Cookbooks: road maps to strange delights

A feast for the eyes: but the best cookbooks are about more than just beautiful photographs.

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I wouldn’t say that I’m obsessed with cookery books but I spent more time deciding my top ten than I did choosing my flat. Having finally settled on a list and sent it off to the online 1,000 Cookbooks project as requested, I suffered agonies of remorse the moment it appeared online. Months later, my dreams are still haunted by Delia, Hugh and all those other old friends I reluctantly had to leave out.

Picking just ten from my enormous collection made me feel as if I was Captain von Trapp being asked to choose between his children. It couldn’t just be about usefulness: I have yet to pot a lamprey or roast a cygnet but I treasure Florence White’s Good Things in England, a collection of “traditional and regional recipes suited to modern tastes contributed by English men and women between 1399 and 1932”.

Though the first bite is with the eyes, it had to be about more than mere aesthetics, too. Beautiful books of restaurant recipes feature prominently on the site’s overall list, collated from the top tens of over 400 chefs, food writers and addicts such as me. Thomas Keller’s stunning French Laundry Cookbook, which comes in at number seven, is a prime example, with its sabayon of pearl tapioca with Malpeque oysters and osetra caviar – the kind of food it is pleasurable to perv at over a big bowl of cauliflower cheese.

That said, I was heartened to see Fergus Henderson’s robustly meaty Nose to Tail Eating, a book that I have actually cooked from in the past, top the poll. Though I am still working up to his cold lamb’s brains on toast (“a dish”, he notes, “for those who particularly enjoy the texture of brain”), anything served on bread sounds eminently achievable to me.

Now, with Christmas approaching at vertiginous speed, I find myself wondering again what makes a great cookbook. The joy of each new one, rammed through my letter box from week to week, is largely in the savouring of the artfully styled photographs, the thrill of the unexpected. But the handful that I cook from regularly fall into two main camps.

First, there are the road maps: the trusty guides to unfamiliar culinary territory. Looks are less important than clarity and reliability here – I love the sumptuous Jerusalem (number 12) by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi but my tattered paperback copy of Claudia Roden’s 1968 Book of Middle Eastern Food still gets more use. An obscure book on Gujarati home cooking that taught me how to make a masala falls into the same camp, as does Geraldene Holt’s Cakes, first published in 1980 and still my go-to for British baking.

The others are the ones that fit my tastes like a glove: anything by Nigel Slater (Real Food was the book that turned me on to cooking in the first place), Diana Henry or Simon Hopkinson. Their pleasure in good ingredients, often treated very simply, shines through in every recipe and they are not afraid of big flavours, or a dollop of fat, either. Indeed, I make Nigel’s Parmesan garlic bread and Diana’s revelatory roasted tomatoes so often that I sometimes forget that I didn’t come up with them myself.

Perhaps that is a useful definition of a good cookbook. It is one that becomes part of you as a cook, the sacred, sauce-splattered repository of that birthday cake, the secret behind your famous fondant or celebrated soup, the one you give as a gift again and again, tearfully urging the recipient to try this recipe or that while clasping their hands with real, rather awkward sincerity.

In a year’s time, when the charity shops are groaning with glossily gorgeous “clean eating” titles, these old favourites will still be going strong. So when you’re doing your Christmas shopping, remember: no one ever died wishing that they had had more kale smoothies.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 12 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain