Memoirist and critic Baxter (The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris, 2011, etc.) chronicles his exploration of France through its cuisine.
After an unsatisfying dinner at the Grand Palais, the author wondered what happened to the traditional French cuisine of 50 years ago. Did anyone still know how to roast an ox, and were recipes handed down from generation to generation still remembered? Baxter decided to create a menu for a meal that matched the grandeur of the Grand Palais’ architecture, a meal that would be the traditional French repas that UNESCO thought worthy of preserving. The food was to be served in several courses, and Baxter sampled and critiqued the liquor to be served at the aperitif with the same rigor and attention with which he selected the food. He began the quest with a stack of old menus he found in a flea market, then he traveled to different parts of Paris to sample the traditional dishes. He first went to Illiers to find the madeleine cookie that inspired Marcel Proust. He then traveled to Périgord to find truffle mushrooms and to Sète to taste bouillabaisse. Baxter’s narrative is mostly engaging, though his tangents about French culture and the people he met during his journey are more interesting than his thoughts on food. The author also sprinkles historical stories throughout the book—e.g., the story of the chef Francois Vatel, who committed suicide during a visit from King Louis XIV. The section on how different types of coffee took hold in different countries is fascinating as well. In the end, Baxter compiled a menu to serve to his family and friends. There was no actual feast, however, which feels like a letdown after 350 pages about his hunt.
A fun read for Francophiles, but lacks cohesiveness.