13 July 2021 · Behind the Cookbook
by Matthew Cockerill, ckbk co-founder
Almost 50 years ago, the aristocratically born, profoundly blind British American food writer Roy Andries de Groot took a trip to France that would, indirectly, change the course of American cooking.
Heading to the Valley of the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps in search of the origins of Chartreuse liqueur, he came across a simple country inn, L’Auberge de l’Atre Fleuri. De Groot was entranced by the extraordinary range of seasonal, local cuisine offered by Mademoiselle Vivette and Mademoiselle Ray, the two middle-aged women who ran the establishment. In The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth (1973), he documents in evocative prose the menus of traditional dishes which he ate at the inn over a number of visits in the course of a year. The book has gone on to become a classic — its influence still felt to this day.
Julee Rosso — co-author of The Silver Palate, and now the proprietor of the Wickwood Inn in Michigan — credits the book with defining her career path. “It was the book that inspired me to start my little food company. I wanted to leave corporate life and go and peel carrots for these inn owners in Provence. Little did I know then…the food business would be followed by owning an inn myself for 25 years. I just made that connection to The Auberge.”
Julia Child said the book was "a whole way of life", while Éric Ripert praised it as "a window onto a bygone time… capturing the heart of this traditional style of cooking." For Alice Waters, it was a book that offered "an entirely different way of thinking about cooking, [which] deeply influenced my food philosophy.”
Other high profile fans include The Greens Cookbook author Deborah Madison, Jeremiah Tower (arguably the original celebrity chef), Gramercy Tavern's Michael Anthony, Tamar Adler and Alex Guarnaschelli, all of whom cite the book as a key influence. It is also a favorite of Nach Waxman at Kitchen Arts & Letters, NYC's legendary cookbook store, for whom it is about "experiencing food and the natural world — from streams and rain showers to rocks and soil to meadow herbs, wild garlic, country markets, fish of the mountain lakes, wines, cheeses, rustic kitchens, wood-burning hearths and the intense pride in terroir and tradition."
Russ Parsons, writing in the LA Times, summarizes the appeal of the book: "Beyond the mere recipes, the book is a celebration of that imagined life that everyone who has ever worked in the kitchen is certain must exist somewhere — that place where we have nothing more to worry about but how to turn a perfect bounty into a great meal. It is, essentially, a cook’s pastoral, a romance, a dream."
It is notable that such a pivotal and influential work nevertheless remains comparatively relatively unknown to a wider public. Brian Eno said that not many people bought the Velvet Underground's first album, but everyone who did formed a band. It almost seems that similarly, everyone who read The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth went on to open a restaurant…
When ckbk spoke to de Groot's daughter, Fiona Rhodes de Groot (now 80), she mentioned that reading the many recommendations of her father's book brought tears to her eyes, to realize that his work is still remembered in the food world, almost half a century after it was published.
Not an easy character, de Groot was estranged from his daughter for most of her adult life ("He was known to be a very difficult man and I was glad to be out from under!"). They saw little of each other after she left New York for college in California at 18-years-old, but Rhodes has fond memories of cooking with her father during her childhood. His breakthrough cookbook, Feasts for All Seasons (also soon to be available on ckbk), is a seasonal family cookbook based on the home cooking of what the author refers to as "The Quartet of Cooks" – de Groot, his wife Katherine (a RADA-trained actress), and their two daughters, at their apartment in Greenwich Village.
De Groot wrote in his introduction to that book that "through much separation, the family has remained bound together by a passion for good eating." Fifty years later, his daughter concurs, noting, "I have been gifted with his enthusiasm for the joys of discovery that abound when we open up our imagination and our senses to the daily pleasure that is cooking, and sharing the delights of food. I am endlessly grateful to him for the indelible interest in food that he gave me."
Groot's daughter notes that he was not always a reliable narrator when it came to his own biography, "Roy took liberties with 'facts' about his life. What I believe to be 'true' about his life are only stories that were told to me at various times in my childhood."
