Category Archives: Books

Gastroporn

A few weeks ago M vented his not inconsiderable spleen upon Amazon at a certain well-known book on baking – deriding its pretensions and poor writing. Worse still, he called into question the recipes themselves. Indignant responses followed almost immediately from other readers. Did M not realise how well-regarded The Author was? Did M not know that The Book had inspired countless happy droves to dizzying new heights of Culinary Nirvana? To ratchet things up a notch, within hours, The Author himself responded; quite stung, it seems. (Amusingly, the first indignant reader comment did not arrive until 15 minutes after The Author* posted a link to the review on Twitter. Vanity surfing much?)

So, has M just been a mean bitch** and a shameless troll? Or is the Emperor in a slight state of undress?

Let’s take a look at The Book. It is truly a handsome beast: large format, hardback, stitched in signatures of reassuringly heavy paper. The graphic design is good, and the text eloquent and passionate. And the photography? Glorious: full page photos that just have you salivating. I imagine this simply flew off the shelves the Christmas it was published, eliciting many an “ooh!” and “ah!” from the casual reader. Could one possibly bear to take such a beautiful specimen of the bookbinder’s art into the kitchen where it might – perish the thought – become soiled with use? No, its purpose is to adorn the coffee table. (See the hysterical http://catalogliving.net for ideas.)

Although the Amazon debacle is amusing, I’m interested in the wider world of Gastroporn. Why does it exist? Does it benefit mankind?

Like proper pornography – if such a thing can ever be considered proper – we have a small group of experts doing something the rest of us find awkward and just a bit embarrassing. Just like porn, the buzz amongst reviewers is triggered by the caress of novelty against a jaded palate. At their worst, books and television like this put people off actually getting mucky in the kitchen, and instead buy more merchandise or visit the authors’ restaurants.

Now, I have been told that “high end chefs don’t write how-to-cook books”, and accept that if the author has a Michelin star or two, he’s not obliged to explain how to fillet a fish or knead dough. Sometimes I see recipes from these people, and think, “that might be fun to cook”, and then look at the recipe closer, and realise there’s not enough information on the page for me to recreate it. This necessitates spending a lot of time cross referencing other sources in an act of gastronomic reverse engineering. (Some of the recipes on this site are here as a result of that work.)

Now I do understand – and almost forgive – the need to get a book published for a particular marketing deadline can mean that testing, and in some cases proof-reading, fall by the wayside. Perhaps the book needs to be churned out quickly lest the author fade in the public’s imagination. Case in point is the lovely Lorraine Pascale’s Baking Made Easy, which could have been very good, but ends up a promotional vehicle, with more photos of Lorraine than cookery. (I hope Edd Kimber’s forthcoming book isn’t a rush job.)

On the other hand, we don’t want cookbooks that are simply dry technical manuals, although see the excellent handbooks for the City & Guilds diplomas if you do. (You won’t find these at Waterstone’s; try Foyle’s or Nisbet’s.) Writing should be more than mere documentation. Nigel’s saucy prose eggs the reader on, and Nigella practically flirts one into the donning the apron. Who can not read Pomiane’s recipe for chocolate mousse without smiling, and making a note to pick up some eggs, cream and chocolate on the way home? Ditto photography. A few action shots of the tricky steps (difficult, I know, when you’re cursing) and a shot of the finished product are both useful and likely to spur us into action.

My objection to gastroporn is when it masquerades as a collection of recipes. You’ll notice that a bookshop does not put The New Joy of Sex on the same shelf as The Story of O. I propose gastroporn and cookbooks be likewise separated.

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*One notes that The Author tweets with a vigour that surpasses even Stephen Fry. One also notes a few of the five star Amazon reviews are good professional copy but the only review each of these users has ever contributed. Entirely plausible The Author is perfectly sane and reasonable, but is being represented by some vile astroturfing PR firm.

**The intemperate nature of the review may be connected to a failure in the kitchen. We’ve all been there.


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Railway Coffee

Eliza Acton wrote this in 1845, on the matter of coffee:

We hear constant and well-founded complaints both from foreigners and English people of the wretched compounds so commonly served up here under its name, especially in many lodging houses, and railway refreshment rooms. At some of the principal stations on lines connected with the coast, by which an immense number of strangers pass and repass, the coffee is so bad, that great as the refreshment of it would be to them, particularly in night travelling, in very cold weather, that they reject it as too nauseous to be swallowed. A little national pride ought surely prevent this, if no higher principle interfered to do so; for to exact the full price of a good commodity, and habitually to supply only trash for it, is a commercial disgrace.

Plus ça change…

Bread: River Cottage Handbook No 3

Daniel Stevens
Bloomsbury, 2009

Try as I might, I simply can’t like the River Cottage marketing juggernaut. Its smug, ostentatiously wholesome, middle class aspirational branding leaves me cold. Gripes aside, once you get past the wholemeal-coloured cover and the introduction by HFW, this is a rather fine book, that covers the basic arts of breadmaking, without ever getting technical or patronising – just lots of detail about how and why it all works.

