The Abbey of Port-Royal-des-Champs and a Book Review: Ratio

Phew, it’s been hot. I’m not complaining though; it’s nice to have summer weather. I think I mentioned in my last post that we were currently in the throes of tidying up the apartmen, room by room. A summer cleaning if you will. Well, yesterday saw us move on to the kitchen. That was… an eye-opener. I now have the immense satisfaction of saying that every single drawer, every single cupboard, and every single shelf is clean, tidy, and organised. That’s not to say that it was in terrible shape before. but you know how it is. Over time, you accumulate “stuff”. Maybe you look in your badly organised cupboard and think you’re out of flour, so you go off and buy two more bags, only to later discover you actually had 3 bags already, hiding in the back, behind a load of tins, or maybe you notice that your favourite coffee cup has developed a hairline crack which causes coffee to seep out, just a tiny bit when full, but you think “hey, this is my favourite cup, I’ll just put it in the cupboard”. As you can see – “stuff” has a tendency to accumulate.

After much tidying, and four enormous trash bags later, I can now say that the kitchen is “done”. Next up is the hallway, with the large floor-to-ceiling cupboards, but that is a job for another day. This post has no recipe today – it’s been one month since my last book review so I thought it’s high time for another, but I’ll get to that in just a moment. As this post is by default a bit shy of photos I thought instead I’d share some photos from a trip I made last night (this was after I’d managed to detach my fingertip from my palm, from where I’d managed to superglue it during a bit of “home repair”).

A cornfield

You know what I love? Fields of wheat. There’s something soothing and peaceful about an enormous field of wheat, and when the wind is blowing they have an almost supernatural quality, with the ears blowing this way and that like some enormous woven blanket, flapping up and down. Sadly, the wind was not blowing. My plans of taking a video of the field in a summer’s breeze, and capturing some clouds scudding across the sky were foiled; Not a cloud was to be seen in the sun-kissed evening sky, and not a single gust of wind could be felt.

Sun setting on the stream

I’d been wanting to revisit this place – a local abbey, Port-Royal-des-Champs – for some time. The original abbey housed an order of Cistercian nuns, and was first established in 1204. Definitely worth a visit if you fancy a bit of escapism and relaxation. The area is surrounded by farmland and parking up and enjoying a picnic there or just soaking up the quiet solitude is like stepping back in time.

The Abbey

In case you’re thinking “hang on, that building above doesn’t look like it dates from 1204!” it’s because, sadly, the original abbey was destroyed – I should love to know how it would look today. There is a museum near the site of the ruins, seen above. I still haven’t got around to visiting the this part itself, but from what I’ve seen they have wonderful gardens which will no doubt yield another batch of photos from that trip one day. There is a house connected to this. I’m not sure who lives there… maybe the curator of the museum – in any case someone extremely rich, or extremely lucky, or both. While there I could see the family sitting on the grass in their garden enjoying the summer evening. Me, jealous? Never!

Field o' beans

I had wanted to take a video of the sun setting… one of these long ones with about sixty minutes of video all speeded up to fit into about one minute, but of course, I had underestimated just how darn long the sun takes to set in the peak of summer. In the end I got about 30 minutes of video where the sun moved about a millimetre across the sky. Hardly the next box-office hit! The picnic consumed, we had to start heading back for I had things to prepare for my next dish, which I’ll post on Monday (hopefully… it’s so darn hot these days… right now, I’m lying on my couch trying hard not to overheat and sometimes writing is the last thing on my mind!). Take care everyone – enjoy my review!

Book Review: Ratio

[amazon_image id=”1416571728″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking[/amazon_image]

I thought I’d write about this book today because once again, like the last review, it’s not strictly a recipe book. I’ve never written a review of a recipe book before… I wouldn’t really know what to write right now, so I’m easing into that hobby gently. This is another book that seeks to arm you with knowledge. Important knowledge. No, scratch all that – some of the most important knowledge you could possibly learn. For those of you who bake, you’ll know that baking is a science. You cannot be nearly so blasé with a pound cake recipe as you can with a tomato sauce for example. The fact is, if you add fifteen tomatoes and a jar of olives, instead of ten tomatoes and a “handful” of olives to a sauce… what’s the worst that’s going to happen? Not a great deal, right? You’ll still have a sauce, it’ll still be delicious (assuming you’re an olive fan), no problem. Baking though… that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

While many baking and pastry or dough-based recipes can be modified a great deal, you always have to start with the “base”. As long as you have the core recipe right you’re usually assured that you’ll end up with something halfway edible at the end. Mess with the basic recipe though and… well, for those who have thrown caution to the wind and changed a little bit here, a little bit there, or “hey, maybe I don’t actually need to measure this out, I’ll just guess it”… if you’ve done this enough you’ll no doubt know that you don’t quite end up with a success every time!

