Wednesday, January 29, 2003


For our final Dine About Town dinner, we opted for Greens, the all-vegetarian restaurant in Fort Mason, right next to San Francisco's Marina.

I have always liked Greens, for a number of reasons. One, they actually try, and succeed, to make good food, rather than capitalizing on their stunning view to draw in customers. Two, they don't try and create "fake meat" dishes. The food is vegetarian cuisine, but doesn't feature "sausage" or "steak" or even "fish." To my mind, if you're spending a lot of time doing fake meat stuff, perhaps you're sending a message. And I don't want to eat food that has been highly processed and sculpted to resemble something it's not.

But that rant is for another day. Greens got high points for the composition of their cheap prix fixe: the opener was pre-selected as was the entrée, but they were normal items off the evening's menu, and the two a la carte cost about the same as the whole prix fixe, which included a choice of desserts as well.

And the food itself? We had Rattlesnake bean griddle cakes for the opener, and a squash stew served on warm polenta for the main course. Both dishes were somewhat too spicy for my palate, but I blame my wimpy palate, not them. For dessert, I had a quince tarte tatin, and Melissa had a chocolate tart, which surprised us by arriving cold.

We had opted for a bottle of Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel to go with our two savory dishes, but the cellar was out, so instead we went with the 2000 Qupe Syrah. A good wine on its own, but it had trouble retaining identity when paired with the spicy food. A slightly inadequate pairing in my opinion. And yes, they had some Germans and Austrians, but I decided to branch out.

The wine list in general was a little odd. I'm sure their sommelier works very hard, but the list seemed a little lackluster, though it did have a good representation of California wines. (Though not the Ridge we wanted). An Alsatian Gewürtzraminer would have been very nice with the spicy food, I imagine. Too bad they didn't have any. The wine list presented a fair amount of choices, but none that really grabbed us.

And not that Greens is to blame for this, but I have finally found an ice wine which did not send me into bliss: Andrew Rich's 2000 Ice Wine from Oregon. It's not like it was bad, but it was merely okay.

This sort of good-but-not-great feeling pervaded the evening. The food was satisfying but not fantastic, the wine list seemed like it was missing some pages, and the service was adequate. Still, for $30 I felt like I got my money's worth.

The clear winner in our three Dine About Town dinners was bacar, but 2nd place might be a bit of a tie. Acme Chophouse skimped on the opener and dessert, but delivered a stunning steak as recompense. Greens was consistently good for every course, but no one dish was up to the steak at Acme. Or any of the dishes at bacar. So is it better to have one fantastic dish and two mediocre ones, or three above-average but not stellar ones? Hard to know.

Sunday, January 26, 2003

Presentation is Everything

"People won't care what the food tastes like. As long as it looks good, the food doesn't have to be special." This was the sentiment of one caterer we talked to when picking a caterer for our wedding. She didn't get the job.

But she has a point. No matter how good the food, the first impression people have of their plates is what they look like. And chances are, it's what they'll remember long after. We are visual creatures, after all. So I don't deny presentation is important, and I've started making frou-frou presentations more of a focus, practising with my lunches at work and paying attention whenever we go out to eat.

You can imagine, then, that I was looking forward to my Presentation & Garnishing class at the California Culinary Academy. It was taught by Chef Michael Rech, who is one of the few Certified Master Chefs in the country, clearly someone who knows his stuff. He casually presented dishes or techniques which would show up in the prettiest of food photographs.

The school did the right thing with this course. Rather than forcing us to make a bunch of dishes for the 1:00 buffet, unrelated to what we were learning, we created a cheese platter. Of course, there were some pretty garnishes, the most notable being a melon cut into a crown, which contained a tomato cut the same way, which contained a lemon, which contained a lime, which contained a strawberry. But even the way he laid out the cheeses was interesting, cutting a big block of gruyere on the bias and then standing it upright to give height to the board and visual interest.

The first part was basic food shaping, and we spent a fair amount of time carving radishes, turnips, and other veggies into interesting shapes. It's pretty astonishing to see how an intricate shape cut into a radish is really just a few well-placed slices. The class constructed a bouquet of flowers, all made out of vegetables.

