"Each ingredient had been created, harvested or grown by someone with passion for and a commitment to quality. This is what good food means to me." Stephanie Alexander
I am not really a fan of Stephanie Alexander, and I don't quite know why. I have lots of her books, one of them is even a signed edition, because I bought it at an event in a local vineyard at which she presided. Sucker that I am I bought the book, even though prior to going I had told myself I wouldn't.
And I think those words at the top of the page are part of the reason why I am not a fan. It's the privileged and snobby kind of stuff, that even my very favourite chefs are wont to say and which bears absolutely no relation to what even moderately financially OK people are able to buy at all, or willing to pay for. And yet, these days she is most well-known for her eminently laudable Kitchen Garden Foundation which is definitely aimed at the underprivileged. She's a bit of an enigma. A contradiction in terms.
The book in question here - for this is a lucky dip post is A Shared Table - but note the cover - her name is much more prominent than the title. Understandable. It's the name that sells the book and this is not at all unusual, for any kind of book. The choice of artichokes for the cover is interesting too. Not the kind of vegetable that your average Australian eats, unless they buy it in jars, already pickled. It's also, it seems to me, a hugely wasteful vegetable. So much of it is discarded - with difficulty - to get at the tiny centre. And when you get there is it worth it? Not to me anyway - it's just sort of soapy. Like avocado the taste is usually in the dressing not the vegetable.
The book is actually the book of the TV series and is quite old now -1999. It is lavishly and rather stunningly illustrated with beautiful photographs of food, scenery and people by Simon Griffiths. Food photographers don't get the credit they deserve it seems to me, although, admittedly, in this case he does get a reasonable sized credit on the title page. But it's not a name that we all know is it? Not like Stephanie Alexander. Over time I have come to recognise a few of these photographers' names, but I really ought to do more on them. For now though, let me just say that Simon Griffiths seems to be primarily a garden photographer, and, for example, has illustrated all of Paul Bangay's books. Even I (who is not a garden person) has heard of Paul Bangay. Suffice to say he seems to be a renowned photographer to those in the know - i.e. publishers. The photographs in this book are certainly stunning, whether they be of the food, the place, the people, the 'action' or whatever.
And indeed there is another person who deserves more credit than she gets for this book - Elena Bonnici - Stephanie's assistant cook, although I actually wonder whether she did more of the cooking than Stephanie herself. Indeed I found a recent homage to Stephanie from her - when Stephanie turned 80 - in which she said:
"working with Stephanie was really stressful in the beginning, when I started as an apprentice. I think I just really annoyed her because she was a fairly pedantic and regimented type of teacher who thrived on order and I was a hot mess of disorganisation. ... She was motherly but professional and taught me one of my greatest life lessons: first you learn discipline, then you can be truly free. She was tough, but thoughtful."
which sort of mirrors what Stephanie says in her introduction to the book:
"Within days of our first meeting I had no doubts that here was a true food lover and a natural cook. I was not so sure how long Elena would continue in this very tough profession as she learns very quickly, becomes bored easily and has a restless eye."
Well as it happens it seems she has run several very successful restaurants - mostly centred on pizza - in the Northcote/Thornbury area of Melbourne - for several years, so maybe she has finally found her place.
But back to the book, to Stephanie and to the lucky dip aspect. Stephanie first perhaps. I think I may have once gone to one of her very first restaurants but I never visited her fine diner in Hawthorn. Of course I own her Cook's Companion and I do refer to it every now and then. Indeed her tzatziki and pesto recipes are the ones I habitually use. But in spite of owning several of her other books, I have not made much from them. For me there is something cold and unfriendly about her which puts me off. She does not convey warmth. A purely emotional response, and if I'm fair, maybe she is just very shy and introverted. Who knows.
All of which is completely at odds with her missionary like later years which has seen her concentrating virtually all of her energies into the Kitchen Foundation, which seeks to teach the very young about food, where it comes from, how to grow it, how to cook it. The very young in disadvantaged schools moreover. Absolutely what should be done in every primary school in the country. The rich don't know how to cook either - for different reasons but the result is the same. Coles sponsors her and features her in most of their magazines - as here - which was actually a promotion for her latest book Fresh. Yes like many of our aged food gurus she's still writing books.
