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We were enjoying dinner with friends a few weekends ago when the conversation turned, as it nearly always does with me, to food and someone asked me what my top ten cookbooks were; I forget what I answered at the time but since then I have given the matter some serious thought.
What makes a cookbook a favourite one? The number of recipes I can use? The first chef I worked for said that he only considered a cookbook worthwhile if it gave him the inspiration for five recipes. I have books that give me a lot more than that but not all of them would I consider favourites. Do they have to be useful at all? I have a few restaurant cookbooks, one of which I have used but the rest I keep only to remind me of places which in the unpredictable and often parlous world of restaurants, might not be there next year; never considering for a moment of going to all the trouble and expense of cooking any of their elaborate and pretentious dishes. They remain future history books, little else. This wasn’t going to be easy.
Perhaps if I extended the range of choice to include not just cook books but food books in general it would be easier; books about food in a changing society, the ecology of food, food science, the philosophy of food, food in the arts, biographies, food production etc., etc.. Another difficulty is that it is often the author I like and having to choose just one of their works would be impossible and not altogether honest. If I could cite the author, with one of their works as an example rather as a definitive “favourite”, it might also be easier. The main problem I have is the word “favourite” itself, so I prefer to call them “books I prefer not to be without” or even “the books I would choose if I were allowed to only ever have ten”. So with all this in mind, for better or worse and in only vague order here are my Top Ten.
1. The Oxford Companion to Food - Alan Davidson
In the ‘Notes on Using this Book” Davidson observes “This book has been written with the intention that browsing through it should be a pleasure.” And it is…from Aardvark to Zucchini though 2650 entries it is a book of such interest and encyclopaedic knowledge of food that I would never like to part with it.
2. The Cook’s Companion – Stephanie Alexander
This is a book that belongs in every kitchen. It is on my shelf to tell me heaps of things I don’t know when I need to know them and to remind me of basics I had forgotten. I would also recommend here Stephanie’s autobiography, A Cook’s Life. I found it surprisingly moving; the frankly-told story of a chef dedicated to good food and how this affects her private life over the years as she becomes one of Australia’s foremost cooks, restaurateurs and food writers.
3. French Provincial Cooking – Elizabeth David
This is just one of her magical works. Beautifully written, the recipes are of the best of French cooking, written at a time and of a place where the food was the thing and the ingredients paramount. I could equally have chosen French Country Cooking or A Book of Mediterranean Food.
4. Spice Notes – Ian Hemphill
I love the alchemy that herbs and spices bring to cookery and also get huge satisfaction from growing them. Ian Hemphill feeds my need to know about ingredients I am using. His section on spice and herb mixes is most useful.
5. McGee on Food and Cooking – Harold McGee
Physics, chemistry and I parted company in the fourth form when everyone realised I hadn’t a scientific clue. I was surprised therefore to enjoy and more to the point, understand the science of food and cooking in McGee’s book as he explains the magic and miracles of the kitchen.
6. The Book of Jewish Food – Claudia Roden
I could have put A Book of Middle Eastern Food which was the first of her books I read and which introduced me to the delights of that cuisine, however The Book of Jewish Food is much more than a cookbook, it is a fascinating history of Jewish cooking and the richness of its culinary traditions told through stories and recipes.
7. Good Things – Jane Grigson
This was a really hard choice. I love and use all her books, a lot. Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery is indispensable when I am making terrines, sausages or cooking the lesser known cuts of pork but Good Things offers variety in a collection of beautifully written articles originally published in the Observer Colour Magazine. First published over 40 years ago it is as relevant to good food now as it was then.
8. Thai Food – David Thompson
At first this book seemed rather daunting to someone who hadn’t cooked much Thai food; some of the ingredients were new to me and the authenticity of the recipes discouraged me and made me think that I might never produce dishes as beautiful as those in the photographs but I persisted and it was worth it; this is simply the best book I know on Thai food.
9. Lord Krishna’s Cuisine – Yamuna Devi
If I ever had to become a vegetarian I think I would like to be an Indian one and the recipes in this splendid book would keep me happy for a very long time. Chutneys, breads, dal, panir, curries, drinks, in fact everything you could need and there is even a comprehensive A-Z information section. Don’t worry, Ms Jaffrey, I still love your books too.
10. The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking – Marcella Hazan
This book makes it is so easy to understand why Italians love their native cuisine. It has beautiful recipes for making authentic and traditional Italian dishes the proper way and of course it is also a key to the best comfort food in the world.
So there you are, my Top Ten and already I am worrying if I got it right. Should I have put this one or that one in instead, but then of course it is just a matter of taste and there are millions of other cookbooks out there, most of which I have never even heard of, but anyway, these are my choices and I will stick with them…for the moment…and if you try them, I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.