‘Testicles – Balls in Cooking and Culture’. There’s a title to grab the attention. 219 pages on balls by Blandine Vie, translated by Giles MacDonagh. A subject of specialised interest if ever there was one, testicles. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I dare say. Even by my standards, it’s a bit arcane. But that’s Prospect Books for you.
Arcane, curious, idiosyncratic, autocratic, odd, weird even, Prospect Books is everything you want from an independent publisher. Well, almost everything. It publishes the books that no one else will. Take a look at their current list. Here’s a volume on mediaeval Arab Cookery by Arberry, Perry and Rodinson. Here’s Archestratus’ A Life of Luxury. There’s ‘Open-Mouthed’, a collection of poems about food. Here’s ‘ Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos’, Alan Davidson’s classic. There’s Sir Kenelm Digby and John Evelyn and ‘The Housewife’s Family Companion’ by William Ellis; Kenny-Herbert and Patience Grey and Geraldine Holt. There are history books and books of historical interest. There are books on the theory of cooking. And there are books on single, practical topics – ‘Cooking with Courgettes’ by Marie Fougere; ‘In the Realm of the Fig and The Quince’ by Ria Loohuizen; ‘Rhubarbaria’ by Mary Prior. They are all produced with a care and attention to detail – typography, design, illustration, weight of paper – rare in publishing these days.
The governor at Prospect Books is the one and only Tom Jaine, formerly chef, editor of the Good Food Guide in it’s Golden Age, magazine proprietor (Petit Propos Culinaires; and if you think that a book about testicles is arcane, let me tell you that it has a broad church appeal compared to some of the articles in PCC) and keeper of the questing flame of the late Alan Davidson. In my experience, Tom is as generous as he is opinionated. In a world of grey placemen, he shines like a bird of paradise, albeit one of distinctly individual plumage.
Now, what’s this? Another book fall also onto the mat just inside the front door with a satisfying, muffled thump. Clearly not another slender envelope demanding money with barely veiled threats that flutter like confetti into my life with depressing regularity. ‘Tapas – Classic Small Dishes from Spain’ by Elizabeth Luard. The jacket around the hard cover, is elegant and restrained. The type face is clean and direct, the photograph of olives in a dish of some kind, cool. Inside the pages breath, laid out with a thoughtful, practical eye. It’s a sensible, sturdy production.This is a book to be used. The publisher’s imprimatur reads ‘Grub Street.’
As a publishing house, Grub Street has a bigger reach than Prospect Books. Its operations are divided between food and military history, a curious see-saw of interests I would have said. But the list at Grub Street is nothing if not eclectic, as eclectic in its own way as Prospect’s list. The food section is sub-divided into General, Healthy/Vegetarian/Vegan, International, International, Wine, Desserts/Indulgent recipes, Basics, it’s the section titles Classic Food Writers that gives me most pleasure. It is a roll-call of honour – E. David, J. Grigson, Colin Spencer, Elizabeth Luard, Arto der Haroutunian, Colman Andrews, Marguerite Patten, Margaret Costa, Richard Olney, Richard Ehrlich. It is stuffed with classics. If your copy those imperishable master pieces – French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David; Middle Eastern Cookery by Arto der Haroutunian; Catalan Cuisine by
Colman Andrews; European Peasant Cookery by Elizabeth Luard, Good Things by
Jane Grigson or Marguerite Patten’s 100 Top Teatime Treats – are looking a bit dog-eared and gravy-stained, you can find pristine new copies from Grub Street, clearly laid out, nice printed, satisfying hard-backed. Proper books for proper cooks
Just as Prospect Books bears the unmistakable mark of Tom Jaine’s distinctive curiosity, so Grub Streets’s list is shaped by Anne Dolamore’s equally individual if more classic taste. Anne resuscitates titles that you would have to search the shelves of second-hand bookshops to find, and the copies would never as pristine, and so ready for another generations custard and jam splodges, as a Grub Street edition.
In an era of tv tie-ins, bloggish overkill and concept cookery books, both Prospect Books and Grub Street keep civilised standards flying high, do good deeds in a naughty world and provide deep pleasure for the discriminating and curious cook.