‘Relaxed French entertaining’ is the subtitle of this captivating hardback, first published last year in French. The author grew up in both the USA and France, being schooled in Florida and spending the summer holidays in France in the family’s old farmhouse. This was in the Pyrenees, without electricity, where every meal was celebrated as a party with family, friends, and even lost hikers. Ingredients were sourced locally, cooking was done over an open wood fire and culinary memories, with their indelible aromas and flavours, are deeply etched in her memory.
In 2015 Brion and her husband bought an old hunting lodge in Normandy and christened it “Miss Maggie” . In the following year she marked her 40th birthday with a recipe journal as a gift for family and friends, titled Miss Maggie’s Kitchen… This, in turn led to her sharing recipes with readers all over the world, and imparting self-confidence to those who want to cook but feel insecure in the kitchen. The results are embraced by this rather charming collection, that illustrates a saying “cooking is love made visible”, along with her life philosophy that sharing is essential.
Before she offers recipes, Brion also explains that her style of cooking leans towards meals that can be shared by all the family, helping themselves from a laden table, while she also pays much attention to decorating the table, so evoking all senses. This involves collecting items that range from stones, branches and shells, to vintage objects picked up in antique shops. She then records a list of ingredients she always has in her kitchen before opening with Essential and Base recipes.
These include shortcrust pastry, herb-infused olive oil , preserved lemons and carrot-top pesto. (The last sounds like a great idea for a budget pesto until you read that the supporting ingredients are far from cheap, being cashews and parmesan cheese. ) Nibbles for cocktails include herbed nuts, cheese shortbreads, roasted camembert and peach and prosciutto pizza and there are some unusual cocktails as well.
Brion’s starters range from simple (green bean salad with hazelnuts) to unusual (sweet and savoury rhubarb tortillas), from classic (roasted tomato soup) to substantial (steak tartare with hazelnuts and parmesan.) The chapter of main courses includes a mélange that will keep both vegetarians and carnivores happy, and dishes that would look as good on a brunch table as on a supper menu. Onion quiche, Eggs Benedict and a side of herby mashed potato gratin share space with a mushroom and wild garlic galette and stuffed cabbage leaves. Well-spiced chicken legs are baked with shallots, garlic, orange juice and redcurrant jam, and finished with cooked, chopped rhubarb. Whole trout is stuffed with herbs and edible wildflowers. Roasted tomato and shallot tarte tatin is sparked with capers. Duck leg confit is captured in a kind of cottage pie, with layered mashed potato.
As in the other courses, desserts are designed to appeal to both Brion’s American friends as well as Continentals. There is a preponderance of cakes – that Brits would serve with afternoon tea and South Africans with morning coffee, plus a few tarts and galettes featuring seasonal fruit. The single ice cream intrigues – based on cream, almond milk and orange blossom water, the mix is studded with pistachios and garnished with rose petals.
The food styling and photography are both in perfect keeping with the mood of this collection, which finishes with both recipe index and another of main ingredients.
Maggie’s Kitchen by Heloïse Brion, published by Flammarion, Paris, 2020.
We are fortunate to have the doyenne of food and wine writing in South Africa, Myrna Robins, to write book reviews for us. Myrna was a journalist with a Cape Town daily newspaper, has written several books about food and wine, has judge Cookery Competitions, and more. She lives in retirement [except for punting local wines, and fortunately writing reviews for us] in McGregor with her husband Verne.