In the second part, Chef Rech talked about plating, and provided some demonstrations. The one that sticks out: he piped mashed potatoes through a star tip into a big spiral rose, laid a piece of seared steak against it, and then arranged the fanned ends of two squashes and five baby carrots into an artful pile, topping the whole thing with a veal stock reduction. You would've thought we were in a fancy restaurant, and it's a presentation you've probably paid a lot for at some point in your life.

But the bulk of the class was just an opportunity for us to practice everything we learned and ask questions. Chef Rech would demonstrate things out of the blue (I have now successfully made a tomato rose), talk about random aspects of plating, and otherwise teach us in a very freeform fashion. The handout is full of both plating concepts as well as simpler food sculpting techniques, so we quizzed him on those.

That night, when I went to put the food on the plate for dinner, I worked a bit harder than I do even normally. I still need a lot of practice, but I could already see improvements in how I thought about where to put things on the plate.

Thursday, January 23, 2003


Continuing our adventures with Dine About Town, Melissa and I went to dinner the other night at bacar, the hip wine bar/ gourmet restaurant located in San Francisco's SoMa neighborhood. We enjoyed Acme Chophouse, but we absolutely loved bacar.

Part of this has to do with bacar's wine list. Not only is it extensive, but Debbie Zachareas is a huge promoter of German and Austrian wines. Indeed, she bears a large portion of the credit for my own addiction to these wines.

One of these, a 2001 Donnhof, was the suggested accompaniment to the shrimp cake we started with (after an utterly delicious crab salad amuse-bouche). Now, those who have been reading this for a while may have realized that Donnhof is one of my absolute favorite German wine makers. And the 2001 German vintage is getting huge amounts of press for its amazing quality. So, yes, thank you very much, we'll take the shrimp cake and the suggested wine. (bacar, unlike Acme, had a handful of choices for each course on the prix fixe)

I'll praise the shrimp cake in a moment. Bear with me as I swoon over the memory of the wine. I'm surprised I managed to converse with Melissa at all while we ate the opener. I mostly just wanted to go crawl into a closet and take as long as possible with that glass. Donnhof was the wine maker who taught me about balance. My wine teacher had explained it, and I thought I got it. Donnhof's 2000s were an epiphany. Donnhof's 2001s are ambrosia. My version of heaven would have lots of bottles of this to drink. I have a handful of 2001 Donnhofs sitting in my "cellar" waiting to be drunk. Many people advise holding this vintage for five years, but I doubt I can hold out after tasting one of them.

Right. The shrimp cake. It was great, and beautifully plated. A nice sauce to accompany it, as well as some radicchio. The cake was perfectly round and fried to perfection, with a crisp but yielding golden crust. Mmmmm.

For the entrée, Melissa opted for the Mahi mahi, and I opted, as I almost always do wherever I go these days, for the duck confit. And while the menu suggested other wines, Debbie was kind enough to pick out some more German and Austrian wines for us. Melissa got a 2001 Nigl Grüner Veltliner, and I got a 2001 Muller-Catoir. While all the press has been gaga over the 2001 German wines, Debbie points out that 2001 wasn't too shabby in Austria either. And Muller-Catoir is another one of the premier German wine makers. I liked the Donnhof better, finding it more balanced overall, but I certainly would not turn away another glass of the Muller-Catoir. Again, we were ecstatic over the wine, and they paired wonderfully with our food. Are you sensing a theme here?

My duck confit was served on the bone, and was meltingly tender and delicious. My favorite duck confit so far is still the one at Jojo in Oakland, but bacar's could give it a good run. Again, it was plated in such a beautiful fashion that it almost made me weep (though perhaps that was the stunning wine). I want to serve dishes like that!

