BEHIND THE COOKBOOK: LA VARENNE PRATIQUE

The Story of La Varenne Pratique

by Anne Willan

La Varenne Pratique is the biggest book I have ever written, running to 528 pages. The core of the book includes more than 600 recipes and 1,100 color pictures of cooking techniques ranging from how to slice, dice and chop an onion to the correct way to cut a chicken into 8 pieces for coq au vin. It was put together in the late 1980s and took two years to write. I was using cutting-edge technology, an early Sony desktop machine with a vertical screen the shape of a book page. I had simply to indicate what subjects were covered on the page; the actual layouts were for the book designer, a complex mix of text, captions, headers, subheads, technique sequences and mug shots of finished recipes. My job was to supply the text and recipes for the book, plus the images for the technique sequences. Images of the finished dishes were shot separately in London.

The project began in Washington DC, where my husband was working at the time. One wall of our railroad apartment was quickly lined with shelves of cookbooks. I tracked down an editorial trainee whose mother ran a publishing company in London, so she already knew the ropes. Our chief recipe-tester was a Paris-trained chef, thus the core team was assembled. During the following months, we established the text, consisting of factual introductions and sidebars, with the full story told by hundreds and hundreds of captions. The chef tested at least a couple of hundred recipes before we were ready for the next stage.  

For shooting the technique sequences, we moved to France where I was running La Varenne Cooking School in Paris and thus had access to our teaching chefs and also the trainees from all over the world who had come to learn French cooking at the source. Our chef de cuisine was Claude Vauguet, a handsome man in his forties, who was endlessly good-natured and cheerful with, most importantly, plain strong hands that fell effortlessly into the right angles for the hundreds of technique shots. The only preparation that flummoxed him was extracting the blade from cuttlefish, and for that we were able to consult our Portuguese dishwasher.

To have housed the chef and half a dozen trainees in central Paris would have been hopelessly uneconomic, so for weeks at a time we settled on our newly acquired but rustic country property an hour away in Burgundy, a seventeenth-century château. Bathrooms might be scarce but there were plenty of bedrooms and the light in the north-facing kitchen was perfect for photography. Vegetables and fruits were to hand in the walled potager garden out the back door. Trainees worked in shifts, starting at 7.00 a.m. with a visit to the local bakery for the 10 daily baguettes that fired our efforts. The day ended after we had dined on everything left over from the daily shooting schedule – the Fish and Shellfish chapter was a high point, Offal was a low. By the end, no one could face another Chocolate Truffle, though we never forgot the Rum top of fresh fruits preserved in alcohol, displayed in a vast glass tub on the mantelpiece in the kitchen. Neither fruits nor alcohol survived the final night’s shoot. Salud!

After being written in the USA and photographed in France, the bookwas first published in the UK as Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Cookery before being re-christened La Varenne Pratique for its American debut; it went on to a dozen languages and sold more than 500,000 copies. While no longer in print, hard copies are scarce and treasured commodities, but you can purchase it as an e-book in four parts. To anyone who went to La Varenne Cooking School, and to many chefs and cooks who did not, it was called the bible. It remains one of the most comprehensive and visual books ever published on how to cook pretty much everything.

https://www.ckbk.com/

Mather Telephone Topic Event

On Tuesday 8th September, Anne Willan will be taking part in a Mather Telephone Topic, at 7:30 a.m. PT / 9:30 a.m. CT / 10:30 a.m. ET
Anne Willan is the founder of École de Cuisine La Varenne, one of the most famous cooking schools in the world. Considered by many as the English version of Julia Child, Anne is the author of popular cookbooks, including her latest, Women in the Kitchen, which traces the origins of American cooking through profiles of 12 essential women cookbook writers. She joins us live from England to talk about the book and about her life and career in food.
There are two ways to join the call:
Call-in number: (855) 880.1246 or join us online: zoom.us/join
Enter Meeting ID: 386 399 7030

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The Getty Museum Zoom Event

Join Anne Willan for a presentation about her new book, Women in the Kitchen.

Event to take place on Saturday 26th September at 10 am PT

More details to follow.

 

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Women in the Kitchen

(Scribner August 2020)

Culinary historian Anne Willan traces the origins of American cooking through profiles of twelve essential women cookbook writers—from Hannah Woolley in the mid-1600s to Fannie Farmer, Julia Child, and Alice Waters—highlighting their key historical contributions and most representative recipes.

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Women in the Kitchen: Culinary Historians Southern California

In this chat with Nancy Zaslavsky and in her latest book, Women in the Kitchen, Anne Willan focuses on twelve women cookbook writers beginning with two of the earliest to be published, both are English. Anne then traces the development of home cooking in America from colonial days to the transformative books of Julia Child, Marcella Hazan and then Alice Waters whose adamant use of local produce takes us into the modern food revolution.

