© 2009-2011 Quality Eating and Drinking London Ltd

 

© 2009-2011 Quality Eating and Drinking London Ltd

Rhapsody in Ceredigion

A Cook's Year in a Welsh Farmhouse, £25.
Elisabeth Luard, Bloomsbury.

There's a bit of an echo of the Ginger Pig Meat Book in Elisabeth Luard's latest volume: the eternal annual cycle is charted, and seasonal recipes support the passing months. There is the same accent on quality ingredients, and the same urging of 'cosmopolitan localism'. Maybe it's the eternal separation of yin from yang, perhaps the ethereality of the quaking bogs of mid-Wales against the downrightness of Yorkshire's broad acres (and perhaps it's invidious to have these two books arrive at the same time), but I found it more difficult to settle and be settled by Luard than Wilson in reading these two books. There is a mild evanescence (no, that's not an easy-going Welsh neighbour) about the writing: she may have set roots into Cors Goch Tregaron, but there is less certainty in her writing than in her previous masterworks such as European Peasant Cookery. With 20:20 hindsight, I can now detect a little of this in European Festival Food, though it didn't strike me so when I first devoured it. Welsh Farmhouse is just a bit Pre-Raphaelite, and I found that I was less drawn to re-reading the text than I was to life on the Yorkshire farm.

In a few places, the faerie quality seeps into the recipes — I rarely have the opportunity to summon a baby into the kitchen to check fist-size for the purpose of cutting meat into chunks of the right size — but these dalliances with other dimensions are few and far between. The recipes are all we expect from Luard, even if couscous with dandelion is on the outer limit. That demonstrates that it is not a book of Welsh cookery, but a book about cooking in Wales. It's a book I shall swoop into via the index, rather than immerse myself in of a winter's evening. Others will rightly be entirely captivated by the shimmering-harp back-tones.

Trust the Pig

Ginger Pig Meat Book, £25.
Tim Wilson with Fran Warde, Mitchell Beazley.

As reviewers on "big-South-American-river.com" have noted, this book is luxurious, and that's only the physical/visual bit. But quality content demands quality surroundings, and the (ahem!) meat of the book does not disappoint its ecru-page-and-Bournville-type container, with its soft-focus photos.

OK, let's change the metaphor. Oldham isn't that far from Pickering (though those still endlessly fighting the Wars of the Roses might cavil), and Oldham's most famous musical son was William Walton. His towering First Symphony might appear a bit lop-sided: after the first movement, "what next?". In a way, so it is with what I'll call GPMB: the first part of the book holds no recipes, but sonorously sets the scene with descriptions of the animals and why their anatomical structure is good (or not so good) for meat. After that rather specific opening, the following movements might appear anticlimactic: a recipe for toad in the hole, for example. But as Boswell and Johnson (or Churchill) might have reparteed, What toad? What hole! No, the symphony is complete and balanced.

The recipe sections are laid out by the calendar, and each month has a thoughtful voluntary on the activity on the farms: I see this as a masterful marinating of the recipes in the landscape. The recipes are good, and are Yorkshire through and through (though those still endlessly fighting the Wars of the Roses might cavil): well-grounded, but not afraid to call the bluff of stereotype and whip in a stranger from Colombia because it works. In selfless spirit of scientific endeavour, I superheated my kitchen to cook (November's: page 142) belly pork in the caniculae — the dog-days of a hot metropolitan summer. Delicious! And just gnawing on the cold bones for afters: aaah, the to-be-cooked will last another 24 hours.

Other reviewers (not necessarily still endlessly fighting the Wars of the Roses) have cavilled at Tim Wilson's insistence of the quality of his meat, and at his comments on adjustments for 'less mature' examples of the species. To have omitted these gentle words would have been unhelpful to the point of betrayal for the reader who, for whatever reason, cannot shop at the Ginger Pig every weekend. Our belly-pork came from a decent (make that 'more than decent') local village butcher on a weekend when train and tube effectively cut us off from Marylebone, Hackney, Borough et al. If the pig hadn't been raised quite as adagio as those at GP, it was still tasty and worth working the wonders of the recipe.

And now, we have the chicken and bacon, as well as the sausages, waiting to be made into that toad. I can hardly wait.

Choc full of goodies

Young, Paul A (2009). Adventures with Chocolate
Kyle Cathie, £17.99

I’ve reviewed, and award-judged, quite a few food and cookery books over the years. While reading the title and opening the cover are invariably exciting experiences, a certain weariness takes hold all too often, all too soon — not simply with concept, contents, and evident editorial strictures, but with the process of review or award, where brief, but overwhelming excitement (I’m one of those impulsives who will shell out on a hardback for a single recipe) can play little or no part within a measured, responsible, exacting assessment.

Here, I feel free (though not irresponsible!). So first, I’d like to sum up my reaction, and reason for wide recommendation of Paul Young’s book, in a single word: “Refreshing”.

Now, I’ll explain why I’m commending it, whether as a Christmas gift or anytime-purchase in a personal but I trust not irrelevant way. You can read summaries of the contents, the chapter headings and various other comprehensive accounts elsewhere — Paul’s own site (warning: contains flashing graphics), or Amazon (note the good deal!), or a dozen Google-sourced locations. So I won’t trouble to do that.

I bought the book because the smell of the Islington shop is heavenly, transporting – coercive even. This would also be a fitting description for the brownies (recipe — one, anyhow — on page 58) and a fair number of the filled chocolates this genius chocolatier produces. Then I encountered Paul — wrapping, serving, gently encouraging. He was friendly, unassuming and not the least bit remote or mystique-laden. And indeed, so it is with the book (ah, I should add that I’ve never, to my knowledge, been disappointed by a Kyle Cathie publication).

Next, I read every word, cover to cover, including the Intro, each recipe instruction, Resources and Acknowledgements. Not conscientiously, but compulsively. Never has learning (a lot) been more fun. I ogled the photos — luscious, but with a restraint the right side of decadence. I smoothed the pages, clearly designed with as much pride and permanence as a modern, pictorial cookery book dare ever assume.

I tried a few recipes, following them to the letter, minute and millimetre. I discovered Mr Young’s oven is clearly calibrated differently to my own. The mud pudding of a brownie did have fantastic flavour – make that flavours. I wasn’t so convinced by the cocoa, mustard and cumin water biscuits. There again, cumin seemed a revelation in the chocolate sauce drizzled over fig and date tarts. And the cream cheese pastry absolutely lived up to the author’s promise of being ‘infinitely versatile and the quickest pastry you can make’. Astonishing, in fact. Best of all, his determined pushing of flavour boundaries and excited suggestions for new combinations generated dozens more ideas in my mind. Always there are the ‘solid foundations’ on which to overlay those flavours – there can’t be a reasonably determined enthusiast who could fail to turn out a delightful ganache, a perfect truffle, even a beautifully tempered chocolate bar after following the well thought out and nicely detailed instructions. Paul Young’s mission is clearly not to mystify but to enable; and to inspire not a slavish replication of his own recipes but the taking up of an adventure that is personal. Utterly refreshing.

I trust this accounts for recent short-listing in the André Simon and World Cookbook awards, quite an achievement for the Durham lad who was more mesmerised by his Christmas box of Thornton’s chocolates than the latest Space Invaders game.

If you didn’t manage to secure a signed copy at the recent Chocolate Festival, you can do so by ordering via Paul’s site. But I strongly urge you to call into one of the shops (there is one in the Royal Exchange, in addition to the Camden Passage original location) so you can taste (and smell!) for yourself where the book ‘adventure’ might lead you.