So much for the cookbooks that I could at a push do without – though they give me a lot of pleasure and almost as much inspiration... What’s on the shelf that’s indispensable? (Indispensable being a loose term here obviously because really all these books are a lovely luxury.)
Ever since I got it last summer I’ve been devoted to Niki Segnit’s ‘The Flavour Thesaurus’. It’s become a key to all my other cookbooks; take one ingredient, look for combinations, find a recipe in one of those many contenders – but better than that (and it would be pretty good if that was all it did) it’s also a great read, lovely to look at, and contains a few good recipes as well. It’s the perfect book for the semi confident cook like me; I like a bit of direction and Segnit does it so well – I’m maybe such a fan because her two key flavours approach is particularly friendly to wine matching and that makes things easier for me too.
Another newish book is ‘River Cottage Every Day’ which was a Christmas present from my sister a year ago. So far it’s been all about the baking, but there’s a lot of good stuff in there. Ideologically the River Cottage way (and sometimes it does feel a little like a cult – but I mean that nicely) is one that appeals to me. Fresh, seasonal, home grown or sustainably sourced – basically food with thought behind it, and all very makeable as well – nothing that the harassed wine merchant/book blogger can’t deal with at the end of the day as long as she’s prepared to get her hands dirty from time to time.
And whilst I’m on the subject of River Cottage there are the handbooks. I love this series and actually think they’re all indispensable. It’s not just food it’s an entire way of life from foraging to fishing via baking and preserving with a bit of gardening. If I was going to be stranded on an island these are the books I’d be hoping would wash up in a packing case and happily if I was going to limit myself to only ten cook books (hell will freeze over first) I could totally cheat the odds with these because so far all but two arguably fall into different categories. Pam Corbin’s ‘Preserves’ and Daniel Stevens ‘Bread’ are the two which are absolutely cookbooks, and I love both of them. ‘Preserves’ has made my kitchen far, far, stickier and jam making has become a bit of a passion, although that’s just the tip of the iceberg. ‘Bread’ isn’t the first bread book I’ve bought (I also have a Ballymaloe version, and actually other books about preserving) but what both of these books have in spades are good clear instructions, and good clear explanations of why you do what they ask. It’s an approach that appeals to my pragmatic learning style, the results have been excellent and they’re not going to be easy books to supersede.
I can’t imagine my kitchen without Nigella Lawson (I’m a child of my times) but though I have all her books – because basically I just can’t help myself – the one that I use more than any other is ‘How To Be A Domestic Goddess’. Hardly surprising given that I’m no stranger to the dark art of baking. There’s something about the philosophy behind this particular book, as well as the absolute reliability of the recipes that makes me think this will always be a great fall back book. It’s certainly been upping my calorie count for the last decade.
I’ve had ‘The Art of the Tart’ (Tamasin Day–Lewis) for almost as long and despite not having a good hand for pastry it’s been responsible for some great tart’s and some awful jokes. I have lots, though not all, of Tamasin Day-Lewis’ books but seldom have the time to use them properly; her thing seems to be food that demands a certain amount of time and pottering, perfect if you have a weekend to spend gossiping in the kitchen whilst giving something the odd stir before unveiling an amazing meal for 8. Not so good when you’re at work till 9pm and back for 9am. Still I can dream/hope and there’s something pleasingly grown up about these books, also once you’ve created your tart it’s very friendly to the work late start early cycle that I can’t seem to escape.
Claudia Roden is another food writer who’s left her mark on me. ‘A New Book of Middle Eastern Food’ (another Christmas present from my sister who’s getting good at this) is a classic that’s not especially pretty to look at but is packed full of not just food but history and culture. For my cooking life Mediterranean food with an emphasis on Italian has been in the ascendancy. It’s all balsamic this and a pinch of fresh basil that, which at one time must have been a nice change from French cuisine but is now so bloody ubiquitous that discovering first middle eastern food and then a whole lot of other culinary cultures (including French) was a real revelation. And delicious.
Better even than Claudia Roden however is Jane Grigson, all her books are fantastic but the ‘Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book’ and ‘Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book’ are hard to beat. Arranged (just in case anyone’s missed out on these) alphabetically by fruit etc each chapter does sweet, savoury, and history. These are books which absolutely fire the imagination with the romance and promise of mulberries, damsons, pomegranates, carrots...
Which would leave me one book left and I think it’s got to be another newish one Susannah Blake’s ‘Afternoon Tea Parties’ because right now this is very much the kind of thing I love; home grown, a little bit vintage, not to formal, fun, decorative – basically indulgent.