Giffords Circus Cookbook by by Nell Gifford and Ols Halas

Giffords Circus

What’s the USP? Some people go to the circus for the clowns, some for the acrobats and their feats of derring-do. But if you’re headed to the traditional touring circus of Giffords, which performs across the Cotswolds and the South West of England each year, then you might well be going for the food.

For the last 17 years, Giffords has also been host to the UK’s only travelling restaurant. After each show, 60 audience members gather for a 3-course banquet that seems to carry all the wonder of the circus over into each dish. Here, then, is the Giffords cookbook; now you can create your own whimsical feast without having to worry about your children’s coulrophobia (that’s a fear of clowns, as if you couldn’t guess).

Sounds magical! Who’s the author? The circus’ founding matriarch, Nell Gifford has teamed up with the restaurant’s head chef, Ols Halas. Both get ample time to share their stories at the beginning of the book and, as you might expect, they’re pretty fun (it’s not often a chef’s background involves literally running way to join the circus).

Is it good bedtime reading? The reading is probably where Giffords Circus Cookbook is at its best. There’s an absolute tentful of writing here, from Marco Pierre White’s fawning foreword to the chapter introductions that offer insight both into the challenges of cooking in a travelling restaurant and of the inner-workings and community of a modern circus.

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? Nothing here is particularly unusual, though the recipes do tend to fall on the more luxurious end of the scale. You’ll want a good butcher at hand, and some of the ingredients (romanesco broccoli, activated charcoal and fresh truffles) are a little more Waitrose than Asda. It would be nice to see a cookbook knock up this sort of wonder and magic in their dishes using more down-to-earth ingredients, but I suppose that’s not the point, is it?

What’s the faff factor? Look, Willy Wonka didn’t build his chocolate factory in a day. It took bloody ages and required the slave labour of Loompaland’s indiginous people. So consider yourself lucky when your own slice of whimsy only needs a two-day brine beforehand, or perhaps necessitates the creation of a meringue (there’s a lot of meringue in here – apparently this is a staple of the circus diet).

What will I love? There’s an irrepressible joyfulness that runs throughout the entirety of the Giffords Circus Cookbook. Everything is bright, and everyone always seems to be having so much fun. It’s an infectious sort of a feeling, and reading the book makes you feel every bit a part of the mish-mash vaguely-Moominesque family of oddballs and misfits.

What won’t I love? The recipes aren’t organised in any sense that could be considered even remotely helpful. Instead, the eight chapters loosely tell the story of a season with the circus and might feature anywhere between one and nineteen recipes. Desserts are mixed in, and as such the panna cotta might be found next to the monkfish tails, the black forest trifle opposite roast guinea fowl. If you know what you’re looking for, you can dive right into the index – but for inspiration, it’s not particularly practical. But then, what part of ‘60-seat restaurant serving the clientele of a travelling circus’ suggested practicality to you?

Should I buy it? If you entertain regularly and want to inject a little bit of magic into your dinner parties, this cookbook is not to be missed. There isn’t much here for the casual, everyday cook – except escapism. And that’s always worth a look.

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

Cuisine: British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars

Buy this book
Giffords Circus Cookbook: Recipes and stories from a magical circus restaurant
£27, Quadrille

New releases round-up December 2019

The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook by Annie Gray

Downton Cookbook

So, this is a quick and nasty cash in on a world-famous TV franchise, right?Well, it will undoubtedly make a few quid off the Downtown name, but there is nothing quick and nasty about it.  Written by the acclaimed historian, cook and broadcaster Annie Gray this a pukka piece of work that takes the fictional Downtown Abbey as a jumping off point to chart the history of British country house cooking in recipes and a series of short articles

Killer recipes:  Palestine soup; Cabbage as they served it in Budapest; mutton with caper sauce; the queen of trifles; beef stew with dumplings; treacle tart; rice pudding.

Should I buy it?: You don’t have to be a Downtown fan to buy this book but it will help if you are one. There are quite a lot of photos from the set of the TV series which won’t mean much to those who don’t follow the show. That said, it’s a sumptuously produced book with some lovely food photography by John Kernick and the quality of the writing and recipes means it will appeal to anyone with an interest in British food and its history.

