What’s the USP? I can’t believe you didn’t get this from the title. It is Potato, a book that celebrates the potato, by the human equivalent of a Maris Piper, James Martin.
I know that name. He’s the Saturday morning guy, right? Martin has been a mainstay of our weekend television for sixteen years now, yes – first on the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen, and more recently for ITV’s Saturday Morning with James Martin. But let’s not pretend those are his only credentials – he won acclaim from restaurant critic Jay Rayner for his work at The Talbot Hotel and, last year, relaunched everybody’s least favourite option at the food court, SpudULike in collaboration with potato company Albert Bartlett.
So this new book is a cynical ploy funded by Big Potato? Now, now. It’s also entirely possible Martin is massively enthusiastic about taters. Whatever the case, ingredient-focused cookbooks are something of a miniature trend right now, from Claire Thomson’s Tomato to the Lea-Wilson family’s Sea Salt. Also, at the very least, the book gives us one of the most unintentionally funny front covers in recent memory: an uncertain looking Martin in front of what may as well be a stock photo of spuds, and, in massive letters at the bottom of it all ‘Potato James Martin’. Brilliant. Five out of five for that then.
So it’s a five star cookbook then? Woah, woah, woah. Easy now. It’s a five-star cookbook cover. The actual book itself is a lot less impressive. Titles that lean in heavy on single ingredients live and die on two things: the insight they offer around that ingredient, and the use they make of the ingredient in the recipes. Claire Thomson, for example, is a passionate champion of the tomato, and offered a range of vibrant and original dishes in her title. Sea Salt, which presented a wealth of recipes that used salt but, for obvious reasons, didn’t make it the star ingredient, struggled.
Martin doesn’t offer us much insight at all into the history of the potato, which is a great shame, given the fascinating impact it has had on our culinary world. A staple of diets across South America for perhaps ten thousand years, they did not find their way to Europe until the late 1600s, and yet have since become an indispensable part of our daily cuisine.
Our potato-loving author doesn’t seem all that bothered with sharing this history with us, though. In fact, the history of the spud gets about two sentences of attention across the entire book. But then, this is not a title for those who are looking for effusive food writing. The recipe introductions occasionally offer a little insight into a dish’s provenance – but frequently Martin phones them in with the briefest filler text. His introduction to a recipe for a sandwich is printed simply as ‘Why not?! The question is: to butter or not to butter…? You know it makes sense!’
It might make sense, James, but do you?
What about the recipes themselves? There are some dishes to play around with here, certainly, but for the most part Martin delivers to a core audience of fans who don’t want to try anything too wacky. Potatoes might be the embodiment of unshowy workmanship in vegetables, but their versatility also opens them up to a much more interesting range of recipes than those on show here.
Martin leans on the most obvious of dishes but does them well. And so, we have Coquilles St Jacques, Tartiflette, Fish and Chips, and Lamb Hot Pot. There’s also plenty of room for the greatest hits that always pop up in the cookbooks of popular TV chefs: beer can chickens and hasselback potatoes.
Does he venture any further afield than France for his recipes? Thankfully, yes – and this is where some of the cookbook’s few unexpected ideas get a look in. There’s the always tempting South African curry-in-a-loaf-of-bread, Bunny Chow, and Sweet Potato and Pecan Cookies. One recipe pairs a humble crab cake with a katsu curry sauce – though Martin is quick to credit this to Ynyshir’s Gareth Ward. And that’s… that’s about it for the book. There’s a short section towards the back that offers up stand-alone potato recipes for those occasions when you want to knock up some Pommes Parisienne or Dauphinoise as a side, and a very handy chart that shares the various uses of twenty-eight of the most common varieties, but neither of these are worth the price of admission by themselves.
Should I buy it? The thing with potatoes is that they aren’t exactly under-represented in cookbooks already. Do you have five to ten cookbooks on your shelf? Are two of them centred on English or French cuisine? Then you’ve probably already got most of what you’ll find here at your fingertips. This is a book for fans of Martin, and people who enjoy owning cookbooks with inadvertently funny front covers, and that’s about it.
Suitable for: Beginner home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Two stars
Buy this book: Potato by James Martin
Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas