Ask the book buyer about cookbooks good enough to devour
Jarrold book buyer Chris Rushby is given food for thought in the quest to identify his top six cookbooks of all time.
The latest title by Jamie Oliver, Jamie Cooks Italy, is out this month. It’s a sumptuous and energetic celebration of the kind of food closest to Jamie’s heart, is accompanied by a new TV series and is pretty certain to be one of the bestselling books of the year. Oh – and you can order it from Jarrold at just half the recommended retail price here (rrp £26, Jarrold price £13). As I leafed through the pages of this handsome cookbook I found myself asking where Jamie might figure in a list of all-time favourite food writers. He’d be pretty high on the list: a great communicator, a cheeky, cheerful, extravert personality with a social conscience whose recipes always seem to work. And yet. And yet…
After much heart-searching let me share my top six cookbooks with you. The selection criteria were around how often I go back to the books concerned and what influence they've had on my eating and (such as they are) cooking habits over the years. There's no Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein, Marcella Hazan, or Delia Smith in spite of the fact all these authors get an honourable mention for having written splendid books I've used and enjoyed at one time or another.
Before the top six here are another six titles that almost made the final list. I guess the fact that three of these six are about French food betrays a certain focus in my food reading. The runners up are:
- Goose Fat & Garlic by Jeanne Strang, a wonderful compendium of recipes from South-Western France, now sadly out of print
- Floyd On France by Keith Floyd: Floyd's TV programmes seemed revolutionary in their day, a breath of culinary fresh air. Remarkably, this book also appears to be out of print
- Simple French Food by Richard Olney, first published in the 1970s these are precise and comprehensive insights by an American who moved to France and became immersed in its cuisine
- A Work in Progress: Journal, Recipes and Snapshots by Rene Redzepi - a magnificently over-the-top three-part book from art publisher Phaidon celebrating the famous Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, one of the most influential of our time
- A New Book Of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden - a hugely influential book: when the first edition of this book came out in 1968 it's unlikely most of its readers had ever seen an aubergine, let alone cooked with one.
- Jane Grigson’s English Food by Jane Grigson - there was more diversity to English cookery than most gave credit for when the first edition of this wonderfully written book came out. It helped improve the quality of the nation's food.
Now, with a drum roll, to the top six themselves: cookbooks that changed my culinary life and, I'd be fairly confident, have either changed yours too, or would do if you let them. Counting down from 6 to 1...
At number 6...
Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts)
Venice might just be my favourite place in the world. There have been numerous books about the city and its culinary traditions, but none I think that capture the spirit of the place like this one. Restaurateur Norman is fascinated by the city (and, in researching and writing a more recent book, spent over a year living there). The directory of bars and restaurants at the end of the book is, let me confirm, thoughtfully chosen and the production values that went into producing this handsome volume are extremely high.
At number 5...
Real Fast Food
Real Fast Food was first published in 1992 and I can remember how besotted I was then with a book packed with so many delicious recipes, all of which could be prepared in thirty minutes or less. Nigel Slater has written much since, in books, newspapers and magazines, managing to become the doyen of UK food writers along the way. I had lunch with him once: a shy, diffident, but charming man, genuinely pleased, I like to think, by my gauche gratitude for his inspired 30-minute trifle recipe.
At number 4...
Nose To Tail Eating: A Kind Of British Cooking
While never quite managing to share a table with the inimitable Fergus Henderson, founder of the St John restaurants, I've shared a taxi queue with him, providing the opportunity to tell him how wonderful his restaurants are. The concept of 'nose to tail' - making use of the whole animal, as far as possible - was revolutionary when St John started out in 1994, but one of Henderson's achievements is to have brought the concept to the mainstream of catering. You can get spleen and chips, or bone marrow on toast at St John, but you'll find magnificent vegetarian dishes too. Go there; read the book (as wise and hilariously funny as its author); be converted.
At number 3...
Made In Italy: Food & Stories
Passionate and wise, Giorgio Locatelli can be seen on TV from time to time, but he's never gone the celebrity chef route of giving his name to a chain of restaurants in the way the likes of Marco Pierre White or Gordon Ramsay have, with mixed results. The one and only Locanda Locatelli - to be found at the base of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in London - is a temple to Italian cooking, managing both to be Michelin star standard and with its roots in family home cooking. The articulate wisdom of this book make it a modern classic, to my mind: both recipes and stories about food, as the title suggests, stories told with warmth, insight and a sense of tradition.
At number 2...
Honey From A Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia
Perhaps the most obscure title on the list, unless you're a fully paid up foodie, this book was first published in 1986 and continues to win converts. Apparently Elizabeth David didn't care for Patience Gray's writing - a shame, because the two writers have much in common: intelligent, witty, inspired by things Mediterranean and easy to read as much for literary pleasure as for specific recipes. Frugality, seasonal eating and foraging weren't big topics when Patience Gray was writing, but have become so since, partly no doubt because of her influence on succeeding generations of food writers and readers.
And at number 1...
French Provincial Cooking
There's nothing Elizabeth David wrote that won't repay your attention. It might have been Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, it might have been An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, but in the end I had to choose this one. A battered, food-stained Penguin paperback copy accompanies us on every trip to France and, though I hardly need to read the recipes these days, prompts my cooking of those daubes and cassoulets that are part of our French holiday experience. David is good on recipes, but more importantly she's a diligent researcher and tremendous advocate of simple cooking with fresh ingredients. Everyone now acknowledges that she revolutionised British cookery in the post-war years. I'd say her writing stands up completely in the twenty-first century.
Ask the Jarrold book buyer
Chris Rushby and his team can help you find your next good read. Whatever genre you enjoy or whatever author you like, pop into the book department on the lower ground floor to discover something new. A small collection of our books available instore are online too.