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On the Flavor Frontier | Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford

After traveling around the planet in pursuit of authentic recipes, two Canadian cookbook authors re-create those flavors on the wood-burning stove in their old-fashioned country kitchen.

Fish sauce. Mustard seeds. Smoked paprika. Not your typical country-cabin pantry. Not your typical country cabin. Four years ago, Canadian authors and photographers Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford undertook two mammoth projects simultaneously: writing a new round-the-world cookbook and renovating a hundred-year-old cabin. The book is done. The cabin is a work in progress. Both reflect the couple's eclectic, almost anthropological appreciation of people, places, objects and food.

Out last fall, Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition Around the World is a follow-up to Duguid and Alford's award-winning books on flat breads, rice and Asian food. A pastiche of recipes, photos and anecdotes, it jumps from Canada to Vietnam to Italy to seemingly all points in between. Here's a recipe for Farsi tandoor bread. There's a recipe for mushroom strudel. A photo of loaves rising in a bakery in Crete contrasts with an image of salt beds evaporating in Guérande, in France. Words and photos reflect an appreciation of natural beauty.

That's how Duguid and Alford cook—naturally, beautifully. Long-simmered stews from France, pungent salads from Thailand, seeded flat breads from the Middle East. The food they make at home isn't always entirely authentic, but the flavors echo those of faraway lands. For instance, their three-bean soup resembles congee, the Chinese rice porridge, enhanced with cauliflower and thyme. The beans cook until some burst, making the soup thick and creamy. For their kouign amann—a sweet, flaky pastry from Brittany—butter folded into a rich, yeasty dough melts and browns as it bakes, producing an aroma that's both dreamy and homey.

The cabin itself is a pastiche of sorts. Two hours northwest of Toronto, where Duguid and Alford live, it sits on 90 acres of farmland. The couple rescued planks for the walls from an old barn on the property and salvaged pane-glass windows from the Toronto streets. "Jeff is a good trash picker," Duguid says proudly. "We both are."

"Picking" is a good way to describe how Duguid and Alford produce their books. On the road sometimes for months at a stretch, they cull stories and recipes from the people they meet along the way. It takes time. In order to get the relaxed, intimate photos and cooking secrets that are their trademark, they first have to make friends. "Basically, we just go someplace and hang out," Alford explains. Invitations to dinner or breakfast or tea often follow. Then they peek in the kitchen.

Open the door to their cabin—the door too was rescued from someone's trash—and the first thing you see is a wood-burning stove, the kind you'd find at a Canadian tree-planting camp. Bought new, it was made by Enterprise Fawcett in Sackville, New Brunswick. The stove, on a platform of old bricks, is the cabin's only source of heat, and its central position signals that cooking takes priority over all other activities. Their guests are delighted by that. So are their teenage sons, Dominic and Tashi, who travel with their parents as unofficial tasters. "Our kids will try anything," Duguid says.

The rest of the kitchen is hidden behind the stove, tucked into a corner of the room. The cast-iron sink and maple butcher-block countertop were both scavenged; another counter was fashioned from slate harvested at a nearby quarry. Open shelves are stacked with plates, bowls and utensils from Duguid and Alford's travels. From Laos, they carried back wooden plates fashioned from cross-sections of tree trunks. From Myanmar came elongated bamboo bowls used by the Karen people, who live near the mountainous Thai border. Thailand or China was the likely source of a three-inch-thick tamarind-wood cutting board they found on a Toronto street. Alford spotted the jade-green Boontonware melamine dishes at a Pennsylvania flea market. The dinner plates are divided into compartments, "so your mashed potatoes don't touch your meat loaf," he says, laughing.

Although the decision to buy the cabin had nothing to do with work, it's certainly affected how Duguid and Alford cook. The temperature inside the stove fluctuates considerably, getting as high as 500 degrees. Circular openings on top cradle a wok perfectly, assuring success with stir-fries, and hold the rounded bottoms of Indian brass pots snugly, for easy simmering. Baking is another matter. Robin's Bread, a dense whole wheat loaf that bakes in an electric oven in 50 minutes, might be done in 40, or 70.

The temperature outside the cabin fluctuates too. "When it snows big, it snows big," Duguid says. The closest store is almost four miles away, so the cabin is always stocked with staples and condiments from around the world. To liven up the three-bean soup, for instance, Duguid and Alford suggest a dash of fish sauce or a sprinkle of Parmesan. This flexibility is part of the reason their recipes are so approachable.

The cabin and the property attracted Duguid and Alford to the area, but they lucked into a strong local community they find equally rewarding. Amish and Mennonite families populate the countryside. A growing number of organic and biodynamic farmers work the land. The Duguid-Alford family has joined 100 others in a Local Economic Trading System (L.E.T.S.), through which they exchange goods and services. "This community has the highest concentration of people living the way they've intended to live that we've ever met," Duguid says.

A cabin in Ontario may seem a ho-hum destination, but to Duguid and Alford, it feels almost exotic. "The house is just two hours from Toronto by car, but we feel like we could have been in an airplane," Alford says. And the experience of being there makes their cooking even more rewarding. "Now when we travel, we look at food and wonder how to make it in our cabin," Duguid says. "It gives us eyes to see things in a new way."

Mitchell Davis is the director of publications at the James Beard Foundation and the author of several cookbooks, including the forthcoming Kitchen Sense.

Published March 2004
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