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Cooking for Claudine by John Baxter

(Faber, $28.99)

There are many lessons to be learned in French dining. Pork coated in crackling and bathed in Guinness can bring a family together. Bread, wine and cheese shouldn’t be brought to a dinner party, as it’s considered an insult. oysters washed before they’re eaten lose their flavour, and are despised by serious diners.

Cooking for Claudine isn’t just an autobiographical account of how John Baxter fared in France – it’s a guide to creating meals worthy of the most discerning consumer.

The Australian film reviewer and writer shares how he came to fall in love with – and later marry – a headstrong French woman, who then introduces him to the delightfully snobby world of her country’s cuisine. Their courtship begins over a culinary collaboration and eventually takes him to her family’s kitchen for a climactic Christmas dinner.

The story builds with anticipation of this as John scours the countryside for ingredients to muster the meal and impress his formidable mother-in-law, Claudine. Disappointingly, only a tiny portion of the book focuses on the event, but it’s fun following his exploits to India for spices, bumpy rides down back roads for seafood, and bantering with bakers. His frankness is captivating, his humour permeating the meaty hurdles he faces on his ultimate quest for approval.

John’s background in writing is evident – the film-like plot develops with intrigue, and biting sarcasm provides relief from potentially irritating characters. It’s all very light-hearted – the star attraction of Christmas dinner is a piglet named Pascal, and cheese earns deity status. The cultural insights aren’t new, but through the eyes of this writer they take on a lively presence.

The excitement is palpable – the joy of finding a forgotten case of vintage wine, the clammy-handed challenge of cooking on a first date, and unwrapping preserved apples from their winter slumber in an attic to find fruit that’s “densely sweet, with an aroma close to perfume”. This is an interesting example of the food craze that’s been consuming the public lately.

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