IWAS re-reading The Pedant in the Kitchen, Julian Barnes’s witty collection of essays, when I came across his rules for keeping cookery books—or getting rid of them. By chance, my great-niece, Daisy, has a charity stall that’s pining for them, so I started a cull. My collection runs into the hundreds. I haven’t time to count them all, but the cupboard in the kitchen that houses the ones I use most holds 205. There are other bookcases with less useful books and this is where I started my rampage.
I followed Julian’s advice— I used to work with him and know it’s usually sound—so first to go was Around the World in 80 Dishes after his advice: ‘Avoid books with too wide a compass.’ The same could apply to too small, such as Recipes from the Woods, which goes on about wild mushrooms you can’t buy here and wild boar, ditto. Land of Fish and Rice was a casualty when it recommended West Lake grass carp and ribbonfish in its recipes, as well as lotus leaves.
I took an instant dislike to Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat’saisons, an insider’s reference to his restaurant, largely because all the photographs are so perfect and the recipes unattainable, by me anyway. When it offered a chapter on ‘A Glimpse Behind the Scenes’, I knew this would be full of pictures of smiling waitresses and busy sous chefs. I would rather an image of a furious chef throwing hot tomato sauce over an underling, which I know does happen, or, at least, a screaming row between staff, which means that your rare steak will be, at best, late or, at worst, not rare at all.
Julian’s recommendation is never to buy a chef’s book that’s on display in their restaurant: ‘Remember, that’s why you went there in the first place.’ I would add never buy a chef’s book wherever you spot it, especially if said chef is grinning toothily on the cover. It’s just self-publicising. I would especially ignore anything by Jamie Oliver or Mary Berry, plus books written by pretty young girls—they aren’t pretty and slim because they like food. Similarly, I would ban any book on ‘healthy eating’. If you don’t eat—however unhealthily —you will starve.
Before you start to think I’m a curmudgeonly old bat, here’s a few I do keep: anything by recent arrival Rachel Roddy (only two so far), Peter Mckay (despite the ugly design of his cover) or by David Tanis, despite his being Californian. Obviously, the two greats Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson are still indispensable and eschew luscious photographs. I’m keen on Polpo and Spuntino for their lively design and surprisingly easy recipes and on Nigel Slater, who makes cooking fun, which it should be.
I agree with Julian that old copies of the classics, splattered with aforementioned tomato sauce, are preferable to updated versions and that most books should be given a second chance.
The one that escaped the cull is I Love Food by Clare Macphersongrant Russell, the Lady Laird of Ballindalloch Castle in Banffshire. This is not only because there’s a chapter on recipes for dogs, along with photos of Rose, Poppy, Bluebelle and Jasmine, but because of her Ballindalloch shortbread recipe. My book still has a postcard dated 2006 from a COUNTRY LIFE reader who saw it: ‘I used it once or twice and was delighted. It was not only delicious, but totally uncomplicated as well. Then I lost it.’ She asked me to send another copy, which I hope she’s still using.
I re-read the recipe and it does truly sound both delicious and easy. The reader adds a PS: ‘I am a subscriber and didn’t read it at the dentist.’ I don’t mind where she read it; a good shortbread recipe is something to treasure.
‘I would rather an image of a furious chef throwing hot tomato sauce over an underling