I received this book to review via NetGalley.
This is a set of essays, many published elsewhere previously, written by a woman who has been many things: a chef, a restaurant owner, a writer; mother, both married and single; a culinary student and a teacher; resident on farms and in cities and, as these essays are written, back on the farm that was originally set up by her grandparents. The essays are ruminations on life, reflections on choices both good and bad, an exploration of cause and consequence, and a meditation on – as the title suggests – food and water: the place of both in our lives, how they can impact on the way we live, the positives and negatives.
When I read a book like this I think, How can I find more books like this? What category do they come under? I’m not interested in reading just any essays on life; the focus on food and, I suspect, having a female author make these particularly appealing. I’m also not always interested in just reading about food for its own sake – the connection to life more generally, here, as well as the stories behind the growing and making of food, helps make these essays intensely readable and occasionally challenging.
Hobsbawn-Smith is writing these essays having moved back to the Canadian prairie. She reflects on many moments in her life, from horse riding as a teen to the area around her farm becoming a lake for seven years, with stories of her sons growing up in between. Sometimes she recounts stories for their own sake; more often she’s thinking about what they mean – how they reflect and connect to other moments in her life, what they show about the importance of family and feeding each other, how she has come to be the person she is today.
I didn’t always agree with the conclusions about life that Hobsbawn-Smith reaches; and I suspect that, given the differences between us (age, aspiration, location) she wouldn’t have a problem with that. But I do feel challenged – reminded, rather – to consider food more meaningfully, to remember the love that making and giving food can show; to try and take life just a little slower; and to be more aware of where food comes from. Trying to be intensely locavore is something that works if you’ve got the time and the money, which is something society as a whole needs to struggle with – and it’s not something that’s particularly doable for me right now. But I can, for example, be more mindful of seasonality.
These essays were deeply enjoyable to read, both on an intellectual-challenge and -stimulation level and also as prose in and of itself. Hobsbawn-Smith writes beautifully of food, and nature, and experience; she has an entire essay of her love for a temperamental oven, which is a delight. She made me remember that food is more than fuel, that life can be lived slowly, and that doing so is worthwhile.
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out now; RRP $49.99.
It feels an age since I reviewed a cookbook! And usually I like to actually cook from one before reviewing, but… well… look at the title. None of that is happening at the moment. And although of course I could cook from it for two, the one time I tried to get the ingredients recently it fell through because of Issues with Shops. So I figured I should just get on with telling people about the book, since it’s out now!
Firstly, this book is gorgeous. It’s hard cover, and it has a ribbon (as all cookbooks ought) and the pictures are lovely. I am indeed one of those people who loves flicking through a cookbook looking at the pretties, and this is one that rewards such actions.
Beyond the appearance, though, I am intrigued by the way it’s arranged – which is slightly different, at least in the naming. McAlpine says in her intro she wanted it to feel ‘intuitive’: so it opens with what she calls Stars – the centrepiece of a meal. But that’s not always a roast; she includes chilled almond soup, and burrata with preserved lemon, mint and chilli (bring on summer) in this section, as well as Pork Wellington and poached cold salmon. For every star, McAlpine suggests what might go alongside from the other sections – Sides and Sweets. Basically, she is doing all of the menu planning for you, if you choose to follow her ideas. She rhapsodises about the joys of throwing together dinner and lunch parties in her introduction, which is something I have never found easy – enjoyable, yes, but for me sometimes quite stressful since I’m not sure what works together and I can get flustered by organisation. McAlpine’s point, then, is to make those like me just chill out a bit.
So the other sections are Sides and Sweets, and Extras – truffle mayonnaise and cocktails and the like. But one of the great triumphs is found at the back. The section called How to Cook by Season sets out suggested meal plans by seasonal availability of produce: a Make-Ahead Weeknight Supper for Spring, Late Summer Lunch Al Fresco, a First Blush of Autumn Supper, Food for Celebration in Winter… and so on. Just the names make me really, really want an end to the Current Situation. And THEN, joy of joys, she has a section called How to Cook by Numbers, which is something that really stresses me out. Starting with Cooking for Four to Six, and going to Cooking for Twenty (or more), she suggests recipes that work most easily at those quantities. Which is just magnificent. I don’t ever want to properly cater for twenty, because that seems like way more trouble than I can face; but she suggests a lot of things that can scale. And finally, because she’s clearly a sensible and canny writer, McAlpine finishes with How to Cook by Timings: the things to do last-minutes, and the things you can prepare days ahead.
I am really, really looking forward to cooking from this book, both just for us when ingredient can be come by easily, and for larger groups of friends. I am also quite greedily happy just to have it on my shelf to look at.
I don’t remember how I came across this book – could have been through Gastropod? – but I thought it sounded like just my thing. Time as an ingredient makes a lot of sense, when you consider it! And overall, Linford does look at some interesting points in connecting food with time; I learned a few things and was encouraged in my love of cooking and food.
