Cookbook Recommendations

A selection of cookbooks

I have accrued many cookbooks in the last few years. They are great to suggest for birthdays or Christmas, make a good treat for yourself if you need some “retail therapy”, and often appear cheaply in charity shops. Some I use a lot, some I’ve barely cooked from, and it isn’t immediately obvious- even when you’ve looked through the book- how useful it will be.

The first thing to consider when looking at recipe books is BBC Good Food. BBC Good Food is brilliant. There are almost 10000 recipes on there, and that doesn’t count those contributed by readers. You can search through all of the recipes- something you can’t do in a cookbook- to find something to make out of, say, chicken. A lot of my weekday cooking is done from recipes on BBC Good Food, as you can get hold of the ingredients easily, and the writers are conscious of the price of the ingredients and cooking times. I’ve always had great results from these recipes, and they helped me get confidence with cooking as I started. So if you are looking for a more general recipe book, or even an introduction to a type of cuisine, chances are you just want BBC Good Food- it’s right there, and it’s free.

Consequently, if I am looking to get a recipe book, it has to offer something more than what I can get from BBC Good Food. It could be a particularly specialised type of cooking, like making patisserie, or a type of cooking that needs a whole book to treat it properly, like baking bread. It might be a cookbook of a certain cuisine, like Thai, where it is worthwhile talking about the different regional recipes, and how the food culture evolved, so you develop a better understanding of that cuisine. But these potentially useful books can come with pitfalls. If your Thai recipe book asks for, say, palm sugar and shrimp paste in every recipe, you had better make sure you can get hold of these, or know what suitable replacements could be. Similarly, equipment required is worth considering. If you have to stone cherries for a recipe, and you don’t have a cherry stoner, it’s going to be a miserable time cooking. The price of the book is not unimportant either.

So, with these things in mind, here are some of the recipe books I love, and some I don’t like so much. Obviously I can’t go in to loads of detail for each of them, but if you want more information or a suggestion, get in touch.

Recipe Books I love

Gordon Ramsay has brought out a large number of recipe books, and some of them are really good. I love his trio Chef’s Secrets, Chef for All Seasons, and Desserts– they are my go-to dinner party books, with moderately complicated, but varied recipes. If you want to start getting into cooking a bit more seriously, I would highly recommend these. Similarly, Gordon’s Passion for Flavour and Passion for Seafood will give you a lot to think about.

I have a few regional cuisine cookbooks, but two that stand out to me are David Thompson’s Thai Food, and Camilla Plum’s Scandinavian Kitchen. Both have the right balance between keeping recipes traditional and making them accessible, and there is plenty of background writing that really gives you a feel for the cuisine. Similarly, both feel ‘complete’, in that you wouldn’t need to buy another recipe book on that cuisine to fully understand it. Jamie’s America and Jamie does Spain/Italy/Sweden/Morocco/Greece/France are also good introductions to regional cuisines, and everything I have cooked from them has been delicious.

More specialised books can end up used a lot, and these three are ones I would highly recommend. Michel Roux Jr.’s book on sauces is cheap, and does what it says on the tin. Often I might be using up some leftovers, or just cooking a lamb chop for dinner- making an interesting sauce to go with this really makes the dinner exciting. This book gives lots of ideas for sauces, and is indispensible to me in my day to day cooking. For Saturday afternoon cooking, I love to make things from The Home-made Sweet Shop– with recipes for things like nougat, marshmallows, or rhubarb and custard sweets. It’s often hard to find good recipes for sweets online, which are well explained and the steps illustrated, like they are in this book. Finally, How to Make Your Own Drinks is another fun book, with many ideas of novel drinks to make, with a particular application to foraging. From this I made elderflower syrup, lavender lemonade, and mead.

A couple of books that aren’t recipe books, but are utterly useful, are McGee on Food and Cooking, and The Flavour Thesaurus. McGee is basically a food science encyclopedia, so if you ever want to know why the recipe works, or even for things like how to brew the perfect cup of tea, you’ll find great information there. The Flavour Thesaurus lists different flavours- like mushrooms, or cumin, for example- and, for each flavour, has a list of other flavours it goes with. This is brilliant for designing courses, for example in my porcini and scallop tartlets.

Reference cookbooks

Average recipe books

Most of the other recipe books I have fall into this category. Usually they are good products- just when you have a lot of recipe books, they don’t get used much, and if I am feeling creative about cooking, I don’t immediately reach for them on the shelf. A lot of these are ‘everyday’ kind of cooking: Gordon Ramsay’s Cooking for Friends, Sunday Lunch, Jamie’s Italy, The Return of The Naked Chef, Delia, Nigella’s Kitchen– all good books, but there are probably better ones out there.

