I’ll preface this by saying our kitchen builders were brilliant. So it wasn’t entirely their fault that the cookery book shelf fell off the wall. It was the sheer weight of the books.
Of course my husband was upset – it crashed onto the the table where we’d just bottled vast quantities of sloe gin and he wasn’t best pleased that several litres ended up on the floor.
And I was upset because my cookery books were lying sprawled face down in a revolting slurry of sticky sloe gin and plaster dust. But the shelf went back on the wall (now with belt and braces), the books got wiped down and dried out (and what’s a cookery book without a few stains?) and my husband, minus the sloe gin, just had to dry out (only kidding, love).
The point of this story is that I have a lot of cookerybBooks. A ludicrously large number. I could probably stock a shop. The bulk of them are wall-to-wall in the kitchen and the overspill is in the spare room upstairs. Some are more thumbed and food-stained than others. If you put a gun to my head I might actually admit to having just a few dozen favourites.
But if the house was burning down – and let’s face it there’s no shortage of tinder – which would I rescue? This was going to be a Top 10 but I’ve made it into a Baker’s Dozen because it’s been so tough to decide. I apologise in advance for so many of them being out of print. Please note I live in the UK so that is reflected in my choices.
1. The first would have to be virtually the first book I ever cooked from. Between us over the years my sister-in-law and I have cooked its contents from cover to cover (she’s braver than I am, I baulk at the brains in batter, but don’t let that put you off) and I still use it. It’s brilliant yet for some unaccountable reason it is out of print. It is Poor Cook by Susan Campbell and Caroline Conran (Sphere Books, 1972). Comb your second hand bookshops for a copy. I really, really wish a publisher would reprint it.
2. This is cheating a bit but anything by Elizabeth David. I’ll admit to a preference to Mediterranean Food and French Country Cooking, but as I have them in one edition with Summer Cooking, that only counts as one choice. Mrs David is murder if you’re new to cooking as she says things like “a moderate oven” and “cook until it’s done” which is no help at all to someone even relatively inexperienced. But she writes beautifully, her scholarship is impeccable and her recipes are delicious and inspiring. And she’s credited with kick-starting British cooking after the gloom and gloop of postwar rationing.
5. Coleman Andrews’ Catalan Cuisine. This book occasioned the only fan letter I have ever written to an author. I defy you to read about the calçot festival or (unless you are a vegetarian) the matanza and not want to board a plane for Barcelona. It is writing worthy, dare I say it, of Mrs David and as we spend a lot of time in Catalonia it has a special place in my heart.
6. Preserving by Oded Schwartz. I have a large number of books on pickles and jams but this is my absolute favourite. It’s jammed (sorry) full of great recipes but check out his Spicy Tomato Ketchup and Mexican Chilli Sauce.We stockpile supplies of these in our preserves cupboard and my husband has a small breakdown if we accidentally run out.
7. Camellia Panjabi’s 50 Great Curries of India. This is simply the best Indian recipe book I’ve ever cooked from. The food is subtle, delicious and tastes like home-cooked Indian food. I’m working my way through the book but the Malabar Prawn Curry, the Lamb Vindaloo, the Rogan Josh and the Green Chutney with Coconut are recipes we have returned to again and again. I’m salivating just looking at it.
8. Katie Stewart’s Cookbook. My go-to book for traditional British recipes and basics. She’s never failed me yet.
9. Spanish Cooking at Home and on Holiday by Maite Manjon and Catherine O’Brien. This belonged to my late mother-in-law and although it was printed back in 1976 (Book Club Associates) you can still pick it up second-hand. It’s got some terrific recipes in it. Try the salsa para pescado – it’s meant to be for fish but it’s great with sausages or chops too.
10. Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book – Elizabethan Country House Cooking by Hilary Spurling. I bought this because we live in an old house and I got interested in historic recipes. When I read the opening lines of her introduction, the hairs rose on the back of my arms: “I have been cooking for 10 years now from a small, stout , handwritten book, bound in leather and stamped in gold, with endpapers made from odd scraps of mediaeval Latin manuscript …” Blimey, I thought, why don’t I have a book like that? Well, now I do, albeit not the original but Lady Fettiplace’s spelling is apparently so villainous that I’m quite glad Hilary Spurling took her in hand. Her book is well-researched, alluringly and entertainingly written and has the recipes translated into something you could happily cook in a 21st century kitchen. And it is a revelation when it comes to the cookery skills of our ancestors. I’ve bought several extra copies of this just so I can pass it on and share it, it’s that good.
11. The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. If I could have only one Italian cookery book, this would be it. I’ve cooked heaps of recipes from this book and not one has ever failed me. It’s hard to pick favourites here but I use the pesto recipe every summer when we’re lucky enough to have a glut of basil. The pizza dough is the best. The sauces are divine. Her instructions are detailed and give an authentically Italian result. (Some of my best friends are Italian. What can I say? I love their food).
12. Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery Course. Mrs Allen runs a hotel and cookery school in the west of Ireland. I’ve never stayed there but I would love to. Her food is fabulous – her beef and pigeon pie is my favourite new way of cooking game – and the book is encyclopaedic in scope.
13. Dorothy Hartley’s magisterial and fascinating Food in England. It’s not a cookery book but I think it’s an essential item for anyone interested in English food and its history. This is another one I’m prone to buying for family and friends as a present.
I feel guilty now because I haven’t included anything by the brilliant Elisabeth Luard or Simon Hopkinson. Lindsey Bareham’s Big Red Book of Tomatoes has more pages turned down than anything else in my kitchen.
I have a lot of time for Yotam Ottolenghi, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jamie Oliver and Nigel Slater. The Ginger Pig book by Tim Wilson and Fran Warde gets a very honourable mention.
I use that US bible Joy of Cooking a lot, both an older version and the modern lower-fat rewrite. I am a huge fan of Eliza Acton and can quite understand why Mrs Beeton allegedly nicked a lot of her recipes. And for a good read, try Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed. She must have needed a lot of patience living hand-to-mouth with that sculptor but I wish I could have had dinner with her.
I could go on, but I’m conscious that I have, already. Many of the books I’ve mentioned are classics, quite a few are out of print. For anyone interested, click on the titles and the links will take you to the relevant pages on Amazon.co.uk.