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The food writ­ers we mustn’t for­get

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Jeremy Lee is the chef­pro­pri­etor of Quo Vadis restau­rant in London @jere­myleeqv

My par­ents liked to read, cook and eat, quite liked their brood and made ef­forts to have us all at the ta­ble ev­ery day. In the kitchen, a small pile of cook­ery books (pulled from laden shelves), with a pad and a pen­cil for notes, awaited my mother’s in­ter­est.

To this day this is how I love to read a book: at home, sur­rounded by piles of this, that and the other. I some­times find my fin­ger, as my mother’s did, tap­tap-tap­ping at a recipe on a page.

While my mother was very much a mod­ern woman, she also had re­spect for that which had come be­fore. This ap­plied as much to cook­ery books as any­thing else. She ad­mired those who kept the home fires of Bri­tish food burn­ing: F Mar­ian McNeill, who had scoured Scot­land and writ­ten down many old recipes in the 20s. In the 30s came Florence White’s Good Things in Eng­land, who cham­pi­oned Bri­tish food and col­lected many, of­ten ec­cen­tric recipes dat­ing as far back as the 14th cen­tury. An­other was Hilda Leyell who au­thored The Gen­tle Art of Cook­ing and started Culpep­per’s herb shop chain in London. I re­mem­ber shop­ping at the tiny orig­i­nal shop, sadly closed, in Bru­ton Street, for or­ange and grape­fruit oils. Later on, Jane Grig­son’s books did much to bring food to the fore in Bri­tain.

Some­thing changed in the na­tion’s ap­petites af­ter the sec­ond world war, both for food and what was writ­ten about it. El­iz­a­beth David’s first book, Mediter­ranean Food, pub­lished in 1950, switched the na­tion on to sim­ple, good cook­ing from warmer cli­mates. War and ra­tioning were grim me­mories; writ­ers in this pe­riod wanted sun­shine and cheer, not the clipped tones of Mrs Bee­ton or Con­stance Spry. And what rev­e­la­tions! They opened eyes to the French and Ital­ian re­gions, be­yond cap­i­tal cities, where mar­kets re­flected the sea­sons and good in­gre­di­ents cooked sim­ply were the great­est prize. If you grew up in a re­mote part of the coun­try, as I did, out­side Dundee, those books were almighty.

I came to London to be a chef in the 70s, when be­ing a chef had lit­tle al­lure. The food world was still starched and tra­di­tional: high hats, an im­pla­ca­ble kitchen hi­er­ar­chy and Es­coffier was God. I worked through those years with my nose stuck in a book be­tween shifts; the same books that had in­spired my mother be­came con­stant com­pan­ions, giv­ing colour to lack­lus­tre pro­duce and stain­less steel pro­fes­sional kitchens. As in­ter­est in food gath­ered mo­men­tum, I worked with some ex­tra­or­di­nary cooks: Si­mon Hop­kin­son and Alas­tair Lit­tle. We all shared a love of travel, good food and great writing – El­iz­a­beth David was our high priest­ess.

So, in us, the likes of David had a fol­low­ing, but they didn’t get the wider at­ten­tion they de­served un­til, per­haps, the 80s. At this point, great changes be­gan in food, pro­duce and restau­rants; books be­gan to ap­pear with more fre­quency on ev­ery kind of cook­ing imag­in­able. As walls were be­ing pulled down and bound­aries blurred and as the clas­sics lost their grip, restau­ra­teurs started speak­ing of menus in­spired by El­iz­a­beth David. She, Jane Grig­son and Ju­lia Child were ut­tered by the lips of even staunch French chefs. A whole new gen­er­a­tion of restau­rants was open­ing, run and staffed by folk who de­voured cook­ery books like thrillers. These books, writ­ten decades be­fore, sud­denly be­came, quite lit­er­ally, the plat du jour.

From the Davids, the Grig­sons and the Childs, an­other gen­er­a­tion of women food writ­ers blos­somed, restor­ing an in­ter­est in re­gional cook­ing to an English-speak­ing read­er­ship. Alice Wa­ters cham­pi­oned the lo­cal, sea­sonal move­ment in Cal­i­for­nia and in­flu­enced fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­can cooks, and many more be­sides around the globe. Ara­bella Boxer, who was an early cham­pion of Bri­tish and sea­sonal cook­ing, helped tear up the rigours of publishing with her ex­tra­or­di­nary two-vol­ume set of First Slice Your Cook­book, then, A Sec­ond Slice. Car­o­line Con­ran’s beau­ti­ful edit­ing of four sem­i­nal chefs, Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé and Jean and Pierre Trois­gros, fi­nally loos­ened the tired grip of France’s haute cui­sine. Lind­sey Bare­ham’s books have a glo­ri­ous ap­proach, cham­pi­oning the potato, the onion, soup or to­ma­toes in a clear au­thor­i­ta­tive voice full of wit, charm and warmth.

These dis­tin­guished writ­ers, among oth­ers, brought a bright­ness to lo­cal, sea­sonal cook­ing help­ing hugely to bring Bri­tish cook­ing to the fore. I re­mem­ber when Carol Field wrote a book on Ital­ian bak­ing that kin­dled a re­turn of good bread and bak­ers from a sad de­cline. Paula Wolfert’s writing on Morocco and Clau­dia Ro­den on Mid­dle East­ern cook­ing brought forth de­light in the cook­ing of the Mediter­ranean with great charm. Mar­cella Hazan lit up both sides of the At­lantic with her Clas­sic Ital­ian cook­books and blew ev­ery cliché of Ital­ian cook­ing to smithereens. Elisabeth Luard ac­knowl­edged that real cook­ing had its roots in peas­ant food, writing in her sem­i­nal books Euro­pean Peas­ant Cook­ery and Euro­pean Fes­ti­val Cook­ery.

The huge rise in in­ter­est in food in re­cent years has books ap­pear­ing with such speed that keep­ing up with the new is in it­self a great oc­cu­pa­tion. Pho­tog­ra­phy changed the pro­duc­tion of books dra­mat­i­cally. Now a book il­lus­trated with a cou­ple of ink draw­ings and the oc­ca­sional fron­tispiece may well seem chal­leng­ing be­side a lav­ishly pho­tographed vol­ume. It is worth paus­ing to con­sider whether read­ing a recipe along­side a glo­ri­ous colour pho­to­graph de­pict­ing the dish might di­min­ish the imag­i­na­tion slightly? Sub­se­quently pos­si­bly the writing is di­min­ished too.

There is one cu­ri­ous re­sult to these leaps and bounds of progress: the po­ten­tial to move so far ahead that one loses sight of what went be­fore. For sure, some of these books are of their time and of in­ter­est to only a few. But it is worth, now and again, just sit­ting at a ta­ble, in a rare quiet mo­ment, look­ing once more at a book, even without pho­to­graphs, which might have in­spired the mother of a cook to tap-tap-tap at a recipe and set to in the kitchen.

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