From what can be pieced together, though, it seems that de Groot was born into a privileged Anglo Dutch background, and was educated at St Paul's School and Oxford, but gave up his hereditary baronetcy to become an American citizen
As a young man, de Groot worked as a journalist, screenwriter, and announcer for the BBC in London, then during World War II emigrated to the US and worked as a broadcaster for the Office of War Information (Voice of America). It was during the Blitz, in London, that he suffered eye injuries that would later lead to his blindness in later life.
Lynne Aman, now in her 70s and living in England, came to know and work with de Groot quite by chance when she was a young student in New York City when her English accent caught de Groot’s attention on the street near his apartment in Greenwich Village. As de Groot's daughter Fiona recalls, "My father and Lynne struck up a conversation, and he invited her and her traveling companion to call and arrange a visit. My mother was skeptical about the casualness of the encounter, but agreed to invite Lynne and her friend for tea.
"Lynne is fluent in French and went on several trips with Roy to meet the great chefs of France, to visit the Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, as well as researching background material for the fantastic dinners Roy designed for Esquire. These were prepared at major restaurants throughout the US and tickets were sold at a hefty price. I met someone running a cookware shop in Santa Fe who said she and her husband bought tickets for every one of those meals, and they were the high point of their lives!"
With de Groot having lost his sight entirely as a delayed result of injuries sustained during the London Blitz, Lynne became his amanuensis, assisting with his research (his cookbook collection alone extended to more than 1100 volumes), supporting him on his frequent travels for Esquire magazine, and helping to manage his regular appearances on NBC TV.
Lynne describes her time working with de Groot as "often mad, crazy, but always fun. Never dull. He was a perfectionist and even a bit of a slave driver, but I felt very privileged and I learnt so much." Aman traveled to l’Atre with de Groot as part of research for the book, and is hoping one day to make a return visit. L'Atre operates to this day as a picturesque inn, offering cuisine traditionnelle, and the online reviews confirm it is a popular pilgrimage destination for cookbook obsessives.
In 1983, at age 73 and after a long illness, de Groot ended his own life. It brought an end to a remarkable career, but his legacy lives on. The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth is his masterpiece, a classic work of food literature, and a snapshot of a particular moment of time in the high French Alps. We are delighted to be making it available via ckbk to a new generation.
“I found myself in the sun-splashed forest, surrounded, it seemed, by an orchestra of a thousand birds singing in harmony a hundred songs. The trees parted, as if they were a stage curtain, to bring me, for the first time into the extraordinary valley of La Grande Chartreuse. Within a few minutes, I was sitting at a perfectly laid table, with a snow-white cloth, the warm October sun reflected from the wine glasses, the porcelain plates and the silver in the garden of the Auberge of the Flowering Hearth. . . . A bright Alpine Crepy was poured, flashing in the sunlight. A plate was placed before me with a feather-light soufflé of the local Alpine velvety rich Beaufort cheese, accented by farm butter churned this morning. My story had started…”
“The cuisine of this Auberge is built on the foundation of the local products from the surrounding countryside. The meats are from animals which roam on these slopes and birds which fly among these trees. The fish are from these mountain lakes. The fruits and vegetables, from these farms... This is the source of the sense of unity one feels flowing through each meal — and from one meal to the next.”
“[Mademoiselle Vivette] would serve, at a table in the dining room, her basic snack meal available, in an emergency, at almost any hour of the day or night—Le Gouteron pour le Motoriste. It consisted of home-baked rustic-style walnut bread, locally churned butter, a platter of paper-thin slices of mountain-cured sun-dried ham, locally made fresh with goats’ milk cheese, some of Mademoiselle Ray’s superbly light miniature fresh fruit tartlets, a carafe of the house white wine, and coffee.”
“There is one other Golden Rule in Mademoiselle Ray's kitchen. She follows (and does not try to overthrow) Nature's natural and perfect feeding cycle. She accepts the fundamental law that the right food always comes at the right time. By submitting to this natural cycle of the seasons, she revels in a cornucopia of delicacy and variety. She joyously prepares the first wild mushrooms after the snows. The first spring lamb, the first bright-green asparagus... She happily revels in the flood of summer fruits... each month has its special meaning in her kitchen. June brings the crayfish from the rivers in the high valleys. October, the game birds and venison. December, the geese. The cycle of the year is a feast for every season."