Guilty cookbook addicts often say they really mustn’t buy another cookbook; they don’t need another cookbook. As shelves strain under the weight of heavy cookery tomes it’s easy to feel you must have enough. But of course you can never have enough. Not if you love cooking; love finding out about food and its history; love trying out new recipes. Not if you’re Travel Gourmet.
When I wrote about Food Writing recently, I was surprised that some people never use cookery books. Maybe it’s a generational thing; though I know my son and daughter (in their 30s) have lots of cookbooks too; cookbooks that are well used, for they are both great cooks. I certainly google recipes sometimes; I use the Internet a lot to research things I’m writing on the blog. But I use my books too. I love my books.
A couple of years ago when I thought I was moving, I decided I really had to do a cull of my cookbooks. I had well over 300. And that’s a lot of shelf space. I thought it would be difficult but in fact it proved easy. Well easy to shed about a third of them. I couldn’t part with over 200 and they are still on my shelves (photo above)!
The culling was easy because cookbooks do date (a major reason – aka excuse – for needing more!). Back in the late 1970s when I was getting married, having regular dinner parties, commissioning and editing cookbooks at work, the food one ate at home was very different to what people prepare now. The positive side was that things were still very seasonal. It’s hard to imagine but you couldn’t buy courgettes, parsnips, strawberries, and a whole load of other foods out of season. We’re so used to being able to buy anything we fancy now at any time of year and very few foods are truly seasonal – maybe asparagus in May and June, large marrows ripe for stuffing in August and September. But I think the positive side of seasonal is that the foods always seem so gloriously special when they’re only available for a limited time each year. The negative side of 70s cooking was the heaviness and richness of the food with large amounts of cream; lashings of wine and brandy. Well, I do still add wine rather a lot, it has to be admitted, but rarely cream. In fact, I’m even no longer very keen on rich, creamy desserts (except for gelato!).
Food in UK has come a long way in recent decades in terms of quality and knowledge. People travel so much more and discover the delights of other cuisines. It’s made us more fussy about what we eat at home but also more adventurous; it’s made us more aware of what’s authentic, what’s good quality.
I’ve heard it said that most people only use a handful of recipes from a cookbook; maybe only two or three. But for me cookbooks aren’t just about recipes; they’re about inspiration. What shall I cook, I think, for friends … family … or just to please me! I usually have something in mind … maybe I bought some special food, like the white asparagus recently, or want to cook a French meal, or a Greek meal, or an Italian meal for guests (I do prefer to keep to a theme; I’m not a fan of fusion). Or roast some lamb or a chicken but want to do something a bit special with it. I find cookbooks much more inspirational than the Internet. I’ll often gather ideas from different books and recipes (marking them with those colourful post-its)and create something myself, taking a little from this book and something else from another. Of course this comes from the confidence of many years of cooking. But I also like the information and personal notes that come with recipes in books; the author’s story. I like reading the books as well as following the recipes. And I think one finds particular cookery writers who appeal; who like the same kind of things as you; who do things in a way that resonates with you.
When I did my cull, I didn’t just throw out books because they were old; some were classics – the Elizabeth David books, Jane Grigson’s and Claudia Roden’s – and still relevant and much used. But the wonderful recipes you find in Ottolenghi, Skye Gyngell and Diana Henry books, weren’t around when I was first cooking seriously. And then there are the books full of travelling: being taken from Venice to Istanbul by Rick Stein; being transported to Morocco with Ghillie Basan.
I really can’t do without cookbooks; and I’m always wanting to buy more! Maybe it’s because I just love books. As a child I read voraciously; my mother even told me off for reading too much! But I grew up and became a book editor (I am still a book editor!). I started collecting cookbooks when I was still at school, commissioned and edited cookbooks in my 20s and now I write a food and travel blog; one day I hope to write a book. And I’ll never have too many cookbooks!