The people behind the people are the ones to watch for, and we have all been waiting for a book by Anna Jones. Who? Well, if you are a fan of Jamie Oliver, you will have read a lot of Jones. For seven years she worked as his ‘stylist, writer and food creative,’ which means, we guess, that she was behind the curtain busily pulling levers for the great wizard. He has written the foreword to his protégée’s first book, and says he’s is ‘super proud’. But so he should be, for A Modern Way to Eat (Fourth Estate £25, Spectator Bookshop, £20) is a beautiful and inspiring one, and thankfully devoid of Jamie-speak — that is, nothing is described as ‘smashing.’.
It is a book of vegetarian recipes, but carnivores, do not be put off. Let’s say it is a book of deliciously invigorating dishes that happen not to contain any flesh. Among the recipes I shall be cooking from it are the restorative coconut broth with lemongrass, lime and greens (Jones is very strong on soup); also the lemon ricotta cloud pancakes and the dosa potato cakes.
Then I shall have some meat, probably choosing a recipe from Tom Parker Bowles’ s Let’s Eat Meat (Pavilion £25, Spectator Bookshop, £20) which is a manifesto for eating better meat less often, but essentially a world tour of what you could call flesh pots from Cajun jambalaya to bun cha from Vietnam. Parker Bowles is a great traveller, and at his best unearths authentic global recipes.
The London restaurant Dabbous (in Whitfield Street) apparently stunned critics and diners when it opened in 2012. I cannot say why from personal experience, because the current waiting list for a table is four months. Presumably one purpose of publishing a book about a restaurant few can go to is to enable readers to cook the chef Ollie Dabbous’s food at home. Hesitate before doing so, however, because this is very much modern gastronomy; game-changing, esoteric, brave and bloody difficult.
The central claim is that Dabbous does it better, from recognisable mash and gravy to a mysterious nugget of ‘iced sorrel’. I believe it, not just because there are combinations I would try in simpler form (such as scallop tartare with eucalyptus), but because of Barnyard — Ollie Dabbous’s Charlotte Street diner, where you can get in, if you queue — which serves the best comfort food I have ever eaten. The price of Dabbous (Bloomsbury, £50, Spectator Bookshop, £40) is inflated by some very expensive and unnecessary photos of the restaurant’s interior fittings, lightbulbs, electric sockets etc. But for many, it is the closest we’ll ever get.
In polar contrast, Michel Roux senior, brother of course of Albert and father of Michel Roux junior, gives us The Essence of French Cooking (Quadrille £30, Spectator Bookshop, £24) a homage to the impressive dishes of his native country. This is the most sumptuous of France’s grand classic food; the sauces, soufflés, terrines, tartes and charlottes. How wonderful to have a tutor of this calibre to guide the way to perfect coq au vin — the young cock extravagantly simmered in fine-quality Côtes des Nuits, finished with a dash of Marc de Bourgogne.
In 1975 Giana Ferguson, a dairy farmer in Co. Cork, decided to try and make cheese from some surplus milk. It was the era of Dairylea, with barely any farm-made cheese in the British Isles. The Ferguson family’s deliciously smelly washed-rind cheese, Gubbeen, started a revolution, inspiring a new generation of modern Irish and British artisan cheeses.
At last Giana has written a book, well worth the 40-year wait. Gubbeen: The Story of a Working Farm and its Foods (Kyle Books, £25, Spectator Bookshop, £20 covers cheese-making in detail, as well as curing pork (Gina’s son Fergal is the expert, producing his own range), and also gives us the family’s favourite recipes: soda farls, gin-marinated pork, carigeen pudding and Gubbeen meltdown, a whole baked cheese to dip toast into. Warming, ideal food for Christmas and beyond.
Twenty years ago my favourite restaurant was in a Portakabin, perched by the railway in Olympia, west London. The cooking was Iranian or, as the chef resolutely called it, Persian, and we’d dine for a song on salads made entirely of herbs, fresh wet cheeses, grilled meats, silky flat breads and rice spiked with dried barberries. The cabin became famous, momentarily on trend, but after it closed was quickly forgotten.
I suppose Iranian food was always going to have difficulty becoming the big new thing. Other ventures celebrating the food of the southern Mediterranean and Middle East have succeeded, like Moro and Morito, Tony Kittous’s Comptoir Libanais and the phenominal Ottolenghi; yet an award-winning first book by an unknown chef seems to have reopened relations, so to speak.
Sabrina Ghayour’s Persiana (Mitchell Beazley £25, Spectator Bookshop, £20) invites you to cook some of the most appetising recipes seen in a long time (its seared beef with pomegranate is pictured). Also Kuku Sabzi, little squares of Persian herb frittata, more green than yellow, fesenjan, a syrupy chicken, walnut and pomegranate stew, and then lamb and sour cherry meatballs. All can be eaten with chelo, or basmati rice cooked the lovely Iranian way with a buttery, crisp crust known as tahdig, which means ‘bottom of the pan’ and fought over by every Persian, says Ghayour. Now, now. No fighting, please.
Staying in the zone of aromatics is the brightly designed Spice: Layers of Flavour by Dhruv Baker, a former Masterchef winner (Weidenfeld , £25, Spectator Bookshop, £20) and new proprietor of the Jolly Gardener in south London. Baker uses spices creatively. Green beans are dressed with coconut, black mustard seeds and red chilli; aubergine is grilled, glazed with ginger and miso; beef is roasted with fenugreek and cardamom is added to a lemon and lime curd tart. I’d give this book to anyone who loves cooking as an adventure;
and with Baker’s palate you are in safe hands.
Finally a little bedtime reading, with some words for every day of the year to fill your head with sayings, thoughts, histories, advice and opinions. James and Ray Salter’s Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days, (Picador £14.99, Spectator Bookshop, £13.49) relays the extraordinary appetites of the famous, explains customs and recipes and what to eat with what, and advises on where best to choose your seat in a restaurant. Understanding the difference between hunger and appetite, Salter & Salter say that hunger indicates necessity, while appetite has more to do with interest. ‘When the two are combined, we have someone very ready to eat. The problem is to keep them away from the bread.’