Finally, we had dessert. Both of us opted for a bread pudding with an amaretto ice cream, and while Melissa went for coffee, I had a glass of the 2000 Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner eiswein. I've had plenty of Grüner, and a fair amount (though never enough) of eiswein. I had, however, only had Riesling eisweine. The Grüner version had an aroma that smelled to me like pineapple, and it was just fantastic. Not the same as a German Riesling eiswein, but not better or worse, just different. And yet similar enough to temporarily sate my constant eiswein cravings.

bacar's atmosphere is very nice. Melissa got there before me and spent some time enjoying their wine bar, a lounge-like room with comfie chairs and small intimate tables, perfect for two or three people to chat and enjoy glasses from their huge selection. We sat in the main, ground-floor dining room, which is open to all the other customers as well as the kitchen. But somehow, even though there's a constant level of noise, it isn't intrusive. There is a small upstairs as well, and by the time we left, the nightly jazz music had started up. A great atmosphere, and I could happily spend a lot of time there, drinking glass after glass of amazing wine.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Acme Chophouse

The other night we had our first dinner as part of the Dine About Town festivities. Basically, a bunch of restaurants have offered 3-course, $30 prix fixe menus for dinners on what would otherwise be slow nights. For many of them, getting a single entrée for less than $30 would be a challenge, so this is a great chance to try some of San Francisco's hippest restaurants without extensive damage to your pocketbook.

Such as Acme Chophouse, a steak house located in Pac Bell Park. Only in San Francisco would a ball park have a gourmet restaurant known for its organically raised, hormone-free, grass-fed beef. We had been eager to try it for a while, not only for its reputation but to support restaurants that make an effort to serve food that's been raised right.

Our prix fixe menu was a salad of iceberg lettuce with blue cheese and walnuts, a choice of either ribeye steak or ahi tuna, and a dessert of chocolate pudding. The salad and the dessert might have made us feel a little gipped, if it weren't for the fact that the steak was one of the best steaks I've ever eaten. Perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked (though it was a little more cooked than I imagined when I asked for it rare), it was a revelation. If they skimped on the appetizer and dessert so that they could afford to give me that steak, well, I'm not complaining too loudly.

The ahi tuna, which Melissa got, was also extremely good. I think I made the better choice, but the tuna was a close runner-up.

The wine list at Acme is quite ample, featuring a number wines by the glass, and two sides of a large sheet of paper full of wines by the bottle. We each opened with a glass of Prosecco, and then enjoyed a bottle (actually two half-bottles) of the Guigal Cote du Rhone. It seemed the best single wine to get to cover both the steak and the tuna, and it stood up to the steak reasonably well. To go with my dessert, I had a glass of Vin Santo. I took a chance and assumed the pudding would not be really dark and intense. Fortunately, I was right, and the Vin Santo went with it marvelously.

Of course, the thing about Dine About Town is that the $30 doesn't cover tax, tip, and, most deadly of all, wine. So it's not like we got out of there for $30 each. Still, going with the prix fixe and a relatively inexpensive wine made the evening reasonably affordable.

So would I go if I weren't getting a deal? I think so. That steak alone was enough to get me back in there at some point.

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Germany, Austria, Champagne, oh my!

I know lots of people who say they simply don't like white wine. I used to be one of them. But I learned the error of my ways once I realized that all white wines were not the wretched Chardonnays we produce here in California. So now I do my rebellious best to get others to not snub whites. And there are few weapons in my arsenal as effective as a good bottle of German or Austrian wine.

My love affair with these wines started in a wine class I took last year, but came into full bloom at a tasting event at bacar, which I described in one of the earliest posts to this website.

That event featured Terry Theise, who is the number one importer of quality German and Austrian wines, as well as estate-bottled Champagne (Champagne is normally a blend of grapes from innumerable vineyards). When people ask me for advice on buying German wine (and some do, every now and then, so my efforts are beginning to pay off), I say that the easiest thing to do is look for Terry's name on the bottle. If it's there, it's bound to be good.

So a month and a half ago, when K & L Wines announced a mega-tasting of some of these wines, with Terry Theise and some of the producers present, it didn't matter that I was unemployed at the time; I plopped down the $100 for Melissa and me to go.

And while the tasting featured maybe ten different Champagnes, and around two dozen Austrian wines, the real excitement for me was the twenty or so 2001 German wines. Because the 2001 vintage from Germany is causing everyone who cares about such things to pee their pants.

The event was actually at Chantilly, a restaurant/hotel next door to K & L. As Melissa and I walked in, we were given a tasting sheet for notes. Or, rather, a package of tasting sheets. There were somewhere around 50-60 wines in total for us to try over the next three hours. Melissa made me promise to spit a lot.

