Caviar, Truffles, and Foie Gras
by Katherine Alford
Photographs by Ellen Silverman
Published by Chronicle Books
180 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Reviewed by Monica Stark
Certain things just make a stronger statement than others. Or, at least, a different one. A Saab, for instance, says something that a Kia simply can't. And though a Mont Blanc won't, of its own accord, write better words than a Bic, the Mont Blanc will convey something that the lesser writing instrument wouldn't be able to. Completely aside from what message a superior writing instrument -- or car or refrigerator -- will make to others who just happen to be looking, the smoothness and balance of the former makes the latter practically unthinkable. Some people will scoff and put it down to snob appeal. In some cases they'll be right. But we're not talking about better here, we're talking about best. Ride in that Saab, use that Mont Blanc, outfit your kitchen with a Sub-Zero: the differences can be subtle, but they're there.
There are symbols of excellence and opulence in all fields and all areas. The food world is rife with them. Three categories sum these qualities quite perfectly, however: caviar, truffles, and foie gras, not coincidentally the name of Katherine Alford's latest book. Any one of these things alone evokes decadent royals who specialed in excess and never acknowledged their arteries. But these three foods together under one cover says it with strength: this is not a book for those watching either their wallets or their waistlines. From its subtly silver cover to its understated design and over the top subject matter, Caviar, Truffles, and Foie Gras is a book for those who want to stop hearing about a recession, for cryin' out loud: break out the Moët and let's party. As Alford notes in her introduction:
Whether due to their unparalleled taste, scarcity, or whopping price, these foods cannot be eaten casually; they cause us to pause, take note, and celebrate. They transform us.
Interestingly, along with their "whopping" prices and the challenge there can be in finding any one of this trio, at least two of them also bring an environmental price tag. In both cases Alford faces these challenges head on, while never disturbing her veil of political correctness.
Ironically, the sturgeon, a creature that has been able to survive since prehistoric times, is highly vulnerable to the political and economic changes in the region. ... With the future of the sturgeon in question, there is an international effort to sustain these unique fish.
And, perhaps more pointedly still, from the section on foie gras:
Foie gras does not come without some controversy. It is attacked by both healthful nutrition advocates and champions of animal rights. ... The argument that the process of force feeding is abusive is a complicated issue and one that requires individual decision. ... It is important to respect and honor all the creatures that nourish us, and we shouldn't eat anything without considering the effect it has on ourselves and the environment.
Obviously, working out deep environmental concerns is outside of the mandate of this book. Caviar, Truffles, and Foie Gras is more about indulgence than activism and that's as it should be. Those with greener ideas about food likely should avoid surfing books with titles like Caviar, Truffles, and Foie Gras: doing so will only make you mad. For those with a desire to indulge their streak of gastronomic hedonism, Alford's book is right on target. Each item in her "trinity" is given its own section where she does a good job illuminating the food's history, origins and production as well as the care and handling of each delicate morsel.
The recipe sections of the book are broken into traditional sections: Amuse-Gueules (from the French euphemism for appetizer that translates "to amuse the mouth"), First Courses, Main Courses and Side Dishes. Here we find recipes as simple as Black-Tie Pasta -- a humble toss of cauliflower and bow-tie pasta tossed in crème fraîche and chives and topped with sevruga -- to recipes as decadently complicated -- and expensive -- as Steamed Lobster with Truffle Beurre Fondue.
As Alford points out, her book is not intended for everyday consultation. "Having these ingredients in your kitchen can give you a renewed pleasure in the ritual of cooking. They deserve a special respect and should be prepared in dishes without shortcuts or compromised flavors." | October 2001
Monica Stark is a January Magazine contributing editor.