I found myself in Foyle’s yesterday, one of my two favourite shops for Christmas shopping (the other being Fopp, handily located just round the corner) and, once I had chosen the last few presents I wandered, as nonchalantly as a person who already owns over 80 can, into the cookery book section. Here I sometimes feel exhausted at the sheer immensity of choice but, mostly, I am as excited as a six-year-old at 5am on December 25th. I know that there is barely such a thing as a new recipe but, oh, my love for cookery books remains as true as the day I bought my first. I was just about to write I don’t know why but I do, I really do. They are full of promise, full of the hope of making something better and more exciting and, even if they don’t deliver on that promise, I almost always learn a new trick (old dog or not). However, I do have one rule: I only buy those that offer me at least five new recipes or ideas; otherwise I borrow them from the library to test them out first.
This year, it seems, I am not the only one in thrall to their delights. Cookery book sales are increasing and it’s not just Jamie’s ever-shrinking meals in fewer minutes, although his achievement of three Christmas number ones in a row, and that’s number one across ALL non-fiction, not just food and drink, is enough to make even me think about trying him out. Hmm, maybe not just yet. As a publishing type, my take on this is the same as it has been for the last few years: that books will, are already, splitting into at least two camps; some you will want to download, read and throw away and the e-reader is perfect for this (especially since, in effect, you don’t actually own them anyway) and the cheaper and easier they are to access the better; others, like cookery books and one-off hardback purchases, need to be as beautiful and lavish as possible, to tempt the consumer to invest in them, to cherish them, to give or to keep them. And they will get more and more expensive. Whereas once a cookery book might have been £15 or £20, many these days edge closer towards £25 or £30. And, as a stroll through any bookshop will tell you (if you can find a bookshop that is…), they sell like, erm, hot cakes. Some of them aren’t worth your time, some of them aren’t worth the charity shop that you will take them to’s time, but some will settle comfortably onto your shelves and into your lives and help you cook better, faster and cheaper. Here’s my pick of the year.
The Kitchen Diaries II, Nigel Slater
The Kitchen Diaries I is one of the most used books in my kitchen. I have long stopped reading the prose inbetween Slater’s recipes, finding it more and more fetishistic, but he is a damned good cook and one of the most enabling to use at home. Volume II is already well-thumbed and I’m sure will feature heavily here next year. Recommended for anyone.
Jerusalem, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
A very lovely birthday present. I have yet to cook from this but, as with all the other Ottolenghi books, this one knocks my ‘five-recipe’ rule into the atmosphere. There must be at least sixty recipes I want to cook in this and I plan to start next Saturday. Yes, you may need to buy a few odd ingredients; however, it’s worth it for the revelation in tastes and textures.
Mexican Food Made Simple, Thomasina Miers
Another birthday present. I love Mexican food and only discovered Wahaca, at the Southbank, this year (okay, okay, it took me a while to get a mobile phone too; call me a late adopter). There are so many lovely things in here but the first I plan to try is the chorizo and potato quesadilla, which I always snaffle when I go to one of the restaurants.
River Cottage Veg Everyday
I love River Cottage Everyday and this is just as inspiring, in a really down-to-earth-you-don’t-need-very-much-shopping/time/technique way. So far I’ve made corner shop spanakopita and next up is a risotto or two.
You’re All Invited, Margot Henderson
I first read about this in the Telegraph, where they excerpted two or three things such as a squid and potato stew and a slow-roasted pork shoulder. Henderson is the co-owner of Arnold and Henderson, a catering company and the Rochelle Canteen (how do these people have time for SO much?!), and married to the slightly more famous Fergus, and what she doesn’t know about catering could be written on a toothpick. A great book if, like me, you find cooking for lots of people and scaling up recipes as attractive as taking exams.
Polpo, Russell Norman
This won the inaugural Waterstone’s Book of the Year prize and it truly deserved to. Not only is it incredibly beautiful, from the pictures of Venice and the food to the publishing-geekery of the off-white paper and perfect font, it is also simple to use, a combination that is increasingly rare, and full of easy and accessible recipes. I met the author at Port Eliot in the summer and, as well as being an inspiring restaurateur and businessman, he’s also really lovely. Buy a copy before they stop reprinting it and it goes into paperback. My favourite of 2012.
And in 2013…
I have just worked on two books, both of which I highly recommend. The first, Master It by Rory O’Connell, comes out in May and it proves, once again, that despite the plethora of recipe-writing out there, some people are just heaps better than others. O’Connell teaches at Ballymaloe Cookery School and is Darina Allen‘s brother but, although his cheffy pedigree is impeccable, his recipes are very accessible. I can’t wait to get a copy of this.
The second, Bad Cook, by Esther Walker, is based on Esther’s blog, Recipe Rifle and is probably the funniest cookery book I have ever read. It is only coming out in a Kindle edition so, if you don’t have an e-reader, then you will have to go here to read her for now. You won’t regret it especially if, like me, you sometimes get sick of all those smiley-happy-clappy-gorgeous-family-endless-friends cookery books and writers (Whittingstall, Oliver, Allen, you know who you are) who seem to live on Planet Perfect and bang on endlessly about how much their children/mothers/wives/husbands love X or Y; Esther is the sharpest, sweariest and most refreshing antidote ever.
I’ll be back with a recipe or two from these, and the other 80-odd, in 2013. Happy cooking and happy Christmas.