In many cases, the producers of the wines were there, and so we got to talk to them about their winemaking, their vineyards, and what they like to eat with their wines. This was a spectacular idea on Terry's part. It gives you a much deeper connection to what you drink, an understanding of the person behind the bottle. It is too common for wine drinkers to think of wine makers in the abstract and not as real people.

And these wine makers were enjoying sharing their wines. So much so that a number of them brought extra treats for us to enjoy: barrel samples of the not-yet-bottled 2002 vintage, an eiswein or a Trockenbeerenauslese, snuck in among the rest.

So here are some of the highlights for us. The wines from Meulenhof were amazing. Stefan Justen had brought his 2001 Kabinett Riesling, which was of course delicious, but also barrel samples for his 2002 Kabinett and his 2002 Spätlese. Everything was superb. In fact, I took a break from the tasting to go next door and buy a case of the 2001's, just to ensure that I got some if there was a run on them at the end of the tasting (they only had 4 cases left before I got there). And as soon as I see them show up in stores, I'm buying the 2002s. I'll figure out a way to pre-order, if I can.

I could wax rapsodic about all the 2001s from Germany. And with an infinite budget, I would have walked out with cases of virtually all of them. But, alas, I am not quite able to do that. So the Meulenhofs were the only full case I ended up with. The Selbach-Osters and Josef Leitz bottles were all quite good, but those are also somewhat easier to find, even still.

Martin Kerpen of Weingut Kerpen shared a bottle of his Bernkasteler Bratenhofchen Riesling Eiswein, which is a steal at $78 for a half-bottle (no, really), but it won't be available at K & L for a little while, so I'll try and refrain from calling and pestering them every day. I did, however, buy two bottles of the 2000 Schloss Gobelsburg Riesling "Heiligenstein" Trockenbeerenauslese, which also seemed like a great buy at $55 for a half-bottle.

But I could go on and on. The event was a blast, and my only regret is all the wine I spit out (though, for the real treats, I didn't spit; I just couldn't bring myself to do it). Find yourself some 2001 Germans and try them.

P.S. Some quick notes on German terms for ripeness (which mostly apply to Austria as well, but they have one additional level of ripeness, and they have completely different names in the Wachau region of the country). Ripeness of the grape at harvest often correlates to sweetness (ripeness = sugar), but not always. Even when very sweet, however, fine German wines are not cloying. This most northerly of wine-growing regions just doesn't get a lot of sun, and getting the grapes ripe is a tricky business there. The minimum level approved by the government is simply Qualitatswein. Anything below that is unclassified. I tend to buy wines at least one level up at the Kabinett level. Karen MacNeil's Wine Bible calls Kabinett Rieslings one of the most food-friendly wines in existence. Another level up in ripeness are the Spätleses, which I often pair with a plate of soft cheeses at the end of the meal before dessert. Next up are Ausleses, then Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese (often abbreviated to BA and TBA for obvious reasons). When you're making a TBA, the grapes might have sat on the vine until December, if not later. And you are at that point squeezing the juice out of dried-up raisins. Hence the cost. Eiswein has an extra requirement. It's wine produced when the grapes freeze on the vines, and they have be picked when it is still very cold to be used for Eiswein (in Germany, the rules for eiswein state that they have to be picked at -8 ° Celsius). Eiswein is considered the highest achievemnt for a winemaker. Other countries produce ice wines, most notably Canada, but a good German eiswein is in a category entirely of its own.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

The Riedel Taste Test

Wine brings out the snob in otherwise normal people. And few things evoke more snobbery in the world of wine accessories than Riedel wine glasses. The whole idea of Riedel crystal is that it is tailored for the particular grape, directing the flow of the wine properly to the taste centers of your mouth.

From their site:

He discovered that the content commands the shape, whose consequence was: the correct choice of glass enhances the flavors of wines. The delivery of a wine's "message", its bouquet and taste, depends on the form of the glass. It is the responsibility of a glass to convey the wine's messages in the best manner to the human senses. 

This quote, from their description of their Vinum extreme line, emphasizes the snobbery quite well:

The question is of course justified: Aren't there already enough gourmet glasses? Our answer is quite definitely no, as long as there are still containers which defile the message of the wine.

