Roots by Tommy Banks

roots tommy banks

What’s the USP?  Fans of Kunta Kinte will be disappointed to learn that this is not another  update of Alex Haley’s famous slave saga. The title actually refers to the ‘root ingredients’ used fresh or preserved by acclaimed young chef Tommy Banks, who divides the year into three rather four seasons which he calls The Hunger Gap (January to May); Time of Abundance (June to September) and the Preserving Season (October to December) which reflects the way he cooks at his North Yorkshire restaurant The Black Swan at Oldstead.

Who’s the author? Tommy Banks has had something of a meteoric rise since taking over the kitchens of the family restaurant in 2013, aged just 24. He’s one of the youngest ever Michelin starred chefs in the UK and has become something of a TV personality, appearing on the Great British Menu where he cooked turbot with strawberries and cream (recipe included in the book) at the grand banquet at Wimbledon and was a featured chef on Masterchef the Professionals where he demonstrated his signature dishes including crapudine beetroot cooked slowly in beef fat with smoked cod’s roe and linseeds, also included in this, his debut book.

What does it look like? Bucolic. The North Yorkshire landscape looks stunning and there are plenty of shots of Banks posing in fields and on the family farm gathering his beloved ingredients. The food is colourful and attractive without being too tortured on the plate.

Is it good bedtime reading? The short autobiographical introduction is bolstered by chapter introductions and essays on favoured ingredients such as elderflower, summer berries and ‘hedgerow harvests’ making Roots more than simply a collection of recipes.

Will I have trouble finding ingredients? If you’re not a keen gardener then you might find it tricky to lay your hands on things like crapudine beetroot and courgette stalks, and you’ll need to follow Banks’s recipes for fermenting vegetables to make a number of dishes, plus you’ll need a good fishmonger if you’re planning on serving raw red mullet, and a decent butcher who can sell you sweetbreads and mince pork back fat for you, and you’ll need to get out picking elderflowers in June if you want to make elderflower drizzle cake, and…

What’s the faff factor? This is fundamentally a collection of restaurant dishes so expect to put in a fair amount of effort for your dinner.

How often will I cook from the book? This is more weekend project than mid-week supper cooking.

Killer recipes? See above, but also crab, elderflower and potato salad; scallops cured in rhubarb juice with Jerusalem artichoke, and potato skin and brassica broth with cheddar dumplings.

What will I love? All the recipes are rated either 1,2 or 3 for complexity which makes choosing what you want to cook from the book, depending on the time you have to hand easy. But this is more than just a collection of delicious sounding, interesting and characterful recipes, a real effort has been made to give a sense of Banks’s cooking ethos and life at The Black Swan.

What won’t I like? Some readers may feel they’ve been-there-and-done-that with the pickling, fermenting and foraging aspect of the book.

Should I buy it? Roots is a substantial debut effort from one of the UK’s highest profile young chefs with his own take on field to fork cookery which makes it well worth investigating.

Cuisine: Modern British
Suitable for: Professional chefs/Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: 4 stars

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Roots
£25, Orion Books

First, Catch by Thom Eagle

First catch

What’s the USP? When is a cookbook not a cookbook? When its a ‘hymn to an early spring meal’, all 226 pages of it. This is food writing in the purest sense, a series of extended essays ruminating on the process of cooking a single meal; a sort of exercise in culinary mindfulness.

Who’s the author? Thom Eagle is the head chef of Little Duck: The Picklery, a ‘fermenting kitchen and wine bar’ in East London (unsurprisingly, there is a fair amount on fermentation in the book) and writes the food blog ‘In Search of Lost Thyme’. First, Catch is his debut in print.

What does it look like? A novel. Forget glossy photographs, this is all text interspersed with some black and white line drawings of pots, pans and assorted ingredients by artist Aurelia Lange.

Killer recipes? Here’s the thing, Eagle says ‘recipes are lies’ so there aren’t any. At least not in the list-of-ingredients-followed-by-a-method format that we all know and love. Instead, they are snuck in by stealth, so for example, a recipe for quick-cured lamb loin, complete with measurements for the simple salt and sugar cure appears spread over three pages at the end of chapter one, ‘On Curing With Salt’ and one for salsa verde is nestled quietly in chapter 10 ‘On Wild and Domestic Celeries’.

What will I love? Eagle is a thoughtful sort of bloke with a particular view on all things culinary which gives the book a distinctive tone. When was the last time you heard someone say that they ‘go out of their way’ to visit old salt-pans’? Eagle has travelled from Kent to Sicily to look at the damn things, trips which have helped him, and now, in turn, his readers ‘appreciate the importance of salt throughout our history’.

What won’t I like? Eagle is very self consciously ‘a writer’ (he studied American Literature at uni) and consequently there is a fair bit of ‘food writing’ to get through; raw vegetables aren’t seasoned but ‘subjected to the violence of lemon and salt’ which you’ll either think is incredibly creative writing or just plain irritating, depending on your taste in literature.

Should I buy it? It may be a little pretentious and overwritten, and it’s debatable whether the ‘stealth’ recipes are an improvement on the traditional format, but Eagle has genuine insight into the practical and philosophical sides of cooking, as well as extensive knowledge of international cuisines and culinary history, making First, Catch well worth reading.

Cuisine: Modernist British
Suitable for: Anyone really interested in cooking and food writing
Cookbook Review Rating: 4 stars

Read an extract

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First, Catch by Thom Eagle
£16.99, Quadrille

Book extract: First, Catch by Thom Eagle

First catch

I seek out and devour food writing in all of its forms – from lengthy and flowery introductions, through drily academic histories to the tersely scribbled instructions you sometimes find tucked into old cookbooks. But when I think of all the recipes I have read, professionally or otherwise, stacked up as it were in one gigantic pile on an overflowing workbench, the main sensation I feel is frustration.