You can probably see where I’m going, right? With a name like “Ratio”, the book by now should be fairly self explanatory. The author, Michael Ruhlman presents to us a guide to many, many common and not so common recipes but as I’ve mentioned – this isn’t just a recipe book. This isn’t a book about how to make the dish… this is a dish about the components. Five parts of this and three parts of this, or two parts of this and one part of that. Master these measurements and you’ll never have a problem whipping up perfect pasta, pancakes, bread or cakes. It’s not just baked goods and doughs that are covered though – there are sections on sauces, meats, even vinaigrettes. Every chapter begins with the core ratios. Sure, no-ones forcing you to adhere to them, but they’re a great starting point on which to build. Ruhlman then follows up with some suggestions in the way of recipes as you progress into the chapter, you know – just in case you’re still stumped for inspiration.

My one bugbear is that Ruhlman’s sample recipes haven’t been converted for the European market; as a result they’re all in ounces and cups. Volumetric measurements, for me, make little sense, but I have to be honest – it’s not the recipes that interested me about the book, but the wonderful ratios, useful in so many situations. Take for instance the wonderful “1-2-3” basic cookie ratio: 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat, 3 parts flour. Learn that, remember that, and you can create a million types of cookie. Besides, if you’ve grown up using cups then all this wouldn’t bother you at all.

Like the last book I reviewed, this is great for both novices, getting started in the kitchen, and experienced enthusiasts alike. After all, you can never know too much, right?

Ratio“, by Michael Ruhlman is available from all good bookstores and Amazon.

[amazon_enhanced asin=”1416571728″ /]


  1. says

    Good to know you’re enjoying all the heat of summer. Enjoy the warmth because as you know, the tide will turn! I love your images – so different to what we see in Sydney. I love the one of the sunset. The book sounds good but I do love it when the measurements are put in all the different conversions xx

    • says

      Thanks Charlie – definitely, to be honest, I think I’m quite looking forward to autumn and winter… I have to say I’m definitely more a winter person!

  2. says

    That’s a great little trip, Charles, and the photos are gorgeous. I wonder what you had for your picnic? Great book review, I think I’ll order this book, and the other one you mentioned today! Do you have measuring cups? Let me know and I’ll bring you some in the fall when I come to Europe!

    • says

      Hi Eva – for the picnic… we had a pasta salad I threw together which wasn’t particularly great alas, but we followed it up with some apricot, blackcurrant and rhubarb cake which my wife made and then some fresh sliced pineapple :)

      I have measuring “cups” for decilitres, but not for actual “cup” cups. If you could bring over a little set that would be wonderful. I’d find it so useful! Thanks for the offer :)

      • says

        Yes, I have borrowing privileges in two counties since I live close to the county line. I had an opportunity to buy Ratio at a huge discount last October and bought some other stuff instead. I’ll get it eventually.

  3. says

    I would love that book Charles….knowing some basic ratios can make so much difference in cooking. In fact ‘a pinch of this and dash of that’ possibly is the work of ratios of our subconscious mind.

    Cleaning can be a big time chore…..I discovered two bags of semolina recently, after adding another bag to the collection. I cook it maybe twice a year. What am I to do!

    • says

      Hi Minnie, totally agree – once you know some basic ratios then you can do so much… really useful!

      As for the semolina – haha, what you can do is make bread, if it’s finely ground. If it’s not, maybe blast it in a food processor for a few minutes to grind it more finely. I made this bread recipe a while back which is really nice.

  4. says

    Thank you for another lovely set of photos. It’s a shame that your planned shots didn’t come about. Winter wheat is one of the crops in our area (85-90 bushels per acre on average as it has been drier than desired locally) as well as soy … lots and lots of soy. And corn. Of course you have to get out of the city to see them. :)

    After having held off from buying cookbooks for a time (I already have a nice assortment but end up getting most of my recipes on line) I just had a copy of Culinaria Hungary in paperback delivered yesterday and look forward to learning more about some of the classic recipes that I’ve heard of from my Hungarian SIL. I just wish there was a Romanian edition in this comprehensive series.