No wonder people can't stand wine snobs. (at least until the wine snobs start choosing the wine).

I used to consider this one of the most clever marketing schemes I had seen for a while. But I now know or have read the accounts of a significant number of wine professionals who swear by this philosophy and were converted by the famous Riedel taste test, wherein you try a wine in a standard-issue restaurant glass and a Riedel glass tailored to that wine. Not only that, but the glasses are beautiful. So for our wedding Melissa and I registered for some Riedel crystal.

Of course, having said all the above, you can quickly imagine that registering for Riedel is a minor nightmare. You don't just say "n red wine glasses" and "n white wine glasses." You have to choose from roughly 20-30 different types of glasses within their lines of crystal (we opted for the machine-made but thus more affordable Vinum line).

But in addition to the glasses we registered for, we bought ourselves a special engagement gift: 12 Rheinghau glasses from the Vinum line. Glasses designed for the great German Rieslings as well as Grüner veltliner, Austria's signature grape (Riedel is from Austria). And since they arrived, I've been chomping at the bit to do the Riedel taste test in our own home. Our regular wine glasses versus the Rheinghau glass, with some of our Grüner.

And I can say they definitely make a difference. The one that jumped out at me was how much more the wine's acidity came through in the Riedel. When I tried the wine out of the Riedel and then out of our regular glasses, I had the sensation of taste you get when you've paired a wine with something more acidic than it; the wine tasted "flatter", less crisp, and more washed out. What Melissa noticed was the clarity of flavor; the wine tasted similar, but the flavor was muddier in the regular glass

As she pointed out, the other interesting test would be some other piece of crystal versus a Riedel, as even the jump from glass to crystal makes a difference in the taste of the wine. But for now, I'm quite happy with our choice.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

A Cote

If you know enough French, but not enough about the Oakland dining scene, the name À Côté might be confusing. Next to what?

The answer is Citron, a chic restaurant on College Avenue near Rockridge BART. I think the two share owners and maybe even kitchen space. À Côté is the more casual of the two, set up as a tapas restaurant. We've heard good things about both restaurants, and so when we wanted to thank our friend Suzie for sending an e-mail five or six weeks ago that resulted in my current job, we decided to take her there.

The restaurant featured 16 dishes, 7 cheeses and 6 desserts that evening, and it was tough to choose. To start with, we ordered Salt Cod Fritters with Romesco ($9), Cauliflower and Kabocha Squash Gratin ($8), Pancetta Wrapped Monkfish over Lentils with Mache ($12), and Duck Breast with Risotto and Cipollini-Cherry Agrodolce ($14). We figured we could always add more as needed.

It turns out we didn't need to. This may be a tapas place, but the four dishes made for a satisfying, if light, entrée equivalent. It's a good thing, too. Service was very slow, but this was mitigated by the restaurant's response when they realized the snafu; we chose three cheeses on them. Of course, Suzie and we are members of Slow Food, so it's not like we were in a rush; we were just hungry.

And was it worth the wait? Sadly no. The food was quite good but not really interesting or memorable. We only went once, and they may very well have been having an off night. Our waitress was quite surprised when she realized we hadn't been served, and so I suspect something was not right in the kitchen. I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and try again at some point in the future.

But there was certainly nothing off about their wine list. For the restaurant's small size, they offer a respectable variety of wines. Of course, I'm always willing to give extra points to a restaurant which offers a decent selection of German and Austrian wines.

The other interesting thing they offer is a nightly selection of wine flights. You get three 2.2 oz glasses of wine, and the selection might be a vertical flight of various vintages from one winemaker, or a sampling of representative wines from a region. I decided to branch out a bit and opted for the 2000 Gigondas flight, which focused on three wines from the Southern Rhône. I had a hard time picking my favorite from the Domaine La Bouïssiere and the Domaine du Cayron. The first had a lot of the character I find in Northern Rhône wines, which I enjoy quite a bit, and so probably had a healthy amount of Syrah (Southern Rhône wines are more often blends, whereas Northern Rhône reds are always Syrah). But the second offered a different bouquet, with rosemary being the scent that stuck in my mind.

