About a month ago I sent off a list of my top ten cookbooks to the 1000 Cookbooks project. I'm looking forward to seeing how the whole thing will unfold, it's promising a comprehensive and expertly curated collection of the very best food and recipe content including a list of the 1000 best cookbooks as voted for by contributors of all sorts.
As if choosing 10 books wasn't to be challenge enough (only 10?!) they were also to be in a rough order of preference... In the end it was much easier than I expected. After a little bit of time sat in front of them it seemed obvious. After a bit of pruning earlier this year my collection only numbers around 200 (tiny, faced with a list of 1000 I expect to have a much expanded wish list) all of which have their place even if some are shamefully under used. That handful which has shaped and inspired my whole attitude to food and cooking are a different matter though. I wouldn't willingly part with any of the books on the shelves at the moment, but those 10 (curiously it was easy to stop at 10) are the ones that make me feel at home, that I have complete confidence in, and that I would always replace in the event of some mishap.
High on the list was Diana Henry’s 'Salt Sugar Smoke'. It wasn't the first book I got on preserving, isn't the only one I have, but it's the one I love the best and use the most. Reading through it makes me want to try everything, the 3 years I've had it have been long enough to make many of the jams and jellies traditional staples to look forward to as each fruit comes into season, and every success has made me more adventurous.
It has been mostly jam and jelly I've made, they make good presents, their production is easily achievable in the small space I have, and they're relatively cheap. Home made jam is the best, it's the perfect opportunity to make something a little bit special. Last night it was Damson and Gin, last month Apricot and Lavender. The purple fig and pomegranate is always a treat, and the plum, orange and cardamom is very special (not for sharing). I could go on, but the point is that they're just a little bit more interesting than staple supermarket stock and make breakfast toast or afternoon tea scones extra good.
The jellies are even more useful, a good jelly to hand is an indispensable kitchen requirement to go in, on, or next to things. The quince and star anise one is a particular favourite and if I ever find some white currents I know exactly what I'll do with them. Then there are the flavoured vinegars, the chutneys, the liqueurs and fruits soaked in booze. One day I will tackle the cured fish, try smoking things on my stove top, maybe even make my own bacon (this is a project I've been mulling over for a while, it sounds quite do-able in my kitchen, and I will do it - I will!) but meanwhile there's no shortage of other things to be getting on with.
The particular pleasure of this book is in the way it promises good things on every page. It's a world of generous hospitality, of comfort and small luxuries, and lush jewel like colours. It's knowing that you can always come home to something good, and that there will be good things to share whenever you might want them. I find something deeply comforting in making a batch of jam or the like, both whilst I'm making it (there's a touch of alchemy about the process) and seeing the jars all lined up at the end and knowing they're there. It's a kind of cooking that keeps me in touch with the seasons (which I value, otherwise the year just vanishes) but which is also easy to adapt into the time and space constraints of my life. It basically sums up everything I love about cooking and food, and also about books generally. It really is a book to celebrate.