Cuisine: British 
Suitable for: 
Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: 
Four stars

Buy this book
The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook
White Lion Publishing, £25

Super Sourdough by James Morton

Super Sourdough James Morton

Another book about sourdough, really? Yes, really. Like the shelves aren’t already heaving with them. If you don’t own the ten year old Tartine Bread: (Artisan Bread Cookbook, Best Bread Recipes, Sourdough Book) by legendary San Francisco baker Chad Robertson then you really need to rectify that massive mistake immediately, and then you can still buy Super Sourdough. Although Morton’s 20 page recipe for Pain au Levan shares many striking similarities with Robertson’s 40 page Basic Country Bread recipe, what Morton is particularly good at is helping novice bakers through the process every step of the way. The troubleshooting guides on sourdough starters and bread making are particularly useful and reassuring.  

Should I buy it? If you’ve never made sourdough before and are looking for a new hobby, this is a great place to start. It’s not just an instruction manual; once you have mastered the basics of sourdough there’s plenty of fun to be had knocking up Chelsea buns, pizza, crumpets and even cornbread. 

Cuisine: Baking 
Suitable for: 
Confident home cooks/professional chefs
Cookbook Review Rating:
Four stars

Buy this book
Super Sourdough: The foolproof guide to making world-class bread at home
Quadrille Publishing Ltd, £20

Week Light by Donna Hay

Week Light Donna Hay

So what is this, the 900th Donna Hay cookbook? Calm down mate. She might be the self -styled ‘Australia’s leading food editor and best-selling cookbook author’ and have sold ‘over seven million copies worldwide, with the books translated into 10 languages’ but in fact this is ‘only’ her 29th book.

That’s still about half a dozen more books than Charles Dickens ever wrote. What has she got left to say about food that anyone wants to hear? Well, how about, ‘No longer the side dishes, the back up dancers, the understudies, vegetables have EARNED THEIR PLACE to be front and centre on your plate’ (capitals, Donna Hay’s own).

Radical. Except didn’t Bruno Loubet say something very similar about 5 years ago with his brilliant book Mange ToutIts unlikely that there’s much overlap between Hay and Loubet’s audience. And there’s nothing truly new in cooking anyway is there, so stop quibbling.

Sorry, but before we go any further, WTAF is that title all about? That has got to be the weakest pun in the history of publishing.  It’s never explained or referred to at all in the book, it’s almost as if it was an after thought. Weeknight/Weeklight? Who knows?

So what’s the USP then? Healthy food that’s easy to prepare and which ticks all the modish boxes of the last few years including ‘bowl food’ like cheat’s chilli cashew tofu larb; a version of banh mi made with marinated tofu; chipotle chicken and cauliflower tacos, and ‘pizza’ made with a base of mashed sweet potato, almond meal, flour and eggs.

Christ on a bike. She knows how to suck the fun out of food doesn’t she? Actually, a lot of the dishes look extremely appealing in a fresh, green sort of way. Perfect for when you want your weeknight to be weeklight!

Just drop it, it doesn’t work does it? Don’t let the stupid title put you off. If you can stomach the endless shots of Hay being the perfect Aussie mum to her perfect Aussie kids in perfect Aussie settings and the relentlessly upbeat tone of the whole thing, then you might actually get a lot use out of the book.

Are you actually suggesting I buy Weakpun? There are worse things you could spend £20 on. And you don’t want your veggies to be understudies and back up dancers for the rest of their lives do you?  After all, they’ve EARNED THEIR PLACE front and centre.

They earn it every weeklight baby, every weeklight.  

Cuisine: International  
Suitable for:
Beginners/Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating:
Three stars

Buy this book
Week Light: Super-Fast Meals to Make You Feel Good
Harper Collins, £20

Dishoom

by Shamil Thakrar, Kavi Thakrar and Naved Nasir 

Dishoom

Dishoom, oh I love that place. The breakfast bacon naan rolls are to die for.  Get you, Mr London hipster. Some of us have to settle for a greasy caff.

Actually, there’s now eight Dishooms, inspired by the Persian-style Irani cafes of Mumbai, including branches in Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh so its long past being a hipster hangout, if it ever was you suburban ninny.  OK, I know, I’ve read the book’s introduction thank you very much. Dishoom is an all day dining destination,  so there’s recipes for mid-morning snacks like keema puffs, lunch dishes including aloo sabzi (vegetable curry served with bedmi puri bread), afternoon refreshments such as salted laksi, ‘sunset snacks’ like…

Sunset snacks? They’ve made that up! Its a thing apparently; street food from vendors on Girgaum Chowpatty beach including pau bhaji, a spicy vegetable mash served with toasted Bombay bread buns. Of course there’s also recipes for dinner dishes such as soft shell crab masala, lamb biryani and spicy lamb chops.

I’m still hungry, what’s for pudding? No one gets to pudding in an Indian restaurant. But if you do have room then there’s the likes of basmati kheer (rice pudding with cardamom and a brulee topping) or berry Shrikhand (a type of thick, sweetened yoghurt popular amongst Gujarati families).

