By an act of the US Congress, daylight saving time began four weeks early this spring. I quickly adjusted to the lingering evening light and its promise of pleasures to come: summer suppers, barbecues. Still, the mandated change disrupted my sense of the seasons, and my disorientation only increased when I had to go through daylight saving again, two weeks later, in France.
I was visiting Château du Fey, the elegant seventeenth-century Burgundian château housing Anne Willan’s cooking school, La Varenne. I had come not to cook but to explore the extraordinary cookbooks and travel books that Anne and her husband, Mark Cherniavsky, have collected over the years. Their second-floor library is lined with glass-fronted cabinets holding volumes that date back to the sixteenth century. Taken together, this collection reveals the evolution of the cookbook from treatises on agriculture and health to the collections of recipes so familiar to us today. I discovered such treasures as de la Marre’s 1757 three-volume Dictionnaire economique, which describes half-a-dozen ways to catch larks, and even more to catch pheasants. As Tobias Smollett noted (with some distaste) in his Travels through France and Italy, the French loved to eat small birds wrapped in vine leaves, offered up only half-baked—at least as gauged by Smollett’s English palate.
Charged with identifying illustrations for a descriptive history of the Le Fey collection, I cloistered myself in the library. The air smelled intoxicatingly of old leather and paper mixed with the lush aromas of meals being prepared in the kitchen below. Since this was March, the château stood shrouded in fog and mist, among fields and ancient forests of chestnut and oak. The isolation contributed to a sense of unreality—at any moment I half expected brigands to come galloping out of the forest or to hear the clarion call of hunting horns. (As it happened, stag season had just ended, so my imaginings were not entirely fanciful.)
Opening one extraordinary book after another, I hardly left the library all week. There I was, in Cristoforo Messisbugo’s sixteenth-century Ferrara kitchen, savoring his potaccio all’italiana, a meat stew with chestnuts, coriander, and honey. I skipped over to France, where I ogled Charles Estienne’s beautiful knotted gardens from his Maison rustique and contemplated his astrological planting charts. The 1596 Good Huswife’s Jewell, with its list of “banquetting stuffe,” transported me to an English demesne, and then it was back to France to cavort with the cherubs making ice cream in Emy’s L’Art de bien faire les glaces d’office. The books’ distinctive voices made me feel right there with their authors, learning how to spin sugar into gold or to bake a hare with a pudding in his belly, in the accomplished manner of Robert May.
The chiming of the château’s many antique clocks, each of which announced the hour at slight variations, heightened my sense of being lost in time. So I passed my days, oblivious to the actual passing of time—except when I was called, with perfect punctuality, to lunch and dinner. My sense of disconnect had little to do with clock time, and in the end, the loss of an hour to daylight saving time bore little meaning. I felt instead as though I had gained time. I had traveled through France and England and Italy and Germany, peeking into kitchens and banquet halls, discovering new methods and new equipment. I mentally savored dishes at court and in the countryside. Then I was lucky enough to taste the real things at dinner: roast pintade, the first beautiful fava beans of spring, endive braised in butter, perfect crème caramel.
What cookbooks offer is that true gift of time. Reading them, you can travel backwards through recipes and descriptions that have been set down over the centuries by passionate cookbook writers, agriculturalists, and chefs. Like the best histories, these books offer up a taste of the past. Yet with cookbooks, the taste is more nearly on your palate.