Eat your words
Cookbooks can be so much more than lists of recipes. Emma Hughes talks to five eminent foodies about the favourites in their collections
April 21 2020
BY EMMA HUGHES
The novelist Anthony Powell maintained that books furnish a room; to which I’d add that cookbooks bring it to life. Whether they’re batter-splattered paperbacks or glossy coffee-table tomes, they’re repositories of memories, joy and laughter. And in the digital age, they’re proving resilient. In fact, in the “Cookbook Corner” section of her website, each week the supremely digitally savvy Nigella Lawson recommends an analogue volume. One of her recent picks was The Quality Chop House by Will Lander and Shaun Searley, which, she writes, is “a book you want to return to again and again, full of recipes that offer warmth, comfort, reassurance and – so very important, too – delight.” Well, quite.
One reason that bricks-and-mortar recipe collections have an edge over online equivalents is their voice. All recipes speak, but the way a printed one instructs, nudges and gently encourages feels more substantial. They also tell a physical story, falling open at their owner’s favourite recipes like a school library’s heavily pawed copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And, of course, they’re impervious to food trends. While an algorithm might prioritise the shiny and new, your cookery books will continue to suggest brilliant dishes from decades gone by that might otherwise have got lost in the din.
Practically, they’re a more sensible choice than reading off your iPhone while you whisk and fry – boiling water and hot oil are less catastrophic when mixed with paper than an £800 handset. And it doesn’t matter if they never reach your kitchen. Rather than furiously scrolling through Twitter before putting the light out, a cookbook at bedtime is the purest kind of escapism. (My favourite is Niki Segnit’s The Flavour Thesaurus, which helps you matchmake ingredients.) At this time of year, they really come into their own as reading matter: If there’s any nicer postprandial activity than beaching yourself on the sofa with a sherry within arm’s reach and leafing through a new cookbook, I’ve yet to experience it.
But don’t just take it from me – here’s what five top-tier foodies have to say about their collections.
Growing up, it wasn’t so much mother but Madhur Jaffrey who knew best – her tomes always held the answers. But for me, cookbooks aren’t just for culinary inspiration – they can be a source of cultural insight, too. One favourite is Food In Vogue, a selection of recipes that appeared in the magazine from the Forties to Eighties. It was edited by the very flamboyant Maxime de la Falaise, model and muse, and includes a recipe for cake “iced” in gold leaf by Andy Warhol.
The classic: Eastern Vegetarian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey (1990). The recipes span India, the Orient and the Middle East; it is so rich with wisdom. She was far ahead of her time, praising ingredients that the West has only recently fallen in love with.
The new favourite: How to Eat a Peach by Diana Henry (2018). A master of making you run to the kitchen and having your way with whatever is languishing in your fridge, Henry’s book is stunning and full of atmospheric, transportive menus and writing. It sits on my bedside table.
Jikoni, 19-21 Blandford Street, London W1U 3DG (020 7034 1988; jikonilondon.com)
My cookbook collection has, in theory, reached its limit, as my wife imposed a one-in-one-out policy some years ago, yet I’m still finding ways to grow it. I don’t know the numbers (hundreds, though), and while she sees the formal shelving in the kitchen and living room, I’ve found space under sofas and beds, too. At its core are two dozen well-thumbed and loved books, reflective of the period when I learnt to cook – mid-Nineties to early Noughties – with some classics to fill the gaps, and then a mass of more recent titles, most of which I’m fortunate to be given. These days they’re for reference and browsing, as I tend to be busy cooking and testing my own recipes.
The classic: Week in, Week Out by Simon Hopkinson (2007) – a selection of his hits while recipe writer at The Independent.
The new favourite: The Book of St John by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver (2019), in a toss-up with another restaurant-originated cookbook from his irreverent but brilliant disciple, Lee Tiernan – Black Axe Mangal (2019).
Ed Smith is the author of “On the Side” (2017) and “The Borough Market Cookbook” (2018)
I have a huge collection of perhaps 200 books, although I did need to cull at least 100 when I left London for Dorset four years ago. Those that I return to all the time have good prose, recipes that work and also a degree of originality. The design is important – not just the cover, but inside, because it’s so much harder to sell a physical book these days. I’ve noticed that books are becoming more and more beautiful as a result. I keep most of mine in the sitting room, where there’s a wall covered in shelves, but there is also a small shelf in the kitchen for the ones I regularly use.
The classic: My Gastronomy by Nico Ladenis (1987). The writing is wonderfully authoritative; full of informed opinion. Every chef should study this book – we use Ladenis’ methods for classic sauces and other techniques daily in our kitchens as they are the very best.
The new favourite: Dishoom by Shamil Thakrar et al (2019) has everything – wonderful passionate writing, stunning design and delicious ideas.
Rose Prince is the author of “Dinner & Party: Gatherings. Suppers. Feasts” (2017)
Head chef, Lina Stores
A corner of my house is reserved just for my huge cookbook collection, which includes ingredient- and produce-led books. Most of them have now spilled over into my bedroom, which has become a library of sorts. A core collection of 21 cookbooks that each highlight a different region of Italy is a favourite. It always inspires me to learn more about the different gastronomic traditions. I go to antique markets for vintage cookbooks; I’m fascinated by how people used to cook and how these traditions impact us to this day.
The classic: La Cucina Italiana: The Regional Cooking of Italy by the Italian Academy of Cuisine (2009) not only has regional recipes but also specific techniques and explains things like the different parts of meat, how to prepare fish, and the different types of pasta.
The new favourite: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (2000). I’ve become quite fond of autobiographical cookery books, and this is a fascinating read by an incredibly interesting man.
Lina Stores Kings Cross is now open at 20 Stable Street, London N1C 4DR (linastores.co.uk)
TOM PARKER BOWLES
Food writer and critic
I’m a cookbook freak. I find it near impossible to walk past any charity shop without dropping in and hoping to find some pristine first edition of Dalí’s cookbook, Les Dîners de Gala, or anything by Eliza Acton. Or even a good copy of Michel Guérard’s Cuisine Minceur. I must have about 3,000 now, ranging from pamphlets about the Scottish lobster industry and self-published, ring bound US Girl Scout recipe collections to signed first editions of Calvin Trillin, MFK Fisher, Elizabeth David and AJ Liebling. It’s both obsession and addiction, and AbeBooks is a dangerous place to be. Especially late at night, after a few cocktails. But everything about books makes me happy; the smell, the touch, the pure physical heft.
The classic: A Book of Food by P Morton Shand (1927), an architecture critic and botanist.
The new favourite: Thai Food by David Thompson (2002), the top Australian chef.
Tom Parker Bowles is the author of “Fortnum & Mason: Christmas & Other Winter Feasts” (2018)