The Modern Peasant, by JoJo Tulloch - review

10 August 2013

9:00 AM

10 August 2013

9:00 AM

You know that something’s afoot when Lakeland says so. Lakeland is the kitchenware company which has more of a finger on the pulse of Middle England than most MPs. So when the company declared that it can barely keep pace with demand for home mincers it’s a sign of the times. It attributes the home-made everything trend to the horsemeat scandal and a food supply chain that looks like the Tudor family tree. Its line of cheesemaking products and sausage casing is doing well.

The surge in the number of DIY/artisan cookbooks is telling too. The title of one of them sums up the mood: The Modern Peasant by Jojo Tulloh (Chatto & Windus, £16.99). She observes that

city-dwellers are cut off from the countryside and the chain of production that served our ancestors so well. In the past, we grew, reared and caught our food or procured it from producers we knew and trusted. Now supermarkets bring the world to our door, in one long monotonous season.

The DIY/artisan cookbooks talk you through making your own bread and cheese, yoghurt and faggots and foraging your own nettles (I draw the line, myself, at home-made kimchi). Very different, then, from the cooking in popular food magazines, in which, one writer mournfully told me, you’re not allowed to give recipes for anything that takes over 30 minutes.

The individual at whom all this is aimed is what you might call the Urban Peasant, or UP — the city dweller cut off from things being grown and creatures reared. These books are about more than recipes; more a yearning for a way of life recoverable by making chutney. Think Country Living magazine in cookbook format. That urge to pull up wild garlic and make cream cheese may be a spiritual one. But it’s definitely a geist of the zeit, even if there remains a great mass of Brits who can barely turn on their ovens.

Some of the best of the UP cookbooks are, as you’d expect, farmhouse ones. There’s a very good one from Yeo Valley, the milk and yoghurt people: The Great British Farmhouse Cookbook (Quadrille, £20). That has a section on dairy DIY — yoghurt, ricotta, cream cheese. There’s also a hedgerow and game section — things you can make with elderflowers, wild garlic or game. But even if you stick to Waitrose rather than scouting for wild damsons, this is an excellent family cookbook.

As regards nettles, it didn’t take farmers’ markets long to catch on. I was so infuriated to find London’s Notting Hill one selling bags of nettles for two quid that I walked five minutes away to Holland Park to pick my own for nothing. With some wild garlic and — ahem — homemade ricotta, I turned out some excellent filo tarts but, you know, they’d have been fine with cheese from Tesco.

Another admirable farm-based book is the latest from the Ginger Pig chain of butchers. It’s the Ginger Pig Farmhouse Cook Book by Tim Wilson and Fran Warde, (Mitchell Beazley, £25). As you’d expect, it’s big on meat, including curing, preserving and smoking it — recipes include lardo (very now) and chorizo. It conjures up a way of life so attractive it makes me cry, including a pantry big enough to hang up wet cured ham. Reader, I wimped out of the curing but I did make other dishes: a good traditional repertoire with contemporary elements. This too has food from the wild. Alas, it wasn’t the season for hedgerow gin.

An attractive take on the fashion for foraging is The Hedgerow Cookbook by Wild at Heart, the preserves and chutney-makers (Pavilion, £16.99). It takes you from flowers and hips through leaves, berries and fruit to nuts. In quite a few recipes you can substitute supermarket ingredients for wild ones. This is Urban Peasant porn.

Tim Hayward’s Food DIY (Penguin, £25) is so blokish it’s funny. The subtitle says it all: ‘How To Make Your Own Everything: Sausages to Smoked Salmon, Sourdough to Sloe Gin’. Constructing your own cold smoker isn’t a runner in my mansion block but I did make my own curd cheese for his curd tart. Bit chewy but pleasantly nutmeggy.

Five Fat Hens by Tim Halket (Grub Street, £12.99) turns domestic chicken rearing — another UP fantasy — into a cookbook. Anything involving eggs and stock counts as well as fowl, so it ranges freely. It’s very male; unpretentious, good recipes, engagingly told.

The peasant cooking of the Mediterranean was a fundamental part of Elizabeth David’s food writing. She writes lyrically about ‘the French Catalan’s peasant’s one-time morning meal of a hunk of fresh bread rubbed with garlic and moistened with fruity olive oil’. Elizabeth David on Vegetables (Quadrille, £20) is a selection of recipes and essays by her friend, Jill Norman. There’s a bit on bakery but nothing about cheesemaking. She bought that, you see, from proper peasants.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Jhonti Bird

    I’m glad to see “The Spectator” is celebrating the growth in interest for foraging and cooking. As a proud son I would, however, put in a cheeky hint towards my mum (Fi Bird)’s book “The Forager’s Kitchen” which was published by Cico in March and also provides recipes and tips on foraging including a section on seaweed.