I’ve got loads of recipe books from modern Indian restaurants already, why do I want another?  Besides the delicious recipes, the book looks beautiful, is a great read and gives you more than enough detail about Mumbai to plan a truly sybaritic holiday there.

So I should buy it then? Does a naan roll have bacon in it? Get clicking the link below.

Cuisine: Indian
Suitable for:
Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating:
Four stars

Buy this book
Dishoom: The first ever cookbook from the much-loved Indian restaurant: From Bombay with Love
Bloomsbury Publishing, £26.

The Book of St John by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver

St John

What’s the USP? The long-awaited follow up to 2007’s Beyond Nose to Tail from one of the UK’s most distinguished and influential chefs Fergus Henderson and his business partner Trevor Gulliver. The publication coincides with the 25th anniversary of the opening of St John restaurant near Smithfield market in London, world-famous for dishes such as roast bone marrow with parsley salad that celebrate offal and have influenced several generations of chefs in the UK and around the world, including the late Anthony Bourdain who was Henderson’s biggest fan.

What’s great about it? Although a much admired and imitated style, no one does St John cooking quite like Fergus Henderson; he is after all its progenitor. Adding The Book of St John will bring something distinctive to your cookbook collection and might well expand your culinary horizons. You may even be converted to tripe, although you will probably want to take a deep breath before you try it pickled. You begin the recipe by boiling the tripe in water which Henderson says is ‘reminiscent of the not-so-proverbial dog’s dinner’. Yum.      

What’s different about it? No one writes a recipe quite like Fergus. You will either find his whimsicality completely charming or maddeningly vague. One recipe calls for ‘6 happy tomatoes’. The recipe for ‘An Instant Pickle’ consists of a thinly sliced onion, a pinch of salt and a splash of red wine vinegar which you ‘massage’ together. ‘Grated garlic and a showing of thyme are good additions’. Well, thanks for all the detail Fergus. Elsewhere we are instructed to mix cucumbers and salt ‘thoroughly but tenderly’ and in another recipe, you ‘dress, tumble and serve’ a salad, after which Henderson instructs us to ‘Rejoice in the uncomplicated’. The recipes are however detailed where they need to be and pretty straightforward to follow, so you certainly won’t be wasting your money if you invest in a copy. 

Killer recipes? Crispy lamb’s brains; faggots; beef mince on dripping toast; potted pork; Henderson’s brine recipe; pig’s tongues, butter beans and green sauce; St John chutney; trotter gear (a sort of rich, jellied pig’s trotter stock); chicken bacon and trotter pie; steamed syrup sponge and custard; pear and sherry trifle; salted chocolate and caramel tart; negroni sorbet; Welsh rarebit; Eccles cake and Lancashire cheese; quail stuffed whole roast pig.

Should I buy it? If you own Nose to Nail or Beyond Nose to Tail, Henderson’s two previous books then the answer is probably no unless you are a Henderson fanatic or completist. The St John style hasn’t really wavered much from the word go, which is sort of the whole point, so The Book of St John doesn’t add much to our sum of knowledge about the restaurant and its food.

You will also find some familiar recipes including Eccles cakes, madeleines, the famous doughnuts and seed cake and a glass of Madeira (all of which were credited to Justin Gellatly when they appeared in the omnibus edition The Complete Nose to Tail. Gellatly was Henderson’s head baker until 2013 when he launched his own London bakery Bread Ahead which sells thousands of doughnuts a day. Gellatly is not mentioned anywhere in The Book of St John). Other previously published recipes include anchovy, little gem and tomato salad; ham and parsley sauce and trotter gear and many familiar ingredients including pickled walnuts, ox tongue, brains and snails.

If you don’t own any Henderson, then The Book of St John is as good a place as any to start. It looks sleek, with its gold-lined pages, the photography by legendary food photographer Jason Lowe is as excellent as you’d expect and there are some nice articles and anecdotes from Henderson and Gulliver dotted throughout the book. On the downside, the index is annoyingly incomplete which makes tracking down one or two of the recipes tricky, but it’s a minor complaint about a very good book.

You might not whip up a plate of grilled ox heart, beetroot and pickled walnut everyday of the week, but The Book of St John may prove invaluable when you’re in the mood for something that but different.

