I just finished reading The Perfect Meal: In Search of the Lost Tastes of France, by John Baxter. Baxter’s an Australian writer who has made his home in Paris for twenty-five years. His book was inspired by one of the first stories I covered on this blog – the recognition of the French gastronomic meal by UNESCO. They defined it as, “respect[ing] a fixed structure, commencing with an aperitif and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert.” Around that time, Baxter wondered found an elegantly printed menu card from 1912 that made him wonder if the type of meal that UNESCO alluded to was even possible anymore. He set out to try to recreate, if not the specific meal of the menu card, then one that was equally noble.
Without revealing all of Baxter’s secrets before you have a chance to read the book for yourself, he crisscrossed the country looking for the best examples of food and drink from the aperitif to le pièce de résistance, a spit-roasted bull. He seasons his menu with anecdotes from history as well as his own mental meanderings. I think that Baxter may have a point when he posits that, “Vegetarianism has never caught on in France because vegetables are regarded as food for the poor.” I loved the story that when Les Halles, the traditional Parisian food market was moved to the outskirts of town “flowers and vegetables sprouted from the ripped-up earth. Many varieties hadn’t been cultivated in an age. They sprang from seeds scattered over centuries – ghosts of the old market, clinging defiantly to life.”
Baxter is clearly un gastronome (une gastronome is the feminine form) (uhn/oon gas-tro-gnome), whom he defines as “someone for whom the study of food and the maintenance of its excellence means infinitely more than the satisfaction of mere appetite. He doesn’t so much enjoy or love food as revere it…” If you love the great food of France, this is an enjoyable read from first course to last.