Here we are, entering another December with countries around the world in various stages of restrictions and lockdowns with the inevitable challenges a global pandemic entails. At this time, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has found books more important to life than ever. Here are my top 5 ‘food’ books for 2021. As usual there are new ones, a book I’ve been wanting to buy for years, and one that has more than earned it’s place on my bookshelf over the, well, decades.
First the recently published books, only one of which has actual recipes - partly due to the fact that a couple of others I might have bought have not yet appeared in the bookshops I’ve been supporting. Maybe I’ll find them in 2022:
English Pastoral by James Rebanks
James Rebanks' follow up book to his phenomenally successful The Shepherd’s Life, English Pastoral, takes you behind the beautiful scenery of the Lake District into the raw realities of life in one of our rural farming communities. It chronicles three generations of a family and their life on a Lake District farm starting with the author’s Grandfather, working in an ancient agricultural landscape with a variety of crops, grazing land, meadows and hedgerows teeming with wildlife. Rebanks takes the reader through the last days of working the land in harmony with nature, through the post-war decades of intensification of farming and the devastating effect it has had on the natural world. By the time the author had inherited the farm, rural landscapes were being brought close to collapse and communities were being lost. On the family farm stone barns had crumbled, birds had disappeared from the sky and wildlife had become a rare sight. Rebanks looked to the past to try to restore life to the landscape - putting farming and nature back together is how he sees it - and leave a legacy for the future. By restoring love and pride in a place, Rebanks believes it may still be possible to build a new pastoral, “somewhere decent for us all”.
James Rebanks has very firm views and not everyone agrees with his approach. He has reintroduced native cattle to improve his pastures and under his stewardship there are wildflowers in the meadows, birds in the skies and wildlife in the hedgerows on a productive family farm. His Instagram posts can make farming life look wonderfully bucolic, full of beautiful robust Herdwick Sheep and Belted Galloway cattle, but his words on the real state of farming in the UK and beyond can bring you back to earth with a thump. He believes passionately that with respect for the old ways and understanding of the complexities of farming for the future, change is achievable. This is a heartfelt cry for a healthier countryside by learning from the past to go forward into the future.
English Pastoral has already won the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing 2021 and it’s fitting that it was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Writing 2021. An important work, beautifully written and destined to be a classic, I think.
|Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino|
Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino
Eating to Extinction is subtitled ‘The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them’. It is very much a book for our times, I feel and has parallels with my first book choice, English Pastoral. Inspired by Saladino’s look into The Ark of Taste, an on-line catalogue for foods that are considered to be on the ‘Red List’, that is 'endangered/at risk of extinction'. You may have - as I did - caught Saladino's BBC Radio 4 Series on this subject. This book highlights how we are losing diversity in all the crops that feed the world and explains how a global food system that relies on a shrinking choice of plants and varieties is at great risk of succumbing to disease and pestilence. We should all be listening to this. And, at a time when science is making important connections between what we eat and how it can affect our physical and mental health, it’s a timely reminder that, as Saladino says, farming, food, environment, diet and health are all interconnected.
It’s a shock to read that of the 6,000 plant species humans are known to have eaten over time, the vast majority of us now consume only 9 – rice, wheat and maize accounting for 50% of all calories we consume. Fascinating to be informed that the stomach of a 2,500 year old man found preserved in a Danish peat bog showed his last meal had been a porridge made up of 40+ different plants. And heartening to know that in the present day there is a community of hunter-gatherers in East Africa – the Hazda – who have a link with that peat bog man. They eat from a potential wild menu of 800 plant and animal species.
Through chapters looking at Wild foods, through Cereals, Vegetables, Meat etc we are introduced to – and there will be foods here you’ve never heard of – Murnong, a nutritious root from Australia; Kavilca Wheat from Anatolia; the Ugandan Kayinja Banana (how I’d love to eat a tasty banana again); and, Wild Forest Coffee from Harenna, Ethiopia.
Saladino makes it clear he is not calling for a return to “some kind of halcyon past”, rather he’s asking the reader to consider what we can learn from the past to go forward and “inhabit the world now and in the future”. There is an Epilogue titled ‘Think Like a Hazda’, which poses the question: Are we being good ancestors? One last quote from Saladino: “In an age in which not just food but the entire human experience is converging into a mass of homogeneity, the Hazda remind us that there are many ways to live and be in the world.”
|An A-Z of Pasta by Rachel Roddy|
An A-Z of Pasta by Rachel Roddy
First, I have to declare a little involvement in this book, in so far as I know the author, Rachel Roddy, and tested some of the recipes to get this book over the line in these strange and difficult times. But I love this book and because of that I wanted it on my 'Favourite Books' page, so, what to do? Put it on, of course. Now you know my partiality and to continue reading or not is up to you.
This is a book about pasta, that most Italian of foods, written by an Englishwoman who has lived in Rome with her Sicilian partner for 16 years, time spent learning, cooking and eating pasta. Like her previous two books, An A-Z of Pasta comes out of an inquisitive mind, a love of the food culture of Italy and a passion for pasta shared with its makers and everyone who cooks this staple food pretty much every day. There are 50 of the hundreds of pasta shapes covered here and over 120 recipes - as the author says, she knows her limitations but she has put in the work and that shows through in this book. READ MORE ......
This book was a gift from the author who is a friend.
The book I finally got round to buying:
|Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book|
Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book
It took a spoonful of sublime Lemon Chutney to wake me up to the fact that although the name Margaret Costa was not unknown to me, there was none of her writing on my bookshelf. And so I am now the owner of Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book, complete with that particular recipe. First published in 1970, this was Costa’s only major book. She died in 1999 but she remains hugely influential with fans like Simon Hopkinson, Nigel Slater and Delia Smith, who wrote the forward to my 2020 Grub Street edition.
I love that the recipes in this book are presented by season – thinking of what foods are actually available in Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter is fundamental to my own cooking. Like Costa I look forward to the first rhubarb and gooseberries of the year, the progression to summer and autumn arrivals, then the winter brassicas and root vegetables of winter.
Margaret Costa became known for her articles and recipes in The Times colour magazine, later writing for other publications like the American Gourmet magazine. I knew her name mainly from references made by chefs and writers to dishes like Lemon Surprise Pudding (which you’ll find in the section on Winter, of course, when the new season citrus arrives); Sorrel Soup for Spring; Tipsy Cake (for Autumn); and, Kippers cooked in a jug of hot water to keep them juicy and leave no lingering smell (works a treat);
The recipes are straightforward, some classics, some shortcuts, all sound. The book is already a favourite.
Lastly, that book from my shelf which continue to be invaluable:
|The Roux Brothers on Patisserie|
by Michel & Albert Roux
The Roux Brothers on Patisserie by Michel & Albert Roux
First published in 1986, this book by brothers Michel and Albert Roux taught me how to make pastry, for which I will be forever grateful. The Roux brothers shouldn’t need any introduction, so, I won’t spend time on that.
The Roux Brothers on Patisserie starts with basic recipes for pastry and dough, sponge and dessert bases, creams, sauces, fruit coulis and jelly and proved to be a great education. The book is stuffed with recipes for all the classic French Patisserie: tarts, cold and hot sweets & desserts, ice creams & sorbets, canapés & petits fours, tea & picnic cakes, and even a section on sugar work (not really my thing).
I have never come across a better recipe for a Tarte au Citron than the one in this book. And while I cannot ever see myself making a Croquembouche, I can marvel at the photograph of the spectacular one in here and know it is not beyond possibility. Invaluable.