Friday, 27 January 2017

Food Book Fundamentals

Pole position Books

There was a time when if you wanted a good choice of books on the subject of food you sought out a specialist book shop.  Here in London, you took the tube to Notting Hill Gate, walked up Portobello Road and spent a glorious hour or so in Heidi Lascelles's Books for Cooks shop.  If the formidable Clarissa Dickson Wright was behind the counter, she'd find you the books you wanted, and one or two you never knew you needed.  Time it right and the smell of freshly cooked food would be wafting through the shop from the tiny test kitchen in the back.  Here the resident cook would be trying out recipes from the books.  You would, of course, linger in the hope of snaffling one of the very few seats for lunch.

Now every bookshop worth its salt has a large section for food books.  Often there's a cafe, though what's on offer is likely to be far less considered.  And now there's the 'stack them high, sell them cheap' kind of book shopping on-line.  Search, select, pay is less a joyous feast for the senses more a joyless interaction with PayPal.

Daunt Books
Marylebone, London

Judging by the number of new cookbooks coming out each year, our appetite for recipe books, in particular, seems to be insatiable. But if you live in a tiny flat, as I do, and hate parting with books, you have to sort the wheat from the chaff in the bookstore.

Fundamental meaningIndispensable, foundational, 
essential, necessary, vital, crucial, paramount

Eggplants Letterpress by Patricia Curtan
for Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters

My bookshelves, and yours too, no doubt, hold Indispensable books owned for years.  I grow some of my own fruit and veg so on my metaphorical pole position sits both Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book and Fruit BookNigel Slater's Tender I and Tender II; and Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Vegetables and Fruit books.  Chez Panisse Desserts by Lindsey Remolif Shere has earned it's place on the shelf as well.  There too is just about every book Simon Hopkinson has written, with Roast Chicken and Other Stories and The Vegetarian Option being most decoratively splattered.  There's a spine-cracked copy of Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking, of course; along with Moro the Cookbook by Sam & Sam Clark, which marries robust Spanish food with with the lighter, exotic dishes of the Muslim Mediterranean; and there's Claudia Roden's The Food of Spain.  There are no recipes in Derek Cooper's Snail Eggs and Samphire but his 'Despatches from the Food Front' are as relevant today as ever.  This book of food journalism at its best is a reminder of how much has changed in the food world and, worryingly, how much remains the same.  It's a book I dip into regularly for a helping of his sane, wise voice.  Also earning its place is the weighty McGee on Food & Cooking - an encyclopedia of kitchen science, history and cooking by the fantastically knowledgeable Harold McGee.  These are most definitely the foundation of my food book collection.

'How not to cook an octopus' from
Rachel Roddy's Five Quarters

But what of more recent acquisitions, and which became essential to my cookery year?  Undoubtedly Rachel Roddy's Five Quarters - Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome, not only for the tried and tested recipes but for the generous acknowledgements, ladles of lyricism and spoonfuls of self-deprecating humour that comes with them.  Books from Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich Honey & Co - Food from the Middle East and Honey & Co - The Baking Book - heart and soul recipes spiced with just the right amount of anecdotes and memories.   What all three books have in common, apart from a publisher, is engaging writing styles, spot-on accessible recipes and evocative photography.  Fern Verrow - a year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen by Jane Scotter and Harry Astley beguiles with its rythmic prose and simple food that follows the seasons and mirrors the way I like to cook.  My ice cream maker continues to be put to good use with the considerable help of Ice Creams, Sorbets & Gelati - The Definitive Guide by Caroline & Robin Weir.  Lastly,  Swallow This - Serving Up the  Food Industry's Darkest Secrets by Joanna Blythman is my invaluable reference book for navigating the murky world of the modern food processing business. My margin note on page 76, reads "feeling decidedly queasy", and it gets worse.  For me, it's Blythman who carries the baton of investigative food journalism passed on by Derek Cooper.

