Wednesday, February 23, 2011

French Country Cooking: discover traditional French dishes with the Roux Brothers

One of the best things about being a food blogger is occasionally receiving cookbooks in the post. I recently received a copy of 'French Country Living' by the Roux Brothers; a cookbook that aims to showcase the best of regional French cooking and a cookbook that seems to have been made for me.

I used to live in France and have first-hand experience of just how proud the French are of their regional dishes. I have a particularly warm memory of a friend's mother's showing me how to make aligot in her kitchen in Rodez in Aveyron. She mixes Tomme cheese, mashed potatoes and garlic together in a huge pot, transforming it into a cheesy, garlicy, stringy, elastic dish of wonderfulness. (My memory of this dish is so tantalising that if I can lay my hands on some Tomme cheese, I'm going to have to try to recreate this dish for myself very soon.)

Such memories meant that I was predisposed to liking this book. Added to this was the fact that the book is written by Albert and Michel Roux, two brothers and chefs of impeccable pedigree who transformed British cuisine from their kitchens at Le Gavroche and The Waterside Inn.

Flicking through the book, my first impressions were that this was really traditional and very rustic French food. Perhaps a little too rustic for me. Lamb's brain with capers, anyone? Or pig's head soup?

I prefer my food on the light side and usually choose fish and vegetable-based dishes and light sauces over red meat, butter and cream. But my boyfriend (whose tastes are the exact opposite) happened to be looking through this cookbook with me and he ooh-ed and aah-ed over almost every recipe.

As we proceeded to look through the book together, I soon found plenty of dishes to entice me too. The overall design of the book charmed me as well. It was perfect for a Francophile like me.

The introduction tells us how the brothers came to be so passionate about food. They reminisce about their particularly well-fed childhood, enthusing aobut their mother's dandelion salad with bacon, her blanquette of veal and her waffles. These two world-renowned chefs admit that her food remains their favourite to this day.

They recall their father's charcuterie business too and how they could tell the day of the week from the smells emanating from the shop. If it was ham with parsley, it must be Wednesday...

The recipe section opens with a chapter on the basics. Their idea of the basics includes pastry (shortcrust, flan, sweet, short, puff and choux); brioche; bread; chicken, veal and fish stock; mayonnaise; almond cream; creme patissiere; and sorbet syrup.

Of these, I'm definitely going to try the bread, brioche, mayonnaise and the sorbet syrup (which the brothers use for moistening sponge cakes - a tip I can't wait to try on cakes of my own).

The rest of the book is divided into twelve regions. Each section opens with an overview of the region and its culinary traditions. The butter, cream, cheeses and cider of Normandy; the lamb and shellfish of Brittany; the fine wines and truffles of Guyenne; by the time you've finished reading about them, all you'll want to do is hop on a plane to France and eat, eat, eat and eat.

A dozen typical recipes from each region follow each overview and every chapter ends with a list of ingredients indigenous to that particular area.

I've earmarked lots of recipes from this book (and my boyfriend has also selected some that I'd probably never have chosen). Here are a few of our favourites:

  • Sole poached in cider with mussels, scallops and shrimps (my choice)
  • Sautéed veal kidneys (his)
  • Morel tart (my choice, with a nod of approval from him)
    • Entrecote steak with red wine, bone marrow and shallots (his choice)
    • Confit de canard (his)
    • Gateau Basque - a custard tart (mine)
    • Spatzle - noodles from Alsace (we both love these)
    • Ham cooked with hay (us both)
    • Peppery biscuits (me)
    • Catalan duck with Seville oranges (us both)
    • Bouillabaisse (us both: who after all, could resist this classic?)
    • Grape tart (sweet means that it has to be me)
    • In some ways, this isn't a fashionable book. French food has fallen out of vogue in recent years as popular taste has embraced new flavours from other countries, particularly from the east.

      But in many other ways and judging from the reaction both I and my boyfriend had to this book, French food will always be popular. Chefs who trained in France have shaped our palates and taste buds for decades and French ingredients and cooking techniques are still at the heart of how we cook. With its focus on the quality of ingredients and simple but precise cooking techniques; French cuisine - at its best - simply can't be beaten.

      This book reminded me how varied and enticing French food can be and I can't wait to start cooking.


      1. Love aligot...and like the sound of this book!

      2. Mmm, aligot... To think that I'd forgotten it for so long.
        I see that you've got a recipe for it on your blog. I'm going to have to try it and see if it lives up to my memories!