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This completely updated revision of `The Cooking of Southwest France' by premier cookbook author, Paula Wolfert is like a long drink of cold water to someone who looks forward to superior cookbooks. This volume may be just a tad less definitive than the author's landmark `Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco', but not from a deficiency on the part of the author, who has made things just a bit more challenging for herself by expanding the range of `Southwestern France'.
The range of her book covers, according to her map of the `Greater French Southwest', about two fifths of the country, from La Rochelle in the northwest to the Spanish border, then north along the Mediterranean coast to Montpellier on the Gulf of Lion, then north to include the provinces of Auvergne, Limousin, and Perigord in addition to the southwest heartland of Guyenne, Gascogne, and Languedoc.
While Provence and the rest of the French southeast is devoted to the use of olive oil and the French north loves its Normandy butter fat, the defining fat of the French southwest is animal fats, primarily lard from pork, duck fat, and chicken fat. These lipids are so central to the cooking of this region that many of the recipes look more foreign to our modern culinary sensibilities than recipes from Southeast Asia with its reliance on peanut oil.
Ms. Wolfert is quick to assure us early in the book that pork and duck fat is actually less saturated and less cholesterol laden than is butter fat. For the sake of enjoying this book, I will accept this and warn you that to fully appreciate the recipes in this book, I suggest you search out a good source of lard and duck fat. To aid you in this quest, Ms. Wolfert includes one of the best listings of Internet sources I have seen in a long time. The other rare ingredient you will need or be able to produce is verjus (sour grape sauce) which is a remarkable throwback to the cooking of ancient Rome. I recently queried my local megamart and could find no trace of this product.
The other hallmark products of the region are foie gras from both geese and ducks, black mushrooms, walnuts, chestnuts, cepes (porcini mushrooms in Italian), Bayonne ham (not available in the United States at all. Procuitto or Serrano hams are very acceptable substitutes), chicken, baby eels (available from Spanish speciality stores), snails, salt cod, verjus (sour grape juice) and red wines (Bordelais).
Aside from devoted Paula Wolfert fans, those who will find this book most useful are people who are especially fond of dishes with duck, geese, and chicken. Close to half of the main course dishes involves one of these three birds. The only catch is that the best duck for most of these recipes is the Moutard, which is both more expensive and harder to find in the United states than the common Pekin and Muscovy ducks easily obtained from D'Artagnan in your local megamart. The book is also an important authority on those most important dishes of the area, Garbure (a meat and bean stew), Terrines, Rillettes (shredded meats), and Cassoulet. And, it has more variations than I have seen anywhere else on the theme of chicken in a wine sauce. Most of these recipes use baby chickens (poussins) rather than elderly male chickens.
I appreciate Wolfert's books not only for their terrific insights into important European and Mediterranean cuisines, but in quietly competent way she goes about presenting her material, with just the right amount of detail and compromise to what can be done in an American kitchen without loosing all touch with her subject's `terroir'. The recipes are done with all the right amount of detail, but not too much so that you become bored with the repetition. You will find no extravagant or breathless statements. Everything is done with a depth of knowledge which is unmatched by any other contemporary writer I have read. While you can get the broad outlines of this region's cuisine from surveys such as Elizabeth David's `French Provincial Cooking' and Waverly Root's `The Food of France', you simply cannot get from these works the fine details of preparing these recipes.
And, Ms. Wolfert never goes off message. Unlike many books of Italian regional cooking, there is no coloring outside the lines by bringing in recipes from Provence or Dijon or Normandy. Among Ms. Wolfert's other books, I would rate this better than `The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen' and at least as good as `Mediterranean Grains and Greens'. It is probably as good as her `The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean', and it is more interesting in that it's subject is much more compact and coherent than the whole of the eastern Mediterranean.
Part of her not straying from her core subject is the fact that there are no bread recipes and relatively few dessert recipes. The recipes come from professional chefs of the region, amateur chefs living in southwest France, and Wolfert's adaptations of local recipes based on her own experiences in the region. And, she is scrupulous in identifying from what source each recipe comes.
A fine index is provided to all recipes by region and by course in addition to the conventional index.
Simply reading this book is a treat. Cooking from it may be just a bit of a challenge until you get a reliable source of duck, cured ham, and verjus, but this should be no more difficult than requirements of cooking, for example, Vietnamese cuisine.
An especially valuable addition to the literature on French cooking.