Brindisa - The True Food of Spain
By Monika Linton

So thoroughly have I explored these that I bought very few new books on food in 2016.  I did get Monika Linton's Brindisa - The True Food of Spain, the product of almost 30 years as a London-based Spanish food importer and, now, restaurateur.  Written from a deep knowledge, love and understanding of Spanish food this book delves into the culture and history of Spain and offers some of Spain's most loved recipes.  And Bee Wilson's First Bite: How We Learn to Eat which is full of good non-preachy advice on encouraging our children to eat well and on changing our own food habits for the better.  I also bought Do/ Preserve by Anja Dunk, Jen Goss, Mimi Beaven for a young friend as it's a great little primer for anyone new to preserving. Found it so useful that I have a copy on my sheves as well. It's aimed at the grower and forager and covers basic principles, the best preserving agents for types of food and offers over 80 recipes to get you started.  Which means there is still Salt is Essential by Shaun Hill,  Diana Henry's SimpleFresh India by Meera Sodha and Bee Wilson's This is not a Diet Book to consider.

And now 2017 is here and publications to look forward to include Sabore: My Spanish Cooking by Barrafina Executive Chef Nieves Barragan Mohacho covering her native Basque cuisine; Two Kitchens, the second book by Rachel Roddy which is to focus on Rome and Sicily; and Kaukasis, Olia Hercules's second book exploring food from the Georgian and Caucusus regions. And there are a couple of others I've heard on the grapevine may be published this year but may slip into 2018.

Pairing this list down will not be easy.  Maybe another bookshelf needs to be squeezed in after all.  Books for Cooks is still to be found in west London, by the way, though I can't guarantee you'll experience it in quite the same way I did.  I expect to be haunting Foyles in Soho and Daunt Books in Marylebone where, alas, there are no distracting aromas of food.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Books and Bookings

Cod with Coco beans and Trompette de la mort
at Brawn

The first week of January is ripe for reflection as well as for looking ahead.  This January in particular when one crushing blow after another in 2016 has left many of us feeling punch drunk and questioning whether we paid enough attention to things beyond our own orbit.  Outcomes that had seemed too ridiculous to contemplate are now only too real.  Friends' reactions range from burying their heads ever deeper in the beauty in their lives to donning battle fatigues for the fight ahead.  Some are happy with the new status quo.  Some have, sadly, already picked up their bags and moved on. The occasional foray into, this, the lighter side of my world is ever more necessary. So, here I am with my first post of January reflecting on eating in 2016 and looking forward to what 2017 will bring.

Sanbei Octopus
at Bao Fitrovia

So let's start with 'Bookings' at London restaurants - yes, my life is London centric and I know I need to get out more.  As I said in my first post of January 2016, I am as likely, on this blog,  to tell you about a restaurant that has been around for a while as about the new.  Re-reading that piece reminds me I still haven't been to Bao Soho (queues) but I have made several visits to the second restaurant of what started out as a simple 'steamed bun' market stall.  It's in less busy Fitzrovia and it's a great place to pop into for a quick bite.  Both Lamb and Black Cod have joined the Pork buns alongside delicious small plates like Sanbei Octopus which comes with a spicy plum sauce.  Just thinking about it makes me want to grab my coat.  You can read about it here - Bao Fitrovia   

It's interesting just how many intended 2016 openings I mentioned haven't yet come to pass - Clare Smyth (ex-Restaurant Gordon Ramsay) pushed back to mid-2017; Monica Galetti (ex-Le Gavroche), maybe sometime in January;  the return of Nuno Mendes to his Viajante roots was scuppered by the failure of his crowdfunding attempt.  And then there were the ones which simply didn't light my fire - if a restaurant is on this blog it's because I like it and think you might too.

