Friday, 18 December 2009

A booklover's wishlist for Christmas

Friends and family have stopped giving me cookbooks

As you enter our Bloomsbury living room you can see why: a flimsy IKEA bookcase groans under the weight of hundreds of cookbooks - well our demented boiler is gurgling like a gremlin at the moment but that's another story - the flat seems to be tilting precariously to one side under the weight of so many books.

Some are blatant food "porn" purchases from days when I didn't know any better, others are more conventional glossy cookbooks nestled in between the Elizabeth David classics and battered old baking books replete with indecipherable doodles. Inspirational tomes such as Olivier Roellinger's Seafood book and Heston's Big Fat Duck Cookbook are there to remind me that being creative is no bad thing, and I have yet to really sink my teeth into McGee on Food and Cooking in a systematic way, save his chapter on dairy.

But seriously, does a girl really need hundreds of cookbooks? I'm more than a little embarrassed by my bulging cookbook collection and perversely found myself calculating how many pairs of killer heels I could have bought in lieu of all those snazzy cookbooks. After all, a girl can never have too many shoes.

So in order to save you and your family or friends from accumulating quite so many cookbooks - and to save all that money for buying pretty shoes in the new year sales! - I've compiled a Christmas wishlist for bookish food fiends; a list that sprang out of friends asking me from time to time which books I would recommend from my cookbook collection.

For the purpose of this exercise I enlisted my pal Will Knightley - a rogue foodie with a penchant for martinis - to help whittle down the books. It's not a definitive list, We've left off some notable culinary giants and included a few unusual books which might appeal to a foodnerd who is interested in learning more about the history and anthropology of food. There are also a few recommendations for food magazines and journals that would make fine Christmas gifts for a fussy foodie.

I'd be curious to know which books are your favourite ones to cook from, which have proved inspirational, and which ones looked promising but ultimately failed to live up to expectations. Needless to say I'm on a self-imposed ban from buying any more books and if anything a cull is long overdue. Still...there are invariably gaps in my collection so please let me know in a comment below which food/cookery books you'd add to this list :-)

The cookbooks:

Fiona Beckett's Cheese Course (Ryland, Peters & Small)

Perhaps this should have been called 'The Joy of Cheese' as it's a caseophile's delight. I've worked with Fiona for two years and recently wrote my MA thesis on the anthropology of cheese so I'm completely biased, but I genuinely love this book. You learn how cheese is made, examples of the different types of cheese and how to taste and compare them. Fiona being the doyenne of food and wine matching you get a comprehensive cheese and wine matching guide, and also alternatives such as cider, beer, port and whisky to name a few. I could really have used the tip about not matching red wine to oozing Epoisses the other night, and Fiona explains in detail why red wine - a traditional match for cheese as a whole - can be a minefield when paired with many cheese varieties. There are suggestions for seasonal cheese plates and recipes to keep even the greediest of cheeselovers happy.

Try the tartiflette, the buckwheat galettes with parma ham and emmental, and the stichelton steak with winter salad of onions and roquette. If you're a real curd nerd check out Fiona's Cheeselover blog for updates on cheese finds, and her 'Ultimate Mac n' Cheese Challenge' which kicks off December 28th

Moro East by Sam & Sam Clark (Ebury Books)

Fans of the restaurant Moro will love this book which extends east to Levantine shores via their East End allotment. The recipes are clearly written and easy to follow. What more can I say - buy this book along with the two original Moro cookbooks and you won't be disappointed. Up there with the Scandinavian Cookbook and Ottolenghi as my everyday favourites.

Risotto with Nettles: A memoir with food
by Anna del Conte (Chatto & Windus)

This is the food memoir of 2009. Del Conte shares stories from her childhood in Milan, giving the recipes she cites at the start of each chapter meaning and context through a tightly-written narrative. Her style of writing is self-effacing and ever so slightly patrician, a legacy of her Milanese roots I suspect and what fascinates me about her story is del Conte's liminality as a child raised in Mussolini's Italy and her transition to an adult who married and settled in Britain - she evinces both Italian (or rather Milanese) and British characteristics in her writing yet in some ways is rootless...

