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First recipe impact - is it why we buy?

"without naming names, I find that many miss out on the opportunity to sell the casual reader by making your first recipe absolutely irresistible." Burnt My Fingers

This is the first recipe in the next book on my cookbook shelves - Provence to Pondicherry (there is no accompanying glossy photo on the opposite page) and I think you might agree that if you were going to choose the book based on the first recipe you wouldn't choose it. Maybe not the cover either, although as somebody pointed out it is reminiscent of an old-fashioned kind of travel diary in an arty sort of way. The very plain page of the first recipe is a double whammy for me too because we can't cook mussels in this house because of David's aversion to seafood.

So why did I buy it? Really I think it was the title, a love of all things French, ignorance about the food of Guadeloupe, La Réunion and Pondicherry - such lyrically exotic names - and also the reputation of the author - although I may have confused her with Tess Mallos the author of one of my early cookbooks on Middle-Eastern food. But yes she is well-known and respected.

Of course, I and probably you as well, would not simply base your purchase of a book on the opening recipe. We would probably flick through the book to try and work out what kind of recipes they were - the same old, same old? - which I have to say is one reason I do not buy books as frequently these days. Nevertheless the first and indeed the first few recipes are important.

Indeed I think my purchase of the OTK book Extra Good Things may well have been based on those first few recipes. I wanted to make all of them straight away. This is the first one - Cheesy curried butter beans on toast with pickled onion - although - who am I kidding? It was Ottolenghi. So no - the first recipe was not important. I would have bought it whatever. Even so the fact that those first few recipes were so tempting was a reinforcement of my opinion that anything by Ottolenghi is worth buying, and there are a few favourite cooks who get the same purchasing result from me although he may well be the only one whom I would buy without at least flicking through the book. Nigel Slater maybe, not always Jamie and my other all-time favourites are either dead or have stopped writing.

Even so those first recipes are important for I will say that out of the first four recipes in Extra Good Things I have made three of them, and all of them were great.

It's not that in Provence to Pondicherry there aren't any wonderful foodie photographs. Look at this photograph as an example - Sacristains - a kind of Provençal pastry. Yes I think they would be difficult to make, indeed Tess Kiros says as much but they look so wonderful I am tempted to try someday when I'm feeling adventurous. The photograph, like all of the photographs in the book also has a background which is evocative of the place from which it comes - in this case those wonderful wrappings which identify the shop from which they are bought. I should have collected them all.

These rather wonderful photographs are scattered however. In clumps almost. You get page after page of a recipe facing a gorgeous photo and then several pages of just recipes.

Indeed I suppose that is another question which crops up frequently in my posts. Does that beautiful picture of the sacristains really tempt you into making them, or actually scare you off? In that particular case Tess Kiros doesn't help because she says in her introduction:

"True, these fantastic sweet pastry twists are not so easy to meake, but worth the effort. Or you can just to to Jean-Marie's Boulangerie Bergèse in Saint Rémy de Provence and have one or two for breakfast, or teatime."

If only - although I'm sure that artisan bakeries and pastry shops scattered around Melbourne - maybe even our own local one - might also have equally delectable versions.

Back in the day, illustrations were not considered necessary. Maybe it was the women's magazines that first started the trend, or a few publishers aiming for a coffe table glossy and showy book that could be admired as much for the pictures as the food.

Design is the thing these days, and it doesn't always have to include photographs of the food. Some are pretty straightforward recipe books and are just that - no words, or very few, but each recipe with a photo. I guess Donna Hay is the prime example of this. There are books presented like cartoons, books with more text than recipe almost - Claudia Roden's Med might be an example here or any Nigel Slater book. It's a very competitive world and publishers are always on the lookout for an original approach. The title, the author, the cover, the layout within. They all play a part in making you first of all pick up the book, and secondly buy it.

However, I can't help thinking that a glorious photo like this of that mussel dish that is our first recipe today would have been rather more enticing than a rather boring looking double-page spread of just recipes. And by the way I could not find any recipe for this supposed Provençal classic dish of Mussels with pistou, although it certainly sounds Provençal. The photo is from a Waitrose recipe with roughly the same ingredients - mussels, white wine, garlic, tomatoes and pistou.

A couple of reviewers mentioned that mussels were a feature in every section of the book which is true, but then there are recipes for chicken in every section too. Including this one for Poulet au Mangue from La Réunion.

