Make it an applefest this Christmas — the best of the year’s cookbooks

23 November 2019

9:00 AM

23 November 2019

9:00 AM

If it were not for a banker with a hangover, we would not have Eggs Benedict. Or so one of the creation stories goes. One morning in 1894 Lemuel Benedict walked in to the Waldorf Hotel, New York, feeling a bit rough. He asked the Maître D’, Oscar Tschirky, for hot buttered toast, bacon, two poached eggs and — crucially — a ‘pitcher’ of hollandaise sauce.

This story is recounted in Signature Dishes that Matter (Phaidon, £35), a chronology of 200 or so inventions, from gelato (ice cream) in 1686 to Claude Bosi’s ‘duck jelly’ in 2017. Put together by seven food critics with global knowledge, this is a truly gorgeous book to own and to give to that friend or relative who dines out like a collector. It is designed to look like a slab of blue marble, and each of the signature dishes inside is illustrated clearly but gently in colour by the artist Adriano Rampazzo and its story told.

Some of the choices are questionable — I will never understand the twisted concepts of some internationally acclaimed chefs who process rather than cook food, using additives that cannot be found in the home kitchen. Fortunately, these are outnumbered in the book by entries rooted in simple, rustic combinations — brilliant ideas that have influenced generations in both home and professional kitchens. Tarte Tatin, Caesar Salad, Peking Duck and Omelette Arnold Bennet are among the obvious history-makers, but recipes from the likes of Fergus Henderson, Nobu Matsuhisa, the River Café and Magnus Nilsson are newly relevant and influential.

Good books about food normally make you hungry, but Dishoom: From Bombay With Love by Shamil Thakrar, Kavi Thakrar and Naved Nasir (Bloomsbury, £26) had the secondary effect of making me want to buy an air ticket. This is a cookbook with recipes from a UK restaurant but, tucked inside the cover, is a folded map of Bombay, now Mumbai — the authors’ ‘subjective’ food and drink guide to the city. It is a nicely old- fashioned touch, reminiscent of those cloth- covered travel books my grandparents used.

If you are not familiar with Dishoom it is a chain of seven restaurants modelled on the early 20th-century Parsi-run cafés in Bombay, whose large menus would cover every eating or drinking opportunity in one day. Forget the triumvirate of breakfast, lunch and dinner; Dishoom has something for all those other moments when the throat is dry or the stomach rumbles — mid-morning snacks, afternoon refreshments, sunset snacks, first, second and third dinners, pudding and after-dinner tipples.

I love the generosity of this format. If stuck at home, you can console yourself with cooking the recipes in your own kitchen. Which I did, and discovered Aloo Tikki Chaat, a comforting, multi-textured dish of fried potato pancakes, crispy chickpeas, tamarind chutney and sweet yoghurt topping, which I will make again and again. Prawn Moilee turned out to be one of those scented, coconut-based stew-soups to which I am now addicted. Chicken Berry Britannia, a sweet and rich Hyderabad-style casserole-baked rice, was not just delicious but enlightening — a much easier technique than for other biriyani dishes. So, bravo for the perfect cookbook: great recipes that really work, witty and friendly words, but also beautiful design and evocative, story-telling photography.

Mark Hix shares his enormous fishing and fish-cooking enthusiasm in Hooked: Adventures in Angling and Eating (Mitchell Beazley, £20). This is, in my opinion, the best book on the subject since Jane Grigson’s. I have fished with Hix in Lyme Bay, near his Dorset home, bobbing about in a 1970s speedboat (feeling a bit sick). He was navigating with a map of shipwrecks in the area, certain that these were the greatest places to cast a line. I’m not much of a boat person, but those who are tempted to try a little amateur hunting with rod and line will appreciate Hix’s inside information and responsible attitude. The recipes, from pies to ceviche, stews to kedgeree, are straightforward and beautiful.

Millions of apples were left lying in British orchards this year, owing to a shortage of pickers, say farmers, who have always relied on a migrant workforce to do this essential work. Worse, half the apples on sale in my local supermarket, right in the middle of the season, are imported. If that weren’t bad enough, there are generally only three types on sale — Gala, Braeburn and Cox — when there are more than 2,000 varieties out there.

Alert to this is Raymond Blanc of the Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, who has spent the last seven years creating a new orchard with more than 2,500 trees, many of which are rare or forgotten fruits. The Lost Orchard (Headline, £20) seeks to inspire orchardists and tell the stories behind old cultivars such as Catshead, Court Pendu Plate, Blenheim Orange and the many Kernels, Pippins, Russets and Pearmains that make up our apple heritage. Among the recipes are those for apple-stuffed crepes, beignets, turnovers and compotes, plus other orchard fruit such as mirabelles, apricots, pears and cherries.

On the same subject, I warmly recommend James Rich’s Apple: Recipes from the Orchard (Hardie Grant, £20). The author is from a line of apple farmers in Somerset and his father is a master cider-maker. Usefully, he provides many savoury recipes: black pudding with caramelised apple, spiced pumpkin, apple and cider stew, sweet and sticky ribs with apple wedges and roast duck with cider brandy sauce. C’mon supermarkets, this is a British ingredient that can be so much more interesting. We are being denied.

For a television chef, Valentine Warner is modest, almost in awe of the ingredients he has gone to the ends of the earth to understand. Though his book The Consolation of Food (Pavilion, £20) does have recipes, it is more the revealing story of a man for whom food is a liniment for the soul — foraging for it, cooking it and sharing it with friends. It’s a touching, honest and often funny read that does more than show you how to fill a taco with ox cheek — though it does that, too.

It was my son, a charcutier, who first told me about Black Axe Mangal. He is a devotee of Lee Tiernan’s London restaurant, which bases its menu on three ‘pillars’: smoking, grilling and bread. Mangal is Arabic for a type of portable grill, but do not confuse this place with a kebab shop — unless you have ever found another one that offers ‘ox heart deep throater’ or ‘crispy f****** rabbit,’ as you will in Tiernan’s book, Black Axe Mangal (Phaidon, £24.95).

Even the publisher warns it is sweary. And a bit ‘goth’ — with nudity and a recipe for a biscuit engraved with the C word. So why am I recommending it? Because in among all the aching desperation to be the new edgy kid on the block with his ink-doodled, rave-ready mates, I know that Tiernan makes beautifully soft, smoky flat breads, understands as much as there is to know about cooking meat and has bothered to share it via excellent and detailed recipes with step-by-step images. That is what cookery books are for, and this is a very good one to buy for the cook who has become bored with classic meat cooking and wants to step through a new door. If that’s your great aunty Peggy, Tippex may be needed.

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