Back in October, I was reading a post on Bleu Blonde Rouge, a blog by Claudine Hemingway. In it, Hemingway wrote about her favorite French cookbooks. I love to cook so jotted down a couple of the titles to see if I could find them at my library. I was happy to see that Let’s Eat France!, which Hemingway describes as “the kind of book you can curl up in bed with” was available. A few days later, I walked to the library to pick it up.
Before ever peeking inside, however, I was a bit put off. Not because I suddenly doubted the worthiness of the book’s contents but because it’s huge. The thing weighs 6 pounds and so my thoughts went straight to more practical and spiritless considerations. I wasn’t particularly keen on lugging it home. Were I to refer to a recipe while cooking, it would take up an inordinate amount of space on my countertop. The naysayer in me, immediately stepped into the spotlight, presenting other objections. Yet, somewhere in the wings of my brain’s debate stage, a francophile voice told me to shoulder it chez moi.
[Hovering your mouse over the French words on this page will bring up an English translation.]
Once home, I lay the book on a chair in my dining room and there it sat unopened for weeks. When the second renewal request came up, I decided I needed to return it for others to enjoy. A few Saturdays ago, as I was gathering up returns, I decided that I should at least give Let’s Eat France! a few minutes before taking it back. 5 minutes led to 20 minutes led to 45 minutes until I realized that I needed more time and so ended up renewing my loan once again. The book is worth its weight in foie gras!
Let’s Eat France! contains 375 classic recipes. I have a few French cookbooks but they’re mainly by famous chefs that to distinguish themselves have put their own spin on the dishes they present. I also rely on the Internet for recipes but too often have difficulty finding precisely what I’m looking for. What’s more, many of the French recipes that I’ve come across are complex, multi-stage, productions that lose their appeal once I discover that I’ll need to devote many hours to prepare them.
A handful of the recipes in Let’s Eat France! are indeed difficult. After reading through the steps needed to reproduce Lyon’s famous quenelles, I decided that flying to France and dining in a bouchon might be easier. Most of the recipes, however, are pleasingly simple. I realized this week that if I was going to review the book, I should stop reading and try making a few of the dishes. I made a Far Breton Cake one night and an Apple and Brie Tartin on another. Both recipes were quick, easy, and delicious.
A History Book
For every recipe found in Let’s Eat France! there are also interesting side notes and humorous anecdotes about one or more of its principal ingredients. The book is a who’s who of important figures and organizations from France’s culinary past: from the Michelin brothers’ famous star rating system to the cooking empire built by chef Paul Bocuse to l’Association de sauvegarde de l’œuf mayo, an organization built in the 1990s to safeguard traditional methods for making mayonnaise.
The encyclopedic like volume is beautifully laid out and fun to read. Did you know that:
- Alexander Dumas wrote a Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine describing more than 3000 foods, drinks, and recipes? A delightful selection of entries are found inside.
- Sweetbreads are made from a gland that resides in the chest of a calf which disappears by the time the animal reaches maturity?
- As early as 1976, California winegrowers beat out their French rivals in a blind international taste test?
Hundreds of tidbits like these are sprinkled throughout the pages.
A Bucket List for Foodies
Whether or not you like to cook, if you consider yourself a foodie, you may want to check out Let’s Eat France! I’ve had the sincere pleasure of eating foie gras, frog legs, escargot, boudin, and tartare but after reading this book, I’d like to add wild boar, sea urchin, aligot, and cardoon to my list of French foods to try.
The text is also sprinkled with maps showing the breakdown of various culinary ingredients and/or utensils by region. Traveling in southwestern France? Perhaps you’d like to visit the Musée de l’Armagnac to learn about and sample a brandy that dates back more than 700 years. Like to cook but not fond of travel, take a couch-guided tour of the famous soups of France. One of my favorite pages in the book displays 40 different artisanal knives and links them to the province where they originated.
I may not ever dine at any of the 3-star Michelin restaurants or even the zero-star routiers mentioned in the book. But, I sure have enjoyed reading about them.
A Coffee Table Book
If you haven’t guessed already, I give Let’s Eat France 5 out of 5 stars. It’s a wonderful volume for any francophile or lover of French cuisine. When you consider how much is packed into its pages (not to mention its price per pound), Let’s Eat France is très bon marché. If you can’t find space for it on your cookbook shelf, it’s perfectly suited to a coffee table or fireplace mantle—the kind of book that you, or a friend, or a group of friends can pick up and enjoy for hours.