Any book that opens with a chapter on Toscanini and La Scala will appeal to the cultured Italophile foodie; a real gem of a memoir.

The Scandinavian Cookbook by Trina Hahnemann (Quadrille)

One of the best cookbooks published in recent years. Beautiful photography couples with clear, easy-to-follow recipes and the best cinnamon bun recipe this side of Copenhagen. Trina's evocative book sends me straight back to my Scandinavian roots and I can't think of a better introduction to the seasonal cooking of game, fish, fruit, veg grains and aquavit (kidding, aquavit is not a foodstuff) of where I grew up. A book I never tire of.

Look out for Trina's Nordic Diet book - due to be released in January - of which I'll be giving a sneak preview here very soon. If you're curious about Trina's recipes and Scandinavian food in general I did a menu earlier this year based on her book which includes a fabulous gravlaks or gravadlax recipe.

Game: A Cookbook
by Trish Hilferty & Tom Norrington-Davies (Absolute Press)

Anyone who knows me will tell you I have a penchant for game, and I instantly fell in love with this book when it arrived last month. The fact that it's co-authored by Tom Norrington-Davies, head chef and co-owner of Great Queen Street, one of my favourite restaurants, adds to its 'must-have' appeal.

Recipes that stand out:

* confited pheasant with fennel and satsuma salad

* potroast mallard, quince and star anise

* rabbit braised with prunes and beer

In sum, a brilliant, modern cookbook on game - buy this for a bona fide foodie and they'll love you forever

Snowflakes and Schnapps by Jane Lawson (Murdoch Books)

This book has proved curiously divisive. Will and I love it, other foodlovers aren't convinced.

Jane Lawson seems detached from the recipes and there has been criticism of the broad geographical layout spanning Scandinavia, Germany and Eastern Europe. Frankly that's what appeals to me - there is a common thread of cooking throughout cold Northern European countries: hearty, ribsticking fare with dishes such as beer cooked bratwurst, which is what gets me cooking on a cold winter's day. I was born in Germany and my first word was most likely "wurst" so I'm totally biased - a book with sausage recipes is always going to send my into nostalgic daydreaming mode! The liquorice lamb appeals to the Scandi in me and I love Lawson's baking recipes - reminiscent of the ones I grew up with in Norway. Great recipes and gorgeous photography make this a winner. Buy this book for the Northern European who loves to ski and eats carbs and meat with gusto!

A Very Honest Cook by Stephen Markwick and Fiona Beckett (Culinaria Press)

More of a magazine or journal than a hefty cookbook and therein lies the appeal of 'A Very Honest Cook'. I'd hazard a guess that this slimline book of a few choice recipes from Stephen Markwick of Culinaria fame might prove to be a publishing model for 2010. When I met Stephen and his wife Judy at Abergavenny food festival earlier this year everything Fiona had told me about Stephen was spot-on: he's a self-deprecating cook who represents the best of British cuisine. With a foreword by Simon Hopkinson that praises the 'stylish simplicity' of Stephen's cooking, and clear, concise recipes this is a book I'll be cooking often from and can't wait to visit Bristol again so I can sample Stephen's provencal fish soup, loin of venison with celeriac and potato mash and honeyed parsnips... and a devilishly good treacle tart ;-)

The Songs of Sapa by Luke Nguyen (Murdoch Books)

Will claims this is the book for gap-year kids who read 'The Beach' on their travels throughout Asia during the '90s. I did neither of those things yet I love this book, perhaps because Vietnam is on my list of places to visit. This book transports you to Nguyen's home country with sumptuous recipes and fantastic photography. Recipes such as Hanoi beef noodle soup, roast pork and crisp snapper just work. The only drawback is the book is a tome of the coffee-table variety thus slightly tricky to place in the kitchen while cooking, but still - a book worth owning.

Ottolenghi: The Cookbook (Ebury)

My favourite deli in London and a cookbook that is high up on my list of favourites. The partnership between Israeli Yotam Ottolenghi and Palestinian Sami Tamimi works on so many levels: the delis are an aesthete's delight with their white backdrop and an array of colourful food tempting you in. I spent a day in the Upper Street branch of Ottolenghi as part of my Leiths training and witnessed first-hand the care and attention Ottolenghi chefs take in creating both pastries and savoury food. It may be expensive but the food at Ottolenghi is worth every penny.

