Three Good Reads

Three fine new Canadian cookbooks have just arrived at the Cookbook Store, each one offering more than just recipes.

The Harrow Fair Cookbook (published by Whitecap, $29.95) is written by Moira Sanders and her younger sister, Lori Elstone, together with their cousin Beth Goslin Maloney. It’s a beautifully evocative testament to rural Canada, specifically the Harrow Fair, a classic country fair which has been held in Essex County every summer since 1854. This is Canada’s southernmost county, where Ontario dips a dainty toe into the American midwest, lapped by Lake Erie to the south and on the same latitude as Tuscany and Northern California. Think farmland, orchards and vineyards, hot, dusty, empty roads where all you can hear is the buzz and zip of insects in the parched afternoons; then think 70,000 people showing up every Labour Day weekend to go to the fair with its livestock shows, pie and preserve competitions, pony rides, craft exhibits and tractor pulls. Photographer Mike McColl perfectly captures the merry, good-hearted mood – an ambience which doesn’t seem to have changed much over the centuries if the scattered vintage photos are anything to go by.
I’ve blogged about Lori Elstone before – when she managed Tony de Luca’s cheese shop outside Niagara-on-the-lake and made me a sensationally delicious panini. Now, she and her sister have created a record of the food at the Fair that not only reads deliciously well but will make anyone who has to live in a city ache with envy. “Canning is very very cool,” the authors assure us before the book has even begun, but so are the other recipes in the book, some of them 1st-prize winners at the Fair, others heirlooms from the authors’ extended family – they have lived in Essex County for generations. I shall certainly try out cheddar loonies and summer pea soup and Elstone’s rhubarb custard pie (which won a red ribbon at the fair). The sections on pies and cakes, canning and preserving are much stronger than “main courses” but that is as it should be in a book that is born from and also brilliantly evokes the rich traditions of a true county fair.

Talking of Tony de Luca, check out Simply in Season (Whitecap, $39.95) his second cookbook. Tony has presented his food in many different ways and many different places during his 14 years on the Niagara peninsula. He created the restaurant at Hillebrand estates winery in 1996, opened his cheese store in the Red Barn, built a high-end restaurant in Si Wai Lai’s reincarnated Oban Inn, put together the Old Winery as a sort of roadhouse on the main highway into N-o-t-L for pastas, pizzas and fairly generic antipasti and recently opened a new, small, fine-dining establishment called Deluca’s Wine Country Restaurant a little way farther along the road, opposite Jackson-Triggs winery. This book is definitely at the fancy end of Tony’s broad culinary spectrum, arranged month by month and starring Niagara’s excellent farmed and foraged produce, all quickened by the warm and generous traditions of his Italian heritage. (Has anyone ever written about the vital Italian influence in Niagara’s wine country – not just the families at the Falls, but the importance of the Ziraldos, Pennachettis, Picones, Pingues, Pavans, Pilliterris, and all the other food-and-wine founding fathers whose forebears came from Italy?)
Faced with a seasonal Canadian cookbook, devil’s advocates immediately turn to the starvation month of April to see what, if anything, the locavore chef has found to recommend. He makes a sauce out of carrot-tops, inspired by Anton Mosimann, plays with tarragon and arugula (from a greenhouse, I suspect) but is redeeemed by his grandmother’s delectable Easter recipes and a seafood sausage based on a dish he learned while cooking at Chewton Glen in England in 1988. And that is the other delight of this book – at least for a restaurant nerd like me. There’s a long and detailed introduction in which Tony describes his entire culinary career to date, starting with the moment he realized he wanted to be a chef, at the age of 12, helping out in his parents’ 35-seat restaurant, L’Altro Mondo, in Oak Ridges, Ont. The Windsor Arms, Chewton Glen, Oliver’s Bakery, Langdon Hall, Truffles (in the Susan Weaver, Patrick Lin era), the Millcroft Inn (his first job as executive chef in 1992), Colori, briefly, on the Danforth and so to Niagara… everywhere gets a mention. Here and there throughout the text are little photos of various kitchen brigades over the years, snapshots of comradeship. Being a professional cook is like being an actor – you develop intense emotional relationships with the people you work with for as long as you work with them, then move on to a new kitchen or a new production with barely a backward glance.
Tony’s recipes lie on the cusp of domestic and restaurant cooking. They’re elegant and professionally balanced, imaginative (I love the sound of shrimp minestrone, or fresh asparagus with oyster cream sauce) but they are also lucid and doable for a competent, careful cook with time to spend shopping. His cousin, Maria Giuliani, provides poetry to introduce the chapters and a high-school friend, Anna D’Agrosa, took the photographs, though you have to comb the copyright page with a magnifying glass to find her credit.

The Boreal Gourmet by Michele Genest

A third book that has pleased me inordinately this housebound week is Michele Genest’s The Boreal Gourmet, Adventures in Northern Cooking (Lost Moose, $26.95). Miche and I worked together many years ago when she edited my restaurant reviews for enRoute magazine and, like me, she had spent serious time on a Greek island, but we lost touch. Now I know why. She went to live in the Yukon! This book drags us along with her, starting at the deep end with a chapter entitled “Into the Wild – In Pursuit of Berries.” Within a paragraph we are introduced to Linda, a friend of Miche’s who becomes obsessed with the picking and hoarding of lowbush cranberries – their colour and firm roundness, the way their dark red lustre glows against the silver bowl in which she keeps them, hidden in the root cellar. We learn the unspoken etiquette of cranberry picking and the importance of keeping another picker’s patch secret – only then, when we are thoroughly inveigled into local lore and anecdote, are we allowed to share the recipes.
That is surely the chief delight of this book (along with Cathie Archbould’s photographs and Laurel Parry’s illustrations). Miche is a lovely writer who brings you in to the kitchens and out into the wilderness of the Yukon. This book will be cherished as a primary source of northern Canadian foodways as well as a treasure trove of household recipes from Whitehorse. I don’t suppose I’ll ever make elk liver paté or braised moose ribs with espresso stout and chocolate but it’s enormously interesting to read about them, and the practical wisdom in the methods makes me feel as if I could master them all. What do you do with dry shaggy manes? Why, use them in a wild blueberry risotto. What do you do when sourdough goes bad? Throw it away and start again.

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