By Annette Gallagher Weisman
edibleASPEN—Winter, 2009

Ever since I was a young child, I’ve considered a book a treasured gift. That’s because my godfather always gave me one for my birthday, as well as a big book containing a compendium of tales for Christmas. Because he fostered my love of stories, I also listened weekdays to “Children’s Hour” on the BBC. I can still recall a woman with a prissy yet motherly voice saying, “Are you sitting comfortably? … Then I’ll begin.” I hope you’re sitting comfortably, as I’d like to tell you a story.

Once upon a time there was a lovely young girl named Cristina. One day she came across a grand chateau, not far from her home in Paris. Unbeknownst to Cristina, this magnificent landmark was built during the reign of Louis XIV and was the inspiration for Versailles. At the entrance, she was told the chateau was owned by an elderly lady, whose absent nephew was the only one who could show it to the public.

At a dinner party that night, Cristina recounted her trip and said how sad she was not to have seen the inside of the chateau. One of the guests, Patrice, asked Cristina for more details. When the young man realized she was referring to the Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte, he said not only could he show her around, but that the woman who owned it was his aunt. Cristina eventually married Patrice, became the Countess de Vogue and lived happily ever after in the chateau. (I’m not making this up!)

Happily for us the story does not end there. Aside from the chateau’s fascinating history, Cristina tells us how she became an exceptional cook with the help of her mother-in-law, who gave her a collection of notebooks containing recipes for delectable desserts. Many of these, as well as Cristina’s own recipes and those of family and friends, including Genevieve Guerlain and Hubert de Givenchy, are in the book Decadent Desserts, by the Countess de Vogue (Flammarion, $45). Thomas Dhellemmes’ lavish photographs show off the spectacular chateau, and the heavenly cakes, tarts, puds and souffles, presented on chairs and other antiques, make you want to eat the pages. For more information about this historic chateau, which now gives tours, go to Books as art, beautiful enough to display, make delightful gifts. Here are a few more by the renowned French publisher Flammarion, distributed in the U.S. by Rizzoli.

At the Crillon and at Home: Recipes by Jean-Francois Piège, by Jean-Francois Piege and Patrick Mikanowski ($65). This stylish cookbook, with forewords by Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller, features recipes from the Parisian hotel’s famous restaurant, Les Ambassadeurs, as well as Chef Piege’s own kitchen. As photographed by Grant Symon, every dish looks like a work of art, so it’s hard to tell at a glance the “homemade” from the supremely fancy. But Chef Piege assures us that at home he cooks simpler comfort food. A longtime lover of gardening and a strong proponent of using locally produced foods, Piege calls his recipes “worksheets,” with “Lego blocks” that are easy to follow. Creative cooks will enjoy putting them together or taking them apart to create different recipes.

This year’s ultimate book about wine is Distinctive Vintages, by Alain Stella, with photography by Leif Carlsson and Jean-Marc Tingaud ($200). Inside this fabulous goldgilded package are new and historical photographs, archival documents, wine labels, replica vintage postcards, ephemera and moveable pieces. Focusing on the prestigious winemaking regions of Cognac, Champagne and Bordeaux, it offers readers a rare glimpse into the legendary estates, such as Chateau d’Yquem, that produce some of the world’s greatest wines.

Speaking of the “liquid gold” beloved by such oenophiles as Thomas Jefferson, another beautifully produced book, but at a more modest price, is Yquem, by Richard Olney and Pierre Rival, with photography by Christian Sarramon ($60). The book traces the sweet white wine’s long, distinctive history and includes a foreword by Michael Broadbent, tasting notes from 1847 to 2003 by Serena Sutcliffe, M.W., and suggested menus by master chefs. Perfect for any festive occasion, Yquem aficionados will be thrilled to receive this book.

While I love the aroma of cinnamon and cloves, I never seem to have any frankincense and myrrh handy. Kidding aside, you can spice up your life and find out more about such exotica in Spices, by Fabienne Gambrelle ($30). While not as glam as a coffee table book, the two-volume set, in a box tied with a ribbon, makes an attractive gift. One volume is about the world history of spices, while the other is about the flavor, illustrated with photographs by Sophie Boussahba.

So, there you have it—special books featuring gold, frankincense and myrrh, food, wine and delicious desserts, just in time for the holidays.

Annette Gallagher Weisman is a freelance writer and a longtime part-time Aspenite. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, Annette has written for many publications, including national magazines.