Monday, May 21, 2007

"I have been wanting to ask you ..."

My family and I saw the seasons pass in the valley. The children went to the local school, where they learned along with the three R's how to trap and skin rabbits, how to stake pastures to hold the forest's hogs, and how to mend a hand-drawn threshing sled made to a design unchanged since the Iron Age. With Maria's advice and under her tutelage we acquired a donkey, a kitchen garden, and a household pig -- the last, I stipulated, only if Maria helped me at its final hour. The pig thrived mightily on the scraps from my kitchen. Finally, on a late October day deemed suitable, the moon being in the right quarter and the pig having been fattened to the correct weight on acorns from the surrounding cork oaks, Maria's husband and brother-in-law arrived at sunrise to prepare for the dreaded event. Soon afterwards Maria, her cousins, and her mother appeared to help with the kitchen labor. The children were packed off to school early, and all day we worked salting hams, seasoning sausages, stuffing black puddings, and spicing chorizos. That evening, as she prepared the traditional celebration meal of chicharros, pork skin fried crisp; kidneys in sherry; and garlic-fried liver which follows a country matanza (butchering), Maria finally asked the question which made me embark on this book.

"Tell me," she said, her voice sympathetic as she leaned over the table and restored control of the sausage casing to my clumsy fingers for the fifth time, "I have been wanting to ask you ever since you and your family arrived, but I did not wish to seem inquisitive. Please forgive me, but did your mother teach you nothing at all?"
That experience launched Elisabeth Luard on a voyage of discovery that lasted for 25 years as she and her husband moved around Europe. They would connect with locals wherever they went and she would begin learning about peasant traditions with food.

This book is a treasure not only for those who are interested in food history as I am, but also for those interested in good cooking. Luard presents us with the culinary heritage of over 300 recipes from around 25 European countries and manages to acknowledge all fairly evenly ... even Bulgaria is well represented. Recipes usually open with a few comments and often with quotes from times past which cite the dish or main ingredient in some way.

Although a scholarly work, this also is eminently readable, as witnessed by the fact that this is my second time rereading purely for the pleasure of her prose. Organized by basic ingredients, which she points out is the way that peasant meals are themselves often organized, Luard's book is a treasure trove for anyone wants to get back to basics ... whether that is reconnecting with eating according to the seasons, vegetarian cooking (although there are good sections on meat and fish as well), simplicity in ingredients or the many other varied ways that cooks often view their craft these days.

I will be featuring some excerpts from this book occasionally.