Cheers for Brit Cookbooks
Why does British food writing so often seem more interesting, more appealing, more pleasurable to read — and to consult in the kitchen — than American food writing? I’m speaking in broad generalities, of course, but with the best British food writers, whether journalists, chefs or culinary explorers, the attraction is that immediate sense of an authentic voice, the articulate voice of someone who has actually been in the kitchen or the garden or the marketplace, who has touched the food, trimmed it, chopped it, sliced it, sautéed it and coaxed it into a dish that we want to savor right now. You can taste the words.
I think of the very great Elizabeth David, whose first books I read in what are now quite tattered Penguin paperbacks in the early 1960s, or of Jane Grigson whose marvelous Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, published in 1967, should be bedside reading for anyone of the numbers now eagerly taking up whole-animal cooking. And I think more recently of Nigel Slater and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, both of whom write, with rare combinations of wit and authority, for the Observer‘s monthly food supplement. (Grigson also wrote for the Observer.)
I would add two more voices to this list, neither of them new to food writing but both of them relatively, and undeservedly, unknown in the U.S.
Elisabeth Luard, author of “A Cook’s Year in a Welsh Farmhouse” (Bloomsbury USA) and a contributor to Zester Daily (would that she offered her thoughts more frequently), is one of the most prolific writers I know, with half a dozen major cookbooks, several minor ones, three volumes of memoirs, and what she calls “a couple of door-stopper novels” to her credit.
Jake Tilson, on the other hand, whose “In at the Deep End: Cooking Fish Venice to Tokyo” (Lyons Press) has just been issued in America, is not in Luard’s league when it comes to productivity, with just one other book to his credit, but he’s still young, and if he keeps on at this rate he may overtake her in the end. Both of these books are available online and in well-supplied cookbook shops. I should add that both authors are friends of mine, which doesn’t diminish my enthusiasm for their books. (If I didn’t like the books, I wouldn’t review them.)
Setting down roots in Wales
Let me take them up in order: “A Cook’s Year in a Welsh Farmhouse,” with watercolor illustrations by the author and beautifully evocative photographs by her neighbor Clare Richardson, is a delightful and engaging tribute to Brynmerheryn, a farmhouse in far western Wales that Luard inherited with her late husband Nicholas, where she went to put down deep roots after her husband’s death and a lifetime of wandering.
It’s a month-by-month account, in crisp and sometimes awestruck detail, of what happens on the land, in the community of her friends and neighbors, and in her own kitchen as she cooks with friends and family, including a small horde of grandchildren. Luard, originally trained as a botanical illustrator, is a born naturalist with a vivid eye for frogs and ducklings in farm ponds, buttercups and sheep in the meadows, and all the good things to eat that the farm provides, from grape leaves for stuffing to lovage leaves for a pilaf, to eggs, eggplant and apples, wild mushrooms and other foraged treasure. This is Wales, after all, so you can expect a certain amount of leeks, lamb, nettles and kale from the recipes (come January, try Welsh winter cawl with both lamb and leeks for a satisfying supper).
But you’ll also find a decided Mediterranean touch, the result of the years Luard and her young family spent in far western Spain (New potatoes with almonds and saffron) and the south of France (Slow-roast pheasant with apples and chestnuts). You’ll also find recipes for totally British delights — someday, somehow, I intend to make her Elderflower and lemon layer cake, when I’m next in a place and time with elderflowers in blossom.
This is not a book for novice cooks; rather it’s for those who love food, love gardens, love the countryside, and understand the many ways in which they intertwine to provide bounty for our tables. You might never get to make Elisabeth Luard’s Rowan and rosehip jelly, but like that Elderflower and lemon cake, you can dream about a time and place where you might. And meanwhile, make her sweet-sour-chili-clove-cinnamon-sparked Red pepper and raisin relish. Made in summer, it keeps, she says, till Christmas—something to dream about for next year.
Discovering fish in Venice
“In at the Deep End” is a very different kind of book, though equally personal and personable, and equally focused on family and food. Jake Tilson confesses to a longstanding fish phobia: “For as long as I can remember I have always been afraid of fish,” he writes on page 5. But his attitude began to change after his parents bought a house on a canal in Venice’s Dorsoduro district, a short vaporetto stop from the great Rialto fish market, the Pescheria.
“It’s hard to avoid seafood in Venice,” he says, and so begins a slow journey that ends up taking him, with his wife, the potter Jennifer Lee, and his daughter Hannah, as far afield as Göteborg in Sweden; his wife’s native Aberdeenshire in Scotland; New York; Australia; and finally the astounding vast Tsukiji market in Tokyo, where 50,000 people visit daily to buy some 1,200 species of fish from all over the world. (One in every 10 fish caught, Tilson says, is consumed in Japan, an astonishing figure.) He ends up, perhaps predictably, back home in London, sorting through recipes, souvenirs (sand in the shoes, a bit of crab claw in a jacket pocket) and a head full of fish lore and memories.
The recipes are, on the whole, not complex, though you might have to stretch your mind a bit, especially around some of the Japanese ones. But this is not just a cookbook, not just a collection of recipes, “In at the Deep End” works almost like a guide to some fascinating and little-known corners of the globe, always with fish and seafood uppermost as a concern. You might otherwise miss Macduff on Scotland’s North Sea coast, with its sturdy fleet of trawlers, its fascinating Marine Aquarium full of local fish, and the smoke room at Inshore Fish Supply with its rows of haddock fillets.
Tilson has an artist’s eye for recognizing oddities that work as telling metaphors for a complex and fascinating world. In his travels, he learns to delight in odd and anomalous species and how they can be used in the kitchen, and he gradually overcomes his fear of fish only to have a new fear develop: What in fact are we doing to the oceans? It’s the dark side of fish passion, and Tilson handles it very well, acknowledging that if we continue to fish with reckless abandon, as we now do despite legislation and attempts at regulation, we will soon have no fish left at all. And then his book will stand as an important memory of what we have lost.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.