Work, summer and scribbling in cookbooks

What a summer. I had no idea, when I wrote the last post about Dylan’s in Criccieth, that I would be working flat out until the end of September. Not a clue. If I had done, I think I’d have drunk rather more wine…

The rate and extent of work hasn’t just meant that I’ve been a bad blogger. It means I’ve not been quite as committed in the kitchen either – no, I haven’t been forced down the ready-meal route (read the ingredients on 99.9% of supermarket ready meals and you’ll understand why not), but I have been falling back on standards that don’t require much thought any more. Potato salad with sausage? Tick. Pasta with fresh tomato sauce? Tick. Courgette risotto? Tick. And I’ve managed to keep up with breadmaking, though the Flour Quest I planned this time last year didn’t happen. Fell back on reliables there too, and that means using Bacheldre’s Strong White Unbleached Stoneground. Now the work is lessening and it’s soup time again – in the words of Jon Snow and just about any member of House Stark, possibly including the dire wolves, ‘winter is coming’.

Over the summer there was one food-related debate which did make me stop and think quite a bit. It was sparked off by Prue Leith, who asked ‘Whatever happened to serious cookbooks?’ in an article prompted by the imminent-then return of Bake Off. Her theme – essentially and crudely summed up – was that the ‘look of the book dictates the sale’. Someone else divided cookery books into ‘pretty books which you look at, food porn’ and ‘ones you actually use which are covered in gunk’. Personally, I don’t think I’d go so far as to suggest such a deep chasm – I’ve used Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem quite a bit, and that’s surely one of the most beautiful of the relatively recent crop.

pastabilityOn the other hand, and if you can go by the sheer amount of graffiti (‘THIS DOES NOT WORK!‘, ‘don’t use purple cauli, goes vile colour’, ‘not good, weird taste, threw out‘, ‘GO EASY ON THE ****** YOGHURT’, ‘Brilliant, VG!!!!!!’) and food staining, my most used books do seem to be unillustrated, practical, apparently as dry as dust or too specialist to a non-foodie eye, and not that recent.

This, for instance, is the somewhat sticky recipe for pasta tubes with chicken, cream, mushrooms, mustard and Gruyere from Pastability by Lizzie Spender, published in 1987. It got me through a relatively impoverished period when I none the less needed to entertain, and I’m very grateful to it.

Or take Lindsey Bareham’s brilliant 1993 book, A Celebration of Soup, which I’m actually using right now to help me riff on a beetroot recipe. That’s a bit cleaner (I’d moved out of a studio and into somewhere with a bigger kitchen at just that time) but equally annotated. And I’ve used it so much that I’ve split the binding. The beetroot soup, by the way, is delicious. Delicous with knobs on.

Sometimes parts of recipes are underlined with ‘eh??’ written by them where there’s been a bit of an editing shortfall (‘whaddya mean “bring back to the boil”? Never said boil it in the first place!!!) and sometimes there’s been nothing to underline, which is emphasised by the comment ‘WHAT COURGETTE? How much courgette? Where’s the fecking courgette?’ to quote one of my entries in another book by an eminent (and anonymous here) authority.

Prue Leith seemed to be stressing that the rise of the telly chef was almost killing off the serious cook book, but I would argue against that – or I would some of the time, ahem. One of my most used books is an early illustrated TV tie-in, Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean Cookery, published in the same year as Pastability. My graffiti habit continues here, sometimes with big circles round parts of the text such as ‘the mixture should be very moist’ which I have annotated with ‘not too moist; it doesn’t thicken that much’, and sometimes with general comments like ‘yum!!!’. And I still annotate / deface / scrawl on books: Jerusalem, for instance, tells me that I really liked the hummus recipe and its addition of ice-cold water (‘WORKS!’) but that I prefer it with ‘more lemon/less tahini’. And it also tells me that there are editorial whoopsies (‘what “remaining herbs”???’) and notes how I adapted recipes (‘too long for fresh broad beans from the garden; add at the end of cooking’). These pages are much less sticky, but that’s just because I’ve grown into a bigger kitchen and no longer have to prop my recipe book against the wall by the stove.


So, basically, Prue, I don’t think I am using one type of book more than the other. Maybe it’s a generational thing? I grew up as a cook with brightly illustrated books; though I did buy Elisabeth David in Penguin paperbacks, I don’t remember cooking anything from them, though I loved reading her evocative text. In my case I think the heaviest graffiti in the unillustrated books – as in Soups – are often because I’ve just been using the book for longer. Give me another couple of years and I’m sure Jerusalem will be covered in scribble. Hopefully not quite as sticky as Pastability, mind. And here’s a reminder of the earlier form of illustrated book:




6 thoughts on “Work, summer and scribbling in cookbooks

  1. My favourite recipe books all have broken spines and are much scribbled upon, and a surprising number are linked to TV series and have pretty pictures. I rather like pretty pictures. OTOH, Madhur Jaffries’ “Curry Bible” has a fairly low picture to recipe ratio and I love it regardless. I do find those editing fauz pas annoying though. As you say, what fecking extra herbs etc. i think, most of all, I love recipe books like Nigel Slaters’ that rely on good ingredients not fussed around with too much, with lots of encouragement to experiment. Not that I need much encouragement, it is rare for me to follow a recipe “properly” more than the first time. Unless it is a cake recipe. I don’t bake enough to successfully mess with anything other than the type of sugar or combination of fruit…

    Congrats on the lots of work though, that’s a good thing, despite the knock-on effects on blogging, gardening, relaxing…

    1. I’m wondering more and more if there’s a generational element going on here – I can’t remember a world without telly chefs – Keith Floyd I think made the strongest impression early on, possibly because he was all over TV like a rash at about the stage I had to fend for myself. And that’s when I came into contact with Madhur Jaffrey too – went charging out to buy the spices (I love the Curry Bible too).

      I hardly ever follow a recipe ‘properly’ – as all my scrawlings attest. I will for cakes, though, because I don’t bake enough of them to know what to push and what to stick to like glue…

  2. Take off the quick tip section on that last photo and it looks very much like the Marks and Sparks cookery books which got me through studenthood. Like Janet, I rarely follow a recipe – I take them as a vague guidance to weave in whatever I’ve got to hand or feel like at the time. Luckily that hasn’t led to any disasters… yet.

    Spookily, I was thinking about this blog yesterday and now here you are. Nice to see you’re back and you’re absence has been because you’re busy.

    1. Ooo ooooooo, spoooooky. Yup, here I am…. went out for lunch with friends today who have also been rushed off their feet all summer, and we agreed we’re a) knackered, b) have had enough of the tourist season and all the consequent stupidities (one saw someone driving around her campsite at speed yesterday with a young child RIDING ON THE ROOF – the site roads may be private but all the laws still apply), and c) that we’re getting too openly sarcastic. Probably just as well that the season is drawing to a close.

      I think I’ve still got some of the M&S books – the one on French Country Cooking is absolutely superb, but it doesn’t look anything like the drug-crazed 1970s nightmare that is the Hamlyn All-Colour Cookbook

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