Salt is Essential by Shaun Hill

Salt

We are living in gastronomic end times. Culinary Armageddon is upon us. A chef with seven heads, ten horns, and ten crowns on his horns emerged from the sea and turned the air into carrot. Then, a chef emerged from the earth having two horns, a head like a lamb, his body as a sheep, a tail like a wolf and feet like a goat, speaking with the voice of a dragon, directed his peers to make an image in homage to the Beast of the Sea on the plates before them, wrought from the very memories of their childhood.

And behold, a white horse: and he that sat on him had some oysters and some pearls, though never would he taste them, and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer. And there went out another horse that was red: and he that sat upon him carried moss and lichen, and there was given unto him a great sword. And lo, a black horse; and he that sat on him had a citrus based confection that tumbled from his grip. Whoops. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was The Death of Gustatory Ambition, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth to cook over open fire the beasts of the earth. And the sun turned black, the moon to blood. The sky receded like a rolled blind and the stars fell to the earth.

But there was a voice of hope. And I turned to see the voice that spoke to me, his head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire. And I saw in the right hand of him a book, ‘Salt is Essential’.

It’s been 12 long years since Shaun Hill’s last book, the baldly titled How to Cook Better. In that time we’ve seen the weird excesses of molecular gastronomy (in Salt is Essential, Hill reveals he gave the keynote speech at a biennial workshop in Sicily organised by Nicolas Kurti, the Oxford physics professor who coined the term. Heston Blumenthal took Hill’s spot the next time around and the rest is history) replaced by locavore fundamentalism which in turn has been usurped by a caveman-like obsession with fire and smoke. In the highest echelons of gastronomy, diners feast upon live insects and plankton.

While all this has been going on, Hill has remained aloof, continuing to cook, first at The Merchant House (click the link for my review from 2002) and then at The Walnut Tree Inn, the sort of food that the practical application of his craft for a mind-boggling 50 years has proved to him to be correct. And now he’s distilled some of what he has learnt into the all-too-short 190 pages of Salt is Essential.

Thanks to Kit Chapman’s excellent book Great British Chefs published in 1989, I discovered Hill (who was then cooking at Gidleigh Park) early on in my own personal gastronomic journey and have subsequently read virtually everything he’s published. Over the years, his understated dry wit and pragmatic approach to his subject have wormed their way into my brain and profoundly influenced how I think, and write about food.

For those not familiar with Hill’s take on the world of cooking (I would never accuse him of anything so crass as having a ‘philosophy’ about food), Salt is Essential provides the perfect primer. This is food writing with an iron back bone and as much attitude as Mark E Smith on an amphetamine jag. Chapter titles such as ‘Creative thinking is a bad idea if you know nothing’, ‘A well done fillet makes no more sense than an undercooked stew’ and ‘Soya beans are best left for cattle feed’ are clear signals that we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto.

In a series of essays and elucidating recipe introductions, Hill combines opinion with practical advice, historical fact with personal anecdote and common sense with hard-earned insight to provide a hugely entertaining and edifying read. So you learn that ‘larger eggs have thinner shells and absorb air more quickly. This means that although fresh, they are more likely to lose shape when cooked and the yolks are fragile’; Worcestershire sauce is a cousin of both Thai fish sauce and the ancient Roman sauce garum, all three being made with fermented fish; and that Elizabeth David’s ancient precursor was a chap called Archestratus from the fourth century BC who knew all about the best cuts of tuna and ‘advised against allowing Italians near your sea bass a they had a tendency to cover the fish with cheese and pickle’ (a scholar of Latin, Greek and ancient history, Hill has been an honorary research fellow at the University of Exeter and has written several books on ancient food with Professor John Wilkins, including Archestratus: Fragments from the Life of Luxury about the man himself).

As one of the prime movers of the late 80’s modern British cooking movement that took inspiration from across the globe, it’s no surprise that Hill’s recipes cover everything from risotto bianco to twice baked Lancashire cheese soufflés. Hill is widely travelled with a particular fondness for the Indian subcontinent and his tandoori marinade, made with lots of cumin, black peppercorns, cardamom and cloves is worth the cover price alone.

He also has a particularly good nose for dishes from northern, central and eastern Europe (one of his first jobs was at the Gay Hussar, the famous Hungarian restaurant beloved of politicos in London; his wife Anja is Finnish and has written several books on the food of Finland) such as karjalan piirakka, a rye pastry snack from Eastern Finland, and turos placsinta, sweet cream cheese pancakes from Hungary.

