So, I'm browsing the shelves at Barnes & Noble and come across the paperback version of Flatbreads & Flavors, a book I'd not heard of before---despite it being a James Beard award winner when published as a hardback in 1995.
After only a minute or three of leafing through the book I had to have it, and plunked down my cash. This will come as a surprise to many of you who think that reviewers never buy books. But the fact is, some publishers do not see the value of working with Cheftalk.com, and Harper Collins is, unfortunately, one of them.
This explains why you don't often see reviews from those publishers. When we have a list of major players in the cookbook industry who go out of their way to assure us access to their titles, it makes little sense to spend limited resources on books from publishers who don't.
Even so, we'd be remiss if we ignored all such books, especially worthwhile ones. So, what follows, are effusive words of praise---for the authors, if not the publisher.
Alford and Duguid are world travelers. That hardly says anything, however. Friend Wife has an aunt who describes herself as a world traveler. But in her case that means journeying from one Hilton to the next.
For the authors of Flatbreads & Flavors travel means seeking out the far corners of the earth, meeting indigenous people, and collecting and preserving traditional foodways. They first met, for instance, on the roof of a small hotel in Lhasa, Tibet. Six months later they were bicycling together from China to Pakistan. They have continued exploring the world from that viewpoint; living side-by-side with natives---nomads in Tibet, desert dwellers in the Mid-east, farmers in the former Soviet republics---and collecting their traditional recipes and cooking techniques.
The one thing that binds diverse cultures is bread, literally the staff of life. In many cases flatbreads---perhaps the oldest forms of bread---are the only varieties found. They might be made of wheat or rye or corn or oats, millet or sorghum or teff or rice. Often enough they have come down to us, unchanged, for thousands of years.
Most of us are familiar with just a few of these breads. We know about pita, and focaccia for sure. Maybe we've heard about, or even sampled, injera and naan. But these barely scratch the surface.
So, for starters, this is a book for bread freaks. But it's unique, in that in specializes in the flatbreads of the world.
To be sure, flatbread recipes can be found in other bread-baking books. But I thorough search reveals Flatbreads & Flavors as probably the only published work that deals with them exclusively, rather than as a side note; certainly it's the only cookbook that goes into flatbreads in such depth. In all, there are close to 65 different recipes, plus notes, comments, and anecdotes about others, all interspersed with lively discussions of where the breads originated and the people Alford and Duguid learned them from.
Not a helter-skelter mélange, the book is divided into geographic regions. After first discussing flatbread basics in a chapter that includes ingredients, equipment, techniques, and tips for selecting the right flatbread to make, it then explores the flatbreads of Central Asia; China, Vietnam, and Malaysia; India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka; the Eastern Mediterranean; Morocco, Tunisia, and Ethiopia; the Caucasus region; Europe; and North America.
I started my own exploration with their Berry Bannock. Bannock is something I know a little something about, so thought this would be a good test. I was concerned, reading the recipe, that it would be on the dry side despite the quantity of berries used. Shouldn't have worried. The bread came out moist and flavorsome, and has become my favorite version of that bread.
Next I turned to their recipe for Pita. I've tried making this in the past, using several different recipes, and had never gotten it to work right. That is until trying the one in Flatbreads & Flavors. Not that I agree with them 100%. For instance, rolling the individual dough pieces to circles with an 8-9 inch diameter is a bit problematical (or maybe just reflects my inability to use a rolling pin properly). And, in my opinion, working the dough in two batches, as the authors suggest, is unnecessary and awkward. But the final results were perfect nonetheless.
Next I turned to a recipe I had no familiarity with: Moroccan Anise Bread. What a wonderful surprise. Although pushing the definition of flatbread (it rises to about two inches in height), we're talking about a bread with incredible flavor and crumb, and a soft texture ideal for sopping the broths and sauces that are so integral to tagines.
However, it's the "flavors" part of the book that makes it truly unique. For each geographic region, the authors provide recipes for regular dishes that go along with the breads.
For example, take the chapter on Morocco, Tunisia, and Ethiopia. In it you'll find recipes for four indigenous flatbreads, and more than twice that number of regional dishes---ranging from cous cous to Chicken Tagine with Olives and Onions to Tunisian Tomato Stew with Poached Eggs and Ramadan Lamb and Legume Soup.
So far, I've tried five or six such dishes, from different parts of the world, and have yet to find one that wasn't good. The Georgian Leek Pate was an especial treat, and for me served as an introduction to the vegetable pates that are, apparently, common throughout the Georgian Republic. And when we served their version of Vietnamese Grilled Lemon Grass Beef with Peanut Dipping Sauce as an appetizer, our guests almost didn't make it to the main course. Those skewers can be addictive.
I can say, with no fear of contradiction, that there is no other cookbook like this available. Although it's subtitled "A Baker's Atlas," it would be better tagged, "a global journey of love," love of bread, love of good food, love for the native cultures of the world. In Flatbreads & Flavors, we get to share part of that journey.
Recipe: Moroccan Anise Bread