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.