JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Top 25 cookbooks

Last week, the Observer Food Magazine published its top 50 cookbooks. This week, Joanna's Food presents its own top 25. Very difficult indeed to choose - in the final cut, I lost Elisabeth Luard, Michael Smith, Sarah Raven, Claire Macdonald of Macdonald, Ballymaloe and Pomiane. AND I've had to cheat by including more than one book by some people. Also, the order at the bottom end is a little haphazard. And, yes, I know there's no Chinese food (Fuschia Dunlop? Kenneth Hom?) or Indian (Madhur Jaffrey, obviously), but we don't eat them often enough to justify a whole place in the top 25.

I'm surprised that there are (I think) four telly chefs, although only one (HFW) was discovered by me through the medium of television, and I haven't seen all of them on TV. More than half these books have no or very few photographs.

25. Mary Berry's Ultimate Cake Book. This actually belongs to Eleanor, but she has abandoned both it and cake-making.

24. Tamasin Day-Lewis, Tamasin's Kitchen Bible. She can be annoyingly prescriptive about stuff that is none of her business (I neither want nor can afford wild salmon at all times), but this book lives up to its name. The quiche lorraine is to die for.

23. Anna del Conte, The Classic Food of Northern Italy. I was brought up with this food in England in the 1950s and 60s because my grandparents, who had met in Italy during WW1, had a succession of lovely Italian cooks.

22. Pam Corbin's River Cottage Preserves. If you're making jam, this book is so much better than the rest (about 10 in this house) that I'm going to chuck out most of them.

21. Robert Carrier, Great Dishes of the World. In my early 20s I lived in Pimlico, close to an Italian deli that was our late-night corner shop. Carrier's book - the height of 70s sophistication - was very useful for unfamiliar ingredients. I wowed many with the taramasalata - utterly unknown then, before the advent of that pink stuff supermarkets sell. And I had to make the pitta, too.

20. Diana Henry, Cook Simple. The inspirational Crazy Water Pickled Lemons is the more obvious choice, but Cook Simple is the one I actually refer to, particularly when I'm in a hurry.

19. Frances Bissell, The Scented Kitchen. Flowers in your food. Way beyond a few pansy and nasturtium petals in the salad. Utterly lovely.

18. Elizabeth David, Summer Cooking. VERY hard to choose. I have all her books, and consult them frequently, mostly for reading pleasure and history. This is the one with the food stains.

17. Jane Grigson, Fruit. But let's be clear, I also want The Vegetable Book. And probably the one about charcuterie too. The only reason it's not English Cookery is because of my 7th choice.

16. Rick Stein, English Fish Cookery. I think my copy says it's by Richard Stein. Anyway, it predates his telly work, and, these days, you have to use it in consultation with Marine Conservation Society lists of endangered fish.

15. Yottam Ottolenghi, Plenty. So delicious, so glamorous.

14. Michael Pollan, In Defence of Food. I know it's not a cookery book, but cooks can no longer ignore the bigger picture. Although the specifics are American, Pollan writes about real food with more immediacy than anyone else. And besides, at the end, he gives a very useful recipe for good eating: "Eat Food. Not too Much. Mostly plants.

13. Claudia Roden, The Book of Jewish Food. And Arabesque. Both full of things you want to eat. The now ubiquitous orange/almond cake originated here; it's one of my winter staples. It's also one of the best history books in the house (and there are significantly more history books here than cookery books).

12. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Meat. I live amongst carnivores. My copy falls open at the gravy-splattered section on roasting.

11. Caroline Blackwood & Anna Haycraft, Darling you shouldn't have gone to so much trouble. This was a life-saver when my children were tiny; if it's out of print, it shouldn't be, as it hasn't dated. The Earl of Gowrie's fowl is typically delicious: you put Boursin in the cavity of a pheasant and roast it. The sauce makes itself.

10. Paula Wolfert, Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking. Better than all her others (Morocco/Gascony), and that is saying something. History, technique, original research, delicious food.

9. Jennifer Paterson, Feast Days. One fat lady, her pre-telly columns from The Spectator, full of prejudices and non sequiturs, larded with saints, as good to re-read as they were in the first place. Lots to cook, even if her infallible method for poached eggs (say the Hail Mary) turns out to be useless.

8.Felicity and Roald Dahl, Roald Dahl's Cookbook. One of the few "lifestyle" books in the list. Mrs D's stunning woodcuts, photos of the garden (which I have visited and which really does look like that) ... and lovely, lovely food.

7. Caroline Conran, British Cooking. Ignore the fact that this is a Marks and Spencer book. Comprehensive, clear, CC really knows her stuff. The photographs have that 1970s brown quality - but the food doesn't.

6. Fergus Henderson, Nose to Tail, I & II. It's only polite.

5. Ann & Franco Taruschio, Leaves from the Walnut Tree. The only thing I dislike about this book is the lingering regret that I never ate at the Walnut Tree while it was run by the Taruschios.

4. Patience Gray, Honey from a Weed. Rather more likeable than Elizabeth David, perhaps because she reveals more of her slightly rackety life in the Mediterranean. But only slightly - this is no kiss and tell memoir.

3. Nigella Lawson, How to Eat. My copy is dropping to bits. And when it does, I will go out and buy another.

2. Andrew Whitley, Bread Matters. I should throw out all the other baking books, really. Superlative.

1. Geraldene Holt, French Country Cooking. I've cooked more from this book than any other. I've learnt more from Geraldene Holt about cooking, baking, gardening, living well (not just in a material sense) than from all the others on this list. Memorable dishes: creme bachique, the shaken pastry, a good daube, faux-filet with Roquefort, delicious braised leeks ... and now I've found a courgette and sorrel recipe which will be good with the chicken roasting in the oven for today's lunch.