Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Breakfast at The Wolseley book review

Love him or hate him, A.A. Gill certainly has a way with words. The wordsmith puts his intrepid travels and eating adventures aside and goes back to the United Kingdom, in search of breakfast. His book, Breakfast at The Wolseley is based solely, entirely on the promise of breakfast, actually, the entire book is focused on the famous English institution, The Wolseley in Picadilly, London. This art deco period building was commissioned as a showroom for Wolseley Cars in the 1920s and 30s. This opulent and grand building was used by Barclays bank until the late 1990s. Two men, Chris Corbin and Jeremy King acquired the building in 2003 and commissioned architects to restore the building to its former glory and set about turning it into an European-inspired café/restaurant. A.A. Gill goes behind the scenes at The Wolseley to experience firsthand the machinations behind what it takes to provide first-class breakfasts. This sumptuous book of beautiful photographs of building and its food is something for the coffee table. It’s the perfect time-filler for a rainy Sunday afternoon. A.A. Gill fans will love this. And for those who can’t stomach Gill’s self-indulgent reviews – this one might just be the one to ease you back into the Gill fold. Gill is restraint in this narrative and has kept his sarcastic wit to a minimum in this publication. His take on eating breakfast is poignant and at times I think requires some reflection.

Breakfast is everything. The beginning, the first thing. It is the mouthful that is the commitment to a new day, a continuing life. …Breakfast – simple, elaborate, hurried, deliberate or skipped – is an unconsidered moment of global communion. Somewhere, someone is starting breakfast and thinking, “Today will be better than yesterday.”

I like the fact he’s written about breakfast in a completely different light – it’s something that I haven’t taken into much consideration, Gill’s right: it’s something we all kind of take for granted. My breakfasts become more elaborate on weekends, I do like to eat adventurously when I’m traveling. I have no qualms about having cake and coffee or roti and curry for breakfast but I find myself eating almost the exact same breakfast on weekdays.

Breakfast is a meal apart. It isn’t like the other organized consumptions of food in which we all part. Even though it’s a fixed moment, breakfast is pre-form – a conceptual meal. It doesn’t have courses or an order; it isn’t prescriptively sweet or savoury; there is no generally accepted sense of its length or constituent parts. It’s bespoke, tailor-made to you: a private meal or habit. Breakfast is the most personal and idiosyncratic construction. It is the only meal most of us feel wholly comfortable eating on our own…

See that wasn’t so bad. None of this smug, self-serving talk – what a relief! The book is split into seven parts. History of the building and place, a short history of breakfast, the concept of the Viennoiserie complete with recipes. Gill’s even provided an eggs section, an English breakfast section,fruit and cereals and Tea, Coffee and Hot Chocolate section - all with recipes and short blurbs. Viennoiserie is the French collective term for pastries from Vienna. And what a collection of butter-enriched pastries there are in the book.

A recipe for haggis and duck eggs from the book

Gill’s managed to evoke the goings-on behind the scenes at The Wolseley with great verve and sensitivity. All the ‘invisible’ people that make breakfast possible get a look-in. Almost all nationalities under the sun can be found in the kitchen of this one place, all making European pastries and English breakfasts. We’re introduced to the tourier. I had not heard of, or knew what a tourier was until I read the book.

A tourier is a risen-pastry maker. ‘He’s not strictly a baker, or a patissier, or a confectioner; he is a tourier. …the tourier leans over his dough, folding and shaping with practised economy. Watching craftsmen craft is one of the quietest and deepest pleasures of a cack-handled life. The tourier arranges the pastry-pale, embryonic croissants on a slick baking tray and slides them into a rainforest-hot oven.

I enjoyed leafing through and reading this book, I didn’t think I’d enjoy reading about A.A. Gill’s take on the intricacies of making and serving breakfast as much I did. This book is for anyone interested in food and the social intercourse that surrounds breakfast. It’s also for those who enjoy the thing that is a perfect, crisp, flaky croissant.

Fresh croissants from the oven at The Wolseley