“Today, if we cook, we Google it. New cookbooks lie on the coffee table and we drool over Tuscan landscapes and rustic bread ovens. Before ordering in a pizza.” Prue Leith
Still full of new year's fervour, with resolutions buzzing in my head I decided I would search for a 'new' recipe in a book I had not looked at for some time. And so I retrieved these two Marie Claire volumes from my shelf. Flavours, by the way is written by Donna Hay although she gets no credit on the cover. Maybe it was early days in her career.
As I flicked I gradually became overcome with two contrasting thoughts really, the first being that the food was perhaps, shall I say, vacuous - lacking in oomph somehow. (I'll come to the contrasting thought) The food was indeed simple, but sometimes so simple that I dismissed it out of hand as a possibility. Which considering how I bang on about Robert Carrier, Nigel Slater et al. and how wonderfully simple but tasty they are, this is really a bit hypocritical. Take these two pasta dishes for example - Pasta with garlic and Parmesan spinach, and Spaghetti with lime and rocket
Maybe I just wasn't in the mood although I was slightly tempted by the lime and rocket one, as I have quite a few limes in the fridge and some bocconcini which I could have used instead of the recommended feta, and honestly, now that I look at it again today, I should perhaps have tried it. It would have ticked my vegetarian box, although I would have had to buy some rocket. The other one though is the sort of thing that surely anyone is capable of throwing together without much thought these days. And indeed I do.
What about Balsamic chicken with garlic couscous (the only recipe I have been able to find online because somebody actually cooked it)? Also interesting, particularly the garlic couscous somehow, although David is not a couscous fan - although balance that with his love of balsamic vinegar and we might have a deal. Or ocean trout in an orange and tomato marinade? No - where would I find fresh ocean trout. Not in Eltham I am willing to bet. Eltham definitely needs a proper fishmonger's. You could try it with another fish though couldn't you?
Now that I look more carefully at these, I do see that they were all indeed possible, but consider this. I have now flicked through two recipe books and well over a hundred recipes, and have come up with four. Not a great haul is it?
The contrary feeling was how gorgeous the photography and the design was throughout. The photographer is Petrina Tinslay, a Sydney based lady who has photographed books for the likes of Nigella, Bill Granger and Delia Smith. Her latest effort is Neil Perry's current opus Everything I Like to Cook. Her photographs are truly gorgeous - have a look at her website if you want to see and it's not just food. And here I apologise for the reproductions shown here on this page as my scanner is not as good as my old one, or I haven't really learnt how to use it properly. Below are a few more from these two books - still lifes.
Yesterday I was so overcome with how few of the recipes attracted me that in my new year enthusiasm for a fresh start I decided to put them aside to take to the op shop, Today I'm not quite so sure, and I think it is mostly the photography that is stopping me, although there actually are a few recipes I could try. I also remember first reading one of these books outside on the terrace in the sunshine and thinking 'this is my kind of food'. I do actually remember thinking that very clearly. So I must have changed. Well yesterday is a moment in time isn't it? Today is different.
There's even a recipe for pissaladière in Zest with perhaps one of the most beautiful photographs I have found of that very photogenic dish. It made me want to go and have another go at making it
Lots of us mock the gorgeous photography and the food styling of today's cookbooks but if it makes you want to go and cook something why should we mock it? Even if it doesn't and simply gives you pleasure in the same way that looking at a piece of art would, then surely that's valid too? Were those early pictureless cookbooks simply a case of ignorance is bliss. We knew no better. We relied on the words and the recipes. People go on about the writing of those long ago authors being the hook, but I don't think it was just that. Robert Carrier - perhaps my early favourite, did write well in his introductions, and occasional essays, but on the whole he just presented the recipes unvarnished and unexplained. There was no story attached. You had to find your own story by making his dishes. These days we expect more.
"All of us are now probably so preprogrammed when it comes to photocentric cookbooks that we are almost taken aback when a (newish) book doesn't play that same 'centrefold' game." Commenter on the Guardian website
"A food book now is a beautiful object, not just a collection of recipes but something we buy to express our image of ourselves." Tim Hayward
Which is an interesting idea. An image of ourselves? Well yes, I suppose so. They do say that a study of somebody's bookshelves will tell you a lot about them, so maybe the same applies to cookbooks. They are books after all. Increasingly they stray into other genres - travel writing, memoirs, gardening, issues such as the environment, sustainability, commercialisation - even into low level philosophy. But I'm not ostentatious about it. I don't leave my flashy cookbooks lying around on coffee tables for others to peruse. Maybe I should. And these two books would be a good place to start - if you are interested in photography anyway. Are they superficial? That seems to be what critics of glossy cookbooks thing. I think not. An enormous amount of talent and work goes into their production. And if the end result is either to get us to appreciate the beauty of food and places, or even to actually cook something, then surely this is a most wonderful thing. Worth every penny.
