Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Five Books for Food Lovers 2015

A page from Sally Clarke 30 Ingredients
(original photograph by Tessa Traeger)

Time for my annual food-book roundup.  This year I've limited myself to five, three of which I reviewed in full earlier in the year.  It has been a pretty good year for food books, so the choice wasn't easy.  As usual, I've included one book that wasn't newly published, but let's start with those that were.  The first is a story of adapting and living with the rhythms and cycles of the year and the delicious uncomplicated food that results; next comes a book that helped me to unlearn what I thought I knew and is constantly in my kitchen both for the recipes and the writing; there's a baking book stuffed with brilliant recipes and fine writing taking you into the life of a busy bakery and restaurant; next up is an offering of 30 favourite ingredients from one of my all time favourite chefs. My final choice delves into the culinary and social history of Sicily whilst taking a close look at 'Virgins' Breasts, Chancellor's Buttocks, and Other Convent Delicacies'

Fern Verrow - A year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen
by Jane Scotter and Harry Astley

Let me say from the outset that I know the authors of this book, in as much as I've bought produce grown on their farm ever since they started to load up a van and bring it down to London for sale most Saturdays.  Last Saturday they slipped some copies of the book on the back of the van so I was able to buy a copy a few days before publication date.  I grow some of my own fruit and veg so I know a little bit about where this book is coming from. I'm an enthusiast, but that's not the reason I found this book difficult to put down.   The Fern Verrow land is farmed  biodynamically, but this is not a book only for those of us who embrace the methods of Rudolf Steiner.  If you care about how your food is grown and how it's cooked you'll love how this book draws you in with its rhythmic prose and page after page of recipes for simple seasonal food that honours the ingredients.  This is food that you really want to eat. .......... Read more .....

Five Quarters - Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome
by Rachel Roddy

Five Quarters may seem a strange title but it's easily explained.  The number five recurs as the book goes along but Quinto Quarto (the Fifth Quarter) is the name of the distinctive style of cooking created by the workers at the Testaccio slaughterhouse towards the end of the 19th century.  Wages were partly paid in-kind with offal.  This being a quarter of the animals weight, it was known as the 'fifth quarter'.  The slaughterhouse is long gone and, no, this is not a book about offal, but it is firmly rooted in the Testaccio quarter of the city of Rome which this Englishwoman calls home.

The "notes" referred to in the sub-title are as delicious as the "recipes".  Arriving in Rome, almost by accident, the tourist decided to stay a while in a tiny flat above a bakery, next to the "coarse and chaotic" old food market.  As she began to get under the skin of this "straightforward, traditional, ordinary" part of Rome, a sense of guilt that she was part of the gentrification taking place in the area led her to resolve to buy local and truly embrace the life of this quarter and its "fierce sense of community". ........ Read more .....

Honey & Co - The Baking Book
by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich

"Our days are governed by the rhythm of the pastry .... ".  For Honey & Co, this tiny restaurant in a London backstreet, it's the pastry section that provides the essential underpinning to their busy days, from breakfast to end of dinner treats.  Here is the book that has been so anticipated since last year's publication of Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich's much loved debut Honey & Co Food from the Middle East.  I wrote about the 2014 book here.  Where the first book concentrated mostly on savoury Middle-Eastern food, The Baking Book offers recipes for sweet and savoury bakes, with the emphasis on the sweet ones. ....... Read more .....

Sally Clarke 30 Ingredients

by Sally Clarke

This second book by Sally Clarke comes 16 years after her first which was meant to be her only one: 'Sally Clarke's Book - recipes from a restaurant, shop and bakery'.  The latest is a celebration of 30 years of her eponymous, hugely influential, London Restaurant.  The principle is as simple and effective as the Chef's style of cooking - offering 30 favourite ingredients with a variety of ways to use them.  A glance at those 30 foods, from apricots and asparagus to sweetcorn and tomato, suggest a vegetarian focus and this is true in many, but not all, of the recipes.  For me, it's the way I want to eat - a little good meat and fish, and lots of fruit and vegetables.  The stated intent of the book is to "help to build confidence in the inexperienced cook and give guidance to others who simply need inspiration".  With Alice Waters as a friend, influence and mentor and 30+ years in kitchens, Sally Clarke is well qualified to to deliver on this aim.  The book is full of simple, effective suggestions like cracking the stones of apricots to extract the kernels to add another dimension to a a jam; how a generous seasoning of freshly made Gremolata can lift a meat or fish dish; how to make a classic Petits pois a la Francaise that truly celebrates the peas, lettuce and butter; and how to make perfect roasted potatoes. Uncomplicated recipes range from Scallop ceviche with landcress  lime and chilli; Salad of blood oranges, beetroot and pomegranate; Smoked haddock and leek pastiesQuince and rosemary Tarte Tatin; to Tomato salad with nectarines and feta.

I've long been a Sally Clarke fan, eating her delicious food countless times and reaching for her first book, particularly when I had some exceptional ingredient to do justice to.  Her philosophy of "the fewer ingredients on the list, the better the product" is one I share .  You'll never find Sally Clarke 'gussying-up' a plate of food unnecessarily.  I've only had this book a few weeks and am bookmarking recipes constantly.  It's also a beauty as photographs are by the fantastic Tessa Traeger.  

Sicilian Food - Recipes from Italy's Abundant Isle

by Mary Taylor Simeti

Mary Taylor Simeti's book was first published in 1989 as Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-five Centuries of Sicilian Food.  I have never lived in, nor even visited, Sicily so whether this is "the definitive work on Sicilian cooking" the book notes claim, I cannot say.  I do know that Giorgio Locatelli admires Simeti's work and references her several times in his own excellent book Made in Sicily.  I enjoyed reading Simeti's writing for the culinary and social history it explores, taking us on an odyssey through the exotic tastes of conquering Greek, Roman, Arabic and Norman invaders to the cooking of more recent times, "those of hunger and faith, of pride and jealousy and joy". The book is peppered with quotes from Homer, Plato and Apicius as well as later travellers to the island who recorded their experiences there.  Recipes, collected from written sources, word of mouth and experimentation range from 'Strattu, the intensely flavoured dark red paste made by salting and sun-drying tomato puree; Tabcchiere di Melanzane (Aubergine Snuffboxes); the classic Cassata Siciliana (Sicilian Cassata Cake); to Granita di Limone (Lemon Granita), mentioning the delightful sounding habit of many bars in Sicily of dropping a scoop into a glass of iced tea.

I hope there is something in this list to inspire you.