Having Harold McGee, the author of On Food & Cooking and The Curious Cook: More Kitchen Science and Lore, at the Retreat as our Special Commentator was like having a culinary GPS system – whenever a question arose about ingredients, techniques or processes, all we had to do was ask Harold and we’d be set back on course. Rather than making a formal presentation to the group, the professor sat in the audience and took the microphone each time a question arose which, had someone been timing it, might have been every six minutes. It was remarkable how many questions we came up with as we exchanged ideas and more remarkable how impossible it was to stump him. Having Harold do the culinary color commentary to every presentation’s play-by-play pushed us to delve more deeply into subjects and to take ideas out onto other tracks. That everyone considered Harold a valuable resource was clear: Mr. Wizard could barely grab a glass of water without finding himself surrounded by chefs with questions.
Michael and Ariane Batterberry
Michael and Ariane Batterberry, Editor and Publisher of Food Arts Magazine, our keynote presenters, spoke to us the evening we arrived at Greystone. Tackling the topic of pastry’s history – and managing to compress hundreds of years of work into a few delicious minutes – Michael opened with a statement the truth of which was proved by the existence of the Retreat and the prestige of its participants. He declared: “After almost two centuries, cooking, which had been toil, is now art.” And it was the art of pastry and baking – lost, recovered, renewed or reinterpreted – that we would be examining. In fact, when Michael explained how the confectionery and pastry arts had moved from the Arab and Ottoman Empires to the countries of Western Europe, we realized that not only would we be delving into this migration, but that, over the course of the Retreat, we would be tasting something from almost every step of that journey.
It was Ariane Batterberry who sent us off to a champagne reception with three important things to think about: the over-sweetness of today’s American desserts; the mousse-ing of America, a trends she feels reduces desserts to nursery sweets, no matter how sophisticated they might have been when conceived; and the possibility that in America we are losing the art of baking, real baking that involves flour and produces cakes and pastries of the kind that used to be displayed on artfully arranged and now passé pastry carts. Lest anyone think Ariane was nay saying, she exclaimed: “I am your dream customer – I love desserts.” Her comments were as much a personal wish-list as an admonition from someone with great knowledge of and affection for the pastry and baking arts.