    I’m more inclined to make a recipe based on visuals in a cookbook rather than a technical guide like this one so I’ll give it a miss. :)

    • says

      Thanks A_… that cookbook looks really nice – I hope you’ll be posting some things soon from there?! 10x 5* reviews too…!

      For the book, it’s not so much a cookbook. It has recipes but I’ve never made any, and to be honest nor probably would I. I just find the ratio instructions very, very useful in helping me develop my own recipes and techniques.

      • says

        I’ve seen other bloggers recommend the book so I understand how it can be useful for innovative foodies like you. :)

        As to making something out of the Hungarian cookbook, I really should. Of course, I sort of hinted to Eva that I’d make something out of my tapas cookbook which I’ve had for over 20 yrs. One day, right?

        In the meantime, I find recipes on line, like so many of us, and my poor cookbooks sit lonely and unopened on the bookshelves.

        PS: Just made and posted something you might be interested in seeing when you get a chance. :)

        • says

          Thanks A_ – I checked it out as you saw… really nice! Looking forward to seeing your wonderful trips through your new book as well!

  5. says

    Beautiful photos, Charles. I have never heard of this place. You have made me think in horror of my own kitchen which needs to be tidied up for such a long time… Maybe when it gets colder because I feel really lazy when the weather is hot.
    The book sounds really interesting. The cookie ratio makes me think about my recent coconut cream find that I have modified keeping the same ratios (I still have some versions to post!). It was a great choice!

    • says

      Hi Sissi, I think you’d really like the book – I know you said to me once that you always like to modify recipes. I’m so similar to you, though I’ve had some disasters before when I modified it too much. Perhaps you’d also experienced the sadness of a “fail-cake”. It’s why the book is so useful I feel… it educates you about the basics, but fills you with inspiration for all sorts of ways to build on the base recipe.

  6. says

    So how did you get your finger unglued from your palm? I’m always so afraid of doing that. And a good cleaning sounds fantastic! Well, not the work part, but our house/kitchen totally need it. I did one earlier in the year, but with the kids home all summer it’s getting time to do it again. I love, love, love your photos. The wheat field is beautiful and I’d love to be strolling down that road right now! :)

    • says

      Hi Kristy – ah, well, at first I thought I’d try to cut it away using a knife. That didn’t work and actually hurt like hell, so then I tried scissors but they were too thick. I ran it under water for couple of minutes which made the skin a bit soggy and with a bit of jiggling and gently pulling, eventually I could pull my pinkie slowly away. I felt so stupid though… I was just sticking the corner of a broken tray back on and when I was done, I put the tray down, pleased with my handiwork, went to open my hand and it was like “ah, one of my fingers doesn’t seem to follow the rest of them”. A great reminder of just how fantastic, but also terrifying, an invention superglue really is!

  7. says

    Hi Charles, summer cleaning is not an easy task simply because it’s too hot, so I leave this for the colder months. But after reading this post I want to clean something too now… :)
    Your photos look lovely, especially fields of wheat. I agree, it has something magical, I can look at it for a very long time… Also the ivy over the fence of the local abbey looks charming…
    Now, the book review. When I got to that point I started to laugh (respectfully). Remember what your respond was to me after your last book review? “I wonder if you have the one I will write about next month too… it’s another awesome book which I think so many people would find really useful!” Guess what? I am reading the Ratio right now, I am on page 73, Quick Cakes… Isn’t it a strange yet funny coincidence?! I still can’t believe it!
    Anyway, your review is wonderful, and I am with you: would be nice to have measurements converted into metric system. Otherwise the book is brilliant. The one I am reading is from the library, but I am thinking on buying one. The basics, that Ruhlman explains in Ratio, would make any cook’s life happier and easier… :)
    Have a lovely weekend!

    • says

      Haha, what a coincidence – I had a strange feeling you would have heard of it at least before when you wrote your last comment!

      I’m not really sure which I will write about next month. Will have to see. I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos… it was such a relaxing, peaceful place. Really feels like stepping back in time when you go there!