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

Buy this book
The Book of St John: Over 100 Brand New Recipes from London’s Iconic Restaurant

Cook from this book
Welsh Rarebit 
Grilled lamb hearts, peas and mint
Salted caramel and chocolate tart 

 

The Quality Chop House by William Lander, Daniel Morgenthau and Shaun Searley

Quality chop house

What’s the USP? Recipes and stories from a landmark London restaurant that’s been trading in one form or other since 1869.

Who are the authors? William Lander (son of wine writer Jancis Robinson and restaurant critic Nick Lander) and Daniel Morgenthau own the London-based Woodhead Restaurant Group that also includes Portland, Clipstone and Emelia. Shaun Searley is the Quality Chop House’s head chef. He was previously head chef of Bistotheque in East London and worked under chef Peter Weeden at the Paternoster Chophouse.

What does it look like? Hurrah! A restaurant cookbook that actually includes shots of the interior and exterior of the actual flipping restaurant (*deep breath* – a personal bugbear of mine, it’s amazing how often this doesn’t happen). In addition to the deeply appetising food photography (shot with the minimum of fuss with dishes plated on the restaurant’s own beautful antique crockery), there’s a selection of moody black and white images and some location photography featuring the restaurant’s suppliers. The use of coloured backgrounds for some of the text and images including cream, grey, brown and black adds variety to the reading experience and looks sleek and smart.

Is it good bedtime reading? The clue is in the subtitle, ‘Modern Recipes and Stories from a London Classic’. There’s a foreword from super-fan and Sunday Times restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin, who basically says she’d move into the place if she could, and an introduction, history and day in the life of the restaurant before the main meat of the book. Also included are a few supplier profiles and an article on wine by Gus Gluck who runs the wine bar in the Quality Chop House’s shop, next door to the main restaurant.

Will I have trouble finding ingredients? This is definitely the sort of book where you will need access to a decent butcher, fishmonger and deli or online equivalents for many of the main ingredients. We’re talking Mangalitza pork, whole turbot. foie gras, game, gizzards, high quality canned fish and artisan cheeses. The list goes on.

What’s the faff factor? If you cook the recipes as stipulated, you are looking at quite a major investment in time. Take something seemingly as simple as mince on dripping toast. Before you make the mince, you will need dark chicken stock and dark beef stock, both of which require about five and half hours to make and combined need four chicken carcasses, two marrow bones, four beef rib bones, two beef knuckles and a pigs trotter. The signature confit potatoes need to be sliced on a mandoline, tossed in duck fat, then layered and cooked for 3 hours, pressed and chilled overnight, cut into pieces, deep-fried and finished with mustard dressing, which gets its own separate recipe.

How often will I cook from the book? For the most part, this is weekend project cooking territory. That said, there are some more straightforward recipes such as whole roasted cauliflower, roast delicia squash, crispy sage, seeds and oats and burnt leeks vinaigrette that you might knock up during the week, as well as recipes for the sandwiches sold in the Chop House’s shop that will be perfect for lunch any day.

Killer recipes? In addition to those mentioned above, the book is packed full of delicious sounding things, including pastrami cured salmon, corn and marmite butter, truffled potato croquettes and beef fat bread rolls. 

What will I love? You get a very real sense of what the Quality Chop House is all about. If you are already a regular, it will make you want to go back immediately and if you’ve never been you’ll be desperate for a table.

What won’t I like? This is quite a meaty book (again, the clue is in the title), so if you’re trying to eat less of the stuff or are vegetarian or vegan, this isn’t the book for you.

Should I buy it? Keen cooks willing to invest time and some money to create restaurant-quality dishes at home will absolutely devour this book.

Cuisine: British 
Suitable for: 
Confident home cooks/professional chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: 
Five stars

Buy this book
The Quality Chop House: Modern Recipes and Stories from a London Classic
£30, Hardie Grant
(Head to the restaurant’s website for a signed copy wrapped in their own branded  butcher’s paper)

Cook from this book
Confit potatoes 

Cook House by Anna Hedworth

Cook House Anna Hedworth

What’s the USP? Recipes and stories from Cook House restaurant in Newcastle upon Tyne that began as a supper club in a shipping container in 2014 before relocating to a permanent bricks and mortar premises in 2018.

Who is the author? Anna Hedworth is the chef/proprietor of the Cook House. A former architect, she is a self-taught cook. Cook House is her first restaurant and this is her first book.

What does it look like? Hedworth’s food is simple, rustic and extremely appetising; the food photography, which is not overly styled and lets the dishes speak for themselves, will make you very hungry.

Is it good bedtime reading? Cook House is a great read. Hedworth tells the story of her journey from architect to chef and restaurateur in detail and there are a number of ‘How to…’ double page spreads covering subjects such as ‘How to…start a supper club’ and ‘How to…find free food’ which make the book as useful outside the kitchen as in it.

