Travels a la Carte by Sophie Grigson

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Travels a la Carte by Sophie Grigson

Category: Cookery
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The book of a long-forgotten television series which probably wasn't worth making in the first place. There are a few decent recipes but they're in the minority. Borrow the book and read if you're curious, but don't bother buying it.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 192 Date: May 1994
Publisher: Network Books
ISBN: 0563370173

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I knew the worst before I even opened the parcel. It was 1994 and we were exchanging Christmas presents. We know that you're a Grigson fan, he said so we got you her latest! finished his wife.

Yes, I am a Grigson fan; Jane Grigson that is. I knew it wasn't "her latest" because she'd died the year before. I also knew what it would be - "Travels a la Carte" from Jane Grigson's daughter, Sophie Grigson and her anthropologist husband William Black. My heart sank.

I've nothing against Sophie Grigson - sometimes known as "her with the dangly earrings" - apart from the fact that she always appeared to be relentlessly chirpy despite doing most of her television series whilst either heavily pregnant or looking as though she was. For me though she would always lack the substance and depth of her mother Jane Grigson - but that's my problem rather than hers. My heart sank because this was another "book of the television series" and with few exceptions I've always hated them with a vengeance.

Back when I was young the television cooks would say what they were going to make and a stentorian voice would announce "... and here is the recipe". We would then have a minute or two of absolute silence whilst amateur cooks all over the land scribbled the list of ingredients in their own shorthand. I still have recipes which begin "8oz Pl Fl, 4oz Cas Sug". You then scribbled the method down as Fanny and Johnnie demonstrated it

There was only one television channel in those days so the two minute silence didn't mean that millions would decide that they would watch Corrie after all, but with competition this was no longer the case. The recipe was then printed in The Radio Times and later still on Teletext or Ceefax.

Someone had a brain wave; why not sell the viewers the recipes? Modern cookery programmes are deliberately vague about precise quantities when a recipe is demonstrated: "Whisk the eggs whites into stiff peaks and fold in the caster sugar... " If you want to make THAT meringue, then you will have to buy the book to know the quantities of eggs and sugar to use. I suspect that we've now slid even further down a very slippy slope - many cookery programmes are nothing more than vehicles or advertising for the books that they will sell. Delia Smith is reported as saying that the bubble of cookery programmes will burst. I think she's right.

"Travels a la Carte" is a Channel 4 book. It says so proudly on the front but strangely enough it's published by Network Books - a division of BBC Enterprises Ltd. In 1994 £15.99 was rather a lot of money to pay for a cookery book, in hardback and even today I don't think it would be good value. Pitched a bit lower, in paperback or as a second-hand copy it might be a reasonable buy. It's supposed to be a book which takes cookery back to its roots "where local traditions survive and recipes develop naturally with the seasonal flow of ingredients rather than the vagaries of food fashion".

The idea is not a new one. Sophie and William travel around mainland Europe looking at local food. No, please don't think about Keith Floyd. First stop on the journey (or rather, the first of eight separate journeys) is Spain and the first dish is Gazpacho. There's also quite a reasonable recipe for Herbed Lamb Cutlets. I would not have thought that these dishes were at all unusual and certainly wouldn't merit a place in a book like this. There is a recipe for Chorizo and Egg Bread which is unusual. The sausages are cooked inside the bread, but the eggs, still in their shells are cooked on top of the bread. There are four eggs, but the recipe says that it serves six to eight people. I'm intrigued as to how this works, but there's no explanation given.

The next trip is to Portugal and I was interested to see if there were any recipes for bacalhau, the local salt cod dishes, and here I wasn't disappointed. There are three. Salt cod is very difficult to get hold of in the wilds of Yorkshire and I was delighted to see that bacalhau appeared in the list of "Alternative Ingredients" at the back of the book. Unfortunately an alternative isn't suggested, but there is some good advice on how to cook the salt cod if your local deli happens to stock it. I remember the Sweet Egg Bread in Syrup from my holidays in Portugal and I've never encountered it elsewhere, but the Baked Peaches in Wine, I would have thought, is a dish common to any country that produces both peaches and wine.

We head north next to Gascony in France, where the natives appear to live on foie gras. Three of the five recipes for starters feature it. I was interested in the grilled duck breast and caramelized onions - the latter are, unfortunately, a weakness of mine. I'm also rather fond of Prune and Armagnac Ice Cream too. If we could have varied the starters a little more I'd have been quietly impressed with this chapter

Heading back south again we go to Sicily and considering the popularity of Italian food in this country I felt that there was a good selection of less-mainstream dishes. I have cooked baked aubergine with tomato sauce before but sweet and sour aubergine is a novel taste as is sweet and sour pearl onions. I doubt that I would repeat either dish, but they were, er, different. I've also done tagliatelle with broad beans and pancetta, but it was good to be reminded of it.

It's East across the Mediterranean next to Turkey and I did feel that there was an element of "playing it safe" here with too much emphasis on such dishes as fine-chopped tomato salad (if you make this I think it's better with fresh chilli rather than ground) and runner beans in olive oil. The garlic and walnut sauce is good and very simple to make - I've used it as a dip as well as a sauce. I suppose it was inevitable that there would be recipes for kofte (meatballs to you and me) and there are three. The basic grilled version is good, but I must confess to serving them with a tomato sauce. There's a final word of warning about this chapter: if you make the baklava, a syrup and nut pastry, you will get very, very sticky and you'll do the same again when you eat it.

We head north now to Hungary. I got the feeling here of a fleeting visit, well either that or Laszlo who supplies a lot of the recipes was by far the best cook for miles around. He does a Chicken Goulash and a Beef Goulash in the soups and starters alone. The visit was made in the paprika festival in September and I suppose that it's inevitable that it features in many of the recipes. As a side dish the green pepper and tomato stew (with paprika) is good - I've used it with sausages and mashed potato.

Back now to Switzerland and I really felt with this chapter that there were some original recipes. For possibly the first time in the book I felt that I was reading about the sort of food that real people cook for themselves. I haven't tried potato and dried pear pancake squares because I'm not that keen on dried pear. Reading the recipe it's what I'd call a potato cake and it sounds good - it's served with crispy bacon on top. There's a bread and cheese pudding which uses up stale bread and left-over cheese - I do something similar and call it savoury bread and butter pudding and it's rather good for lunch with a salad. I suppose Apple Strudel was inevitable but I'll forgive that in the context of the best chapter. This is what I felt the book should have been about - the sort of food which we would recognise, if not by name, but because we do something similar to make use of food which is cheap and plentiful or to avoid wasting left-overs.

The final visit is to the Lofoten Islands in Norway and I found this to be a rather disappointing chapter. Nettle soup is interesting, but the recipe actually came from a Swedish woman who runs a restaurant in Ireland! After that it all gets, er, fishy, with fish soup (which looks not unlike a lot of other fish soup recipes I've seen), Gravadlax (available in most supermarkets in the UK) and fish cakes. There's an interesting recipe for a meat and potato hash.

It's not a bad book, but it just doesn't excite me very much other than is just a few places where I did feel that it took "cookery back to its roots", which was a brave statement to make. It was better than I supposed when I opened the parcel, but probably not worth the money that was paid for it.

Besides, those dangly earrings annoy me.

Buy Travels a la Carte by Sophie Grigson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Travels a la Carte by Sophie Grigson at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Travels a la Carte by Sophie Grigson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Travels a la Carte by Sophie Grigson at Amazon.com.


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