Buy this book for the foodlover who is curious about the Middle East and loves eating at Ottolenghi's delis.

The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden (Penguin)

Not a recent publication but this should be on every serious foodlover's bookshelf. Roden's vivid account of the Jewish diaspora, enriched with stories of her own life and comprehensive descriptions of Ashkenazi and Sephardic cooking is a classic. The recipes are foolproof and delicious.

Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey (Ebury)

A confession: I have a real soft spot for Rick Stein. Perhaps it's his love of seafood, or his gentle, ambling manner when he's cooking. I was fortunate enough to work as a stagiere in his Seafood restaurant down in Padstow when I was training at Leiths and loved every minute of my stage there, learning more about seafood in a week working for Stein's band of merry chefs than I did anywhere else. Stein's most recent book represents the best recipes of countries such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia. Every recipe is enticing and foolproof and somehow captures the rich diversity of food across Asia; this is the book for the globetrotting gourmet who loves telling stories and cooks with confidence and flair!

Adventures with Chocolate by Paul A Young (Kyle Cathie)

Quite simply the best chocolate book of 2009. Paul trained under Marco Pierre White and I've posted on this blog before about his dedication to the crafting of chocolate because that's exactly what he is - a craftsman. His shop in Camden Passage is one of the few chocolate shops in London which is suffused with the scent of chocolate as everything is hand-crafted on site.

The book is comprehensive and teaches you how to buy chocolate, what types of beans there are and the methods of tempering and how to make a truffle (an art in itself). There are tips on how to combine flavours with different types of chocolate and recipes such as:

* chocolate water biscuits for cheese

* passionfruit and coconut truffles (two of my favourite ingredients!)

* blackcurrant and liquorice truffles (ditto)

* chocolate, ginger and cardamom tea bread

* hot chocolate and basil fondants

A perfect gift for chocoholics, especially if they can't get to Paul's two stores in Camden Passage and Threadneedle Street this Christmas

What to Eat Now More Please! by Valentine Warner (Octopus)

Having met Valentine Warner through the lovely people at Peter's Yard I can vouch that he's utterly charming and a real cook's cook. This is the book to buy girls. Boys don't really get the appeal of Valentine so make sure you save this for your sister, cousin, girlfriend or foxy aunt.

Recipes that appeal:

* barbecued bavette steak with anchovies, red wine and garlic (is there a better combination of ingredients?)

* coconut lamb

* gravadlax: having seem Valentine make this at Abrgavenny food festival earlier this year I can attest to this recipe's deliciousness. Plus Valentine looked a bit like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets when he waved bunches of dill above his head

* prawn tangiers: I made this over the summer and it's now a firm favourite

* baby courgettes and chanterelles with basil: simple, clean flavours with not much fuss. Perfect.

Larousse Gastronomique (Hamlyn)

Everyone should own a copy of Larousse. It is the bible of cooking technique and classical French cuisine. Enough said.

McGee on Food and Cooking by Harold McGee (Scribner)

I love McGee's chapter on dairy, you might love his chapter on the four food molecules - every serious cook worth his or her salt should have McGee's encyclopedic masterpiece on their shelves. Failing that at least read his Curious Cook musings on food science ;-)

Coco: 10 world-leading masters choose 100 contemporary chefs (Phaidon)

This is the most zeitgeisty book of 2009, and what a tome it is. Chosen by gastronomic big guns Ferran Adria, Mario Batali, Rene Redzepi, Alice Waters, Jacky Yu, Gordon Ramsay, Fergus Henderson, Shannon Bennett, Alain Ducasse, and Yoshihiro Murata the hundred chefs featured in Coco are all fascinating in their own right. Some have commented on the title and I have to admit 'Coco' does strike me as an odd choice for this book, albeit a catchy one.