  8. says

    Charles, any chance you could make your way to our place once you’ve finished all the rooms there? You’ve inspired me to clean out my cupboards when we get back from vacation. Every time I make something I think “boy it’s a good thing I’m not taking photos of these cupboards.” I’ll be in touch when we get back….loved the pictures!

    • says

      Thanks Barb – how much longer will you be on vacation for? I’m very envious – my week off is almost over. I have Monday off and then it’s back to the grind, sigh :(

  9. says

    Sounds like my kind of book, love to cook using ratios. Must check to see if it is available at my library.
    Gorgeous photos, the second one would look great framed and hanging on the wall.

    • says

      Thanks Norma – I could send you the full size copy of the photograph if you wanted? You could then print it out to your heart’s content :)

      • says

        I would love it, that’s so kind of you, thanks.
        Did you see my post on kohlrabi? Thought of you when I was writing the post. You could grow kohlrabi in containers on your balcony.

        • says

          Hi Norma – no problem, I’ll send it on in just a few moments :) I did indeed see your post about kohlrabi… it’s such a funny looking vegetable I have to say. Would be fun to try and grow too!

  10. says

    I’m jealous of your home and kitchen clean-up and you’re right, there’s nothing more satisfying than pulling open a tidy drawer…nesting at its best (did I mention that I started ironing pyjamas a month before I was expecting our first?! ;-)).

    Your photos of Port-Royal-des-Champs are positively dreamy Charles and thank you for the book review – I’m in full throttle summer romance novel mode right now but I’ll be needing to come back to earth sometime in the fall no doubt ;-).

  11. says

    Well, maybe your videos didn’t come out to your liking, but the still pictures are lovely, Charles! Thanks for reminding me about this book. I remember when it first came out, and I’m a fan of Michael Ruhlman, but I still haven’t read it. It’s exactly a book I need to read, though, as I’d like to experiment with baking more, but have no idea about ratios for that. Thanks for the review and the tip! Now, would you like to come over and clean out MY kitchen?

    • says

      Thanks Betsy – it was a real bummer about the video but not too worry… another time maybe :)

      I would happily come and clean your kitchen, though you’ll need to pay the airfare, food and accomodation costs! You’d get an “extreme clean” of the kitchen though for the price! 😀

  12. says

    I enjoyed your experience of “cleaning out”! Bobby and I recently spent a month cleaning out the entire house and garage, then had a very successful garage sale. It feels SO good to have all that “stuff” out of here. Our sunroom doubled in size. :) Port-Royal-des-Champs looks like an absolutely gorgeous place. So different than the historical places here in New Mexico. Thanks for turning us on to that book! It’s funny because I didn’t start measuring until I started my blog. Amounts were more in ratios. I’m going to have to pick up this book. Definitely, one that I can relate to. Great post my friend.

    • says

      Hi MJ – It does feel incredibly good to “declutter” doesn’t it? I’m going to have to try so hard to make sure I continue in the same vein of “keeping it tidy”.

      So glad you enjoyed the photos of the abbey – I hope I can share some photos from an old castle in England one day too. Next time I go and visit my parents I hope I can go there and take some photos!

  13. says

    Whn I first discovered ratio, I waxed lyrical about it too! very useful for someone like me who just can’t rmb/follow recipes when precision is impt, e.g. abking. Still live by his 3-2-1 ratio for pie pastry (:

    The photos are lovely charles!

    • says

      Hi Shuhan – glad you enjoyed the photos… great to see another ratio fan too… I love how things are broken down in such a simple way… easy to remember and makes dishes very scalable too!

  14. says

    I always love when you share landscape pictures. :-) Good book review. To be honest with you, if I read English books, you will see me sleeping after 5 minutes, and I’m not kidding… I’m actually surprised how much I can read English-written food blog for hours without falling asleep! 😉

    • says

      Thanks Angie – I kind of want to jump straight into the field but it’s not very nice to the poor farmers to destroy their crops :/

  15. says

    Hi Charles, It has to be hard for you that so many cookbooks and many of your readers post recipes based on cup measurements. It is bad enough that we use ingredients that my be impossible for your to find. I enjoyed your lovely photos.

    • says

      Hi Karen, I actually started making a conversion list some time ago here – it helps a little. I can also figure things out in a roundabout way because 1 cup is about 2.2 decilitres. I can measure it out that way, and then weigh it to get a result. I can’t understand how cups are so popular for measuring… it seems so inaccurate and difficult! 😀

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