What’s the USP? Phaidon are back with the latest addition to their ever-expanding range of globally-inspired cookbooks. Previous entries have included hefty volumes on the food of Latin America, Greece, Mexico and Lebanon, but this time round we’re focusing a little closer to home.
The British Cookbook delivers exactly what it promises: around 550 recipes drawn from across the United Kingdom. This means there’s plenty of room for all the obvious regional specialties (Staffordshire Oatcakes, Sussex Pond Pudding) and a wealth of niche little wonders you may never have heard of (Singin’ Hinnies, Bara Sinsir, or Beesting Pudding, which has absolutely nothing to do with bees).
Who wrote it? Ben Mervis, a Philadelphian native who moved to Glasgow for university and never left. Well, except for his turn in the kitchens at Noma. A man with culinary pedigree, then, and a good deal of love for the food of his adopted home. Mervis has drawn this book together over several years, whittling down from a preliminary list of around 1,500 recipes to bring us this final selection. The recipes themselves have been contributed by a mixture of ‘food writers, chefs, bakers and home cooks’.
Is it good bedtime reading? Phaidon’s international cookbooks rarely are, being so focused on the delivery of hundreds of recipes. Mervis offers up an interesting introductory essay on the meaning of ‘British food’, and there’s a short foreword by man of the hour Jeremy Lee, the one voice in British cooking who seems truly inescapable right now.
Though hardly enough to count as bedtime reading, credit is due to Mervis for his recipe introductions. Phaidon’s titles often skip these altogether, leaving readers baffled over the difference between various Mexican moles that they’ve never previously encountered, nor fully understand. Mervis provides short introductions for every recipe in the book, though. These offer valuable insights into the history of the dish, the best way to serve it, or the colonial influences that often crop up.
How annoyingly vague are the recipes? Mervis delivers again with precise instructions that will even go so far as to define a ‘splash of buttermilk’ for those who aren’t content to judge for themselves (about 20ml, he reckons). Measurements are provided in imperial and metric as well.
Efforts have been made to highlight dietary concerns in each dish, with small symbols denoting whether it will be suitable for vegetarians, vegans, or those suffering from intolerances to gluten, nuts or dairy. This is a thoughtful touch that would be very welcome across the rest of the series.
Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? For the most part, no. Occasionally you may find yourself in need of a good butcher, but besides that everything should be within reach.
What’s the faff factor? We are a nation in love with a good stew, and so there are plenty of recipes here that require a few hours. But for the most part, Mervis strives for simplicity. Alongside the legends denoting dietary concerns there are also symbols highlighting one-pot dishes, as well as those featuring five ingredients or fewer, or deliverable in under half an hour.
How often will I cook from the book? This will come down to very personal preferences. I grew up in a house where 90% of our dinners would have been considered ‘British’, and have responded as an adult by returning to the national cuisine once a week at the very most. But if you’ve a taste for the comforting treats of our home nation, there’s more than enough here to keep you very happy. Mervis’ choice to include dishes we’ve stolen or co-opted from nations we’ve invaded in our past means there’s more variety than the average British cookbook too.
Killer recipes: Tweed kettle, Mussel popcorn, Stargazey pie, Pastai persli, Flummery, Sauty bannocks, Goosenargh cakes and Cumberland rum nicky – there are so many delicious dishes here, sometimes it’s easiest just to hone in on the ones with the most satisfying names.
Should I buy it? It’s no secret that British food has long been maligned as drab and lacking joy. The past thirty years or so has seen us throw everything we have at dispelling this myth, and we’re finally at a point where London is seen as one of the great food cities of the world, and a cooking show is one of our biggest cultural exports. Hopefully Ben Mervis’s excellent book can act as our closing argument, then. By digging deep into the food of our small nation, Mervis has highlighted the variety of flavours we have to offer. From national dishes to delicacies originating from the smallest of villages, The Great British Cookbook delivers the benchmark by which all other Phaidon cookbooks should be measured.
Suitable for: Beginner and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars
Buy this book: The British Cookbook by Ben Mervis
£39.95, Phaidon Press
Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas