This summer’s harvest of cookery books is satisfyingly unpredictable, but all the better for that, says Leslie Geddes-brown
ILIKE Alex Mackay’s unexpected take on recipes, probably because I’m an ingredient-based cook. His method in The Magic Fridge (Bloomsbury, £26) is to take one basic food—cheese sauce, ratatouille, baked beans or soy-and-honey glaze, for example— and suggest ways of using it, either with brief suggestions or full-length recipes. Croque Madame for cheese, cassoulet for baked beans and so on. I’ll certainly put this on my shelf.
With her background as chefowner at Wahaca, a Mexican chain in London, Thomasina Miers is hardly a meat-and-two-veg cook. Readers of her new
Home Cook (Guardian Faber, £25) need to be near a multicultural street market to find ingredients, as she’s inspired by Vietnam, the Middle East, Japan and, of course, Mexico. Once sourced, however, her mixed ingredients are used fairly simply and very spicily. To make the best of The Great
Dixter Cookbook (Phaidon, £24.95), you will need a vegetable garden as the first 50 pages are a guide to growing the ingredients. Aaron Bertelsen has been at the famous Great Dixter garden for 10 years and, usefully, he lists varieties and problems (pigeons love borlotti beans, for example). His recipes are simple and make the best of ultra-fresh produce.
I’m not sure what Jesse Dunford Wood set out to do with
Modern British Food (Absolute Press, £20). He says taking British classics ‘and reinventing them’, which sounds a mite arrogant. However, he brines his pork chops, adds cream to his scrambled eggs and citrus fruits to halibut (a delicious idea) and creates ‘black pudding’ made of chocolate. The result is an inspiring series of recipes that might encourage you to experiment with your own reinventions. Traditional Cooking of Ireland by Biddy White Lennon and Georgina Campbell (Lorenz Books, £14.99) makes no claims about reinventing dishes. Instead, we get a history of the country from its first settlers 9,000 years ago, who found plenty of shellfish and game birds, hares and wild pigs. The book includes an up-to-date guide to Irish cheeses —a suprisingly large number from Ardrahan to Knockalara— and to Irish whiskey. Congratulations on this overall survey. I can’t wait to try the lobster dish Dublin Lawyer, so called because lawyers can afford the crustacean.
Sabor (Penguin, £25) is the name of the Spanish chef Nieves Barragán Mohacho’s new restaurant (she was the chef at Barrafina before). This is a lush, but accessible, selection of her Spanish dishes, from Catalan cod salad to Arroz con Leche. Excellent, both for those who already love Spanish cooking (especially Basque) and for those who want to try it out.
Carla Capalbo is better known for her Italian food books, but in Tasting Georgia (Pallas Athene, £29.99), she travels to Georgia. She describes the country’s (violent) history, wines and cuisine. Herbs such as basil and dill abound, but there are also eccentricities, such as jonjoli, the fermented buds of the Georgian bladdernut tree and ground petals of French marigolds. The Georgians are great foragers for wild mushrooms,
nettles, smilax and other greens and their recipes are beguiling: simple, with exotic notes.
It’s a bit of a relief to come back to French country cooking with Mimi Thorisson’s Meals and Moments from a Village in the Vineyards (Hardie Grant, £25). The author and her husband started a restaurant in a remote village and these are its recipes.
Like many of this crop of cookbooks, the photos (by her husband Oddur) centre on local life—even the Thorissons’ dogs feature. I sigh with relief that the recipes are for quiche not quinoa and souffles not spelt. French cooking at its most charmingly typical. The Oxford Companion to
Cheese (OUP, £40) is edited by Catherine Donnelly, a professor of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Vermont in the USA. It covers unlikely subjects, such as the sexual imagery of cheese, cave maintenance and addiction to cheese, so it has a wide sweep, but what it doesn’t do in its 849 pages is give any recipes. Useful to cheesemakers, but not to cooks.
In her posthumously published memoirs, Lesley Blanch recounts how, while she was living with her parents as a 16-year-old girl in Chiswick, a gypsy woman selling clothes pegs came to the door and, looking at her, predicted that, when she grew up, she would have ‘far to go and many to love’.
Those who have read Blanch’s books, with their vivid descriptions of far-flung places and deeply felt emotional involvements, will recognise how accurate the gypsy’s forecast was. This new collection of her early journalism, biographical essays and travellers’ tales adds a whole new dimension to her adventurous and romantic life.
The first 60 pages are a sensitive account of her life written by her god-daughter, Georgia de Chamberet, who has both edited the passages written by Blanch and set them in the context of her travels and loves. As editor, she doesn’t disguise the fact that the author was an ‘idealist and fantasist’, who practised what has become known as narrative nonfiction; that is, telling a good story without over much attention to the less colourful or inconvenient facts—‘the boundary between dreams and waking worlds is often blurred’.
Blanch married a French diplomat and they were en poste together in, among other places, Bulgaria and Los Angeles. While in the former, she was able to indulge her fascination with all things Slav; in the latter, she became a self-styled queen of Tinseltown, entertaining and being entertained by the stars of hollywood. however, even this fell short of her aspirations; she was a rebellious diplomatic wife, always straying off for her own explorations and adventures.
Among the places that attracted her and about which she writes are the Sahara, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Afghanistan. not for her the world of ‘young english-women spoiling their lives tapping away at typewriters… and trudging home over Waterloo Bridge’; hers were wider horizons.
however, although she was always seeking out remote places, Blanch also liked to be the centre of attention wherever she was. She cultivated the friendship of such diverse characters as Peter Ustinov, the Oliviers, nancy Mitford and Cecil Beaton, but, like all good travellers, she also cultivated the ordinary people she met. As a result, she found in Arabia that there were ‘rather too many kind, but misleading, strangers who always used to tell me trains or buses left at whatever time they imagined I should have liked them to leave, which alas, seldom corresponded with fact’.
Blanch may be best remembered for The Wilder Shores of Love, but as she explores the souks and bazaars of Central Asia in this eccentric and fascinating book, she also discovers ‘the wilder shores of shopping’. She is as good company on the page as she must have been in the alleyways of Bukhara. John Ure
An idealist and a fantasist: Lesley Blanch in the 1960s