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My personal pantheon of food writers whom I particularly admire and respect is not very large but it is growing, albeit slowly and for convenience I divided it into “Theory” and “Practical”.
Under “Theory” I place such knowledgeable people as Alan Davidson, initially for his collection of essays published as “A Kipper with My Tea” but later for the encyclopaedic “Oxford Companion to Food”; Harold McGee, who makes the science of cooking understandable to a non-scientist, also Margaret Visser, Colin Spencer and Michael Pollan for their very readable books on the sociological side of food.
Then there is the “Practical” category, the cooks. The first person I put there was Elizabeth David, the writer who breathed life into British kitchens after the culinary privations of World War II by introducing in her books the warmth and colour of French and Mediterranean food. Her “French Country Cooking” was my first cook book.
She was joined a few years later by Jane Grigson, writing at that time for The Observer. “Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery” was her book that taught me to make the patés and sausages for my first restaurant and is still one of my favourites.
These were followed by; Madhur Jaffrey for leading me into the opulent world of Indian food; Claudia Rodin whose “Book of Middle Eastern Food” I refer to as much now as when I first read it and then came “The Book of Jewish Food”. There are others, including Elisabeth Luard, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Marcella Hazan, Paula Wolfert, Greg Malouf and Pellegrino Artusi, wonderfully informative and exciting.
All have shared with me the rich banquet of their knowledge and love of food. In their books they have had no barrows to push, no eponymous restaurants, no self-promoting signature dishes or personal “takes” on the classics, for to them, good food is the thing.
It is not difficult to understand therefore, why my newest addition is Rick Stein. Yes, he does have a restaurant, several in fact but only mentions them in passing and yes, he does alter some of the authentic recipes he collects but only because they are not as he remembered them or because the original ingredients are impossible to obtain. Here is a cook who passionately loves good food and wants to share this with his readers and viewers. In his books and television programmes he comes across as a food lover first, a cook second and only then a commercial chef, none more so than in his two latest works.
In “Far Eastern Odyssey” he does more than just make hitherto arcane Eastern dishes do-able, he makes me want to try them all. This is a problem as I am also enjoying his most recent book, “Rick Stein’s Spain” and I want to try all of those recipes too.
I have to admit that there is something about his television programmes; seeing the dishes cooked in a steamy marketplace or village restaurant from fabulously fresh ingredients, and then sharing with the author a meal in the shadow of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene or Ernest Hemmingway and watching the enjoyment it gives him, can only add to the printed word. His programmes are rich with an honest love and respect for food and are in no way like those TV cooking shows where the uber-celebrity chef decorates the plate with food that looks like it’s only there to be admired rather than eaten, or bastardizes a perfectly good dish by taking commercial short cuts. Likewise in his books the text focuses on and respects the food and the beautiful photographs are relevant and inspire the reader to cook.
So Rick is quite secure on my list. I love both these books and I could go on but I want to make the fresh Vietnamese spring rolls for a light lunch and then tomorrow the taste buds are off to Spain…
Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey by Rick Stein
Published by BBC Books
RRP $78.00 hardback
Rick Stein’s Spain by Rick Stein
Published by BBC Books
RRP $70.00 hardback