Photo by Orlando Gili

Anne explains why she chose these twelve women cookbook writers who defined the way we eat from 1661 to today. She connects the influences of each woman in her respective era as well as how she stands on the shoulders of the one who came before. Anne tells us why these writers profoundly shaped domestic cooking, how their books stand out as iconic, and how they, one by one, helped align the way Americans cook and eat today.

Anne Willan has more than 50 years of experience as a cooking teacher, author, and culinary historian. The founder of famed French cooking school La VarenneAnne was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Hall of Fame for her “body of work” in May, 2013. She has also received the International Association of Culinary Professionals Lifetime Achievement Award, multiple James Beard Foundation Awards for her cookbooks, and was named Bon Appétit magazine’s Cooking Teacher of the Year in 2000. In July 2014, Anne was awarded the rank of Chevalier of the French the Légion d’Honneur for her accomplishments in promoting the gastronomy of France. Her more than 30 books include La Varenne Pratique, (1989); The Country Cooking of France, (2007); and The Cookbook Library, (2012).

Held on Saturday 12th September at 10.30AM PST

Location & Tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/online-culinary-history-program-anne-willan-on-women-in-the-kitchen-tickets-118663296113?aff=ebdssbonlinesearch

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THE TREASURES OF BOROUGH MARKET

A few weeks ago I was treated to a tour of London’s Borough Market, a covered market of over 100 pitches, including a few permanent stores, all devoted to the very best of produce, artisan food and cooking. A market on the same site dates back to medieval times and beyond. My guides were experts, David Matchett, head of Food Policy and Development for the Market, and Ellie Costigan, sub-editor of the Market Life bi-monthly magazine.

London was quiet, this was August and the locals had wisely fled on holiday to sunnier beaches. All the more space for us to view the treasures on offer. First stop was a brisk reviver of black americano at the landmark Monmouth Coffee Shop, no wonder a queue was already snaking out into the street. I was parked at an outside table  for a friendly photo with the Borough Market banner in the background overhead.

First stop in the market was at Neal’s Yard Dairy, where I was able to indulge my passion for cheese to my heart’s content, focusing on the relatively new English cheeses, which are treasure trove for me. We launched into Bath Soft Cheese with a delicious bloomy rind, then on to Little Rollright, its soft paste enclosed in a band of spruce wood. We closed out with a firm, mature Lancashire, a deep-flavored winner that I was forced to admit, despite my genetic ancestry from Wensleydale, just over the border into Yorkshire.

Next stop was at the baking school, Bake Ahead, where we were instantly drawn in by the yeasty waft of baking bread. So much yeast is circulating in the air that starters for raising the various bread doughs take off in record time. Matthew Jones, head baker and owner, showed us the commercial mixers with their waist-high vats for mixing and kneading the dough, with behind them the commercial floor-to-ceiling ovens equipped with vents of steam to ensure a crisp brown crust on the loaves, some dark with rye or dotted with a snowy oatmeal finish.

My assistant Ali grabs an armful of loaves in a multitude of shapes to take home. Upstairs we see the baking school, where classes are held for both professional and home students. This morning pizza is on the menu and I watch a bemused housewife lifting her floppy ball of dough, trying in vain to replicate the even round that looks so easy in practiced hands at the local pizzeria. I must mention the delicious lunch that David assembled: cheeses, early plums, some very English homemade crackers, from the Cracker Kitchen and an English sparkling white wine that was surprisingly good with the Bath soft cheese and Moorhayes butter.

I pause for a quick sniff of fresh summer truffles, stopping at a glass jar with the sign “smell me!”  Last port of call is back near the coffee shop where I had spotted the largest oysters ever, at least 6 inches from hinge to tip. I imagined they were inedible and just for show, but no. To prove it I was handed a giant open shell, given a wedge of lemon with a knife and fork and challenged to the attack. The invigorating, salty tang comes back to me now as I sit at my prosaic grey screen, an invitation to a rapid return in search of more treasures. Very soon, I promise myself! In the autumn there will be more, and very different temptations.

If you are planning a trip to London, Borough Market is a great place to visit, please click the link to begin your culinary journey: http://boroughmarket.org.uk/

 

The Oxford Symposium On Food And Power 2019

Early in July, Todd and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Oxford Symposium, held at St. Catherine’s College, a short walk from the historic center of the city. Not by accident, we arrived just in time for lunch, a restorative medley of mezzes my favorite Middle Eastern dishes cooked by local experts with the backing of Chef Tim Kelsey and the St. Cat’s kitchen. Tim is amazing, each year welcoming exotic cooks to his kitchen, regarding them not as invaders but as inspiration for new ideas.

