New books by Raymond Blanc and Pierre Koffmann retell the truth that British food came back from the brink. If it were not for the émigré chefs, I hate to think what we would be eating in British restaurants now. Fishfingers à la King, with pea jelly ring? Such horrors existed, or let’s say they were perpetrated, in the 1970s, by Sainsbury’s recipe cards, the Good Housekeeping Institute and in the books of that serial offender
An embarrassment of showboat dishes are in Anna Pallai’s 70s Dinner Party: The Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly of Retro Food (Square Peg, £9.99). Stuffed grapes, potato salad log (don’t ask), cherry pineapple bologna — this is actually a sausage main course; tomatoes stuffed with aubergine and kiwi. Kiwi? It is a book of photographs and wry, very funny captions. It takes pride of place in my loo, a reminder of what did not happen.
Koffmann and Blanc, both French, are very different. Koffmann trained in France before coming to Britain in the 1970s, while Blanc, the grandson of a famous French woman chef, taught himself to cook. Both men are brilliant, both influential not just for their cooking but because they have since trained at least a couple of generations of British chefs — so saving our food culture from being Robert Carriered.
Pierre Koffmann, the superlative draughtsman whose heart is in the provinces, refines for us the bones of French cooking in Classic Koffmann: 50 Years a Chef (Jacqui Small, £30): terrines, boudins, pots-au-feu, cassoulet and his famous stuffed pig’s trotters, but also escabeche, brandade, oeufs-à-la-neige and mousse-au-chocolat madeleines, which I cannot wait to try.
Raymond Blanc’s book Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons (Bloomsbury, £50) is huge. He has been writing it for a decade and it is all about his life, recipes and the restaurant in the Oxfordshire manor, once the home of Sir Richard Camoys, whose son led the English rearguard to defeat the French at Agincourt. Blanc relishes his own invasion and has made the house — and the village of Great Milton — famous.
If Koffmann draws beautifully with food, Blanc is the impressionist painter. The recipes in his book, numerous and varied, are lovely. Crab with grapefruit and ginger (which works, where tomato, aubergine and kiwi never could), veal sweetbreads with girolles and watercress, red fruit soup and Champagne… For someone interested in cooking as a career, this book and Koffmann’s are essential. And for home cooks, there is plenty in both that’s doable.
Somewhere in the wonderful Ducksoup Cookbook: The Wisdom of Simple Cooking (Square Peg, £25) by Clare Lattin and Tom Hill lies the stimulus of good chefs like Blanc and Koffmann. This is a book about the good food of now, from a popular small Soho restaurant that takes the best European ingredients and deconstructs them into pared-down arrangements. Salt cod, blood orange, fennel and chilli; chopped raw hanger steak, pickled radish and salted ricotta; black figs and toasted sesame ice cream. Beautifully produced, with strange, hand-folded pages to separate the sections, it would be a wonderful book to give anyone who loves shopping for food.
New British food, heavily multi-cultural, marks an exciting era. But there was a style, before hideous recipe cards, that was utterly delightful. A blend of country-house cookery and London hotel fare, it is the sort found in Tom Parker Bowles’s Fortnum & Mason: The Cook Book (4th Estate, £30). Fish pie, potted shrimps, steak and kidney pudding, kedgeree, teatime things like Battenburg cake and cucumber sandwiches, savouries like angels on horseback. Why did we ever mess with this food? It has a perfection about it, and this book, with its lovely colour illustrations taken from old Fortnum’s direct marketing booklets, is undiluted nostalgic celebration.
Enthusiasm for cooking reaches, at last, a much wider, and certainly younger, age group, and I look for books to give my children — one studying in her first year at university, the other beginning his career. My daughter, thankfully, wholeheartedly rejects ‘clean-eating’ cookbooks, with their faddy, obsessive veganism and cod nutritional science. She is not the only one of her age group to point out the potential of these books and their photogenic authors to make some vulnerable readers insecure about body image. Her favourite cookery writer is Anna Jones, the author of A Modern Way to Eat, who is knowledgable about nutrition and yet critical about the less healthy aspects of the ‘wellness’ craze. Jones used to be a recipe developer and writer for Jamie Oliver.
Now another from the same stable has written a book that I will be giving my daughter. Georgina Hayden grew up above her grandparents’ Greek-Cypriot restaurant. Her book, Stirring Slowly: Recipes to Restore and Revive (Square Peg, £20) serves up equal measures of healthy attitude and food in eclectic recipes, from dal to pho soup, spiced lamb with dates to sticky harissa carrots. She writes much about the giving side to cooking, learned from her upbringing, and her book is enthusiasm for food, cover to cover, with some unusual recipes. Okonomiyaki, a Japanese vegetable pancake, is breakfast with a hot chilli cow-kick. Excellent.
Just Soup: Everything You Need in a Bowl by Henrietta Clancy (Short Books, £12.99) is a Christmas present for people who, like me, have soup several times each week and are constantly searching for inspiration as the seasons pass. Caramelised fennel and butter bean, cooling cucumber with lemon salsa, Iranian herb and pomegranate with meatballs, prawn and peanut laksa — each bowlful is beautifully and appetisingly photographed by Romas Ford. An ode to warmness; inner cashmere.
For collectors of international cookery books, there are three demystifying ones to add to the collection. Cook Japanese at Home by Kimiko Barber (Kyle, £25) is very easy to follow, thanks to helpful illustrations and clear explanations. Likewise, Malaysia: Recipes from a Family Kitchen (Weidenfeld, £25), by the former Masterchef winner Ping Coombes, holds the secret to making gado-gado, the many-textured bean, beansprout, potato and cucumber salad, dressed with spiced peanut sauce.
Finally, there is the very long-awaited Brindisa: The True Food of Spain (4th Estate, £29.95). The pioneering Monika Linton began importing speciality foods from Spain in 1988, bringing us the first Pata Negra ham, cans of wood-roasted peppers or anchovies, cloth bags of authentic rice for paella, saffron and so on. This is the definitive book about the food of Spain, but also a reminder that, while the future of our borders and trade deals are undecided, food culture must always travel freely.