Baking with Fortitude by Dee Rettali

Baking with fortitude
What’s the USP? Just because we’re not in lockdown any more doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned our national sourdough habit, does it? Either way, here’s a collection of sourdough cakes and bakes (and non-fermented recipes too) from cult London bakery Fortitude to keep your (sourdough) mother happy.  The book is the winner of  the Andre Simon Food Book Award 2021.

Who wrote it? Irish-born baker Dee Rettali was something of an organic food pioneer, opening Patisserie Organic in London in 1988. She is the former head chef of the London-based cafe chain Fernandez and Wells and opened Fortitude bakery in Bloomsbury in 2018.  This is her first book.

Is it good bedtime reading? There’s a six page introduction plus one or two page introductions to each of the seven chapters but that’s your lot.

Will I have trouble finding ingredients? You’ll need an online specialist supplier for dried meadowsweet to make the first recipe in the book, a butter loaf cake flavoured with honey and meadowsweet (one of eight butter loaf cakes recipes – the book is organised around base recipes and their variations).

Go anywhere but your local supermarket for the ‘fresh ripe’ fruit Rettali specifies for things like Lavender and Pear Butter Loaf Cake because, well,  when was the last time you bought fruit from Asda et al that was fresh and ripe? If you need overpriced stuff that is rock hard, tasteless and goes bad before it approaches ripeness then you’d be laughing.

You’ll need to buy organic flour of course, including buckwheat flour to make orange, yoghurt and polenta cake, but you should have few issues obtaining the vast majority of ingredients specified in the book.

What’s the faff factor? Although the book is billed as a collection of sourdough bakes which might sound complicated, in fact most of the recipes don’t use a starter but can be fermented if you wish to deepen the resultant flavour which Rettali claims is an innovation in cake baking.  This process takes no additional effort, you just need to plan ahead.  The base recipes, that include the aforementioned butter loaf cake as well as olive oil cake, yoghurt cake and sour milk soda bread are often just a matter of combining the ingredients in a bowl although the brioche and sourdough butter cake mixes are a little more complex.

The complete recipes range from the simple and straightforward Blueberry and Lime Little Buns to the slightly more involved Sticky Cinnamon Buns with Molasses Sugar, but there is nothing off-puttingly complex or too fiddly here. This is good old fashioned baking rather than fancy detailed patisserie work.

What will I love? Rettali has a very clear culinary vision and distinct style so that the recipes never feel over-familiar. There are some classics like Eccles cakes and  hot cross buns (albeit a sourdough-based version mad with candied orange) but also creations you may not have come across before like  turmeric custard and roast pear brioche buns or chocolate and chilli sugar olive oil loaf cake.

What won’t I like so much? Using the base-recipe-and-variations format means there is cross over and similarity among the groups of recipes (there are an awful lot of loaf cakes for example) in what, at 192 pages, is a relatively short book. You will need a food mixer for some of the recipes as alternative methods are not provided. 

How often will I cook from the book? If you are a keen baker, there is enough variety, from tahini, za’tar and sesame seed biscuits to tomato, garlic and oregano soda bread to keep you busy for many weeks.

Should I buy it? If you are an experienced baker looking to create something that little but different, this is definitely the book for you. Newbies will also appreciate Rettali’s encouraging attitude, ‘By sharing my recipes and approach to baking, I want to take away the fear. Use your hands, get your fingers right into the bottom of the bowl and feel the dough.’ 

Cuisine: British baking
Suitable for: Confident home cooks/beginners/professional chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

Buy this book
Baking with Fortitude by Dee Rettali
£22, Bloomsbury

Cook from this book
Rose and Pistachio Little Buns by Dee Rettali

Winner of the Andre Simon Food Book Award 2021. Click the image below to find out more.

Food Longlist (3)

Let’s Eat Italy by François-Régis Gaudry and Friends

Lets Eat Italy
What’s the USP? A deep dive on Italian food culture in an ‘oversized, obsessively complete, visual feast of a book’. And the marketing folk at publisher Artisan really do mean over-sized. This is the sort of coffee table book that might be better suited to artful placement on a picnic bench. Never mind doorstop tomes, this book is the size of an actual door. You get the idea: woe betide anyone looking to fit this onto an Ikea bookshelf.

Who wrote it? Credited to ‘François-Régis Gaudry and friends’, this is a collaborative effort from the team behind 2018’s similarly massive Let’s Eat France. A popular restaurant critic across the Channel, Gaudry has compiled a team that includes well over seventy contributors, including pieces by regulars from his radio show On va deguster.

Is it good bedtime reading? In so many ways, Let’s Eat Italy is perfect bedtime reading – each section offers a stand-alone deep dive into a single facet of Italian cooking. They are beautifully designed, as indebted to a Wes Andersonian sense of style as they are Italy’s own innate relationship with design. It makes for a book that one can pore over, page by page, or simply dip into as they like.

There are in-depth looks at different ingredients, from a ‘Spotlight on Capers’ to sumptuous photographic spreads on artichokes, Italian citrus fruits, tomatoes and more. Perhaps you are more interested in exploring the terroir of the nation’s cuisine, exploring the impact Venice’s lagoon has on its food. There are, of course, plenty of recipes too – regional specialties uncovered and offered up for home cooks to discover on their own turf.

