Travelers often return home eager to capture the essence of their vacation destinations by way of food. ("Gotta get to the Safeway for some capers and lavender.") Here are some new books that can help you re-create the experience of your journeys.
Williams-Sonoma's Foods of the World ($24.95 each, Oxmoor House, 191 pp. each), a new series of coffee-table cookbooks, celebrates the cuisine, meal customs and markets of a particular city known for delights of the palate. So far, volumes cover Florence, Paris, San Francisco and Barcelona. In addition to representative recipes, they splash lush photos of restaurant kitchens, fish stalls and vineyards. Market photos are particularly striking, with club-like sausages, net bags of snails hanging from the ceiling, and fish looking so fresh you fear they might slip out of the book and into your lap.
Common to the series are two-page spreads displaying for identification and comparison the varieties of local culinary attraction: Florence's salamis and pecorino cheeses; San Francisco's craft beers and dim sum; Parisian pastries and aperitifs; Barcelona's tapas. There are cityscapes as well, such as Florence's Ponte Vecchio interposed between glossies of osso buco and baccala.
But notwithstanding the dozens of recipes, the volumes work better as coffee-table books than as cookbooks. Their big size would crowd the Cuisinart off the countertop; the pages are too elegant to risk smudging with butter or veal stock; and the light, sans serif typeface in their recipe texts could drive you cross-eyed if you tried to read them while whisking eggs or chopping leeks. But for inspiration and reminiscence, they are ideal.
Travel to Greece and Italy also often involves time travel -- excursions to the age of philosophers, Caesars and classical poets. One new book lets us reproduce the foods of those times and places. In The Philosopher's Kitchen ($35, Random House, 250 pp.), Francine Segan combines classic recipes with insights on ancient tastes and customs, and snippets of mythology -- flirtatious women being turned into mint plants, that sort of thing.
Many of the recipes are attributed to Apicius, a 1st-century Roman epicure and author of the oldest surviving complete cookbook. (Segan breaks faith with Apicius's reliance on liquamen, though, explaining that she tried to re-create his fermented fish sauce at home but abandoned the project after five days when a neighbor inquired if her cat had died.) Several recipes combine meat with fruit -- veal chops with quince and leeks, for example, or braised chicken with peaches and squash. The color photographs of even the most basic dishes, such as bean soup with rosemary, are so sensuous you're tempted to lick the page. Wine appears, both as ingredient and accompaniment. Indeed, a meal without wine was termed by the Romans caninum prandium -- dinner for a dog.
Mary Gunderson also is a practitioner of "paleocuisineology," a word she made up (and, indeed, trademarked) to describe the process of "bringing history alive through cooking." As the nation commemorates the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Gunderson uses the vehicle of food to help us see the men (and woman) of the team and the territories they explored in The Food Journal of Lewis and Clark ($19.95, History Cooks, 166 pp.).
The story begins in 1801 with Thomas Jefferson, who employed Meriwether Lewis first as a private secretary, then as co-leader of the corps of discovery sent to find out just what Jefferson had bought when he signed that French real estate deal. Thus, one of Gunderson's first entries is Jefferson's recipe for brandied spiced peaches, taken from his handwritten notes. As the trip progresses westward, so do the recipes, reflecting the presence of local game and herbs: buffalo, turnip and berry ragout from the Dakotas, for example, or roasted parsnips with pine nuts from Nez Perce country. Butter Island spoonbread commemorates the sad day on the Missouri in 1804 when the corps used up the last of its butter. Sacagawea's French-Canadian husband contributed boudin blanc (sausage) made of buffalo. Lewis loved it. (He was less enthusiastic about the morels they found -- he thought them "an insipid and taistless food.") Gunderson uses modern equivalents when authentic ingredients would be hard to find (do you know anyone who sells the swamp tubers known as wapato?), and purists will note that many recipes involve the use of a food processor. But authenticity has its price, too: How hungry are you for suet dumplings or bear roasted in pine boughs?
And now, the compensation for the privations of trekking with Lewis and Clark: a dinner at Taillevent. In A Meal Observed ($23, Knopf, 228 pp. ), Andrew Tod hunter takes 200-plus pages to describe a single three-hour, $400 meal at this Michelin three-star Paris restaurant. We follow Tod hunter and his wife from aperitif, through the several courses and dessert, to the complimentary glasses of house cognac at meal's end.
This is not a "watch and despise me as I spend unconscionable sums on gluttony" story. Rather, the order of the meal is a tree trunk supporting branching tangents: the joy of dining with people you like; reminiscences of visiting an olive oil factory on Crete; the author's task as an apprentice of plucking feathers from boiled pigeon heads. Somehow it all fits -- and entertains. The cheese course prompts a dissertation on French cheeses, including a camembert whose strong smell is likened to "the feet of God." The dessert course recalls a conversation with an apprentice pastry chef ("It's fun to go home and find chocolate behind your ears.").
Because Tod hunter served briefly as an apprentice at Taillevent himself, some of his tangents explain what is going on in the wine cellar or pastry kitchen as the couple dines. He draws word sketches of the talented soldiers in Chef de Cuisine Philippe Legendre's brigade. And he goes rhapsodic over the verbena ice cream.
"Taillevent is something other than a restaurant," he says. "It is a place blessed by the gods."