Books for cooks


I love this book.


an armful


traitorous victoria sponge recipe

With money that my Mum and Dad gave me for Christmas (thanks, Mum and Dad!) I indulged in a few weighty tomes to add to my already groaning cookbook shelves – Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and Fizz Carr’s River Cottage Family Cookbook, and The Silver Spoon.

These books are all enormous – a real armful. What is it about cookbooks these days that they feel they must be all-encompassing? Despite their heft though, I’ve enjoyed them all immensely, for different reasons.

Nigel’s Kitchen Diaries documents a year in the life of his good eating, with accompanying real-life (shock: not studio!) pictures. The River Cottage Family cookbook is intended as an all-ages pass to good cooking and eating, also with real-life  photos. The Silver Spoon is the English translation of an Italian staple cookbook – the Italian Edmonds cookbook, if you will. No self-respecting Italian leaves home without one.

The Kitchen Diaries is a fantastic, inspiring read. I read it like a particularly gripping book, unable to put it down til I got to December, and his suggestions for leftover Christmas cake (warm in a pan with melted butter, then a swoosh of cream – corr!). It’s also a beautiful, tactile book,  with a linen-bound spine and gorgeous unbleached, matte pages that blessedly don’t reflect glaring, blinding light into your eyes as you try to read. I loved the homey, in situ photography too, none of this fussy studio stuff. I appreciate that. While I love to look at food porn as much as the next foodie, it’s also nice to see what food REALLY looks like, before the food stylist gets in there with a spray bottle of glycerine or oil to make it all shiny.

But it’s the writing itself which I really love. Nigel is the food writer I want to be when I grow up. Of course, it helps that he has a fantastically interesting life and lifestyle to write about, but godammit, the man can write. I think he is my favourite contemporary food writer.

The River Cottage Family Cookbook has a similar feel to that of the Kitchen Diaries – it’s what a family eats, day to day, real life. It also goes the unbleached matte paper route (I love it), and does the homey photography, too. Actually, I think the photography is the thing I like the best about this cookbook, the snapshots of the authors’ children kneading dough, gutting fish and sticking their fingers into jelly, the background glimpses into kitchens (ordinary, with crazy colours and funky knick-knacks, no gleaming modern kitchens). It has the best recipe for home-made pizza I’ve yet encountered, but the worst advice for making self-raising flour I’ve ever read.

Let me explain. I wanted to make the victoria sponge recipe for afternoon tea, cos I love that kind of cake. The recipe called for self-raising flour, which isn’t available here, so I referred to the section on flour in the book, which advised using a heaped teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda and a good pinch of cream of tartar for every 100g of flour. I made the cake, baked it, sandwiched it all together with some yummy home-made strawberry jam, and took it down to the new neighbours for afternoon tea. It looked great – a lovely honey colour, well-risen etc etc BUT…tasted disgusting! The bicarbonate of soda!!!! Every bite had an awful bitter after-taste. Yuck! Bugger! What a shameful waste.
Note to self: take heed of the little voice telling me that surely it should be BAKING SODA, not BICARB SODA…

I haven’t delved so much into The Silver Spoon as yet, as it only arrived the other day. But I was a little disappointed by its thin, bleached white pages (I’m such a shallow girl, easily swayed by looks) after the matte gloriousness of the Kitchen Diaries and The River Cafe FC. It’s kind of like the difference between a heavy, off-white organic double cream and a bright, white, pasteurised commercial cream. And the typography and design – I don’t like it, although they have also done the non-studio photography (must be the latest trend in food  photography).
That said, I think that there is a ginormous store of culinary information and expertise in this book. Again, it’s the Edmonds cookbook situation – nothing much to write home about on the outside, but full of great stuff inside, with the potential to become one of my favourite cookbooks.


14 thoughts on “Books for cooks

  1. Hello, my fist time on your blog, your pictures are amazing!
    Are you from switzerland?
    I am, and i just openened my foodblog, so if you like to take a look,
    A bientôt!

  2. Don’t you mean the River Cottage Family Cookbook by Fearnley-Whittingstall and Carr? Not the River Cafe books which are by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers.

  3. Just ordered Nigel Slater’s book off Amazon. I have come across one or two of his essays on the Web and, judging by them, I am sure his book will be fabulous.

  4. *slapping forehead* Laurie, you are absolutely right. I meant the River Cottage Family Cookbook, not hte River Cafe Family cookbook (which I think doesn’t exist). Sorry for the confusion!

  5. Your selfraising flour thing! I get the same thing using american books on this side of the atlantic. Unusual flours and all sorts of things i’ve never even heard of (some books very annoyingly use brand names for ingredients), and measuring ingredients by volume which make no sense to me! Cups of butter? I’d be there all day trying to squish fridge-hard butter into a cup… so I stick conversion sheets into books to help, but I always get the feeling i’m messing it up slightly. Heh. Still, someday I’ll get to know them all inside out.
    I’d highly recommend the hugh fearnley whittingdale Meat book too if you like the river cottage one! What an education. Every cut and type of meat explained with loads of photos and drawings, and a heap of excellent recipies. A fantastic resourse, and got me on great terms with my local butcher.

  6. I don’t think the bicarb was the problem. Bicarbonate of soda and baking soda are the same thing. Baking powder is the other thing. Then there’s cream of tartar. Depending on the level of acidity in the rest of the mixture you need different quantities of one or the other to do the raising.
    I love the nigel slater book too. It helps me understand why he’s not hugely fat as his other books are so fat-full. It just seems he has abstemious days in order to make up for the creme fraiche/butter richness of his other cooking.

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