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A Bite-Sized History of France by Stéphane Henaut and Jeni Mitchell : deliciously fascinating

This book is deliciously fascinating. What better way to learn about a country’s history than by being introduced to it around a certain food item, such as artichokes, wine or cheese. The author explains how politics, economics and culture link with food in ‘foodways’, which reveal a great deal about a country. We discover many such foodways in this book.

The book is like a plate of nibbles – bite-sized chunks of history and food at a time. We learn about Gauls as the same time as wine, Barbarians and table manners, The Battles of Tours and Poitiers and goat cheese, Charlemagne and honey, Viking invasions and Bénédictine liqueur, feudalism and diet, the Crusades and plums, Eleanor of Aquitaine and claret, Cathars and vegetarianism, taxes and seasalt, the Black Prince and cassoulet, the plague and vinegar, Charles the Mad and Roquefort, the Renaissance and oranges, colonisation and chocolate, sugar, forks and Catherine de Medici, chickens and King Henry IV… and that’s just for starters! Many other snippets of info are sprinkled like condiments over the main ingredients to pique our appetite. This really is a feast of a book.

Just as it’s hard to relinquish a plate a plate of moreish food, it’s very hard to put down the book once you’ve started reading. The author’s style is thoroughly engaging and enjoyable. He’s witty as well as wise, and you learn so much without realising it. He communicates so passionately and knowledgeably it’s hard not to be won over.

Like your favourite restaurant, this book is absolutely to be recommended.

The book is due out on 10 July 2018 from The New Press. My only quibble – it’s rather pricey. The Kindle edition is priced at €18.99 and the print copy at €24.24, which will surely affect its sales. This book has massive appeal but that price tag will put many purchasers off.    

This book

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Mastering the Art of French Eating: hmm, not quite…

mastering french eatingWhen people think France, they automatically think food. At least, people who don’t live here do. Whilst I and its fellow residents enjoy eating as much as everyone else in the world, it’s just an aspect of your life, not an all-consuming passion.

So the France = Food formula may be a stereotype but it makes for good PR! It also makes for interesting books, such as this one by Anne Mah in her book Mastering the Art of French Eating (Pamela Dorman Books, €13.65 Kindle to €20.03 paper version). She follows a successful formula of mixing observations on France and the French resulting from living amongst them with recipes and some culinary history. David Leibovitz and Julia Child are just two other authors who have done this. But it doesn’t become tired, and Anne Mah has a novel approach in her book in selecting only very well known regional dishes rather than the usually more eclectic, slightly random choices that authors make. She makes a trip to the relevant region and gives us the full background on each dish.

However, whilst we’re happy to hear about Mah’s experiences out amongst the natives, sometimes her introspection becomes tedious. Yes, it’s tough being separated from your partner but millions of people share this situation and these days it’s a heck of a lot easier than it was with Skype, email and so on. I can remember the era when you had to rely on hideously expensive long distance phone calls and letters, and I’m not that old! This electronic era makes absence somewhat less awful. However, the author does tend to wallow and that is offputting. That element should have been consigned to a diary or a separate book since this one suffers in becoming stretched between what we want to read – i.e. France and French food – and what we don’t, i.e. the author being miserable.

Generally the recipes are appealing and well-presented although I’m not sure I can see many people tackling andouillettes from scratch or curing pork for themselves.

So a partially successful book that is informative about France in places but rather undecided in what it’s trying to achieve.