However, this book turned out to be not quite what I expected. On reflection, I think I was expecting something more like Michael Pollan’s Cooked, where he meditates on particular ways in which fire or air or whatever have an impact on cooking and food at length. This is not that. Instead, this is a long series of vignettes. Some of them do go over pages – there’s a good few pages on pickles, and on smoking, and the wonders of freezing., among others. But in general each topic within each timeframe (seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years) is relatively short, addressing the connection between the topic and time – the seconds between different stages of caramel, the time it takes to make true traditional Modena balsamic vinegar – and usually not going into the depth that my heart really wanted. (And sometimes the topics chosen in each chapter seem to be tangential to the concept of time as an ingredient, but maybe I missed the point.)
If what you’re interested in is a series of short stories about time and cooking, that you can easily dip into and out of, that are sometimes amusing and sometimes poignant and that remind you that cooking and good food are good things, then you will probably enjoy this book.
This book was recommended to me by the sourdough baker whose course I took. It turned out that I had already one of Pollan’s books – The Botany of Desire, which was awesome and looked at various plants in light of the general idea of desire. (My biggest take away message: the Agricultural Revolution was the grasses using humanity to destroy the trees. Also that all edible apples are clones.)
This book is Pollan’s attempt to learn more about cooking, having looked at the gardening and the eating side for a long time. He divides the book into four sections: Fire, Water, Air, Earth. Or, basically: barbecue, braise, bread, and fermenting. Continue reading →
I have baked my first sponge! You can click that link to read my hubristic recount of the deed. And see a fairly average photo.
Dear Reader, I am sorry, but I lied.
It wasn’t pannacotta, it was a sweet flan – I was mistaken. I do still indeed intend to try pannacotta, but this is what I was intending to make. There were some Issues… let’s just say that when I thought the muffin tray was going to fit in the big tray I had, so it could act as a water bath, I was mistaken. I discovered this when I had already put mixture into the muffin tray, but nonetheless – we progressed.
They were tasty, despite the fact that I cheated and used vanilla extract (fake, even, I think) rather than vanilla bean. I made a bit of a dark chocolate ganache with the rest of the cream I had, and some dark choc melts… it was very tasty. Just ask J!
I just made Roasted Garlic and Goats’ Cheese Flan! Yay me! Why did I do it in the middle of the day? Because it’s the holidays, and I wanted to experiment, and when better to experiment than on a rainy Friday in the holidays, with Torchwood that J downloaded for me because I think I stuffed up the VCR? No better time!
It was really, really easy… and very tasty… I can foresee dinner parties with this as the entree, and me getting an awful lot of kudos for it. And I won’t be saying then that it was easy…. Now, perhaps, to attempt and conquer pannacotta…
I finished Jack Turner’s Spice: The History of a Temptation yesterday. Overall, I really enjoyed it. It’s quite an idiosyncratic history, and deliberately so – writing about absolutely everything to do with spice, even just in western Europe and/or just in the Middle Ages would be an incomprehensibly huge project, I would imagine. So he hasn’t done that: although he does go into great detail in some things, in others he skips over stuff a bit. He does seem to have a fairly good bibliography at the back, so I guess if you were so inclined you could chase stuff up yourself.
The first part is about the spice race – Columbus, Magellan, and their cohort, who opened up the world for Europeans – at least the western ones – all, or at least partly, in the name of spice, I love the idea of Portugese or Spanish explorer getting to Malabar or other such places and finding Italian merchants already there; the look on their faces must have been priceless… much like the spice there were seeking.
The second part focusses on the palate – the thing that I was expecting most of the book to look at, to be honest, despite the fact that I know spices were used in incense etc. Anyway, this section was really interesting: it looked at recipes, it looked at how spice helped to create/maintain class distinction; discredits the idea that spice was used in the Middle Ages to hide the taste of rotting meat (it was rich people who used spice – do you think rich people would be eating rotting meat in the first place? It was at least partly to hide the taste of the salt used in curing the meat, probably).
The third part focussed on the body, in two ways: spice in medicine, and spice for love. Starting with cloves being shoved up Ramses II’s nose, as part of the mummification process, and then talking about the whole idea of pomanders and bad air (mal aria…) being respondible for disease. The section on spice as aphrodisiac was quite funny. And almost entirely male-centred – the remedies suggested, that is, not Turner’s treatment of it, since he himself points it out.
Part four is on the spirit: the use of spice in incense, for example. It mostly focussed, though, on the changing attitude of Christians towards spice in worship. The earliest Church fathers thought it was ok-ish – Christians were often anointed with spices for burial, since Christ was. Then people went a bit off it, because after all if God is incorporeal then presumably he doesn’t enjoy pleasant smells (personally I think this is a daft argument: so you’re limiting what God is able to do, then?). This is a very, very brief overview, of course.
The last chapter is called “Some Like it Bland,” which is a great heading. It talks about the movement – slowly – against spices, for a range of reasons, including that it was a drain of resources away from Europe towards those nasty, decadent Easterners; plus, interestingly, he links the development of the nation-state and national sentiment to the development of a national cuisine, which makes sense, and in England at least this led to a bland cuisine they were proud of, contrasting it with those very spices their forebears used to love.
As I said, this is a ridiculously brief overview, but it gives an idea what the book was about. It’s really well written, and a lot of fun to read; Turner’s not afraid of pointing out the humorous and ridiculous nature of some of the things he discusses.