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BOOK REVIEW : Where Regime Is a Four-Letter Word : GOOSE FAT AND GARLIC: Country Recipes From South-West France, By Jeanne Strang (Kyle Cathie: $29.95; 342 pp).

August 20, 1992|ANNE MENDELSON

The Anglophiles among us not only demand the works of Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Claudia Roden and Alan Davidson in more or less Americanized adaptations, but have begun welcoming a small trickle of completely unadapted British cookbooks issued in the U.S.

I have mixed feelings about this trend. The transatlantic information gap vis-a-vis different measuring units, cooking terms and expectations of recipe detail means that only a small group of sophisticates will be able to cook intelligently from "untranslated" British cookbooks; many who might be interested in a particular book's subject will be effectively locked out. But it's better to have unadapted books than (as too frequently happens) books mangled in the adaptation or tailored to the cut of this week's prevailing wisdom.

"Goose Fat and Garlic" is a great example of a book that couldn't be published here, at least as is. The title would be the first thing to go, unless someone could justify turning it into "Monounsaturates and Allicin." An editor would go through all the recipes suggesting substitutes (sodium-free where possible) for the unduplicable local ingredients that give character to southwestern French food.

But the real facer would be: "Do people really want to know that much about history and culture from a cookbook?" Apparently the answer is "Yes" more often in England than anywhere else. In fact, there is a whole school of English food writing dedicated to taking some odd corner of the planet and showing how food figures in that special microcosm.

Books of this kind are triggered by a writer's discovery that the way people cook springs from the way they live--which is unique to their own time and place. "Goose Fat and Garlic" is a prime instance.

Coming in 1961 to an abandoned farmhouse in the southern Department of Aveyron, Jeanne Strang and her husband soon saw that the nearby peasants did not live as their ancestors had lived or as their children would live. They certainly did not cook as people did a few hundred miles away: "Once we made ratatouille when our neighbors were coming for lunch, and they regarded it with amazement." They were the heirs to a localized farm culture that did not emerge from the shadow of famine and awful, grinding poverty until the 20th Century and that probably won't survive more than a few years into the 21st.

All this, with the particular constellation of foods on which country people from the Aveyron and many surrounding bailiwicks built their existence, makes clear sense as you look at the descriptions that introduce the cooking. From western-central France southward and westward to the Pyrenees and the Biscay coast, ancient geology carved the land into various pockets that tended to remain small worlds to themselves until modern times.

Especially on high ground, the soil seldom supported rich man's foods such as beef and wheat. People not fortunate enough to live in the fertile valleys relied willy-nilly on what they could grow, catch or scrounge on their difficult land. "Up to the 1914-1918 war it was only during the chestnut season that some people managed to fill their bellies."

For the more prosperous peasants, the true wealth of the region was the livestock easiest to fatten under local conditions: geese, ducks and pigs. These were preserved by various methods, the most delectable being putting them up in their own flavorful fat as confit .

Southwestern soils also brought forth a few other seasonal riches known to connoisseurs throughout Europe: the "black diamonds," truffles; the plums of Lot-et-Garonne, renowned in the form of prunes and eau de vie ; and the walnuts of Perigord.

With more prosperity, the Southwestern table acquired a more varied supply of meats and vegetables. But you still feel that the ancestral mentality of want has not disappeared when Strang describes an elderly neighbor in a restaurant on market day following up his soup with "le pot-au-feu followed by le bifsteck followed by le fromage ; for him it was still a treat to indulge in such a nonstop parade of protein."

These are the outlines of a picture that Strang paints not through historical recitals but through her loving descriptions of what goes into the 230-odd recipes--magnificent raw materials and generations of proud, hard-won skills.

Obviously she feels privileged to have at least an adoptive share in this landscape and a permanent window seat on her neighbors' way of life. Her book is organized mostly around ingredients or dishes with particular meaning for the Southwesterners, not grouped by the usual menu-categories.

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