BOOK REVIEW / Honeyed words and healthy appetites: 'History of Food' - Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat; trs Anthea Bell: Basil Blackwell, 25 pounds

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AS CHILDREN on holiday in France, we loved going to fetch bread from the baker's each morning, because of being able to nibble the ends on the way home. We relished the crust, crackly and crunchy, and the crumb, tangy with good flour and yeast, a hint of salt. Nowadays everyone in the village complains how awful the bread is: both limp and leathery, too chewy, little taste. Thanks to Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat's crisp words on the subject, I've learned the reasons for the decline in baguette standards: the dough, now mechanically mixed, is kneaded far too fast, which damages it, and it ferments too quickly. Nor does the use of additives help.

Reading like this, to find out the answer to a particular question, might be a good way into this vast, encyclopaedic book, which can't be taken in at one sitting without risking spiritual indigestion. The author certainly wishes us to avoid this fate. She has composed her store of facts like a good menu. One fascinating theme succeeds another (the holy war of cassoulet, olive oil in legend, all about foie gras, the secrets of spices), with ruminative and digestive pauses for anecdotes, snatches of poems and drinking-songs, digressions on etymology, extracts from recipes. Her narrative proceeds inexorably but gently, interspersed with charming illustrations that are both decorative and informative. You can pause mid-way through the feast and go back for a second helping of meditations on sausages or truffles, you can skip cakes and puddings and jump straight on to the politics of coffee.

The banquet opens, whimsically or originally according to the reader's taste, with an account of honey-gathering in the earliest recorded cultures, honey being, as the author puts it with her characteristic enthusiasm, 'a food both miraculous and natural . . . Delicious nourishment for travellers, hidden away like treasure, it has an element of reward about it, and was immediately associated with the most lofty and benevolent of symbolism.' Our appetites thus stimulated, we then plunge into the history of gathering - 'the instinctive reaction of the starving' - and why soya is the most widely eaten plant in the world. Hunting and technology come next, dairy produce and cereals, and a fascinating chapter on corn mush throughout the world.

I've always thought that writing poetry is just like inventing recipes for new dishes, mixing words in unfamiliar combinations, knowing what to leave out as well as what to put in. And this book made me feel that freshly, as flaous (sort of flans) mutate into piada and pizza, into farfels and echaudes, into girdle-cakes and nieles, into Bretzeln and gnocchi and Knedeln. The language of this book is as delicious as the foods it names. Anthea Bell's skilful translation both creates a juicy, vernacular taste of English and also gives you some flavour of the original. Perhaps because so many French words necessarily remain, reminding us how all language is a translation of hungers into sounds, you can hear the original French text hovering in the background, like a cook in the kitchen spying on diners at table enjoying their meal. Certainly this language is a gourmet's delight.

The book's preface invokes famine as the scourge of our times, but doesn't want to adduce political or economic reasons for it. In a work which, despite its artful and artificial arrangement, pretends to be describing 'our' natural evolution into vegetarian-scorning meat-eaters, we mustn't look, perhaps, for too much criticism of French habits of eating and thinking. Vegetarianism is dismissed in a single paragraph, associated with 'religious folly'; the deaths from starvation of those lacking the money to plant and harvest grain are deprecated rather than linked to Western greed and trading practices.

Indeed it's the apathetic consumer who is blamed for modern bread in France, putting up with it rather than complaining. A fuller discussion of contemporary food concerns would have been useful; some extra piquancy to the meal.