying out late with their friends instead of waking up at dawn, while another, the chef Iñaki Aizpitarte’s, whose Le Chateaubriand in Paris “became the most famous of the innovative genre, filled with customers from around the world” answered simply “no” when Behr asked him if “any of the latest French food, at whatever level, is evolving in a way that’s distinctly French?”
Yet this doesn’t mean Behr has lost respect for French cuisine. Although he laments the diminishing use of classic French sauces and availability of old classic dishes, he points out that France is unrivaled in cheese, wine and some of its bread, and that “Western chefs continue to rely on French technique more than any other.” He also writes, “When we live so much in the moment, we miss a lot. Good French food is very, very delicious. Other food may be as good, but none is better. French food is generous, sensual, obvious, subtle, both simple and complex. A lot of modern inventive food by comparison is wildly abstract and austere. The deliciousness of French food is overt; it’s about appetite.” Baer concedes that when we eat out in France, we need to know where to go. “And if you do, it’s a great time to eat in France, particularly in the high-energy small restaurants of Paris”.