Cooking in provence by Alex Mackay book cover

Book Review: Cooking in Provence by Alex Mackay with Peter Knab

Gavin Wren Cookbook Reviews, Writing

Today I’m looking at the not-so-recent book “Cooking in Provence” by Alex Mackay and Peter Knab, seven years since it’s release, yet it’s a book that could have been published yesterday for all it matters, it’s content being of such timeless quality that a date is largely irrelevant. I originally bought it for a self catering holiday to, well, you’ve probably guessed it, Provence. We did a road trip through France with short stays in Beaune and Lyon to savour the food and sights on offer in those lovely towns before ultimately reaching the sun in Provence. Travelling by car allowed us to take endless frivolities that you’d never even consider trying to take on Ryanair (double inflatable lilo with drinks holders anyone?) as well as the more carefully considered essential items, such as hardback cookery books.

“I think he was probably a Provençal gourmet in a former life” Raymond Blanc on Alex Mackay
When cooking in France, using seasonal and local ingredients pays dividends, because these regional foods are often fabulous when sun soaked and freshly picked and the imported or non-seasonal produce is often very expensive. After hearing a recommendation, I bought this book to provide some prandial inspiration as the chef and author, Alex Mackay, was living and running a cookery school in Provence at the time of writing it. This is a man of whom Raymond Blanc said “I think he was probably a Provençal gourmet in a former life”, which is high praise indeed and Mackay’s effusive writing style certainly shows a man wrapped up in Provençal food.

Once inside, the book is broken down into six chapters that guide you neatly through the year, or course of your meal. ‘Les Jardins de Provence’ pertaining to bright and fresh summer vegetable based dishes, ideal for the hotter months of the year. ‘Au Bord de la Mer’ focusses solely on seafood featuring heavily the fish you’d expect such as Daruade (sea bream), Sardines, Crevettes (Prawns) and Moules (Mussels). ‘Bouillabaisse and Other Stories’ tackles classics such as salad nicoise, pissaladiere, daube de boeuf and what appears to be an almost philosophically approached dish, Bouillabaisse. Autumn will find you thumbing ‘The Hunt, the Harvest and Winter’ which hones in on the shorter, colder days of the year and the ingredients available during that time. ‘Sweet Provence’ looks at just that, the sweet side of cooking desserts, including the best Clafoutis I’ve ever had, before finally you reach ‘The Provençal Pantry’ which is a store cupboard of recipes to accompany all that has gone before in the book, such as tapenade, stocks, jams, breads and sausage.

The arrangement works fantastically, as you have a concise, definitive chapter to browse when looking for inspiration depending on the time of year, or the course you are preparing. And once you have settled on a recipe, there is a real treat in store for you. Because this is one of those books where the realisation of a recipe has always exceeded my expectation of it. And in most cases, it was startlingly simple pairings, flavours or preparations that achieved it.

Provençal cuisine harks to Italian food, which is unsurprising due to their relative proximity and climate, and that’s a great thing as the ingredient really becomes the star act, with something as simple as a red pepper having such capacious flavour that it barely needs anything to go with it, but if paired well with another ingredient, then you’ve hit the jackpot. Mackay has an innate understanding of how flavours work and makes it look simple.

“To this day the seasons command more respect than in any other place where I have worked or visited.” Alex Mackay
And there’s a vibrant passion for those ingredients in Mackay’s writing, you can feel the love he has for Provençal produce displayed amongst the markets and shops of the region. But deeper than that, the culture and pride that surrounds cooking in France is equally well understood and conveyed, but above all respected along with the seasons and their bearing on Provençal food. The photography in the book is also brilliantly seasonal gives you a sense of living these seasons vicariously as you thumb through the book.

For me, the real test of any cookery book is it’s longevity, regardless of how often the recipes are successful, it’s about how long that book becomes a frame of reference for me. This one has really stood the test of time, because Mackay’s recipes are timeless and exist in an eternally rosy world I’ve found myself slipping back to this book regularly over the three years since I bought it. As the recipes are seasonally listed it’s an all year round book, which you can dip into whatever the time of year, and regardless of whether you are in Provence, or Peckham. With just one caveat that there’s no denying that some ingredients will taste better when locally sourced in Provence, in fact, some might only easily be available in provence. But the recipes of this book whisk through your head like the Mistral wind does Provence, and my rose-tinted glasses do have fond memories of the food cooked there.

At the end of the holiday we headed home with a few less frivolities and slightly more essentials. My girlfriend asked why I needed quite so much garlic, but, like the recipes in this book, some things simply taste better in Provence.

(Ratings are out of five stars)

Cooking in Provence by Alex Mackay with Peter Knab is available from Amazon and all good bookstores.

Reviewed by Gavin Wren

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