Monday, February 21, 2011

Capsule Cookbooks

Any regular readers and anyone who knows me already knows I have a bit of a cookbook fetish. I love them and I have lots of them – not Nigella into the thousands quantities, but well over a hundred and arguably about a hundred more than I really ‘need’. Now before I go any further I should make it clear that the books are (mostly) staying put, but after an afternoon spent in bookshops considering the merits of a dedicated volume to macaroon making (seriously, I’ve made macaroons once – they were okay, but not as pretty as the ones I can buy and half the pleasure is in the prettiness and why was I even considering it?) Browsing on amazon to see if there’s anything new and exciting out there, trying to herd books back onto their proper shelves and off the floor (where seemingly of their own volition they form teetering islands to be negotiated) and finally actually cooking something (without instructions). Well anyway it makes me wonder how many I need for direction and how many are just because I love them.

The question to answer is this – which ten couldn’t I do without? I do actually get rid of books from time to time and the cookbooks are no exception (goodbye Jamie Oliver and Gary Rhodes; I got you under questionable circumstances, never used you, and haven’t missed you.) But actually cookbooks are harder to get rid of than most because so many of them have been presents – I have a lovely copy of ‘The New Moosewood Cookbook’ for example which I’ve never used but it’s a vegetarian classic from a lovely friend and I wouldn’t willingly be parted from it.

Cookbooks are social history just as much as personal history – my collection spans roughly twenty years with the earliest (Claire MacDonald’s ‘Seasonal Cooking’ and ‘More Seasonal Cooking’, Delia Smith’s ‘Complete Cookery Course’) harking back another decade or more. Delia – when I bought that book I thought it would be the only one I ever needed – wouldn’t make the cut now, for a good 15 years she was my go to woman when in doubt about the best way to do something, but I don’t find her as reliable anymore. Claire MacDonald is a different matter, her fresh and seasonal approach was a little bit different in the age of the kiwi and nouvelle cuisine and she’s aged reasonably well. I don’t turn to these books often anymore but they’re at least assured a place on my long list.

I have a handful of Persephone cookbooks which I’m ashamed to say I’ve never used – perhaps Persephone reading weekend will be a good opportunity... they definitely come under the social history category, I’ve browsed them (but somehow those nice grey covers and cream pages seem out of place in the kitchen, I don’t want to break the spines or get them dirty and in fact the best way to work out which books are essential would be to see which are the dirtiest) and yet I’ve been following the progress of a friend who’s cooking from a 1929 edition of Mrs Beaton, so perhaps the Persephone’s will have their day yet.

I’m doubtful about all the Nigel Slater books I have, ‘Tender’ (volumes 1 and 2) are lovely to look at but ‘The Kitchen Diaries’ sort of annoys me for no very concrete reason unless it’s that his timings never seem to match my oven so things that look quick take forever. I really liked the first Tessa Kiros books too, but ‘Piri Piri and Starfish’ and ‘Venezia’ are more picture than recipe, not pictures of food either – they take up a lot of shelf space without real content and I resent it. These books are so much of this particular time that I wonder what they’ll look like in 10 years.

When it comes to personal history there are yards of books reflecting fads – Japanese food, Polish food, baking, Greek food, Jelly, Persian Cuisine, books about herbs, books and books about soup, cooking with flowers, afternoon tea... They’ve all had their moments and all have their place, but most of them are an unashamed luxury. There are also the books which look serious – Leith’s bibles on technique, fish, and Vegetarianism (all woefully underused – the technique bible didn’t help me with a chocolate mousse disaster, nor did Delia and I’m not very forgiving; I’m still holding a grudge against Sophie Grigson after a lemon curd fiasco in 1994) and the River Cottage ‘Fish’ and ‘Meat’ books. Of all of them ‘Meat’ has been the most useful, and interestingly (to me at any rate) I see that they’re the books provided by our training department at work. Still I’m not a master chef contender and so these probably aren’t really essential either good as they are.

To Be Continued...


  1. This made me think about my "desert island cookbooks" (which is a stupid phrase as who'd do cookery in the conventional sense on a desert island). For me, the core books in my collection are the baking ones, mainly because baking is much more of a precise science.

    PS: I have two Jamie Olivers (unwanted birthday presents that my Mum recieved) but have never used them either!

  2. Hi Hayley, I know this wasn't the point of your post, but I have to confess to drooling over that picture with your Cornish Ware and jars of preserves. They are two of my particular passions. As for the large population of your cookbooks, the researcher in me likes having a goodly library of cook books, so I can compare and contrast recipes, in fact I often spend more time fannying about in this manner, than in the cooking, it is part of the pleasure...

  3. This is my third time writing this comment. For some reason I keep closing the window before completing the task and the comment disappears.

    I love the picture. It is the definition of cosy kitchen. Are those preserves I spy?

    I have a few cookbooks that get a fair amount of use and then quite a few that never seemed to get used. My goal is to give them all a bit of attention to see which ones are worth saving.

  4. A very well timed post for me. Last night we cooked a Nigel Slater recipe, which I now know off by heart, and it has the title of being known by me as 'The Recipe That Started Me Cooking'. giving away cookbooks is so difficult as with them is the memory of when the recipes were cooked - and for whom. Even if it was just one recipe in the whole book!

  5. I am coveting the full wine rack!

    Between the boy and I we have a couple of shelves of cookbooks but only started our collection in last couple of years (the Persephone cookbooks are on the Persephone shelves). I do have Nigella running into the thousands and we have a couple of Jamies, which I have never used but the boy has.

  6. I love the photo it captures the randomness about the cooking but also the order if a recipe. Think that sounds a bit too profound!

    I have a couple of cooking book but a draw full or recipes torn out of my slimming magazines and others. The only cook book someone has bought me was a Jamie Oliver and I have used it twice so far - but have had to adapt to make them friendly for my diet!

    I do use the web for Nigella recipes as well.

  7. Ironically the security word was tartin! Even your blog is cooking!

  8. Verity - perhaps more dessert island then... (sorry - just couldn't resist)

    Merenia - I was lucky with the cornish ware. Most of it was seconds or picked up when they last went under a few years back and it kept turning up in TK Maxx. The preserves were Rowan Jelly and I think plum and mulberry jam.

    Thomas - cosy/chaotic one or the other. It's actually an old picture from a couple of years ago, I should take a new one.

    Joan Hunter Dunn - you're right - they do hold a lot of memories. So much more than just books.

    Paperback Reader - the wine rack is by way of me bringing work home, an excuse no-one seems to believe but which is perfectly true!

    Josbookjourney - I collect recipes and promptly lose them. Some turn up years later in the oddest places, at least with books I can generally locate them...