|Five Books for Food Lovers 2020|
I really wasn’t sure I was going to compile a book list for 2020. In this strangest of years, new publications have necessarily been rather low-key. A shame for the new authors in particular. But I took a look at what had caught my attention this year and thought; well, the stack is pretty damn fine. So here it is.
There’s a book that will make you think about what is right under your nose; one that is a celebration of ten years of collaboration and friendship through food; and a Classic in a similar vein that was published almost 25 years ago. There’s a myth-busting book to make you question what you are fed; and a guide to bread-making that will help you perfect that sourdough habit you acquired over the past 10 months when the kitchen took on more importance.
The ancient Greek word for smell or odour is Osme. From this Harold McGee derives his word Osmocosm to describe the thousands of molecules that combine to make up our world of smells. Smells from the routine - wet pavement or cut grass - through the remarkable - vanilla and truffles - to the challenging whiff of swamplands and durians. The nice and the not so nice. In this, his 4th doorstep of a book, McGee’s stated aim is to provide encouragement to become a “smell explorer” and enrich the food life of his readers.
Most things in the world are made up of a mixture of molecules. The distinctive smells of different foods come from their different combination of airborne molecules, known as volatiles from the Latin ‘to fly’. A gooseberry smell is not just one smell but many. McGee lays down these smells as grassy, mushroom, pineapple, apple, and floral, and tells you what those molecule are if you want to know – hexenal, octenol, ethyl etc.
But first, there’s a meal to be had. In the Preface McGee recounts the experience of “My First Grouse” as a way of explaining the intense feelings and memories a smell can provoke. In 600 pages he explains puzzles like why fermented anchovies smell of ham; how orange peel comes to have a waxy, paraffin odour; and why green tea evokes the seashore. How our response to androstinone - the smell of sweat or pork - depends on our particular gene family and why some people dislike the sulphurous smell of coffee or onions and some don’t (depends on the amount of copper in your nose!) You may never smell in quite the same way again. This is a book to dive into if you are curious about “the world aswirl right under our noses”.
A book of recipes and stories based on more than 10 years of cooking and friendships played out in and around the four tiny canal-side kiosks in north east London that make up Towpath, the cafe. Co-owners Lori de Mori and Laura Jackson and their team serve up good unpretentious seasonal food in a unique setting with generosity and warmth. The café is open only from late March to early November as its location is no place to linger after the golden autumn days are done. The opening and closing of Towpath are seasonal markers for locals, though in this craziest of stop-start years our touchstones are somewhat skewed.
This is a book a lot of people, in London and beyond, have been waiting for and it was well worth the wait, I think. But this isn’t just a book for those who miss the cafe for those three months of the year. There is writing and recipes to relish whether you know Towpath or not.
Lori de Mori provides the ‘Stories’ in the book, and undoubtedly they will resonate with regulars in particular, but there is a love and appreciation of people on these pages that everyone can relate to. And then there’s Laura Jackson’s food both comforting and full of interest. Recipes for Peposo, a three-hour traditional Italian stew; a dish of braised lentils, beetroot and ricotta that is endlessly adaptable; and ones like Mozzarella, pickled radicchio and pangrattato that can be put together in a few minutes if you take Laura’s advice and get organised. I was so happy to find Rosie Syke’s Egg & Bacon Pie in here, and the Armenian Spice Cake recipe Laura was given by chef Davo Cook (Moro, Bocca di Lupo and 40 Maltby Street) who I’ve missed so much since he returned to Australia. Then there’s the Towpath breakfast dish of Fried eggs with caramelised sage and chilli butter which I intend to cook more than once over this strangest of Christmases. Oh, and Asparagus with Ajo Blanco to dream about making come spring. There’s a lot to love in this book.
|Lulu’s Provençal Table by Richard Olney|
LULU’S PROVENÇAL TABLE by Richard Olney
First published in 1994, Richard Olney’s ‘Lulu’s Provençal Table’ probably needs little introduction. It’s a book most people interested in food and food books know about and speak of with fondness, some with reverence. Well, it’s a Richard Olney, after all. An American who moved to France in the 1950s, Olney studied and documented all he learned of the French cuisine and wines he loved so much in several books regarded as culinary classics. The book is Olney’s love letter to Lulu and the whole Peyraud family, owners of the Domaine Tempier Vineyard in Bandol, close to where Olney lived in Provence from 1961 until his death in 1999.
Starting with an introduction to the Peyraud family, the vineyard and the wines, Olney soon moves on to the food cooked, at their home by Lulu Peyraud, from an appetising list of seasonal Provencal menus to Lulu’s Recipes – surely an influence on Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse menus. Waters was a friend of both Richard Olney and Lulu Peyraud and she wrote the Forward to this edition. As the flyleaf states, “This is classic French country cooking, featuring everyday ingredients cooked with respect for their nature and flavour.” The method and ritual of a dish of Bouillabaisse takes up 6 pages but all the simple classic dishes are here from Endives Braissées (Braised Endives) to Lapin à la Moutarde (Rabbit Stew with mustard). At the heart of Lulu Peyraud’s kitchen were local ingredients – some grown, some found in the surrounding countryside, and those bought straight from the fishermen’s landings or butchers’ slabs.
It’s a book for romantics but could also be a book for our times, I think. It was a huge omission from my bookshelf, and one I was determined to correct this year. Lulu Peyraud died in October this year at the age of 102.
The sub-title of this book, “Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told About Food is Wrong”, makes clear this is a myth-busting work. Here, Tim Spector, Professor of Epidemiology and expert in personalised medicine and the gut microbiome, examines the lack of good science behind many medical and government food recommendations. He also looks at the enormous influence the food industry has over our food policies.
Starting with the myths around food we grew up with – fish is brain-food, meat gives you big muscles, never skip breakfast, etc – which are not backed-up by science. He goes on to explain why calorie-counting doesn’t add up, examines our obsession with vitamin supplements, the rise in sugar-free (artificially sweetened) foods, and the demonisation of coffee, meat and alcohol. There’s a chapter on the importance of food for mood as well as physical health; one on why veganism isn’t the healthiest choice; and another on why local food isn’t always the best choice (a tough one for me to face up to).
The conclusion is a chapter on How to Eat – a mere 10 pages plus a 12-point plan that takes up a whole page and ends with the encouragement to ‘educate yourself and the next generation in the importance of real food’. The book covers a lot of ground in about 240 pages and recognises not everything is black and white. However, by informing ourselves and questioning what we are told, we are better equipped to make our own choices rather than swallow those food fads and myths we are spoon-fed.
When I started making my own naturally leavened bread I relied completely on the Tartine Bread book – yes I did make the starter, which took 9 days. I put my faith completely in Chad Robertson’s uncompromising method of bread making. And the results were mostly pretty good. But, as with most subjects, one book and one point of view is not enough. I needed another to help me understand better what was going on - why a loaf didn’t always turn out the way I expected it to and what I could do to achieve consistency. This led me to Vanessa Kimbell’s The Sourdough School book – published in 2017 and the book my fellow-bakers invariably recommended. Not only does the author go into plenty of detail about Starters, Leaven, Mixing, Proving and Baking in step-by-step sections but also she tackles digestibility and nutrition issues that have a bearing on our gut microbes and health. The recipes take you from the basic Classic white sourdough boule through to much more interesting bakes like Smoked kibbled rye & wild cherry. There are also plenty of ideas for using ‘discard’ starter, which no bread baker likes to waste. Helpful and inspiring.