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BOOK REVIEW : A Gallic Travelogue With Recipes : LA FRANCE GASTRONOMIQUE, By Anne Willan (Arcade Publishing: $35; 192 pp.)

March 26, 1992|ANNE MENDELSON

Writing a food book called "La France Gastronomique" is sort of like christening your new fishing yarn "Moby Dick." It was the name chosen by the illustrious Maurice-Edmond Sailland, who wrote under the name "Curnonsky," for his great multivolume survey of regional French merveilles culinaires and bonnes auberges , produced between 1921 and 1926.

Curnonsky was addressing the first generation of French motorcar tourists, an audience to whom voyages of culinary exploration were a novel excitement. It would take some doing to recapture that feeling now. And to be fair, the new "La France Gastronomique" doesn't pretend to. It is an international "packaging" job: one of those heavily illustrated volumes put together by a wholly or partly independent editorial/production team and printed somewhere with fairly low manufacturing costs (Italy, in this case) for distribution in several countries by local publishers.

With a few bright exceptions, quirky individuality is not often the strong point of such books. The best are usually those that either gather together a lot of solid research material for reference purposes or, like this one, project a quietly tasteful image of the subject. Willan's travelogue-with-recipes more or less subordinates the supposed motoring-guide focus to the armchair aspect of the effort. Nor does she try to see or do or taste everything. She seems simply to have revisited what she enjoys most in 10 regions of France, leaving other places (Paris, the Savoie, Champagne, Picardy) to other chroniclers.

The author begins in her present home base of Burgundy and ends up in Provence, jumping from one area to another instead of trying to link up all her travels in one grand tour. It's one of those books that can be read back to front, or by random page-flipping, without much loss of charm. Old-fashioned farms, sleepy rivers, small shops, hill villages, wood-fired bakery ovens and lovingly tended gardens are the sort of things that stick in the mind, both from Willan's descriptions and Michael Boys' idyllic photographs.

Famous restaurants, when they crop up, are mentioned with pleasure rather than awe, in no way eclipsing more modest experiences. On the Guerande peninsula of Brittany Willan seeks out the famous salt pans; along the Loire she visits a medieval monastery garden. Amid the revered gastronomic shrines of Lyons she accompanies friends to a "favorite back-street bistro" to sock away the kind of stuff that puts hair on your chest. She is not a dazzlingly vivid writer, but she does draw you into her low-keyed wanderings.

This is not the only possible image of gastronomic France in our day--especially not the only possible visual image. "Timeless" is clearly the way someone wanted Boys' photographs to look, and vineyard after pasture after venerable church greets the view as if nothing had changed for the past 100 years. After a while this idyll takes on the expensive rusticity of a designer peasant shirt; you start to wonder whether a factory farm, bulldozed meadow, or non-white person has ever been seen in 1990 France.

Willan's text, though it doesn't claim to be probing, hints at a more complex reality than the pictures. "To a visitor, country France is rooted in tradition, but not so for the inhabitants," she notes at one point. At Tours she finds local greenhouses supplied with water from "four nuclear power stations along the Loire"; the snails for escargots de Bourgogne now "come by the million from Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia." The famous "flat oysters" of the Gulf of Morbihan in Brittany have been wiped out by pollution, and an "immigrant Portuguese community" tends strawberries (presumably for mass distribution) in the Dordogne valley while French locals who could carry on the traditional goose-raising and confit-making disappear. These are valuable sidelights that I for one wouldn't have minded seeing at least occasionally touched on in the photographs.

What goes further to dispel a certain misty quality in the overall portrait is the choice of recipes. There are only about 100, modestly tucked away in 10 sections at the end of the individual chapters, but they convey a lot. The selection emphasizes obvious dishes and use of obvious regional ingredients rather than gee-whiz "discoveries" and "creations." The possible downside is that many people will already own cookbooks with good versions of fare such as pike quenelles, Alsatian-style sauerkraut, Burgundian gougere, or cassoulet. The advantage, which is considerable, is that the food is not false or overconstructed.

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