A debt to pleasure

The Oxford Companion to Food

Alan Davidson <em>Oxford University Press, 892pp, £40</em>

ISBN 01

Alan Davidson is the great unknown food hero. Among cooks and food historians he is revered for his definitive works on seafood, for his publishing house, Prospect Books, and for the food journal over which he presides, Petits Propos Culinaires. But he has not touched the nation's stomach as his friend Elizabeth David did. He means little to the Ready Steady Cook brigade.

All that could - or at least should - change with the publication of his Oxford Companion to Food, the culmination of 20 years' work and the best food reference work ever to appear in the English language. Davidson has produced an instructive, erudite and delightful book. Read it and be dazzled, as I was, by your own ignorance. Who knew that the "secret ingredient" in a good baklava was fat rendered from the tail of a fat-tailed sheep; that the papaw is a different fruit from the pawpaw, which is a synonym for the papaya; that the national dish of Estonia is kiluvol, a kind of sprat pate; that crimping is not only what you do to pastry edges but also the process of gashing the flesh of a fish before rigor mortis sets in; that Spam is hugely popular in Hawaii; that zebra meat is "outstandingly good"; or that sonofabitch stew is a cowboy dish which mixes "heart, liver, tongue, pieces of tenderloin, sweetbreads, brain and 'marrow gut' "?

Sea creatures are dealt with fascinatingly, as you'd expect from Davidson. He covers dog cockle and pompano as well as tuna and cod. The "geoduck" (or gooeyduck) is "the largest burrowing clam in the world", weighing as much as 20kg, with its "plump, orange-red body" only partially covered by hinged shells. The thought of it may make you feel slightly queasy, but the ever-solicitous Davidson assures us that "geoduck meat is delicious", notably in chowders. I'll take his word for it.

The Companion is true to its name, a friendly presence, guiding us through the universe of food with humour and wit. It is not, like the Larousse Gastronomique, a narrow compendium of cuisine; nor, like Tom Stobart's The Cook's Encyclopedia, merely a guide to ingredients (however useful that may be). It's also much less Eurocentric than Larousse. Venezuela is dealt with as thoroughly as Croatia, though perhaps there's a slight bias towards British specialities against North American; clootie dumpling is covered, but not hot dog. The format is a series of wonderful essays covering everything from the scientific process of digestion to religious laws and foodways. And, unlike in Dumas's Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, sources are scrupulously acknowledged.

Davidson is a splendidly sceptical companion. An entry on culinary mythology debunks several pervasive fairy tales. Marco Polo did not introduce pasta to the western world from China; searing meat does not "seal in the juices" (though it's still worth doing for flavour and colour); and spices in medieval food were not used to disguise "tainted meat" but to enhance the pleasure of eating, much as they are used today.

The entry on "aphrodisiacs" says that they are "virtually non-existent" and describes a book on the subject by Norman Douglas as "pathetically feeble". The balance between description and prescription is just right; the opinions are never callow and can be funny, as when Davidson advises people what they should do when faced with lewd remarks at table: "In the company of persons who remark on, say, the phallic appearance of an asparagus spear, they may give an amiable (but faint) smile, to show that they take the point and are friendly towards the speaker; but they should not match guffaw with guffaw."

It is a rare thing to be both idiosyncratic and comprehensive, but Davidson manages it. My only complaint about the Companion is that it's so distracting, it leaves hardly any time for cooking and eating the things it lovingly describes.