No matter, the book is a feast for the eyes and is the book to buy your serious gourmet friend or relative who has a keen interest in sampling the cooking of the hottest chefs today. When I first read about Coco in the Evening Standard earlier this year I was thrilled to see some of my favourite chefs such as Anthony Demetre of Arbutus and Wild Honey fame featured alongside Theo Randall and Skye Gangell. When Gastrogeek invited a few fellow food bloggers to join her and the team from Phaidon and Sauce PR for a Coco Gourmet Gallop around Maze, Theo Randall and Launceston Place last month I nearly fell off my chair at the itinerary for the gallop. We were treated to a fantastic evening of decadence, sampling the recipes each chef had included in the book. You can read brilliant reviews of the gourmet gallop from Gastrogeek herself, Dan of Essex Eating and Dan of the blog FoodUrchin amongst others including twitter's funniest food blogger Mimi of Meemalee's Kitchen who concluded: the Coco gourmet gallop was worth missing the last train for (and she did!)

A few snaps from the night:

Theo Randall's wood-roasted Cornish monkfish with parsley, capers, roseval potatoes, globe artichokes and prosciutto di Parma - a humdinger of a dish. Full of flavour and culinary skill. Theo himself came out to speak to us which was much appreciated by all of us attending the gallop

Tristan Welch's dessert platter (along with several huge tarte tartins) was the best dessert experience I've had since being left with the dessert trolly at Guy Savoy a 3-star michelin restaurant in Paris. Tristan and his staff looked after us with immense generosity, and like Theo Randall, took the time to speak to us about their cooking and Launceston Place. An epic way to end an epic gourmet gallop...

The books on food but not necessarily cookery:

Tsukiji by Theodore Bestor (University of California Press)

Harvard anthropologist Theodore Bestor has twenty years of ethnographic fieldwork in Japan under bis belt. The man knows Japan and he writes well which are two key features in the appeal of this book about Tokyo's legendary fish market Tsukiji. One for the food anthropologist, or someone who loves big fish and the ocean in general.

Hungry City by Carolyn Steel (Random House)

A lecturer in architecture at Cambridge, Steel is a formidable speaker and passionate advocate of how food shapes cities. Not one for the glossy food porn admiring reader, but one for serious foodies with a sense of history, an interest in the development of cities and architecture. Check out her Hungry City site for an idea of what the book is all about.

The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir by Amy Trubek (University of California Press)

Trubek asks why terroir and place matter. You may be wondering why the question even matters and if so I suggest you read Trubek's Taste of Place, an accessible and informative account of why terroir is important: we live in a highly connected world in which food is subjected to the forces of globalization like any other industry. Place becomes a powerful symbol of cultural and national roots, not to mention identity. Terroir evokes authenticity, particularly in wine, but increasingly now in food such as cheese and Trubek's book is for those who are bored by cookbooks and want something profound to sink their teeth into over the Christmas holiday.

Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham

For the foodie who cares about evolution, anthropology and understanding how cooking makes us human, this is the book to buy them for Christmas. Wrangham has a breezy style of writing virtually unseen in academia and his argument is elegant and provocative in equal measure. Brilliant. By far the most interesting anthropology book I've read in years.

Magazine/Journal Subscriptions to get discerning foodies:

Fire & Knives

Brand-spanking new food journal from editor extraordinaire Tim Hayward. Great writing, great photography, great design. Looks like a small book which makes it ideal for popping in your handbag. At a bargainous £20 per year for a subscription this is the gift to give the foodlover who has all the cookbooks they need.

The Art of Eating

Edward Behr's pared-back style of writing is true to his Vermont background and I can't wait for The Art of Eating to arrive by post every few months. Excellent pieces on real food, unfussy and spot-on in its analysis. You should see the cheese collection. Another one for the foodie who has everything and loves that New England salt-of-the-earth way of seeing the world.

美味しんぼ or Oishinbo (The Gourmet)

What can I say? if you know someone who loves Japanese food this is the publication for them. The ultimate 'foodnerd' gift this Christmas!

* an addendum: one book I completely forgot about is Simon Hopkinson's Roast Chicken and Other Stories and thank you to Helen aka Food Stories for reminding me about Hopkinson's other brilliant book Week in Week Out both books of which I own and love. Roast chicken had slipped down behind the bookcase and the latter I haven't used much recently but shall revisit when I return from the Canaries after Christmas. Add both to the neverending list of must-have books ;-)


theundergroundrestaurant said...

