Proper Books

Tom Parker Bowles is a friend. I like the chap. He’s passionate and knowledgeable. He has a mellifluous way with words on the page. Even rarer among food writers, he knows what a story is. He’s very good company. And he believes that lunch is always better for another bottle, and very possibly one or two glasses of chilled eau de vie de poire. Now Tom has produced LET’S EAT – RECIPES FROM MY KITCHEN NOTEBOOK,

Passing judgement on the book of a friend is a delicate business, best left to others and discrete silence. However, with LET”S EAT, I don’t feel inclined to silence. Rather the reverse.

LET”S EAT is a handsome production. It has heft and quality and clever, informal photography by Cristian Barnett The cover is actually illustrated with recipes from Tom’s kitchen notebook, which adds texture and tone. You can see it’s not a conceptual confection, but a real notebook, with real recipes picked up during a real life eating here and there. And that is the true strength of Tom’s book.

These aren’t recipes ordered by conscious themes, because life isn’t; like that. It a lucky dip, a rag bag, a magnificent quality street assortment of recipes. There’s some attempted to impose order on enthusiasm. There are sections on Comfort Food; Quick Fixes; Slow & Low; From Far-Flung Shores; and Cooking for Children. But what actually propels this books along is Tom’s gusto, his pleasure in food, his enthusiasms and idiosyncrasies – Bells of St Clement’s Ceviche; Oxtail Consommé (& Bullshot); Devilled Kidney’s on Toast; Griddled Lamb with Cucumber Raita; Cochinita Pibil; Proper ribs.

Braised Ox Cheeks rub shoulders, as it were, with Adobang Baka (Filipino beef stew), Eccles Cake Ice Cream with Tom’s 10-Alarm chilli, Goan Mutton Vindaloo with Lola’s Favourite Liver. This is proper food, as Tom would say – long on pleasure, short on frou-frou; punchy, munchy; sensible and accessible for anyone with a modicum of cooking experience and curiosity, and while not everyone might want to eat everything, there’s something there for anyone.

And knitting it altogether is the personality of the man, engaging, wholehearted, animated, cheery, inquisitive and not in the least up his own bum. ‘Professional chefs …don’t have to contend with the smell of burnt dripping hanging around the sitting room for weeks after cooking huge portions of boeuf Bourguignon.’ How true, how very true. ‘Give me decent street food over the most elaborate Michelin-starred confections’. ‘ ‘I’ve never cooked anything I wouldn’t eat myself for my children.’ ‘I’m not a nutritionist or dietician. Thank god, because the vast majority talk crap’.

Tom’s earlier books had something of the curate’s egg about them – scintillating in some parts, in others it seemed as if he’d wandered off to the pub. There’s none of that about LET”S EAT. It’s just like hanging around the kitchen with the cove, and I can’t think of doing anything better with anyone nicer.

But LET”S EAT hasn’t been the only book to catch my eye. A HISTORY OF FOOD IN 100 RECIPES, which is one of those ideas that make me feel bloody hell, why didn’t I think of that? But I’m sure I would not have done as good a job as William Sitwell. He’s cherry-picked his dishes from Ancient Egyptian bread (1958-1913 BC) to Heston Blumenthal’s Meat Fruit (20119, by way of Hippocras jelly (1530), Tomato Sauce in the Spanish style (1692), Peach Melba (1903), Cheese Fondue (1970) and 94 other recipes.

Mr. Sitwell is an accomplished pot stirrer, both literal and figurative. I’m not convinced that some of our more austere food historians would agree that Cupcakes (1828), Rice Krispies Treats (1941) or Individual Sausage, Tomato & Artichoke Heart Pizzas (1995) really warrant inclusion. The James Beard dish of A large Cocktail Crush for 40 (1965) is a sop to the American market. My own list would have included Chicken Marengo and Tournedos Rossini among several other, and if you can ingeniously include a dish by the man who invented the pressure cooker, Denis Papin (Fish Experiment XIII, 1681), then surely William Sitwell should have something from the wife of Dr Gustav Dahlen, the man who came up with the Aga.

Still, Mr Sitwell argues his corner in easy style and breezy irreverence, and gives us a lot of fascinating food lore along the way. The entry on Papin is almost worth the price of the book on its own. This is tapas-style food history – in bite-sized morsels, fun, delightful, and leaving you wanting more.

Anabel Loyd’s PICNIC CRUMBS was pressed on my by the more-than diffident author during a lunch party. ‘It’s just a bit of fun’, she said. And it is, fun, funny, delicious and charming. It’s a kind of what used to be called a commonplace book, a collection of stories, anecdotes, poems, observations, recipes gathered by a curious and discriminating mind, and in this case, all about picnics. The practical issues of picnicking are addressed via the observations and experiences of a diverting range of characters from Osbert Sitwell to Claudia Roden, by way of Lady Jekyll, Manju Shivraj Singh, Puckler-Muskau and Ranulph Fiennes among a cheery and colorful cast. And, I should add, Anabel Loyd herself, because her own reflections make an essential contribution to the pleasure of PICNIC CRUMBS. She’s the best of companions, wide-ranging in her sympathies, eccentrically passionate about her subject and cheerfully opinionated. It makes for a wonderfully individual and informative book.

FOOD by Paul Cunningham from the irrepressible Grub Street Press is, if anything, even more idiosyncratic. The front cover advertises ‘100 recipes, 25 locations, 4 seasons. I have never eaten Mr. Cunningham’s food, regretfully. He was born in Essex, but now runs a Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen. He is clearly a much-traveled man. Regretfully, I’ve never eaten Mr. Cunningham’s food. I say regretfully because he’s obviously a man with extensive culinary sympathies to judge by the eclectic nature of the recipes in the book, among them Kowloon Hotpot, Eton Mess, sepia estufa amb cigrons, Helton & Inge’s steamed ‘fuldskager, and poached egg with smoked pine needle oil. This is, says Mr Cunningham, is comfort food, which he defines as ‘food we feel comfortable with’, which seems rather sensible to me. Some of the dishes might strain my sense of comfort in the kitchen but not at the table. The whole gastronomic odyssey is presented with bravura visual style by Soren Varming, the designer. It’s not often I get excited by the design and photography in cookery books, but in the case of FOOD they dazzle the eye.

LET’S EAT – Tom Parker Bowles (Pavilion; £25)
A HISTORY OF FOOD IN 100 RECIPES – William Sitwell (Collins; £20)
PICNIC CRUMBS – Anabel Loyd (Polperro Heritage Press; £22)
FOOD – Paul Cunningham (Grub Street; £25)

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