All told, it’s rare to open Let’s Eat Italy and not find yourself at least briefly enamoured by its contents. Amongst the three hundred or so topics there are remarkably few duds – an occasional look at Italian food in American pop culture sheds no new light, but elsewhere even those sections without any immediate obvious use (charts of native cattle breeds) or beautiful enough to distract the reader for a moment.

The only real problem, then, is the sheer size of it, which simultaneously renders it readable only on a large table, or propped up on one’s knees whilst sitting on the sofa. But equally with the design so lovingly attended to, it’d be a crime to print it any smaller than it already is.

How good is it as a cookbook? Oh, absolutely useless. The recipes are tempting, sure – but who has room on their counter for a cookbook the size of a tabloid newspaper? I have enough difficulty sourcing real estate for the toaster. Recipes also tend to form only a small percentage of the page they are on, with the vibrant photography and elaborate histories of each dish taking priority to Gaudry and his pals. Better, then, to explore the dishes that tempt you most and then seek them out elsewhere – a decent Italian cookbook like Anna Del Conte’s Gastronomy of Italy or, more recently, Rachel Roddy’s A to Z of Pasta will cover most of the bases here.

Should I buy it? Let’s Eat Italy is surplus to almost any cook’s actual needs – but then, that’s also true of all the best cookbooks. This is a luxury, to be treasured and perhaps even revered a little. The sort of book that sits in a home like an alternative religious text – an illustrated Bible of Italian food culture that will have as many devotees as it does naysayers. But here’s the kicker: the real Bible doesn’t have a three page illustrated spread dedicated to salumi.

Cuisine: Italian
Suitable for: Beginner and confident home cooks, and hungry folk who have no intention of cooking but do fancy lusting over authentic local specialties.
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

Buy this book
Let’s Eat Italy!: Everything You Want to Know About Your Favorite Cuisine
£45, Artisan Division of Workman Publishing

Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas

Gastro Obscura by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras

What’s the USP? Well, it isn’t a cookbook, for one.

Oh. Right. You do know this is a cookbook review blog, right? The clue is right there in the title. Yes, yes, but Gastro Obscura has earned its place on our shelves too. It’s decidedly cookbook-adjacent.

Insofar as that’s where you’ve put it on your shelves? No – in that it’s a big and beautiful hardback about food that has come out just in time for Christmas. Gastro Obscura is a food-based spin-off to the globally-minded Atlas Obscura website. The original site – and its first book by the same name – is a crowd-sourced collection of weird and wonderful attractions around the world, be they strange museums, unusual folk traditions or unexpected attractions.

And let me guess – Gastro Obscura is the same thing, but for food? You got it. Organised by continent, and then by country, there are almost five hundred entries. From ‘North Korean Diplomacy Noodles’ to Jeppson’s Malört, an almost undrinkable liquor from Chicago, the book touches upon every corner of the globe.

I imagine it makes pretty good bedtime reading? Maybe more ‘cosy late night armchair reading’ – it’s a pretty hefty thing. But it is infinitely explorable. Very much fitting into that mould of intriguing coffee table books that are intended to be dipped into on a whim, I still managed to read the whole thing cover-to-cover in a matter of days.

There’s an element of focus that the food theme provides that gives Gastro Obscura a little more purpose than the original book (which has admittedly sat on our bookshelf, mostly unread, since being gifted to my partner a couple of years ago). Where that first title could be a little hit and miss, everything here brings you back to those inescapably fascinating questions we all have about food – why do we eat what we eat? What is everyone else having for dinner tonight? And, most importantly: can I have some?

‘Can I have some’? Yes! One of the smartest additions to the book is a little paragraph next to each entry that tells you how to go about trying the food in question. This might be a fairly general tip (“The days of cocaine-laced bordeaux are over, but try regular bordeaux – it’s very good.”) or, more frequently, a tip directing you to a direct source. If I ever find myself in Botswana’s Okavango Delta you can bet I’ll be heading to African Horseback Safaris to try their pizza made in a termite hill oven.

This all sounds very out of reach. In many cases, the entries absolutely are. The Siberian sashimi competition at Festival Stroganina sounds remarkably difficult to get to, and I doubt I’ll find myself at any of the Antarctic base stations listed here. But for every genuinely obscure choice, there’s plenty of Gastro Not-So-Obscura options. The section dedicated to the US is huge, and if I ever find myself on the east coast in late September, you better believe I’ll be making the detour to West Virginia’s annual roadkill cook-off.

In fact, there’s plenty of very accessible entries here – sauna sausages in Finland, a full marathon that includes 23 glasses of wine in (you guessed it) France – even a secret subterranean cave bar in my hometown of Nottingham that I had no idea existed. There is also a smattering of recipes – though they are surprisingly tame (Finnish mustard, Korea’s budae jjigae) and frustratingly not listed together in the index, meaning you are left to stumble upon them in the course of your reading.

Should I buy it, then? If you love trying unusual foods, or exploring other cultures, there’s much to love here. But let’s not ignore this book’s true raison d’être: a Christmas present for difficult-to-buy-for relatives. Not everyone is a fan of big hardbacks they’re only going to flick through sporadically – but if you’ve got a friend or family member who is really into their food, this could be the perfect Christmas present for them. I, for one, am in the process of writing an email to everybody I know informing them that, thank you very much, but I already own Gastro Obscura. I know how those buggers think.

Cuisine: Global
Suitable for: Curious foodies
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

Buy this book
Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide (Atlas Obscura)
£32, Workman Publishing

Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas