I made raie au beurre noir this evening. It’s a simple, deeply savoury recipe that elevates the hunble skate wing to something rich and deeply satisfying. Any book on French cooking will have the recipe but this evening I turned to one of my charity shop finds and was transported to a perfect France through the marriage of simple black and white photos and clear, quick recipes thanks to the Chamberlains and their little gem ‘The Flavour of France in Recipes and Pictures’.
Immediately a plan formed in my brain – I would visit every one of the 215 locations and cook every one of the 215 recipes in situ. Cooking the book blogs are one of my guiltiest pleasures – I particularly loved the guy who cooked his way through the Fat Duck book, ingeniously deploying a rice cooker and probe to simulate sous vide and asking his butcher to vacuum pack everything. The ‘Chamberlian Project’ as I codenamed it, would be much simpler – just me, a recipe book, a batterie de cuisine, a decent camera, laptop, access to kitchens, places to stay and at the end of it all surely a book? A TV series? A film starring Meryl Streep? As the book is currently going for $445 on amazon.com I’d make more money selling it – if making money was the aim.
I love this little book for many of the same reasons I love ‘The Alice B Toklas Cookbook’ – I love the way their American authors are as hopeless as I am about a Utopian vision of France inextricably bound up with their love of its food. Alice & Gertrude toughed it out through the war of course slumming it on Crawfish a la Bordelaise and Lobster, Chicken and Black Truffle Salad whilst the Chamberlains, after many happy years and culinary adventures in France, fled in 1939 and settled in Marblehead, Mass – coincidentally the birthplace of Tyler Hamilton, the USPS cyclist and author of the extraordinary ‘The Secret Race’. Digressions aside, ‘Flavour of France’ and ‘The Alice B Toklas Cookbook’ are books you want on your shelf – and the latter on your bedside table as one of the most eminently readable accounts of the American experience in Paris in those heady pre war days of Picasso and Stein, Hemingway and the moveable feast (and the recipes are fabulous too).
So the ‘Chamberlain Project’ will remain an unrealised dream, joining the dusty but burnished pile of other dreams unrealised, but I’ll continue to share the Chamberlain’s passion for la cuisine de bonne femme. Instead of pursuing their culinary journey across France, I’ll be bringing it to my new kitchen – cooking simple, delicious dishes to nourish the stomach and, I hope, the heart.
So, as I write, I’m busy salivating at the prospect of cooking Delicieuses au fromage, saumon au vin blanc, fonds d’artichauts aux crevettes, canard aux oignons brules and 211 other delights for friends and family.
As for Alice B Toklas’ Hashish fudge? Nice as it is, I wouldn’t recommend riding your bike afterwards.