I have made this particular dish and it was pretty nice. And there are many more that I might try some time, for in spite of my reservations about the overall intent of the book not really coming through, or the design not complementing that intent, it is nevertheless a book that I am happy to have on my shelves and dip into every now and then. I don't have many books covering those places - not even Vietnam. Indeed now that I think about it, Luke Nguyen's book France is somewhat better at showing the cross-cultural nature of French food.

In the case of this book it is also a travel book - well in a snapshot kind of way. The occasional pages of a collage of photographs of the place are indeed very atmospheric, and, as I have said, the food photographs are always presented in some kind of cultural or geographic context. Many of the words are to do with the place rather than the food; and whilst there are indeed some comments about the mix of cultures and the influence on the food, there are not quite as many as you might expect, even in the introduction to each place. Or quite as many as the few reviews I have read, imply.

The French, like most of the European powers were traders and colonisers, second only to the British perhaps. And their colonies are spread all over the globe with many of them still being Départements of France.

Initially, one of my first disappontments of this book was perhaps due to a misunderstanding of what Tess Kiros was trying to do. I suppose I thought the focus would be on the colonies themselves and the French influence upon them and France has some pretty interesting old colonies that could be investigated. Where is North Africa I asked myself? After all this is the immigrant community that is most evident in France itself. Indeed there are many other African former colonies as well. Where are their South Pacific colonies and I hadn't even thought about Quebec and Louisiana? There are just six places featured in this book and two of those are French - Provence and Normandy. The others are Guadeloupe, Vietnam, Pondicherry and La Réunion. Obviously it would take a massive volume to cover everywhere but would you waste the space in your book on two regions of France itself?

Well the reasoning here is because the author is writing about cross cultural blending. Purportedly.

"a tapestry so richly intertwined from so many traditions and cultures around the world. Stitched together with French threads ...

As settlements flourished, produce from Europe travelled to the colonies and a market for European goods grew. Immigrants brought back familiar foods with them and introduced their own flavours, and so began the weaving of one cuisine into another - a blending of spices, methods and tastes that quietly settleld into the culture at each end of the voyage." Tess Kiros

And so she begins with Provence from where many of those sea voyages began - certainly across the Mediterranean into Africa, and also through the Straits of Gibralter.

"Here is where my journey began, the place that drew my thoughts of long sea voyages and trading with foreign lands together." Tessa Kiros

"If you write down the dishes of Provence onto bits of paper, mix them up, pick one, then a couple more - then mingle the whole lot together - you will see. How you can slide one in to another, swap one for the other. The colours, the fabrics, the food. Seamless. Nothing is out of place. Quite extraordinary. Chapeau!" Tess Kiros

And yet there are no pictures of the colourful textiles and pottery that she talks about more than once in her piece on Provence. This was the closest I could find. Not that I can necesarily blame her for this, as she probably had no part to play in the overall design and what the photographs would be. That would be the task of the designers and the photographer. Did they read the text one wonders?

Normandy and its channel ports, which closes the book, was also crucial in the colonisation of the West Indies, and parts of North America, plus the lone outpost of French Guiyana in South America, although there had been earlier ventures into Brazil.

That said, she doesn't really make enough of the cross cultural elements in the food - particularly when it comes to Provence and Normandy. Indeed there is no reference here to anything that may have come from a French colony to influence the life and food of the people of these two parts of France.

There is more when it comes to the colonies -like this Ratatouille Créole from Guadeloupe, which uses pumpkin, cucumber and chayote rather than the courgettes of France. Plus there is chilli. Even so it is just one example rather than many.

I confess I felt that an opportunity had been missed with respect to the North African countries which have given France so many immigrants, and almost a new national dish with couscous. But obviously I did not write this book and it just came down to the author's own choice, and those lyrical names:

"Traces of the French zest for adventure are today spinkled across the world map. The places I am instinctively drawn to, with their lyrical names and evocative images, are all reached by water. An obvious consequence of the seafaring nature of colonialism ..." Tess Kiros

In many ways a frustrating book. It's good but I feel it could have been so much better and not just because there isn't a picture on the first page to entice you in. After all I don't actually think that it's the only thing that would make you buy the book. Picking it up in the first place is also not just about the pretty design of the cover although of course it helps. There's the title and the author and the genre as well.

No it could have talked more about what those cross-cultural influences really are, particularly with respect to the food of France itself if you are indeed writing about cross-cultural fusion. Not bad enought to throw it out however.

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