Melissa and Suzie each had the "La Roche" Mâcon-Vergisson Burgundy, 2001 flight, a selection of white Burgundies (which are always made with Chardonnay grapes) from, one imagines, a single vineyard. They both liked the third one the most, the Michel Rey bottling.

We probably would have opted for some cheese anyway, but it was very kind of the restaurant to treat us. We had a Roquefort and two cheeses I hadn't had before, Bica, a "three milk" cheese from Portugal, and a Pecorino Tartufo from Italy ("pecorino" means sheep's milk cheese). I didn't taste the truffles that give the latter its name, but all three cheeses were great, and they were served with some deliciously addictive salted almonds and dried figs. A great cheese platter. For this, I decided it was time to go for their Germans. I would have loved a Spätlese Riesling, but the ones they had were only available by the bottle, and we decided to get actual dessert wines for the final course. Instead, I chose a Niersteiner Brückchen 2001 J.u.H.A. Strub Kabinett Riesling from the Rheinhessen. Strub makes great wines, and 2001 was a spectacular vintage by all accounts, but I think this could use more time in the bottle. It still felt a little raw, for lack of a better term.

For dessert, we shared the Profiteroles, a Meyer Lemon Curd and Panna Cotta tartlet, and a Gianduja Mousse Cake. Suzie refrained from a dessert wine (we also had a glass of Prosecco to start, so there had been plenty to drink that night), but Melissa went for a glass of the Oremus Tokaji Aszu (5 puttanyos). Me, I went straight for the most expensive dessert wine on the menu, a 1998 Bründlmayer Beerenauslese Riesling ($28/glass) from the Kamptal region of Austria. Bründlmayer is a top-notch winemaker, and this was a very nice sample of his prowess. You don't find that in many restaurants (nor do you find Grüner Veltliner, one of my favorite grapes, but they had some; if I hadn't decided to try the Gigondas flight, I would have been drinking that all evening).

In the end, we felt very satisfied by our meal. The cheese selection and wine menu are reasons enough to spend an hour or so enjoying the casual ambiance, but if I go back and the food is the same, I'd probably opt to eat dinner somewhere else before finding myself there.

Sunday, January 12, 2003

Feeling Saucy

Melissa and I took a "Classic Sauces" class at the California Culinary Academy yesterday. This class, much like the knife skills class I took a while back, might seem superfluous to someone who's been a passionate cook for several years. But as with the knife class, I was looking for some of the solid fundamentals I've missed being an autodidactic chef; I shouldn't have to think about how to make a sauce, I should just know.

The class was only four hours long, so clearly the scope had to be somewhat limited. The focus was just the five mother sauces defined by Escoffier: bechamel, velouté, brown, hollandaise and, oddly, tomato. The teacher started out by explaining how each basic sauce is made, and then how more specific sauces are created out of those. Then she did a demo of the best way to incorporate liquid into a roux, and how to make hollandaise.

But the CCA requires each of its Saturday classes to get a bunch of food ready for the 1:00 lunch, so we got to work on that. While this was a great chance to practice our new skills for the knife class, it was an annoyance in this one; I didn't want to take time away from making sauces to make crab cakes. I would have much preferred a class exempt from getting lunch ready which spent its time making all the different sauces, seeing how they're related and the best techniques for making them come out right.

And Melissa, who doesn't cook, did quite well (I had signed up to take the class by myself, but the original class got cancelled so the school allows you to bring a guest). In fact, she turns out to have a strong whisking arm, and was able to produce great hollandaise. I'm hoping for Eggs Benedict some day.

It's hard to say if it was worth the money; most of the stuff I knew, but it enforced a more instinctual understanding of how to make the sauces come out right. We'll see how my next bechamel comes out, and then I'll have a better opinion!

Friday, January 10, 2003

From Here You Can't See Paris

We often look to travel magazines for the undiscovered secrets, the places untrammeled by the bustle of tourism. But it is easy to forget that even as we learn of these gems, so too have tens of thousands of other readers. And so, during the summer months, these places swell with a tide of weeklong immigrants, the streets of this Mediterranean island or that tiny French village awash with Americans, Germans, Australians and others.

