I’ve written about the lovely A Cena on the Hill deli before and its head chef, Paul Hughes, but thought it was time I headed back to talk to Paul about his Top Ten Cookery Books and find out more about him. Paul is an interesting man to talk to: apart from his obvious love of food – and in particular, charcuterie – he is also passionate about motorbikes (he’s owned 40 or so in his time), architecture and travel, particularly to Japan. His career as a chef has taken him to some of the best kitchens in the country, including Langan’s Brasserie when it first opened and later St John. He’s worked with people like Richard Corrigan and for eight years was at Ginger Pig making sausages, pates, terrines and pies. It’s for his wonderful charcuterie that Paul has received the greatest acclaim, with Jonathan Meades, when writing for The Times, describing his ‘delicious black puddings’, faggots, haslet and raised pies as ‘baroque in their magnificence’. Now the lucky people of Richmond have Paul’s magnificent charcuterie on their doorstep. At the back of A Cena on the Hill, in the small kitchen area, he can be found making his wonderful black puddings, pies, pates and many other fabulous dishes. When I arrived today, he was finishing off some pork pies which were just about to go into the oven and the last time I was there I tasted his haslet, which put all other haslet I’d eaten in my life to shame.
Given Paul’s charcuterie skills and love, his first choice of book was hardly a surprise!
1. Charcuterie & French Pork Cookery, Jane Grigson (1969) – Paul described this as a ‘bible’ and the first book that caught his imagination. The recipes are simple and classic with lots of the recipes ones he has used for years. It was also, he thought, a brave book at the time, for how many home cooks would have tried to make these things then. It may well have been brave, but it’s turned out to be a classic.
2. The Fifth Quarter, Anissa Helou (2004) – The ‘fifth quarter’ is offal and Paul likes the way this Lebanese cookery writer brings the Middle East’s respect for offal to this book; something that is often lacking in this country, he feels, where people often dismiss offal. This book, he told me, contains the black pudding recipe he uses.
3. Thai Cooking, Jennifer Brennan (1984) – This was one of the first complete Thai cookery books. It has no photos but Paul described the book as an ‘exciting piece of writing’, with great recipes. He said it opened with an evocative description of a Thai meal that brought alive all the smells and sights and senses of the experience.
4. Maynard – Adventures of a Bacon Curer, Maynard Davies (2003) – Basically, the story of a man who learnt to cure bacon – but, Paul told me, really great reading and a great story. The recipes are really an aside and the book is about the man.
5. Nose to Tail Eating, Fergus Henderson (2004) – Fergus Henderson opened the St John restaurant in London in 1995, with the emphasis firmly on meat. Paul worked there for two and a half years and this book, he told me, contained ‘lots of me’. The recipes, he said, were like old friends; food he cooks on a day-to-day basis but also food he was a partner in evolving, like ‘blood cake’ – blood and polenta.
I asked Paul where his interest in charcuterie came from and he told me that he’d spent a lot of time in France before coming to St John – ‘I’m like a journeyman,’ he said. He brought what he’d seen there to St John and started using every part of an animal or bird; nothing was wasted or discarded. He told me his coppa recipe came from a neighbour in Gascony who had in turn got it from Italian soldiers fleeing in the Second World War. And now Paul’s coppa – of which I was given a tasty slice to try – can be found at the top of Richmond Hill.
6. A Dictionary of Japanese Food, Richard Hosking (1997) – Paul spends a lot of time in Japan and a St John connection suggested he meet Hosking. Paul said this dictionary is invaluable as Japanese food and ingredients are like a minefield; the book ‘gave me a key into Japanese food’. The book’s subtitle is ‘Ingredients & Culture’ and it’s not a cookbook as much as a guide to demystifying the intricacies and diversity of eating Japanese food.
Paul’s always had an interest in the mystique of Japan. Part of it comes from his interest in motorbikes, he said, but there’s ‘lots of iconic stuff’: Japanese gardens, Zen, and he’s into the aesthetics of their art and food. He likes their bravery in allowing foreign architects to do ‘off the planet things’, like the buildings Philippe Starck has designed; bold architecture that’s less easily accepted here.
7. Oxford Companion to Italian Food, Gillian Riley (2007) – This is a work of reference, Paul told me, but not stuffy. Indeed, he continued, it’s ‘a work of genius’. The research is meticulous but the reading a pleasure.
8. The French Laundry Cookbook, Thomas Keller (1999) – This is almost a coffee table book, Paul told me; something you wouldn’t heave into the kitchen. It’s professional cooking – and here there’s genius at work. Earthy things are taken to a higher level. Paul said it was the first time he liked food of this kind; food like this is often messed around with too much but this, he told me, is food you want to eat. He described the photos as almost food porn – you look at them and you want to cook the food. And the recipes were approachable too.
9. Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, Shizuo Tsjui (1982) – A monster of a book, Paul told me. He bought it a long time ago and it was one of the first books in English to comprehensively look at Japanese food and has since become a classic. There are all the primary recipes there for things like miso and sushi and also Japanese cooking techniques, ingredients and utensils. Paul says it’s on the level of Escoffier.
10. Fire & Knives – not a book, but a magazine. Published quarterly, Fire & Knives contains new writing about food – sometimes from established writers for a piece of work that might not be published elsewhere, but also for new writers to find an audience. Everything, Paul told me, was judged just on the quality of the writing; it’s ‘eclectic, funky and very left-field’. He likes it because it’s different and you can pick up interesting bits of information.
Paul could not be persuaded to choose any one of these books over another but what came across was that the emphasis of his passion for food lay in meat and charcuterie, and also Asian food; it’s also about pushing the boundaries and reaching for the new. Which is all the more reason for taking that trip up Richmond Hill to A Cena on the Hill and see what creations are happening in that little kitchen at the back.