Later in the day I much enjoyed the witty exposure of Laura Shapiro, about gender and power in food, using Virginia Woolf’s descriptions from A Room of One’s Own as a prime example. Moving on halfway around the world, who would have thought that Japanese sake was originally brewed within the household by women (disclosed by Voltaire Cang, the specialist researcher for a social education research institute in Japan). Across another ocean were the Eaton Sisters of New York, they had little to do with food but very much with power. The day closed with a Greek dinner inspired by author Aglaia Kremezi and Chef Michael Costa of Zaytina, the cooking was washed down with zesty white wines from the Austrian Tyrol.

Menu 1: The Hubb Community Kitchen, The Healing Power of Cooking Together

Am I the only traveler who avoids hearty breakfast in favor of weak tea brewed in my bedroom and a couple of shortbread fingers that I carry everywhere with me? At the Symposium this habit enabled me to grab a front row seat for the best plenary session of the weekend, architect and historian, Carolyn Steel’s A Tale of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Political Power of Food. This turned out to be a fascinating discussion of the placement of major cities, their need for food and thus for nearby fertile land – Paris and London are contrast examples, London on the river had a fluid system without shortages, inland Paris was plagued by strikes and difficulties. Cities blessed by good transport links, most often over water, such as Rome and Stockholm, had the best ability to grow large as had access to fertile land thousands of miles away. The port cities – Ostia, Leith, Alexandria — such cities became powers in themselves.

Menu 2: The Power of Frugal Greek Cookery

Equally enjoyable for me was the lecture by Michael Krondl on Sugar and Show: Power, Conspicuous Display and Sweet Banquets During King Henri III’s Visit to Venice in 1547. The array of goblets, flowers, sculptures and portraits, all created in sugar paste dazzled, both literally and figuratively.  I worked once with a pastry chef who had created similar marvels for the Elysée Palace in Paris and the designs and their construction have not changed in 500 years. They are sturdy but brittle, though quite easy to repair with cement of sticky sugar syrup. The main enemy is humidity, a wet day brings a

Menu 3: Borough Market, With her hands

weepy end.

The take-away of the Symposium is its value as an exchange of scholarly ideas in the food world, it was terrific to see the large number of young food scholars attending and providing high quality presentations of their research alongside masters like Marion Nestle, and Cathy Kaufman. As we said goodbye to the Symposium chairman, Elizabeth Luard, the closeout was far from sad. After a last sustaining lunch, we departed with cheery smiles and promises to “see you next year”, when the theme will be herbs and spices, stimulating food for thought.

 

Kissel

Kissel is a lightly thickened fruit soup, a recipe that comes from Katya who was raised in Russia. Kissel is made with any red berries that are around and can be served as a first course soup, or as dessert, either at room temperature or chilled. The season starts with cherries, running on through strawberries, raspberries, mulberries, and blueberries to the sour cranberries of winter – the perfect blood-red opening to a meal at Halloween. When serving, Grandma likes to add a spoonful of crème fraîche (called smetana in Russian) to her own bowl.

 

Serves 4-6

1 lb/450 g cranberries or other fresh red berries

2-3 cups/500-750 ml water, more if needed

3 tablespoons potato starch

½ cup/100 g sugar, more to taste

 

Pit cherries, hull strawberries, and clean other berries as needed. Put the berries with the sugar and 1-2 cups of the water in a pan. Bring the berries just to a boil, stirring often — if using cranberries, they may need a few minutes simmering to soften. Let the berries cool, then purée them in the pan using a hand-held electric blender. Alternatively transfer them to a food processor. Work them through a sieve to remove skins and seeds and return the purée to the pan.

To thicken the kissel: Put the potato starch in a cup or small bowl and using a whisk stir in 2-3 tablespoons water to make a soft paste. Whisk the paste into the berry purée with the sugar and remaining water. Bring the kissel just to a boil, stirring constantly with a whisk until it thickens. It should be the consistency of heavy cream and if it is thick, add more water.

Take the kissel from the heat and taste, adding more sugar if needed; thin it with water if needed – while still warm it should pour easily from the spoon. Pour the kissel into a serving bowl or stemmed glasses and cover them so that a skin does not form. Serve the kissel at room temperature or chilled.

