During a recent trip to the UK, I took a very brief train ride—thanks to the expertise of Rail Europe—from London to visit Johnny Grey, having the delicious opportunity to stay at his lovely home, Fyning Copse; to meet his family (hey Becca!); and to sample his flair for cuisine. Johnny prepared Elizabeth David’s recipe for Gnocchi Verdi, and as I sat around the Grey’s generously-sized table surrounded by English pine furniture (one of my favorite woods for bringing warmth to the home), I was happily enveloped in the cheerful laughter that poured forth into the night as easily as the wine flowed into our glasses.
Johnny has graciously agreed to share some of his favorite foodie reads with Roaming By Design readers to kick off this holiday week when it truly is all about the friendship, the festivities and the food. Happy Holidays, everyone!
JOHNNY GREY’S PICKS FOR THE BEST FOOD BOOKS OF 2010
It’s been a great year for food books. With thousands of titles on the market it is hard to pinpoint those worth buying. I hope you find these ten books of recipes, food stories and fine writing saves you some of the bother of seeking them out. They have certainly enhanced my year. At Elizabeth David’s Table, Her very best everyday recipes by Elizabeth David. Contemporary compilation with photographs for the first time. A nod towards vegetarian choices, classic favourites and neglected recipes from her six main books. It is a very personal book because I helped select 45 of the recipes. Jill Norman, her editor and literary executor, put the book together, aiming it at introducing her work to a younger audience, and 25,000 copies have already been presold in the USA where it is out on the spring. I suspect it will quickly become my most thumbed cookery book and I hope so for others too.
The Flavor Thesaurus by Niki Segnit. A most original tour de force of imaginative and exhaustive research into flavours and how they that match. Filed alphabetically here, a selection of entries from ‘M’ includes how the mustiness of forest floor mushrooms suits the earthy flavours of freshwater fish. Shitake brings out the flavour of Salmon; as mushrooms contain no salt she suggests they work well with Parmesan for risottos or Gruyere when served with toast. Mushrooms and truffles are described as kissing cousins so you can use truffle oil, which are butter to mushroom dishes like a push-up bra to the sensual figure: the aim being to give more ordinary fungi (which is mostly what we can buy in supermarkets) the full, in-your-face sexiness of the truffle. A proper stocking filler with an evocative twist!
Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan. Our greatest contemporary polemicist on food has produced this shortened version of his masterpiece, In Defense of Food. He brings sanity to the (sometimes) complex business of working out what to eat, especially if one wants to be ethical and healthy and still receive pleasure from food. His training as a nature writer means you get the benefit of someone who brings elegance and wit to his writing. Being chastised is not how you want to be treated when looking for new ways of going about eating and he always avoids that by making you feel that you are able to be a good human being.
Kitchenella: The secrets of women: heroic, simple, nurturing cookery – for everyone by Rose Prince. A compliment to At Elizabeth David’s table, this book aims to show working women how they can cook imaginatively, healthily, affordably. “My mother wasn’t a yummy-mummy who made fun cakes with us. She was quite stern about passing things on. She saw it as training. Women are still the main carers of others but there is silence now. Secrets are not passed on. The concern is that kids grow up without learning because mothers don’t answer this call to nurture.” I met Rose when she co-produced “A Matter of Taste,” the TV biography of Elizabeth David’s, and realised how serious she was about communicating the values and recipes associated with English food. Very modern is her dislike of waste and her drive to make cooking an everyday family affair. Useful for working men too!
Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham. Eye opening, easy-to-read account that is a must read for all kitchen designers and those interested in neuroscience. He combines paleoantropology, archaeology, chemistry and physics of food with human biology. It explains how we developed brains and how our skills developed through cooking food. It also spends the deathnel to raw food obsessionists and shows that cooking is the key to our evolutionary success. Mr Wrangham should be confirmed as the patron saint of kitchen designers!
Vefa’s Kitchen by Vefa Alexiadou. Greek regional cooking from Greece’s best-selling cookery writer. I am always reminded on trips to Greece that we are not appreciative enough of just how authentic and digestible Greek cooking is, particularly in smaller local taverns or restaurants. It’s unfair, too, that the country’s cuisine has never been celebrated as the mother of Mediterranean food, a fact that is put right in this compendium. I was given this by Harry and Emma, my eldest son and his fiancé, after they had visited Crete and we have all used it. Regional cooking is always the best kind of cooking to do at home, including Greek.
Plenty by Yotem Ottolengi. Otto has a striking food philosophy and real life offering, particularly with vegetables and patisseries. Although not a vegetarian, his mini-cuisine is visually arresting, original and innovative. It’s based on strong flavours and stunning, fresh combinations, bringing a desirable angle to being vegetarian. Ingredients have to “have a clear voice, plain characteristics that are lucid and powerful, with images, tastes and aromas you can remember and yearn for.” His growing collection of London café-style restaurants make each one worth a visit to see and taste his recipes for yourself.
Between Bites: Memoirs of a Hungry Hedonist by James Villas. Witty and compelling stories about life as an activist gourmet and writer. As one of America’s top food writers who wrote for Gourmet, Town and Country, Bon Appétit and The New York Times, he stands out for being, in his own words, an outspoken, optimistic rebel. His firsthand knowledge of French cooking, early championing of American food in the 60’s and dining with the great and the good, I found thoroughly riveting. Excellent for a train, plane or simple reading by the fire.
British Food: an Extraordinary Thousand Years of History by Colin Spencer. For years I made do with Dorothy Hartley’s eccentric Food in England for my knowledge of British food. Elizabeth David told me ‘our’ strength lay in farmhouse cooking based upon the high standard of raw ingredients, which left a lot unsaid. This extensive account looks at changes caused by the Black Death, the Enclosures to the Industrial Revolution and the social and commercial trends of the present day. It explains too how we reached such a deficit in the culinary department up till our recent food revolution and it helps one feel less defensive of being British. It is always fascinating to see history explained through media other than politics, particularly through food culture.