Pork & Crab Clay Pot and Langoustine
at Kiln

Apart from Bao Fitzrovia, new openings that did impress me in 2016 are Kiln in Soho, an off-shoot of Smoking Goat which has been serving up Northern Thai street food on nearby Denmark Street for a couple of years.  There's a simplicity of preparation and insightful use of herbs and spices at Kiln that wakes up the tastebuds.  Cooking is over embers of sweet chestnut and flavours are zingy to say the least.  A Pork and crab claypot of glass noodles and Langoustine with chilli, ginger, lemongrass and sweet mint impressed on my visit.  I need to pay another call before I write about it but if you can get in (booking downstairs but first come, first served at the bar) don't hesitate.  Eating around Borough Market is, for me, a hit and miss affair but 2016 saw the arrival of Padella which is right on target.  This off-shoot of the excellent Trullo at Highbury Corner, which I wrote about ages ago, is all about pasta, freshly made, good sauces, no fuss.  Be prepared to queue - I try to go early but even then I will need to wait a while.

Barrafina's original tapas bar on Frith Street has now settled into its new home alongside sister restaurant Quo Vadis on Dean Street.  It's roomier and noisier as a result but the cooking and the staff have found their form in double-quick time. There is always a little tweak to the menu that identifies which of the three Barrafina bars you are in - if I want Rabo de Toro, I go to Drury Lane; it's Adelaide Street for Arroz de Mariscos; at Dean Street, so far, it's Bunuelos de Bacalao and Chickpeas Ropa Vieja.  

Noble Rot Wine Bar opened on lovely Lamb's Conduit Street in Bloomsbury in 2016 as a 'wine bar with food'.  If you are into good, "old school", wines then this is probably the place for you.  The food menu is overseen by Stephen Harris and Paul Weaver from Michelin-starred The Sportsman in Whitstable.  I've seen lots of positive comments and I've tried it once.  The bread and the simply cooked Slip Soles were lovely, the wines pricey.  Overall, I thought it pretty good food but expensive for what you got.  I notice they've now introduced a set-price lunch so, probably, worth another try.

Game and Bacon Pie
with a glass of Les Pierres Chaude
at 40 Maltby Street 

And still, I'm a regular at Brawn, 40 Maltby Street, and Rochelle Canteen.  Brawn for their food that is, as they put it themselves, "honest and simple with a respect for tradition" and for fact their love for what they do is so evident in what arrives at table; 40 Maltby Street for its love of seasonality, careful sourcing, flavourful combinations and so many 'that's so good' moments.  Both also serve up wonderful natural wines.  Rochelle Canteen may be byo but there's the cooking of the brilliant Anna Tobias.

That I have a few places that make me so happy is why I've yet to get to 6 Portland Road in the, for me, distant plains of Holland Park; or Morito's new place on Hackney Road where chef Marianna Leivaditaki, alongside owner/chef Samantha Clark, is bringing a touch of Crete to the Spanish/North African bias of the Exmouth Market original; or Sardine, close to the Old Street Tech City hub, where chef Alex Jackson has set up with the backing of Stevie Parle serving Southern French food cooked over a wood fire; or James Cochran EC3 opened in late 2016 - his CV having drawn comparison with one of my favourite chefs, Steve Williams of 40 Maltby Street, is enough to push him to the top of my must try list; or Honey & Smoke in Fitrovia, a second restaurant for Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, providing a space big enough to give their big-hearted food and service room to expand.

There are a couple of planned 2017 openings in the pipeline I know of that aren't general knowledge yet but I will eat my hat if they don't live up to expectations.  I will, I will, get to more places this year.

Brindisa - The True Food of Spain
by Monika Linton

In 2016 I bought three 'Books'.  None, as yet, digested well enough to write about them.  Truth is I've been getting so much use out of books published in 2015, and earlier, that I've barely got into them yet.  There are  a few other new ones on my radar but just like I don't get to a new restaurant in the first few weeks of opening, I don't rush to buy new books .  A pleasure deferred ... etc.  So, you won't be seeing a 2016 book roundup from me.  Instead I've got a posting planned for later in the month on the books I use most, new and old, and why I find them invaluable.

Meanwhile, I resolve to get out more.  You never know, I may even eat outside London.  Recommendations welcome.