As cookery books go Alan Murchison ’s first book “Food for Thought” is neither a cook’s recipe book nor a ‘gastro-porn’ coffee table book.
Most recipe books either fall into the Delia (and pretty much every other TV chef) camp – the aim is to provide a collection of easy to follow recipes with a picture of the finished dish so you know what to aim for. Or into the multi-starred Michelin, serious chef, camp – where there are recipes of immense complexity that professional kitchens produce day-in day-out, using sophisticated kitchen equipment and techniques, which only the most serious amateur cook would even attempt.
Alan Murchison may not be as well known as chefs who appear on television regularly, cooking or otherwise, and so his book will have a limited appeal. It is
most likely to appeal to those who know him by reputation or have sampled his cooking.
At this point I should admit to a vested interest: I have been going to L’Ortolan for more than a decade, since the John Burton-Race days, and have enjoyed many excellent meals cooked by Alan Murchison and his team. I am constantly impressed by the quality, reliability, inventiveness and apparent simplicity of the food that the L’Ortolan kitchen produces
At this point I should admit to a vested interest: I have been going to L’Ortolan for more than a decade, since the John Burton-Race days, and have enjoyed many excellent meals cooked by Alan Murchison and his team. I am constantly impressed by the quality, reliability, inventiveness and apparent simplicity of the food that the L’Ortolan kitchen produces.
Murchison’s book is a labour of love. He admits it took more than two years to write and together with Mark Law’s stunning photography he expects to be able to look back in a few years time and feel it is a book he is proud to have produced. This is a book you are unlikely to find in a best sellers’ list or in the ‘75% off’ remnants pile in your local bookshop; this is a self-published work of art.
As I turn the pages admiring the recipe pictures in “Food for Thought” I keep recognising elements, or whole dishes, that I can remember eating and I think this is how most buyers of the book will use it. I hope that having seen the picture and read the recipe the more adventurous will decide to cook some dishes themselves. But this style and level of cooking does not lend itself to a spur of the moment decision to make a meal based on what you have in the house. Murchison’s recipes rely on preparation and buying good quality produce. At first glance the recipe can look straight forward with a manageable number of ingredients and not too many steps in the process. But read carefully and you will see the reference to the ‘Basics’ section and this is where the flavours that will carry the dish start. Many recipes have half a dozen ‘basics’ incorporated – which can be stock, herb crust, garnishes or a whole sub-dish. A number of the recipes open with the assumption that you are starting preparation 24 or 72 hours in advance of serving the meal. Theses recipes will reward those willing to accept the challenge.
The book begins with Murchison’s background and the influences that brought him to become chef patron at L’Ortolan accompanied, mainly, by black and white photography of the kitchens at work. Then with the ‘Starters’ the brilliant colour photography kicks off: Recipes accompanied by pin sharp pictures and the occasional page featuring the top class ingredients, in various states of preparation, like truffles! The ‘Mains’ continues the visual feast with a mouth-watering array of fish, fowl and flesh. Although I know Alan Murchison can produce splendid vegetarian main courses they don’t get a look in here. Next, we are into the ‘Cheese’ course, no cooking just an explanation of some of the best cheeses available and their pairing with wine and food: Epoisses is teamed with Confit Red Onion and Gewurztraminer. The ‘Desserts’ complete the list of photographed recipes. After the acknowledgements, with photographs of suppliers and produce, we are into the no-nonsense heart of Murchison’s wonderful recipes – the ‘Basics’. No colour photography, just 233 basic recipes that
underpin the cuisine. These are the building blocks of the great dishes that Alan Murchison produces.
‘Passion’ is an overused word in many walks of life – I have heard it used by many chefs when describing their motivation and it is used in the foreword, by Raymond Blanc, to describe Alan Murchison . I’d say Murchison’s passion really shows through in “Food for Thought” – this is not a book to accompany a television series or a collection of seasonal recipes to be promoted alongside produce in a supermarket. This is Alan Murchison putting a stake in the ground and saying this is me, this is what I do and this is how I do it – passionate about his vocation.
Whether you just enjoy the artistry of Murchison’s presentation, you marvel at the effort that goes into producing the dishes, or you decide to take up the challenge to cook some recipes yourself – this is a book you will keep returning to especially if you dine at either L’Ortolan or la Becasse.
In conclusion, I’d like to say I am about to start preparing the Duck Terrine on page 35 to be followed by the glorious Oxtail on page 81 – but after checking what is involved I think I’ll take the easy option and just book a table at L’Ortolan and have Alan Murchison cook it for me!