I hesitate to use the C word, but we have now passed Hallowe'en. I find a good bookshop to be the source of a perfect Christmas present for many. If anyone on your gift list is at all interested in food, there is a plethora of suggestions for all levels of expertise, and to suit all pockets. I tend to shun the large glossy ones (books, that is, not pockets). Many of them are there to exploit the success of a TV series. Some of these may be fine, but there is a risk of repetition. If I were to make every recipe from every cookbook I own, I would need another decade or two on this mortal coil. Here are one or two you may find of interest.
Coasts & Waters - The British Seafood Cookbook
Written and Published by Christopher Trotter
This is Christopher's most recent work. For years I've been buying his incredibly useful little books on different Scottish vegetables as stocking fillers. A snip at £9, with a gift pack of 6 available for only £49. This is a terrific selection of 50 recipes, some familiar, many less so. There are useful sections on selection and sustainability, on cooking and preparation, and on nutrition.
Favourites for those who haven't been there before include Cullen Skink, poached salmon, and Hollandaise sauce. On the other hand you will find catfish, wolf fish and pike. Have you encountered hake in carpione? No, me neither, but it sounds good. There is a good section on salmon, and the well documented problems with some fish farms are addressed head on.
I may have been disparaging about glossy books. By that I was referring to the coffee table size jobs. This is a compact little beauty (21 x 15 cm) made even lovelier, as are all Christopher's books, by the exquisite photographs taken by his wife, Caroline. Order via his website.
Friday's Tom Cooks! will feature a couple of recipes from Coasts & Waters
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat - Mastering The Elements of Good Cooking
Canongate Books pp 469 £35
In the first On The Side column of the year, I passed on a few top tips I'd picked up over the years. Some were self evident: make sure your oven is at the correct temperature before putting the food in, for example. Others were less obvious. It took me a long time to realise that salt is as important as a flavour enhancer as for any other reason. That prompted the Retired Captain of Industry to point me in the direction of this volume, which has 190 pages of tips, based on the four main titular elements.
Take salt. If it's a flavour enhancer, should we use more? No, says Samin, add it in the right amount, at the right time, in the right form. And replying to the salt police, she emphasises that unless you have doctor's advice to limit your salt intake, you can completely relax about the intake from home cooked food. The real problems stem from the preprocessed world.
Fat she describes as the second element of good cooking. Again she is encouraging not the use of more fat, but how to make better use. The science of all these processes is explained, not just in layman's terms, but in beautifully crafted English. Thus we are encouraged to think of an emulsion as a temporary peace treaty between fat and water. If you are starting out as a bread maker, recipes can tell you what to do, but Samir's section on gluten tells you why you're doing it.
A book this size with no photographs? How can this be? Fear not. There are dozens of beautiful illustrations and diagrams by Wendy MacNaughton, making this one of the most attractive books on food I've lifted in a long while.
There is a good chunk of autobiography too, as she outlines her own progress as a chef - under no less a teacher than Alice Waters of Chez Panisse - and her own failures along the way. Every section is fascinating - then you come to 250 or so pages of recipes which put the theory into practice. Do I agree with her all the time? No. For example she says that adding salt to dried beans doesn't toughen them. Not my experience. But this is book written by someone who has walked the walk, paid her dues, served her time (insert here any equivalent cliché of your own choice). This is a voice worth listening to and lessons worth learning, all imparted with charm.
The Reading Cure - How Books Restored My Appetite
Weidenfield & Nicolson pp 260 £16.99
While not a food book in the conventional sense, this is as delightful a volume as you will read in a long time. Those of you who know me will not be surprised to learn that anorexia nervosa is not a condition with which I have ever been afflicted. Nor, to be honest, is it one which I can really comprehend. That might be a tiny part of what you get from reading this. No, don't switch off. It's not chick-lit or misery-lit: it's the enlightening story of how an award winning young journalist worked her way out of a horrible disease, and how some of the great feasts, meals or even snacks from literature aided her recovery.
Remember, if you're a fan, how powerful the food imagery was in the works of Dickens - and how this tradition was continued by Roald Dahl and J K Rowling. Be taken back to the works of your childhood, What Katy Did or The Secret Garden for some; or anything by Lewis Carroll, from the Mad Hatter's tea party to the rather ghoulish beach picnic in The Walrus and The Carpenter; or, my own favourite, the description of Ratty's picnic at the beginning of The Wind in The Willows:-
There’s cold chicken inside it, replied the Rat briefly;
Works from teenage years might include Laurie Lee's privations in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. Moving on, Freeman finds inspiration from the works of Siegfried Sassoon and Virginia Woolf. And I'm delighted to find her devoting a whole section to my personal favourite food writer, M F K Fisher. The sleeve notes describe The Reading Cure as a beautiful inspiring account of hunger and happiness. It is that and more. And most of all it will take you back to your favourite pieces of food literature and point you to new ones.
On The Side will return on 17 November