Book Review: Heat

Mum lent me this book ages ago and it took me a long time to get around to reading it (to be fair, I was reading the mammoth The Wines of Burgundy at the time).

Heat is the autobiographical story of Bill Buford, a food lover – strictly amateur – who managed to score himself a “kitchen slave” position with New York’s Mario Batali. American readers, in particular, will know Batali from the Food Network where he’s on Iron Chef America and is the host of Molto Mario.

Buford began his adventure in an unpaid role, working in Batali’s Babbo restaurant on weekends. It seems like it didn’t take long for him to work his way up to more and more hours and more and more responsibility. He eventually heads off to Italy for various culinary adventures, culminating in spending a lot of time in Tuscany as apprentice to a butcher.

This is an entertaining book and I suspect you have to have more than a passing interest in food to enjoy it, but it is quite a lightweight read. And that’s not a bad thing – this book would make perfect aeroplane material for long haul flights and was a great antidote to the heavyweight (both physically and mentally) book on Burgundy.

One thing that puzzled me throughout the book was the stark absence of any mention of money, or even extended family. Buford mentions his wife a little – especially towards the end when they are in Italy together – but rarely mentions how his forays into the professional kitchen impacted his family’s finances and well being. I don’t know about you, but if I started working weekends in a professional kitchen Andy might have something to say about it – especially if I ended up quitting my job and gallivanting off to Italy. This makes Heat a very personal story because we do find out a lot about how Buford’s experiences changed him, but it’s also an insular story, because we never get a sense of the emotional relationships he has with anyone outside the world of food.

Criticisms aside, this is a perfect book for reading while you’re letting your Christmas dinner settle.

Grape vs Grain



I picked up a copy of Grape vs. Grain at a Clouston and Hall sale here in Adelaide.

The book purports to take the reader on an exploration of the cultural and technological differences between wine and beer. Charles Bamforth, the author, is the Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at the University of California, Davis – and while he is up front about this, this does rather give you an idea about the bias the book might, and indeed, does, take.

I consider myself enthusiastic about both beer and wine: I run a wine education business, and while studying the Professional Certificate in Gastronomy wrote my final essay on stout and porter. When I lived in England I could often be found at beer (of the real ale type) festivals or in one of my locals, usually trying out something new. So I was really hoping for an even handed and relatively detailed investigation.

Unfortunately, this was not to be found and I suspect that my open minded approach to the book was lost on page xi (that’s right – in the preface): “… the decline of locally traditional values in a proud industry (the dearth of cask ale in London) …”. Bamforth arrives at this conclusion after a single day in London and a visit to two pubs. At the time this book was published (2008) I was still in the position of making relatively frequent trips to London and at no point did I struggle to find a decent selection of beers, or, indeed, a decent pint. Obviously, I was not wandering into any old High Street chain pub (although Wetherspoons are generally reliable for a good selection of well kept ales) but I was not doing any more research than I would do were I looking for a good restaurant for dinner.

It’s a shame that this type of glibness really pervades much of the book. There are sections which show potential: the chapter “The Healthfulness* of Wine and Beer” could have been really interesting but lacked the rigour and objectivity such an important subject needs and deserves.

Overall, I was disappointed by this book. I’m glad I read it (it’s not long!) but I did think it could have offered so much more.

* I loathe this word with a passion.