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...