Will I have trouble finding ingredients? You will have very little problem sourcing what you’ll need for the vast majority of the recipes, but you will need lovage and wild garlic to make soup, nasturtium seed pods to make nasturtium and pumpkin seed pesto, pickled walnuts to add to beer braised oxtail and shin stew, Prague powder #1 to make salt beef, goat mince for meatballs, live seaweed cut from rocks on the beach to smoke BBQ scallops, live langoustines to serve poached with aioli, hawthorn berries to make chutney, kefir grains to make milk and smoothie, pine shoots to make vinegar, rosehips and hawthorn blossoms to make syrups, elderflowers to make gin, and scoby for kombucha. That might seem like a long list, but don’t let it put you off; it’s an indication of the variety and breadth of the recipes in the book, and you can always substitute an ingredient – lamb for goat for example – if you find yourself really stuck.

What’s the faff factor? For the most part, the recipes are straightforward to prepare, but Hedworth does like to get out and about with her cooking, so be prepared to build a fire and erect a tripod over it if you want to recreate her Hanging Leg of Lamb by a Tall Fire or to camp out if you want to cook foil wrapped fish over a beach fire.

How annoyingly vague are the recipes? Weights, measures and methods are present and correct apart from the expected ‘handfuls’ of herbs here and there. However, no weight is given for venison loin pan fried in butter and thyme, but there is a precise cooking time which one might imagine would vary depending on the size of the loin. Similarly, a poaching time of 45 mins if given for a chicken in several recipes, but no weight or size is indicated.

How often will I cook from the book? There are enough everyday soup, salad and supper recipes to make this a book you’d happily reach for mid-week, plus plenty of tempting baking and preserving projects for the weekend. You could also easily create  menus for entertaining friends and family from the book too.

Killer recipes? Red pepper, paprika and rosemary soup with sourdough croutons; chicken, courgette and pea salad with aioli and sourdough crumb; soft egg and herb tartine; game pistachio and juniper terrine; dark chocolate and almond cake among many others.

What will I love? If you’ve ever dreamed about making a career in food, Cook House will provide you with the information and inspiration to take the leap.

What won’t I like? Matt paper means that the photography doesn’t quite have the pin sharp clarity and intensity of colour of some other cookbooks.

Should I buy it? If you are fascinated by the restaurant industry or want to try out techniques like cooking over open fire and preserving and fermenting for the first time, this book will be of particular interest. But even if you just want to add a few more delicious go-to recipes to your repertoire, Cook House is well worth adding to your collection.

Cuisine: British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating:
Four stars

Buy this book
Cook House
£25, Head of Zeus

Cook from this book

Coming soon

Pie and Mash down the Roman Road by Melanie McGrath

pie and mash down the roman road by melanie mcgrath

What’s the USP? The story of an East End pie shop and the family who have owned it for nearly a century.

Who’s the author? Melanie McGrath has several strings to her authorial bow. She not only writes mysteries and thrillers such as Give Me The Child under the nom de plumes of MJ McGrath and Mel McGrath, but also specialises in non-fiction about the East End of London including Silvertown and Hopping which she writes under her own name.

Is it good bedtime reading? This is not a cookbook, there are no recipes, just 244 pages of social history centered around Kelly’s pie and mash shop on the Roman Road in East London. The book does include some culinary history, including of the dish of pie and mash, but the book primarily tells the stories of the people connected with the shop and the area including the customers, suppliers, employees and owners, and the historical conditions they lived in and events they lived through.

Killer quote: ‘To get to the real meat of us as islanders, Britons, and Londoners, why not start there, with something as simple and as iconic as a shop selling the Londoner’s meal of pie, mash and eels? …just as an archaeologist in revealing a scrap of pottery or fragment of mosaic in a rubble of a building site…can cast light on the history of the Roman empire and its citizens, a light shone on a pie and mash and eel shop in what might at first seem to be a unremarkable road in east London can help illuminate more general truths about who we really are.’

Should I buy it? If you don’t mind the use of the historical present (historical events narrated in the present tense), which some readers may find mannered, irksome and distracting, and are as interested in British social history as you are food, then this is the book for you.

Cuisine: British 
Suitable for:
Anyone interested in British culinary and social history
Cookbook Review Rating: 
Four stars

Buy this book
Pie and Mash down the Roman Road: 100 years of love and life in one East End market
£18.99, Two Roads

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

Buy this book
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: 3 stars

Read an extract

Buy this book
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.