All those neat little lists – take this, take that – as if cooking begins when you pick up an onion, or finishes as the dish goes on to the plate. So much more surrounds a meal and its making than just the bare facts of its enumerated parts. At the top of the page it just says ‘two onions,  chopped’, but someone had to grow them, to pick them, to store and transport and buy them, all before you take them from the vegetable rack or the fridge, halve them from root to tuft, and peel off the outermost layers of brown parchment; before you cut first in a wedging arch and then across, remembering the cook who taught you to let the onion fall into its own layers rather than force it apart into rigid dice, and wondering perhaps in passing why you are doing so, when the other recipe said sliced, when the other recipe contained no onion at all. The Koreans have a description for the specific qualities of a person’s cooking which translates as something like ‘the taste of your hands’; they know, I suppose, that knowledge rests in muscle and bone, which is never written down.

I have nothing against recipes. In fact I use them all the time, and am suspicious of cooks who claim never to do so. Recipes are a record of social and emotional histories as well as a means of travelling to almost any country or place you care to name, including, of course, the past. Anyone who tries to separate food from all of these things cooks for reasons I do not understand; it can only, I think, be vanity, trading the deep satisfaction of time for immediate gratification.

Yet, while useful to cook from, there is so much that recipes miss. The satisfaction of peeling a ripe, thick-skinned tomato, for instance, or unzipping a pod of broad beans; the smell of rosemary hitting gently warming olive oil; the yielding of a wing of skate to a gently pressing finger; the sight of a simply laid table in spring, awaiting the arrival of both people and lunch. None of this can be captured in a written recipe. These are sensations we feel behind the lines of our cookbooks, but the rigid lists that now fill them leave little room in which to do so, let alone to think about what we will do with this dish once we have cooked it. ‘Serve immediately’, these instructions end, but who to? Even a thousand recipes don’t make a meal.

Of all the contexts surrounding the acquisition and transformation of food, I think the meal itself is the most often forgotten. We cook in competition with ourselves now, imagining some bespectacled judge pacing around our chopping board and offering disparaging comments on our knife skills, our plating and our personal hygiene, while we collect and compare recipes of so-called genius and perfection, to be followed to the last detail. Whatever tortured dish emerges from such a process is designed not to be dug into with a questing fork, but to sit as it were under glass, to be admired one-on-one, alone. A plate is one part of a course, which is one part of a meal, so why fuss over the recipe so? I’d rather have, for example, a litre of wine, a pile of fresh pea pods, and many hands to peel and pour – with maybe a piece of cheese for afterwards.

Extracted from First, Catch: Story of a Spring Meal by Thom Eagle (Quadrille, £16.99)

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First, Catch by Thom Eagle

The Complete Practical Cook by Charles Carter

Reviewed by Sam Bilton

Long before chefs began coveting stars, their reputations were built on the social standing of their patron. The bigger the ‘nob’ you worked for, the more prestige your position as a chef held in the 18th century. Charles Carter’s patrons included the Duke of Argyll, General Wood and several lords. He had the advantage of having working in several European countries where he had been exposed to a wider variety of flavours (like garlic) than many of his English counterparts. He was very proud of his achievements and doesn’t shy away from telling the reader so in the introduction to The Complete Practical Cook (1730).

Despite his lack of modesty, a lot of what Carter says still holds true today. He believes cookery is an art and that good cooks should be rewarded for their skill. He is highly critical of unscrupulous cooks who pass off other’s work as their own. He even starts the book by extolling the virtues of a good stock, a maxim which is as true now as it was in the 18th century.

The recipes are very much of their time, with many many meat-based dishes beloved by his wealthy benefactors. Nose to tail eating was definitely the order of the day. The recipe for Olio Podreda (a type of Spanish stew) contains 11 breeds of bird including pheasants, ducks and larks plus beef, pork, veal and mutton, not to mention hogs ears, trotters, sausages and ham. The dish is served with a ‘ragout’ of pallets, sweetbreads, lamb stones, cockscombs and a hefty dose of truffles. You get the meat sweats just by reading the recipe.

A few recipes, like To Pot Otter, Badger or Young Bear, are decidedly odd and are likely to offend some 21st century sensibilities. However, others like Buttered Crab, Eggs à la Switz (a spiced up version of eggs florentine), Pike Babacu’d or Beef la Tremblour (slow cooked rump or sirloin ‘till it is so tender that it will tremble or shake like a quaking pudding’) sound reassuringly familiar once you get past the archaic language. Some like Tamarind Tort or Caraway Cakes are crying out to be rediscovered by a modern audience. Unlike modern cookery books there is no strict division between savoury and sweet dishes reflecting the way meals were served à la francaise. Carter even provides a number of diagrams at the back of the book with suggestions for different dinners according to the season or occasion.

Clearly for the 21st century cook, this is far from a practical book. The recipes are designed to cater for large households so inevitably require scaling down. Some of the ingredients he uses, like eringo roots (candied sea holly roots) or ambergris (whale vomit) are difficult to come by or are best avoided. Carter claims this book will make cooks more inventive and a certain degree of ingenuity is required to make these recipes work today. If you have any interest in England’s culinary heritage it’s worth persevering with The Complete Practical Cook if for no other reason than to prevent it from being forgotten.

Cuisine: British
Suitable for: Food historians
Cookbook Review Rating: 4 stars

SAM BILTON
Sam is a food blogger at comfortablyhungry.com with a keen interest in food history. She also runs a historically themed supper club called Repast.