Although a few of the recipes demand a commitment in terms of time, money or concentration (you’ll need 3 kilos of veal bones, a kilo of diced beef shin and 12 hours of your life that you’ll never get back to make a classic demi glace sauce and just the odd five hours to make Hill’s extremely delicious version of baked beans), the vast majority are straightforward yet still likely to expand your culinary repertoire in ways other books might well fail to do. I may not rush to make the Maksalaatikko Finnish pig’s liver pudding with lingonberries, but lamb’s sweetbread pies; malfatti (ricotta and spinach dumplings) or puntarelle salad with anchovy and garlic dressing? Just try and stop me.

While Salt is Essential is aimed primarily at the home cook, I would implore every young professional cook, dazzled by the glittering parade of over-hyped superstar chefs and their weighty art-wank tomes, to read it. For therein lies your, and the dining public’s salvation. Amen.

Cuisine: modern British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and professionals
Cookbook Review rating: 4 stars

Buy this book
Salt is Essential: and other things I have learned from 50 years at the stove
Shaun Hill
£25 Kyle Books

The Clatter of Forks and Spoons by Richard Corrigan

Forks and Spoons

Reading London-based Irish chef Richard Corrigan’s second cookbook The Clatter of Forks and Spoons is a pain in the neck. Holding the monster-sized tome that weighs in at over 3lbs for extended periods of time doesn’t help, but its the constant nods of agreement that are the real problem.

“Philosophy of life, politics, religion maybe – but cooking? It’s just people trying to sound more meaningful than they really are.” (Nods reflectively) Couldn’t agree more.

“What is good cooking all about? Knowing your ingredients, and understanding what goes with what.” (Nods knowingly) Yes, absolutely.

“What’s the use of chefs at all, I sometimes wonder, when there is food as simple and gorgeous as Dover sole or a native oyster out there?” (Nods vigorously) Oh, someone get me an Aspirin.

Although primarily aimed at the home cook, there’s so much culinary common sense crammed into the book’s 400-odd pages that no chef should be allowed within a mile of a professional kitchen without reading it.

A cookery booked named after a quote from The Dead by James Joyce with a picture of a sink on the cover was always going to be a class apart. Numerous articles, essays and extended introductions along with the evocative landscapes, still lives and portraits by photographer Kristin Peters break the usual recipe/photo mould.

Corrigan underlines his ingredient-led approach by profiling some of his favourite producers or “extreme artisans” as he calls them. A veritable Irish Mafia of “stubborn, cranky people” includes cheesemaker Bill Hogan of Schull in West Cork and the Seed Saver Association in Country Clare that conserve heritage varieties of fruit vegetables and grains.

Despite his enthusiasm for artisan produce, Corrigan resists being too prescriptive with his recipes. Apart from a general exhortation to spend less in the supermarket and more at the butcher’s shop and farmers market, you won’t have to search too hard to find ingredients for the majority of the dishes.

A love of cheaper cuts such as pig’s trotter and ham hocks and relatively inexpensive fish including mackerel, hake and gurnard means you won’t have to break the bank to cook from the book (although there’s plenty of luxury produce like wild salmon, lobster, grouse and foie gras too).

An eclectic range of dressings and sauces including Italian salsa verde, Catalonian romesco and North African harissa, and dishes ranging from Mediterranean influenced stuffed baby squid with chorizo and feta style cheese to Thai crab and mussel soup reflect the globetrotting style prevalent during the 1990’s London restaurant scene where Corrigan first made his name.

The Clatter of Forks and Spoons also tells Corrigan’s own story, from growing up on a farm in County Meath to the recent opening of his posh new Mayfair restaurant. Although Corrigan’s time cooking in the Netherlands, working with Stephen Bull and opening the Lindsay House restaurant in Soho are all covered, you can’t help feeling that there must be more to say about such a larger-than-life character (try reading Stephen Bull’s side of the Fulham Road restaurant story in his excellent Classic Bull: An Accidental Restaurater’s Cookbook and you’ll see what I mean).

With the assistance of Shelia Keating (“without whom,” the author admits in his acknowledgements “the words wouldn’t be on the paper”), Corrigan has produced a volume that more than bears comparison to modern classics such as Alastair Little’s Keep It Simple and Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson. The book embodies much of what is great about British cooking in the 2000’s, and by doing so guarantees it will be used for decades to come.

Cuisine: modern British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and professionals
Cookbook Review rating: 5 stars

Buy this book
The Clatter of Forks and Spoons: Honest, Happy Food
Richard Corrigan
£30 Fourth Estate