But what of the rest of the year? When the tourists are back at their jobs, their kids back in school? This is a central theme of From Here You Can't See Paris by Michael Sanders. That these places have lives of their own, cultures apart from and often annoyed by the foreign invaders, even as they enjoy the outside capital and its impact on their economy.

The only way to see these things is to be there when the tourists aren't, and Sanders does just that, living in the tiny French village of Les Arques for a year, exploring what life here is like when it's just day-to-day business.

You might think you know how the book progresses: Sanders, in love with the romantic notion of village life paints an idyllic picture of rural France. But this is not quite correct. Sanders does fall in love with the village, but he is careful to remain aware of the realities of its life. Winters are long and hard. Truffles–an important source of additional income–are scarcer than ever. Foie gras producers make barely enough to get buy, robbed by the large corporations which distribute their products far and wide. There aren't enough people to keep the land arable, and so it falls out of use and its potential income is lost.

But romance does seep in. The town is home to a restaurant owned by its chef and his wife. People maintain little gardens and flowerboxes. The residents are all characters, in one form or another.

One such character is Jacques, the chef and co-owner of the town's restaurant. He served a traditional French apprenticeship, and it sounds as though he could have found his way to the Michelin firmament. But he opted out, at least for now. He chooses to do his own thing, and make the food which is important to him. This restaurant serves as a focal point, both for the book and the village. It brings new visitors to Les Arques, people who come just to eat here. It is the preferred place for that wonderful French tradition: Sunday dinner.

But it wasn't always. Jacques and Noelle really only survived because of the generosity of some of the villagers, people who wanted them to succeed and quietly slipped them a portion of their cèpes harvest or drop off freshly killed game. It wasn't too be recognized or feted at the restaurant; it was just to help out.

And this, ultimately, is what Sanders's book is all about. A village is about its community, the people who help each other out in tough times, or provide companionship in the long winter season. The people who share their foie gras or their wine cellars. All without pretense or fanfare. In a tiny village where the nearest city is also a speck on the map, isolation is a fact of life, and the opportunity to dispel it, even for a little while, is chance not to be missed.

It is easy to bemoan the loss of the lore rural towns possess. And it is also easy to become romantic about this, to conveniently ignore the reality of this life. But this knowledge of what community means is the real loss we face as these tiny towns disappear. The willingness to help out and stand by your fellow villagers, even as you sometimes quarrel with them. Hopefully, Sanders's book will remind us of it.

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

No Blog is an Island

An Obsession with Food reader pointed me to a blog I hadn't seen yet: Not only is it a blog along the lines of this one, but it features a vast set of links to online sites and other blogs. Including this one.

Perhaps that's why my hit count has been rising.

And I should also point out that I'm happy to hear feedback and suggestions. There's an e-mail link at the top of the page which will do the trick.

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Trotter Again

A couple of readers pointed out that a) Charlie Trotter's Kitchen Sessions was on PBS, not the Food Network and b) that my vision of an improv session as the book implies only exists because I've not seen the show. Evidently, it didn't feel very "spur of the moment," just well-scripted and arranged. Oh, well.

That said, though, they both reiterated how good his ideas were; they just weren't ad libbed.

Monday, January 06, 2003

The Kitchen Sessions

My aunt and uncle got me Charlie Trotter's The Kitchen Sessions for Christmas. All of my family loves to cook, so food-related gifts are plentiful around the holidays. And while I had a few cookbooks on my wish list, this one was completely off my radar.

The book is designed to be a companion to the TV series, presumably on the Food Network and presumably of the same name. I've obviously never seen it, but it sounds kind of neat. Each show, Trotter is presented with a bunch of "random" ingredients (one always wonders about that kind of thing, though) and just makes something with them. Iron Chef Solitaire or something. He was inspired to the idea by the improv nature of jazz sessions, and the title deliberately harkens to those.

But if he spends any time on the show talking about his thought process, it's not included in the book. Instead, for each recipe he offers casual variations in the headnote ("This could also be made with xxx instead of yyy"). So while he encourages an improvisational cooking style in the introduction, it doesn't carry through to the rest of the book.

Still, the recipes look good, and there are some neat ideas in there. I suspect that the book's real purpose is to provide a list of the recipes construced on the TV show, which is presumably where one gets to see him thinking out loud.