My classic top ten
I've never clearly understood where my love of and connection to food came from. Credit often goes to my Grandmother, who in-service from age 14, rose through the ranks to become head-cook. A happy childhood with a focus around food I am sure also played a large part.
However, a strong influence was the famous Mrs. Isabella Beeton. My mother had a first edition of Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management given to her by a neighbour who had bought it at a flea market for the handsome sum of two-bob. Little did they or my family know then that in years to come it would become a much sought after collectors item.
Mrs. Beeton was my storybook. As a little girl I read the chapters on poultry and game; Widgeon, Capercalzie and Ptarmigan to me were mythical birds. I would scare myself witless looking at pictures of calves heads served on silver platters or reading gruesome recipes for pigs face. I could tell you exactly how to lay a table for eighteen and was a dab hand at napkin folding.
Sadly, that book disappeared no one remembers where or when and I for one mourned the loss. I have seen facsimile copies but they simply donít compare to the original with its leather binding and slightly fusty, yellowing pages. Imagine my delight then, when I received a first edition as a wedding present last year. The friend who gave it to me had no idea that this was my all-time favourite cookbook. Many years have gone by since my last foray into the delights of her writing, but I find it as enchanting as back then. T
The directness and simplicity of her writing defies time and fashion. I feel sure I read recipes, not unlike hers, in current food magazines? What I wonder would she make of food today with genetic modification, irradiation, instant soups, powdered mash and microwavable dinners? Her beef was on the bone, fruit and vegetables were seasonal, poultry wrapped in feathers not polystyrene and clingfilm. Not much Iím sure. I do think though that she would have loved dishwashers, food processors and refrigeration.
No list of cookbooks would be complete without one of our other greatest food writers, Elizabeth David. I have two on my top ten and even then it was hard to choose. Her influence on food and cooking in the twentieth century was extensive. Italian Food written in 1954 following a year of research in the Italy is still considered one of the most authoritative books on the subject. It introduced to an austere, postwar Britain a wealth of Ingredients and style of cooking that we now consider mainstream. Likewise with French Provincial Cooking in 1960, her descriptions of French food and cooking are so wonderful you can almost smell the garlic. I have read both so many times and cooked from them endlessly.
Where Mrs. Davidís work is full of literary prose as well as being a practical cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Simone Beck, Julia Child and Louisette Berthole is a solid no-nonsense book. I could never have survived living in France without it. There are hundreds clear, precise, recipes for cooking French haute cuisine and throughout, there are endless helpful line drawings; just what you need when trussing a duck or boning a chicken. I have never failed with any of the recipes even the complicated ones.
My top four books were all written some time ago, and by females. It is to times more recent and men I look to for the next books. Nigel Slaterís Real Food is the book I am most likely to give, a) as a present to anyone who loves to cook or simply enjoys reading about food and b) to a man. I defy anyone not to leap for the chip pan after reading Nigelís description of a chip butty.
The French Laundry Cookbook, Thomas Keller, was a turning point in cookbook publishing when it first appeared in 1999. It is beautiful to look at, to read, to hold and to savour. The food is as imaginative as it is complicated; a great book for the serious cook and a gorgeous one for the coffee table.
He may be out of fashion now but Keith Floyd will forever remain as one of the best TV cooks for me. He was informative, inspiring and above all, incredibly funny. I wholeheartedly agree with his drinking wine while cooking. His groundbreaking series Floyd on France and resulting book (I lost interest by the time he reached China) is still one of the books I regularly take from the shelf. His recipe for Coq au Vin is to-die-for.
My final three. Harold McGee, The Curious Cook isnít a cookbook. Itís a book about cooking or rather, the science of cooking. A great read if only to find out how to keep the green colour in a salad, or making Jerusalem artichokes more edible and many other kitchen facts and fallacies. A book to dip in and out of.
Foods that Harm, Foods that Heal also isnít a cookbook but one of the most useful reference books in my collection. My edition is now hopelessly out of date but I still use it whenever a cure (or cause) is sought using food or diet. I so admire the simplicity of the book; no heavy science or medical jargon.
Finally. Of the many, many new books I have received in the past year, the one that stands out most is Sue Lawrenceís Book of Baking. The sticky, batter splattered cover and well-thumbed pages bear testament to its popularity in this house especially page 107. Warm date cake with fudge topping is one of the easiest cakes ever to make and scores a hit every time. Delicious, as are all the recipes in the book.