The Daily Telegraph
Rowan Pelling stews over Jamie Oliver’s admission that his go-to place for recipes is social media
The entire British publishing industry must be sighing in despair. Jamie Oliver, begetter of more than 30 cookbook titles, has just announced that when he’s looking for culinary inspiration he turns to Youtube videos. I know, that wasn’t the answer I was expecting either. I thought a man with his hard-earned experience and knowledge of kitchen pioneers would walk over to his bookshelf and start riffling through a much-handled copy of Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, or Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery.
Over my dead body would I go online and surf Youtube videos until the muse strikes. In fact, my firmest beliefs about cuisine are best summarised as: “In the beginning was Mrs Beeton.” My mother had inherited Granny’s copy of the Victorian cookery bible (an early 20th-century edition) and it sat on our childhood kitchen table, stuffed full of hand-scribbled notes detailing customised recipes alongside cuttings from magazines and newspapers.
When Mum died in 2004, my big sister and I squabbled about ownership of this treasure and it now travels between our two kitchens in north Cambridge. Neither of us has urgent need for Mrs Beeton’s firm instructions on managing tricky housemaids, or preparing “calf ’s brains with poulette sauce”; but we do need Mum’s definitive ingredients for Christmas mincemeat – ditto Granny Gordon’s instructions for Scotch pancakes jotted down in her delightful cursive script. It’s not just a cookbook; it’s a comforter and time machine.
In our small kitchen, we have two long shelves crammed with cookbooks and even more volumes in storage. Some are used on a near-daily basis, like Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers,
while others are for salivating while you mourn the fact you’ll never have any of the key ingredients, such as Yotam Ottolenghi’s Sweet.
Meanwhile, my sons, who generally can’t be cajoled into reading anything longer than a road sign, will sit for hours with Mary Berry’s Baking Bible,
working out if it’s a lemon drizzle traybake, or chocolate chip cookie
kind of a day. I’ve long felt the food and cookery departments of bookshops should be labelled “escapism”, because I’m not sure that any other form of writing transports people so viscerally. I worship Jane Austen, but she has never turned on my gastric juices.
But the cookbooks I love most are the ones I hang on to for sentimental reasons. Why, after 27 years of living with an electric oven, do I keep hold of the Pelling family’s battered Aga cookbook? Because it keeps alive my belief that, one day, when my boys are through school, I will live near the sea with a cast-iron range and replicate my mum’s “will they, won’t they” dance of uncertainty as she calculated the exact moment to open the Aga door without her meringues collapsing into mush. Similarly, I’ve clung on to a battered Highlands cookbook that belonged to my mother-in-law and shows you a zillion ways to cook salmon and grouse, even though we live hundreds of miles from the tweed and grouse moors and my husband’s a vegetarian.
Better still, within its pages lurks a top-secret document, allegedly vital to reviving my husband’s family fortunes. I can’t replicate all of it here – because then I’d have to kill you – but my late father-in-law’s distinctive spidery scrawl is headed: “The true recipe for Drambuie”.
Aficionados may know the folk legend that the formula for the whisky-based liqueur was handed by the Stuart heir, Bonnie Prince Charlie, to Captain John Mackinnon after the Battle of Culloden as a reward for his valour. According to my pa-in-law and his brother, the wrong branch of Clan Mackinnon got hold of production rights and the stuff you buy from off-licences is an oversweetened travesty of the original beverage. Around 50 years ago, they tried to challenge the then Edinburgh-based producers, to no avail. Apparently, my sons’ sacred duty is to continue this futile quest, even unto the grave.
Culinary alchemy happens in the space between recipes and your imagination. But, as Jamie Oliver surely knows, Youtube doesn’t foster delectable daydreams; it’s all about the torrid here and now. Call me a Luddite (though I’d say “wanton sensualist”), but I’d rather hang out with a 1999 copy of