The basic bread recipe is a staggering forty one pages long, complete with pictures and troubleshooting information for every step. The section on kneading is useful, with none of the hysteria and theatre of certain other writers. (I suspect I may have to retract the kneading section in my bread recipe as a result.) However, the section on shaping is without parallel, as nobody else seems to cover this at all: no more mutant lopsided loaves for me.

After the initial whopping recipe, conveniently condensed into two pages afterwards, are the usual variations: pizza, foccacia, muffins, brioche, which are all handy to have. (Actually the pizza dough recipe looks very much like the one I had scribbled down years ago so I wonder if they share a source?)

There’s the obligatory chapter on the oh-so-fashionable sourdough (Grauniad readers only) and a few fairly pointless recipes towards the end. Beetroot homous or nettle pesto, anyone?

Of course, the River Cottage branding kicks in for the final section about making a DIY clay oven. I can actually envisage some of my A-List acquaintances getting busy in the backyards of their country lairs, before phoning up John Lewis to order one.

If you’re already a proficient baker, and are looking for the things to show off, I’d suggest aiming for Dan Lepard’s books instead. Likewise, if you’ve only recently graduated from boiling an egg, this might be a bit of a challenge, but get a copy anyway.


Appetite

Nigel Slater, Fourth Estate, 2000

Previously known for his short, fun books, Mr Slater then published this 450 page whopper, which he refers to as his magnum opus. It is. He sets forth his stall, arguing that recipes get in the way of cooking, and that a cook should learn to trust his or her nose, fingers and taste buds far more than scales, clocks or thermometers.

In the opening chapters, Slater asks us why do we cook in the first place, makes us consider who we’re cooking for and where we’ll be eating it, and how these shape what we do. He covers some basic hints for the new cook: how to cut down the work, what equipment is most useful, and general survival tips.

Two important sections follow: A Cook’s Guide to Shopping covers all the basic meats, veg, fruit, herbs and spices, and more significantly, what combinations work with what. Equally useful is a section entitled Eating for the Season where he gives us a quick run through of what times of year will find particular foods at their best. Slater is well known for his seasonal approach: he delves further on this in Real Fast Puddings and The Kitchen Diaries.

At last, after 200 pages, some recipes. The chapter Some Really Useful Stuff is exactly that: gravy, tomato sauce, salsa verde, mayonnaise, bread, pâté, stock, and shortcrust pastry. Learn to cook every single one of the recipes in this chapter, and you will be a better, happier person. Seriously. I’m not joking. These are elemental things, that you can incorporate into other dishes, and transform meals with. They also give you an insight into some fundamental techniques and how certain ingredients work.

The remainder of the book is more conventionally divided into sections on Fish, Meat, Veg, Noodles, Pudding, etc., but even so, the recipes are more about a particular technique (e.g. how to roast a chicken) and then all the variations.

This isn’t the easiest book, and one I think novice cooks would find a bit on the scary side. If you want precise instructions, then Delia is your bet. If you want to enjoy cooking and eating, then stick with this one.

Cooking with Pomiane

I think it best Docteur de Pomiane introduce himself by way of a few quotes.

‘There are three kinds of guests: 1. those one is fond of. 2. those with whom one is obliged to mix. 3. those whom one detests. For these three very different occasions one would prepare, respectively, an excellent dinner, a banal meal, or nothing at all, since in the latter case one would buy something ready cooked.’

‘To prepare a dinner for a friend is to put into the cooking pot all one’s affection and good will, all one’s gaiety and zest, so that after three hours’ cooking a waft of happiness escapes from beneath the lid.’

Whimsical appeal aside, what value does a book written in the 1930s, by a Frenchman born in 1875, have for the modern working kitchen? For starters there’s the uncluttered scientific approach where Pomiane (a professional scientist, but an amateur cook) describes exactly what’s taking place at a molecular level. His disdain for tradition, coupled with a scientific desire to eliminate the extraneous, results in brief, lucid recipes, which cover exactly what you need to do and no more. The magisterial section on sauces tells you everything you need to know in five and a half pages: your roux will be perfect and your Hollandaise will never curdle again.

The style is terse, and not without a certain amount of Gallic élan. This is not to say he has no sympathy for the cook. Take the recipe for bouef à la ficelle: ‘at this point you may feel a little depressed.’ I may even dare this recipe myself, although I feel I might offend cultural sensibilities if I ever followed his exact instructions for Poulet Tamara, which requires the presence of Georgian emigrés.

‘For a successful dinner there should never be more than eight at table. One should prepare only one good dish [the emphasis is his]. This should be preceded and followed by some little thing, then cheese and a sweet course if you are in France, or pudding and cheese if you are in England.’

There you go. One good dish, and off to the deli for the rest. How reassuring.