"Simon was never tempted to put risotto with cranberries and white truffles on the menu. Rather, he ate and mastered great standards, making each one his own." Emily Green - Los Angeles Times
It's a beautiful day and I really should be outside, but I weeded all morning so it's relax time for me - before this evening's cooking class with the grandkids - always semi-stressful as well as immensely joyful. Well that's kids for you.
Anyway I was feeling uninspired, and glanced through my little stack of magazines and books awaiting their moment on the net, and, in the end decided to do a little something on Simon Hopkinson - the rather jolly looking man seen here.
Born in Lancashire, and after a career as an Egon Ronay restaurant critic and a chef at hugely successful restaurants in London - Bibendum - a collaboration with Terence Conran being the main one - he eventually wrote a cookbook at the request of Jill Norman - Elizabeth David's editor. It was to showcase the food that he was cooking at this very posh restaurant, housed in the old Michelin building - hence the Michelin man on the wall.
That book - Roast chicken and other stories - was published back in 1994, and was moderately successful, but not hugely so. It was more popular with food critics than the general public. But then in 2003 Waitrose did a poll of the 'most useful cookbook ever' and to almost everyone's surprise it came out top. (Delia was second with her How to Cook trilogy.) Instant fame and massive sales ensued. In recent times I have read about it here and there - always in glowing terms, and eventually came across an article in The Guardian by Jay Rayner called How we all fell for Simon Hopkinson's lovely tale of roast chicken. It was the time of COVID and, unable to browse Readings bargain table in Doncaster I decided to treat myself, so ordered it online - and it duly arrived.
A little like Nigel Slater's Real Food it focuses on his favourite ingredients with half a dozen or so recipes for each, after a short essay on the ingredient. The recipes are mostly things you will know - like the famous Roast chicken of the title, and each comes with a small 'story' to introduce it. The picture is Jay Rayner's attempt at the roast chicken - there are no glossy styled photographs in the book - none at all - just a rather lovely drawing by Flo Bayley at the head of each section. A modern day kind of Elizabeth David/Jane Grigson approach. I have to say that, amongst the critics, almost everybody says that his recipe for roast chicken is the very best, although it seems that he has considerably lessened the amount of butter in the recipe from what he suggested in the original. 110g to 75g.
I have tried one recipe from the book already. I chose it as the fallback position for a recent cooking class - which I wrote up in my recent blog Trying to please everyone. It was Poulet sauté au vinaigre. And it was good, really good, so perhaps I should try some more. Maybe even the roast chicken.
I rather enjoyed reading it - it's definitely a read as well as a recipe book, but every now and then he got me mildly annoyed with the snobby kind of emphasis on the quality of the ingredients that I wrote about recently - apparently only wild salmon will do for example - and don't attempt sauce vierge (fresh tomato sauce) without sun-ripened tomatoes ... He also loves all offal which is also not my thing. But on the other hand he is a real fan of what nowadays seems to be called comfort food - meat pies, and so on, rather than the fussy kind of food that is looking for something new for the sake of something new. I wonder if he is an admirer of Yotam Ottolenghi? He was a fan - a friend indeed - of Elizabeth David and I think Delia too, but maybe not Jamie and Nigella.
Anyway here are a few quotes just to give you a flavour of the man and the book. It's just a small book but lots to try out in it.
"Good cooking, in the final analysis, depends on two things; common sense and good taste. It is also something that you naturally have to want to do well in the place, as with any craft."
"Deep down in the mind of a good cook are endless recipes. It is a matter of knowing what goes with what; knowing when to stop and where to start, and with what ingredients. Thinking how a dish is going to taste, before you start to cook it, may seem an obvious instruction, but it is not necessarily common practice. It is important to cook in the right frame of mind (we are not talking everyday chores here) and to do things in the right order. Ergo: feel hungry; go out shopping (with pen and paper and money). See good things, buy them. Write down further items that will accompany previous purchases. Buy wine to go with food. Come home. Have a glass of wine. Cook the food and with more of the wine. More importantly, do make sure that the food you have bought is the sort you like to eat and know how to cook. It is also a question of sympathy between the cook and the cooked-for; is there a worryingly large proportion of people, I wonder, who cook to impress rather than to please?"
"Braised belly pork given this treatment ends up as a wondrously tender and melting piece of meat. The recipe has evolved from various ideas, with both European and Asian influences. Most of the time it ends up slightly different from the time before with a lot of trial and error, but that's the fascination of cooking."
"It has always been my belief that a good cook can turn the proverbial sow's ear into a silk purse. It takes a little knowledge and expertise, but whereas an ignorant and uncaring chef can ruin the finest free-range chicken, a sympathetic and enthusiastic cook can work wonders, even with an old boiling fowl."
In recent times he made a television series for Channel 4 and the BBC has 31 recipes which I think are from the series - including My mother's cheese and onion pie, Orange caramel pudding, Risotto alla Parmigiana and Sticky toffee pudding. Everyday food for everyday people, and yet it is the critics that love him most of all.