You beat me to it! I've got a back log of book reviews and was going to do a christmas roundup this weekend...
Some great suggestions there sig! ....
Hope you are having a god holiday

Anthony Silverbrow said...

Intrigued by Oishinbo, not one I'd seen. Generally agree with your post. I completely agree on the Claudia Roden book.

Other ones I'd recommend are Dessert, Champignon Sauvage and a bit left field Varied Kitchens of India

Helen said...

I'm sure everyone is really bored of me saying this BUT...

My favourite all timer is Week in Week Out by Simon Hopkinson. A beautiful, accomplished celebration of British food at its best.

Signe said...

@theundergroundrestaurant thanks! holiday great so far, much-needed recuperation from a hectic autumn :-)

@Anthony Silverbrow Roden is a giant in and of her own right, I love the Book of Jewish Food...thanks for your suggestions, will look at both when I return from Christmas holidays...

@Helen you're quite right, wonder why Hopkinson isn't on my list :S may have slipped down the back behind all the millions of other books. An excellent addition to the list, and not bored of hearing you say it at all!

meemalee said...

Fantastic round-up, Sig - perfect for last minute Christmas pressies.

And also, thank you for the lovely compliment. M xxx

Food Urchin said...

Oh bloody hell, the wishlist just keeps getting bigger and bigger, a post like this hardly helps!

And by the by, although Valentine does get up my nose a little bit, I can vouch for his barbecued bavette, it really is cracking.

Enjoy Christmas in the sun.

Fiona Beckett said...

Very flattered that you included 2 of my books, devastated that you've suggested so many more I need to acquire. I particularly like the food anthropology section. I'll certainly be getting the terroir book and although I'm not a major chocolate fan (mad, I know) simply must have that recipe for chocolate biscuits for cheese. A great read, Sig - thanks

Signe said...

@meemalee thanks Mimi and you're most welcome - twitter's funniest woman ;-)

@Food Urchin LOL, yes, the list does just get longer. I've not got 1/2 dozen cracking suggestions so all attempts at banning book purchases have fallen flat!!

@Fiona Beckett you're welcome Fiona, they're both brilliant books so had to be in the list ;-) definitely recommend the terroir and 'catching fire' book for a more anthropological take on food. And Paul's book on chocolate is fantastic, lots of inventive fun recipes in there...

Dan said...

Wow - very comprehensive list Sig.

Really interested to read your opinion on Snowflakes and Schnapps, which I thought was a beautiful book, but just didnt have enough background information on the dishes. (Considering your background, you already 'know' about the dishes perhaps, so less important for you?).

I'd add The Eagle Cookbook to the list - was re-released this year, and is without a doubt one of my favourite recipe books. (It also features Tom Norrington Davies heavily).

Oh thanks for the mention as well :)

Gourmet Chick said...

Great list I have got a few of those but a few are on the to buy list - although I must admit that I also have a cookbook addiction problem.

I would echo Dan in adding The Eagle cookbook to the list - another great one.

Signe said...

@Dan and @Gourmet chick thanks for your comments :-) The Eagle Cookbook is indeed a fantastic addition to the list - lots of cracking recipes in it and the style of food is accessible and delicious! Dan I see what you mean about Snowflakes and Schnapps, perhaps that is why I like it so much as the dishes are familiar ones from my childhood so I didn't feel the need for much background or context through a narrative...

Niamh said...

Lovely list! Ottolenghi and Week in Week Out are two of my faves. I adore Claudia Roden too, she's a long standing inspiration for me. I've also got some Irish ones for my list, which I never published. Maybe in January :)

Lovely post!

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rich (them apples) said...

....nothing spammy about Ugg boots here.

That's a huge list, some great titles. I love the Claudia Roden - I come back to that one time and time again.

In an afternoon of utter geekdom, I catalogued all of my books on and found out that 12% of all the books we own are food related (bear in mind that my other half doesn't cook at all, and we both read English Lit at uni. That's a LOT of cookbooks I've bought....)

Siri said...

Har du noen norske favoritter? :) Jeg må vel si at Ingrid Espelid er kokebokkvinnen i mitt liv!