The Cook and the Gardener, A Year of Recipes and Writings from the French Countryside is primarily a cookbook, but woven among the 632 pages of chopping and measuring, butter and salt are beautifully written words about a french country gardener and how he works and lives. Amanda Hesser is a cook living in France for a year and Monsieur Milbert the estate gardener. Through her eyes we see how Monsieur “finds comfort in the old ways…he is a man of the soil” We learn some of the old ways too. “the soil had to be coaxed into welcoming seeds. The process is akin to mixing bread dough. Beginning in January, Monsieur Milbert spread ash on the open beds and then nourished them with a blanket of manure and hay. Once the ground thawed late in the month, he began to till the land, bringing together all the ingredients—soil, ash, decomposed roots, manure, and hay—mixing them until they became a rich homogeneous substance.” We also learn how he follows the moon cycles for planting. Vegetables planted when the moon is waxing will have a tendency to grow high. Plant root vegetables when the moon wanes. Another technique new to me is trap-cropping. To distract the mice that nibbled at his garden mercilessly, he planted rows of wheat in between the peas. As anywhere in the world, it’s a war between us and them, humans vs. herbivores. Another bit of advice on ripening tomatoes in the fall, when the sun is shy, is to cut off the leaves from all the tomato plants. Monsieur Milbert explained that “although it did risk the plant’s life, the tomatoes were never going to ripen with moisture being divided between the leaves and fruit. Without the leaves, all the plant’s energy would be dedicated to the fruit.” Something that we might try here in the never-never land of never-never red tomatoes! (for me at least)
The author admits that her realm is the kitchen, but she is curious about the garden and all that grows in it, always questioning Monsieur Milbert. She says “as a gardener, he is a visionary, always preparing for the next season. Meanwhile, cooks live for the day.” I really appreciate how her book breaks into seasons, recipes corresponding to what is harvested each month. Although I didn’t try any recipes (yet) they are enticing. Spring serves up cold asparagus soup with mint and lemon, early carrots with tarragon beurre blanc and oak leaf salad with shallots and hazlenuts. Summer demonstrates drying linden flowers for tea, tomato jelly, fried zucchini flowers stuffed with goat’s milk cheese and lavender sorbet. Fall warms with baked fennel gratin with cracked pepper and beets roasted with raspberry vinegar. Even in winter they harvest and cook chard and spinach in butter, turnip-thyme soup, cardoons sauteed with parsley and spiced brussel sprouts with apples. Cooking with what is in season preserves the fresh flavors “the lettuces were so outrageously good–sweet and soft–they rarely escaped our table.” Hesser writes.
It is her descriptive voice that adds the flavor. She describes autumn when”the garden’s jewels die a weary and dramatic death,… light fills the space. Shadows lengthen and the sun reaches its arms through bare fruit-tree limbs, cloaking you with its warmth.” Commenting on Monsieur Milbert “He is a conductor, the garden his orchestra. He is more interested in each instrument delivering its notes, delivering them abundantly, loudly, crisply, boldly and preferably at the right time.” After reading her words I did feel as if I had walked the garden paths of this timeless French estate, listening to the “crackling trudge of my boots” and seeing the soil “when just tilled, it looked like cocoa.” Some of her comparisons were new and amusing “He sometimes forgets to stagger a crop, so a vegetable arrives one day in full force, then leaves like a rotten lover, without notice.” I enjoyed this book, The Cook and the Gardener and recommend it for a peek into a private garden and for a taste of France.