So she's a lady I admire, but don't warm to - who knows why.
The book itself is introduced on the inside flap of the cover, with this bit of blurb by the publisher:
"This is a book like no other about food in Australia - a completely fresh approach to the culture, the landscape, the people and the produce. ... Stephanie Alexander has long been an outspoken champion of Australian produce. In A Shared Table, she travels to seven different regions across the continent to introduce you to some of the unsung Australian characters who are helping us change the way we eat and drink."
"A book like no other about food in Australia" Really? I suppose there is indeed an emphasis on the producers and their produce, whether it be farmed or manufactured, and maybe there was not much of that back then, but I'm not sure that this is unique. Simon Johnson's Provedore is one example that springs to mind. And the gourmet food magazines have always played their part in promoting them. Besides the "unsung Australian characters who are changing the way we eat and drink" are not producing food for the average person. The average person, mostly cannot enjoy the superior produce on display here.
The page I turned to in my lucky dip is a collage of photographs of the lunch with its menu. (Each chapter features a lunch contrived from the food from the gourmet producers featured in each chapter - each state.) The producers, in this instance, feature White Rocks veal, Kervella cheese, New Norcia bread, Cullen wines, and fish from Mendolia seafoods - all prestigious brands. Moreover the meal is served on La Maiolica pottery - especially made for this particular meal no less. Stephanie herself reinforces the publishers by saying:
"I explored the Australian culinary landscape and the same things struck me over and over again. First, the variety and quality of what is available to us all."
'To us all'! Really? Most of them are not even in the supermarkets, let alone at an affordable price. You will have to seek out a superior supermarket like Leo's here in Melbourne, or a specialist food purveyor like King and Godfree in Carlton.
Her comments on veal - a meat that has more or less disappeared from the supermarket shelves these days - are interesting too:
"There are those who take exception to the issue of raising any animals to provide meat for humans, and to the existence of broad acre farming to support such animal rearing. I am not one of them. Instead I am interested and intrigued to listen to farmers discuss questions of value-adding in today's farm environment, the role of technology and the implications of change, the fact that viability depends on quality and successful marketing, the necessity for diversification, and the ever-increasing importance of Quality Assurance programs at all points in the food chain."
Now this was written back in 1999 it is fair to say. And these days her emphasis is so much more focussed on vegetables. Her latest book Fresh is described as:
"a beautiful showcase of over 120 recipes, most of them vegetable based, that children in the Kitchen Garden Program have cooked with flair and shared with enjoyment."
Not quite as lavishly illustrated though.
It's possible that some of the proceeds at least go to the Foundation. So I wonder if at some point in time she had some kind of epiphany - a realisation that most of the world could not afford, or even source, artisan produce, and that most of us have to make do with what we can easily get from the supermarket - and let's face it that is not so bad. In her case it looks like a case of 'if you can't beat them, then join them.' And perhaps you can improve things that way. I looked briefly at the book the other day, but didn't buy it. I think I felt that I sort of knew all the food therein. These days I look for something different, or some really good writing along with the food, and Stephanie is an Ok writer but not a brilliant one.
I think I have probably been unkind. Back in 1999 maybe we really did need to know that there were people producing really high quality food and that they should be encouraged. From New Norcia, has possibly sprung all the artisan bread that you can easily find dotted around the urban landscape. It has also meant that the quality of the supermarket's own bread has improved enormously from what it was in 1999. And that's just bread.
The Kitchen Garden Foundation has a pretty comprehensive biography of Stephanie in which she is quoted as saying: "if all else was sinking there would still be food." And I guess 'sharing' is definitely a concept that is emphasised in A Shared Table - it's sort of the title after all. And when you start to look closely at the actual dishes that are illustrated here, they may indeed be made from the finest ingredients that money can buy, but they are also pretty simple. Here are four: pizza bianca, the same but with pickled sardines, a custard tart and melon with strawberries. Affordable even.