by Marty Demarest

If you do it right, a vacation can be a wake-up call to consciousness. Being in a foreign setting gets in your finely tuned, at-home self's way. It slows you down, and forces you to focus your attention on everyday activities: walking, enjoying art, eating. A perfect visit to a new place can involve nothing else, and yet it can still be memorable and completely rewarding.

Travel cookbooks are an at-home way of quickly capturing that "on vacation" sense of open-minded awareness. They usually feature a wide variety of recipes drawn from a particular region, along with stories and essays about the food, culture, and landscape being explored in the book. The best ones also feature plenty of landscape and food photographs.

Kate Hill's A Culinary Journey in Gascony lives handily up to each of those requirements. She's included more than 80 authentic Gascon recipes that wind their way through a complete meal. The essays accompanying each recipe illuminate some regional ingredient, describing both the food itself and various ways to prepare it. These carefully written sections draw attention to the details of cooking in a warm, anecdotal way, and you immediately gain a focus on the mundane aspects of the simple, elegant recipes.

But Hill has several twists to bring to this already successful formula. In the book's dedication, it becomes clear that Hill, for all her intimate association with traditional French cuisine, is the descendent of a line of Italian cooks. This background is apparent in the way Hill writes her recipes. She uses straightforward terms like "big pots" to convey her instructions. And she takes freely to Gascony's range of flavors and ingredients unlike someone encumbered by years of classical French training. (Though of course the French themselves learned about cooking from the Italians.)

The most unique aspect of A Culinary Journey in Gascony, however, is the thread that Hill uses to weave her culinary journey. She's the owner of an old Dutch barge, the Julia Hoyt, on which she travels, cooks, and entertains her way up and down the Canal Lat & eacute;ral & agrave; la Garonne. This sense of passing continually through the French countryside lends the book the perfect tone for travel. Even living there, Kate Hill is always passing through, and her book is a wake-up call to the simple, unique ingredients that make up every journey.

Publication date: 06/10/04

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