Tulips and Windmills

By Margo Miller

Once again, my memories are better in focus than my point-and-shoot photos, and I write now, back in Boston, to summon up what made my trip so special on Viking’s Ullur on the “Tulips and Windmills” trip 4-13 April 2019. For one thing, I was travelling with a Viking “godmother,” Anne Willan, who years ago had christened your Hermod. And as comparison, I had a previous Viking trip, along with Rhône with her and her late husband Mark Cherniavsky on Heimdal in July 2016. (Full disclosure: I have known them since October 1972 when I worked for Anne as an editorial assistant on her early cookbooks.)

These are beautifully-run boats. On the Rhône trip, I remember a concierge who got us tickets and transportation to the Lyon Opera. On Ullur, your Reception staffer Sandra got Anne and me tickets to an almost-sold out concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (as well as hair appointments in Antwerp). I mention this kind of service as invaluable for those of us who like to “leave the cruise” for private shore excursions. I’m full of praise too for the dining and bar staff and their old-school training. It is wonderful to be waited on better than (often) at home in America. And as someone who has written (for The Boston Globe) on design, I was fascinated by the particular rationale for the layout of your boats. All logical, and right, so easy to understand and to use. Ullur’s interior decor mates well with the nautical; I got the giggles from the fancy “bordello” lobby of one of your competitors.

So much of tourism is public and historic. Ullur was full of behind-the-scenes “moments.” Constraints of space make for challenging times for your bar staff. I watched an Ullur barman work his way up a narrow stair carrying a full tray of wine glasses. So they did not tumble, he placed another tray on top, and all was safe. Waiters popping dozens of bubbly for the Captain’s Toast party then placed the corks on a huge white napkin, which was then gathered by the corners to make a carry-all. While the wines on the Rhône trip were properly French, Ullur gave us the chance to sample German vineyards.  Ullur chef Roland Waasdorp was more than the usual captain-of-kitchen: he has travelled widely and speaks well. His menus were more than ample, the lunch buffets inventive and the formal dinners satisfying.

An accident to my left foot in Boston meant I went on few of the walking trips. A consolation was the variety of the water views from the boat. We think of Holland as looking like the Dutch paintings of old, here the gleam of canal, there a belling windmill, all under cloudy but serene skies. I was amused at the sheer volume of graffiti in Amsterdam: in-your-face lettering on every quai and every bridge (but never/seldom in Belgium). The revelation to this American was how Holland manages to integrate functions on its waters into a scenic whole.  I recall many a stretch that offered maritime and suburban housing and commercial as equals, the continuum being the river shore and grass, and the occasional sheep in the meadows.

    I was glad also of the chance to see in what ways the the Dutch are ahead of America in addressing climate change. Wind power is becoming popular with us. I had not realized till the views from Ullur that wind turbines were often in three sizes on the same plat. Or their different uses: not just for energy but also to lift water. And of course Holland’s constant battle with water has lessons for sea-level Boston. Where I live in the Back Bay, a neighborhood of 850 acres of land reclaimed from tidal marsh in the mid 19th century, one catastrophic storm would make us a Venice, and the Dutch are now advising the city on ways to deal with the higher seas expected as glaciers melt from global warming.

In New England, the old farms are closing. We were never much of an agricultural economy, in part because of the short growing season. The vogue is for boutique farms that raise fare to be trucked to farmers’s markets in the cities. Good that Holland can also make the case for commercial agriculture massed in small spaces, such shown on your tour of the glass houses that grow sweet peppers for the world. Those sky-reaching stalks had the aura of fairy tale. But how utterly practical the use of heat from a Microsoft Cloud installation across the road to warm them, and then the final disposition of the stalks as cattle fodder.  This tour, and the lesson on oysters at a yacht-club, were my two favorites. Bliss that one tour was paired with a ride on the adorable stream railway. As we arrived, a volunteer was blackening wooden spokes on the wheels. Not to belabor the point that tourism has often a manufactured air to it, but the train had the appeal that all hobbyists know and relish: doing something for its own worth.  I will bet that a good percentage of your older American male passengers has a home workshop, even a model railroad layout.

Early April in Holland brought another unexpected delight, and that was the role of trees in landscape. Again I speak from the prospect of my native New England where there are few flat surfaces. We are hills and valleys, and these tend to mass tree shapes, though they make our carpets of vivid autumn colors rightly famous. Flat Holland parades its trees in profile. That they were mostly not in leaf in early April only turned bare shapes into sculpture. I loved the pointy spires of the poplars, and, as evidence of the constant winds, the bent trunks of hedgerows. Giant tulip fields surely have their place in your spring trips. I found a special peace in the natural landscape on the water ways.

All Pictures from Viking River Cruises

This evocation of my recent lovely trip on a Viking Cruise along the canals and rivers of Holland comes from my longtime friend, Bostonian writer Margo Miller, who has a special gift for recreating time and place. She is the ideal holiday companion!

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