This is one of two posts in a new series for the Vine Art Blog. Once a month or so, I’ll be interviewing cookbook authors and part of our discussion will be about wine. Some of the authors and their books are well-known (how’s that for a teaser?) but others you might not know about. This particular post is for a new book that many of you won’t have heard of yet. So I’ve written a book review in addition to the wine interview with the author. This won’t happen every time, but I hope you’ll enjoy both the review and the interview posts.
What follows is a sort of hybrid review and interview. I started out writing it as a strict review. But part of my wine conversation with François de Mélogue got into a discussion about the cookbook and the food in it, so I thought I’d incorporate those into the review as well as the wine discussion. Let’s call it an “interreview” until I come up with a better word for it.
My husband Cy and I decided to start the business that became First Vine after a 2002 trip to France. I’m not sure the word “enchanted” is enough to describe how we felt about being in the southern Rhône Valley. A big part of our fascination was the food and wine. That’s an old story for many, probably told most famously by Julia Child. Certainly, there are other places in the world where you can experience the culinary confluence: what grows together goes together and extreme care to use the best ingredients no matter what you’re serving, and then somehow make it all look as appealing as possible. But for Cy and me, this was our first, and you never forget your first.
We tried our best to recreate the magic when we got home. It’s easy to get French wine in the U.S. And there’s plenty of French food around, and lots of French cookbooks. Over the past 20 years it has been easier to find books that get down to the regional level, like Provence and southwestern France. Some of them, and their recipes, are quite good. But I never opened a cookbook and felt like I was there in Provence until reading François de Mélogue’s Cuisine of the Sun.
De Mélogue told me that he had originally intended to write a pan-Mediterranean cookbook, and started out with the food of southern France. By the time he finished even a small part of the region’s food, though, he realized that the level of detail and trying to give you a sense of being there would make it difficult to go beyond in one volume.
As you might guess, de Mélogue is French by heritage, although he was born and raised in Chicago. His mother’s home cooking and entertaining were in the French style, and he spent summers at his grandfather’s in the Perigord. He doesn’t cook only French food. But he wants to remind people just how good French food can be. “It’s not the primary fancier cooking of the world anymore,” he told me. When it’s well done, though, there’s nothing like it, and it takes people by surprise when they haven’t tried it in a while. “It’s like reacquainting with an old lover, you meet after a long time and remember the things you loved about each other.”
The first thing you’ll notice even without looking at the recipes is that the food photos are stunning. De Mélogue took them himself. He told me that he hates the look of over-stylized food. Most food is beautiful all by itself, and doesn’t need a whole lot of fussing to look appealing. But I know from my own experience that good food photography is difficult. These photos rival any you’ll find in the most beautiful cookbooks today, and are miles ahead of those in any other self-published cookbook I’ve ever seen. They make you want that food, and give you a sense of what it’s like to be in a place where food like that gets made. Even without any Provençal scenery in them.
De Mélogue is a chef and former restaurateur, and many of the recipes in the book are ones he made in Pili Pili, his Chicago restaurant. I spoke with a few people who have eaten his food and they all raved about it. There are lots of French classics here, modified by de Mélogue. You’ll find Tapenade, Bourride (he created his version as a result of a boast to someone he didn’t think would call him on it), Beef Daube, Provençal Fish Stew, and Chicken in Half Mourning, plus a bunch of dishes that don’t necessarily have famous names but are definitely foods you’d recognize as Provençal by their ingredients and how they’re used.
As you’d probably expect from a French-inspired cookbook written by a resident of Portland, Oregon, there’s a big emphasis on the quality of ingredients in the book. De Mélogue even profiles some of the local farmers from whom he buys ingredients. He also sets out a thought process for using and respecting those ingredients. In a nutshell: you shouldn’t make a recipe that’s meant to have the freshest ingredients if those fresh ingredients aren’t available. At the same time, though, you should be able to use the fresh ingredients you do have to make something that captures the spirit of the recipe. It might not end up with the same Provençal flavors, exactly, but it will be “Provençal” in using great local ingredients.
After a careful reading, I think most people who cook reasonably well could make about three-quarters of the dishes and be happy with the results. The recipes aren’t for beginners, though, and de Mélogue told me that he wrote the book for the more adventurous cook, regardless of skill level. What you won’t find is too much hand-holding. As an experienced cook, I appreciate that. Still, I found myself wishing for a bit more standardization in ingredient lists and instructions. And although I understand that even the most careful proofreading can miss some things, there are a couple of glaring errors. No doubt there will be a corrected electronic version in the future.
I have to admit that the errors gave me pause. But while writing this, I read an interview with NPR arts critic Bob Mondello. He said, “When you come out of something that you’re excited about, the first thing you want to do is call somebody and tell them how great this thing is. When you come out of something that you really hated, the first thing you want to do is have a drink.” When I read this book, I definitely was excited about it and wanted to call my Francophile friends and tell them to buy it right away. I’m looking forward to cooking my way through this one.
Cuisine of the Sun: A Ray of Sunshine on Your Plate, by François de Mélogue. Available at his blog, Eat ‘till you Bleed. Electronic version $7.99 (regularly $9.99); hard copy $24.99.