'The City Baker's Guide to County Living' Is as Warm as Apple Pie
Pies are not as simple as they seem.
The City Baker's Guide to Country LivingPublisher: Penguin
Length: 352 pages
Author: Louise Miller
Publication date: 2016-08
The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living is like a really good rom-com that you drink with whisky instead of wine.
The City Baker’s Guide to County Living, written by pastry chef Louise Miller, follows Olivia Rawlings, also a pastry chef, as she escapes from the Boston culinary scene after she (and her dessert flambé) accidentally set a posh dinner club aflame. Of course, she’s also escaping a couple of other things -- like the married man she’s been having an affair with.
Livvy, as most of her friends call her, and her dog Salty flee to Guthrie, Vermont, home to Livvy’s closest friend Hannah and the Sugar Maple Inn, an inn that just happens to be looking for a new pastry chef.
From here the book takes many an interesting turn. Livvy accepts the job at the Sugar Maple Inn and tries, occasionally, to fit into the Guthrie scene. She’s a fun character. One of her quirks: her ever-changing hair color. On her first day at the Sugar Maple Inn, she’s asked, “Do all the chefs in Boston have purple hair?” Livvy’s response is “Only the best ones.”
The night before Thanksgiving dinner with her potential love interest’s family, she dyes her hair green; more specifically Enchanted Forest green. She also bakes pies for the Thanksgiving feast: apple, sweet potato, bourbon pecan, cranberry, custard, chess, key lime, and a cookie crust pie filled with chocolate (just in case the other pies are too sophisticated for the kids).
In addition to being a somewhat obsessive pie maker, Livvy drinks her whiskey straight, admits she should never drink whiskey and can play a mean banjo. In her repertoire -- an entire Sex Pistols album -- just think “I am an Antichrist” with banjo accompaniment.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Livvy is often at odds with her new employer and owner of the Sugar Maple Inn Margaret Hurley, who Livvy suspects must, at one point in time, have robbed a Talbots and notes that hugging Margaret “was like hugging a day old baguette”. There’s little Miller can’t relate to food.
Of course, there's romance (sometimes unrequited), several interesting locals, a mysterious back story, some tragedy, and a villain of sorts -- because even in, or perhaps particularly in, small towns friendly competitions aren’t always so friendly.
Then there's the food. First, there are Livvy’s desserts and baked goods -- macaroons, apple galettes in puff pastry flourless chocolate tortes and muffins -- that Miller describes, usually in mouthwatering detail. But baked goods are'nt the only delicacies that make regular appearances in the book. Fresh Vermont cheese is popular as are things like corn consommé, which Livvy tells her fellow chef Alford is “like drinking a summer picnic”. And yes, the book does end with a recipe.
The story is not short on humor, either. Imagine the seemingly conservative New England Thanksgiving dinner Livvy attends with her potential love interest’s family. Livvy is asked about her mother, who spent most of her life on the road with a theatre company. Specifically, the group wants to know why Livvy didn’t travel with her mother. Livvy tries to avoid the subject by stuffing a huge amount of food in her mouth; her love interest whispers an apology; after all, it’s his family. The subject doesn’t get dropped and finally Livvy relates: “The name of the theater was the Women’s Liberation Puppet Collective… They made giant vulvas… out of papier-mâché.” At that, another guest involuntarily spits out a mouth full of white wine.
The conclusion of the storymay not hold many surprises, but the journey has a good number of interesting twists and some fun pop culture references, such as Livvy’s momentary fear the Sugar Maple Inn’s kitchen is going to resemble Sartre's No Exit. Perhaps more importantly, there’s a thoughtfulness and charm that makes the book a pleasure to read a second time. This is not to say that Guthrie, Vermont is some type of clichéd throwback to a slower, simpler time -- there are plenty of complications in Guthrie and the lack of a decent cell signal seems to drive Livvy somewhat crazy at times.
Guthrie isn’t even as simple as its occupants might have readers believe. When Livvy is interviewing for the job at the Sugar Maple Inn, she brags that “Chocolate Gourmand magazine requested my recipe for a blood orange and sour cherry napoleon.” Margaret’s response: “We’re a simple place… Can you bake a good pie?" The next few lines, however, suggest pies are not simple things, and Margaret, although she may not be willing to admit it to Livvy, knows this all too well.
Livvy begins her interview pie by contemplating crust options: crumb, pour-through, or double crust. Conversations about apples and how best to prepare them for a pie as well as debates about the respective merits of shortening and butter quickly ensue. Later in the novel, recipes are tested and retested just to add or take away a quarter of a teaspoon of cinnamon.
Pies aren’t simple. Neither is Livvy or The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living. All three, however, are capable of warming the heart.