Yes these days you have to have pictures - which is why, when I picked up Stephanie's latest opus - Home - in a bookshop I was disappointed because there were very few pictures. None I thought at first and so I rejected it outright. But I picked it up again later on and did discover a few, so maybe I should have another look.
These days however, we don't need a book to get recipes.
“With so many recipes easily accessible and free online, cookery books need to be of high quality for customers to want to spend money on them. ... That said, beautiful cookery books which lack achievable recipes and are purely aspirational rarely make the bestseller lists: there’s definitely a balance to be struck." Bea Carvalho - cookery buyer for Waterstones
Purely aspirational include the books of those esoteric chefs like Heston Blumenthal, but there's even a case for them. I mean we read about great artists like Van Gogh and Michelangelo, but there is no way that we could ever emulate their work - even straight out copies. We read that kind of cookbook out of interest, rather than a desire to cook everything in it.
Part of the problem for publishers - if problem it is - is also that today's generation look for recipes online. That's what my granddaughters do, even though their mother has an excellent library of cookbooks. "There has never been a readership quite like this before," says Tim Hayward and our photographer Petra Tinslay expands on this with her own experience:
"I pitched a cookbook idea to Murdoch books maybe eight years ago. And I remember them saying to me, 'Well, how many followers do you have on social media?' I was just reeling, saying, 'I'm sorry, what has that got to do with anything?' and they say, 'It has to do with everything. Because if you come to us with 20,000 followers, you've just sold 20,000 books off the bat without even blinking." Petrina Tinslay
So maybe these days if you want recipes you go to the internet and if you want more than recipes you buy a book. I even saw one commenter somewhere say how annoyed he was by food blogs that rambled on (as I do) about their boring everyday lives, before they eventually got to the recipe. All he wanted was the recipe. And there I was being completely - well not completely - uninterested in food blogs that simply and baldly presented a recipe without much flourish. Probably the ideal is somewhere in the middle - a bit of explanation about the recipe, but not much.
And I have to say that yesterday, as I think I described, I did the Google thing for last night's dinner. I wanted to make something with asparagus and smoked trout, and was thinking of quiche. However, I thought I would have a quick look and came up with Jamie Oliver's Fettucine with smoked trout, asparagus and peas - shown below - his on the left, mine on the right. And below, if you're in the mood you can watch him make it if you like. It was good. And easy - and infinitely variable really.
Sorry - I rambled. Where was I?
Yes - so there is now a distinct trend in cookbooks for more writing - of all those kinds I listed previously. There are still recipes, and they are beautifully illustrated but there is much more writing - even to the point where you can just curl up with them as you would with any novel.
"If, in truth, people are reading food books and not actually cooking from them all the time, then there must be something else about them that appeals. For me, this is a clear indication that food writing should move away from pure recipes and allow space for digression." Tim Hayward
Nigel Slater's latest A Cook's Book is a prime example. I almost chose it as my book group book this year, but thought it was probably a bit expensive. Nigella's Cook, Eat, Repeat is another example of this kind of thing and I believe Claudia Roden's latest too. It's very definitely a trend. And a good one too I think.
But we do still need those recipes as well to be the final clincher in why we should buy a book don't we? I checked out Claudia Roden's Med, but didn't buy it then because at a very superficial glance lots of the recipes were for things I have recipes for already. Even her own versions. I shall probably succumb at some point though because I do love her food.
"Attentive curating can be just as effective. I often find myself drawn to books that do a marvellous job at choosing dishes I just want to cook. Nigella Lawson and Simon Hopkinson – both splendid writers as well – are masters of this art; they work hard at putting together collections that somehow feel both reassuringly familiar and exceptionally novel." Yotam Ottolenghi
And you can say the same about his own work - well the best of it anyway.
So what am I going to do with these two glamour books? Today I can't quite bring myself to throw them out. There are a few things I could try and they are just so, so beautiful. Worth it for the photographs themselves, although am I ever going to look at them again? Maybe I should take them to the op shop and give somebody else the opportunity to spend an hour or so just drooling.
As I said above I made Jamie Oliver's fettuccine dish for dinner last night - from a version on The Quirk and the Cool website. I printed it out - and here it is - covered in scribbles, because after writing yesterday's post about marginalia I decided I would launch into the practice of scribbling all over the recipes I use. Then at least I'll know I've made it. So as I made it I had a biro at my side and scribbled here and there. I think I covered almost all the bases I described in the post. Now I shall file it in my folder of this and that. Will I make it again? Well actually I think I might, with some of the amendments noted here and perhaps writing all over it like that has actually lodged it in my memory more than if I had not. Will I be game to do it on a beautiful expensive coffee table cookbook though?