A couple of specialist ones fit here as well. Mad about Macarons is a good book for making macarons, but you feel like another macaron book would be just as good. Similarly with Canapés,  Indulgence Petits Fours, Mark Hix’s British Seasonal Food, or The Roux Brothers’ Patisserie. If you want to make these things, these books are okay, but there might be better ones out there.

Lastly I have a couple of ‘Healthy Cooking’ recipe books, which I either picked up at charity shops or when I started out cooking. In general I’ve found these to be reasonable, but cooking healthily is in general not something fundamentally interesting to me. You could probably find a lot of these recipes online, too. 1000 low-fat recipes and Gordon Ramsay’s Healthy Appetite would fall into these categories.

Recipe books I am less keen on

Restaurant cookbooks are the biggest disappointment, I think. Either the dishes are (unsurprisingly) impossible to cook, like Gordon Ramsay’s recipe book from Claridges, contain ingredients that are impossible to get hold of reasonably, as in the Ladurée Sucré book or Desserts from The Champignon Sauvage, or spend more time talking about the restaurant and restaurant philosophy than focusing on recipes, as with The French Laundry Cookbook. Restaurant cookbooks aren’t cheap either, so I’d just rather buy one or two other recipe books with the money. The one exception, though, is Raymond Blanc’s Recipes from Le Manoir, which I think is great- tough, but great.

Older recipes books often disappoint as well. It might seem romantic to cook from Escoffier, or an old family cookbook you found in your grandmother’s attic, but there are reasons recipe books are different today. Ingredients are all in pounds and ounces, the recipes pay no attention to how healthy the food is, and require cooking techniques- like boning a lamb shoulder- that most people nowadays won’t have. The lack of pictures make inspiration hard, and the results I’ve had have been mixed. Fun for posterity, but that, I think, is all.

Lastly, cookbooks which come from TV shows are ones I’ve seldom found good value. What’s usually good about the TV show is the story that goes along with the dish- whether it is travels abroad, like Gordon Ramsay’s Great Escapes in India and South-East Asia, a food reality show like Masterchef, or cooking techniques in Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets– but that story goes away when you create a book from the TV show. These can still be good cookbooks (like the Gordon Ramsay ones), but I might go for something that was intended to be a cookbook in the first place. Often worth, perhaps, choosing to spend your money on another book instead.


Keeping Up With Food Research

Even in modern society, where so many people are doing research about so many things, there are surprisingly many things we still don’t know about food. The Maillard reaction– important in browning of foods- wasn’t really understood until 1948, later than atomic bombs were launched. Nicholas Kurti famously said in 1969 that “it is a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.” We don’t know that much about what role food played in human evolution, or what tannins in wine really are. That’s why it’s fun to keep up with food research.

Of course, there are many books to read from which you can learn. The Kitchen As Laboratory, for example, has many up-to-date examples of food research. But these are usually a few years out of date, and most books of these types are summaries of research, not the actual results themselves. On the other hand, there are academic food journals. Many are designed for people in industry- those actually dealing with food science in their jobs- and some articles can be rather technical. However, don’t get put off by this, as often just reading the title or paper abstract will give you the knowledge you want. Example of journals include Food Biophysics (some open-access) or Meat Science (no open access), and every now and then Science or Nature does a food article. Just to show that research articles are accessible, I’ll give some example papers from a new journal called Flavour, a journal I particularly like because it is entirely open access, meaning you don’t need to pay to read it.

The edible cocktail: the effect of sugar and alcohol impregnation on the crunchiness of fruit.
This paper looks at what happens to the crunchiness of fruit when you inject alcohol into it, with applications to cocktail making. Unfortunately, in all their tests, it doesn’t look like there is a way to keep fruit crunchy, and alcoholic.

Heritable differences in chemosensory ability among humans.
This review paper looks at the genetic underpinnings of why we form flavours differently, with examples of genes involved in sweet and umami tastes.

Q&A: The Nordic food lab.
An interview with Lars Williams, head of the Nordic food lab, who talks about trends of scientific techniques in restaurants and some of his current areas of research into food, particularly de-bittering, that is, making foods taste less bitter.

Assessing the shape symbolism of the taste, flavour, and texture of foods and beverages.
This review paper looks at how we perceive foods and drinks, based on their shape. “For example, [people] typically match more rounded forms such as circles with sweet tastes and more angular shapes such as triangles and stars with bitter and/or carbonated foods and beverages…. Given that consumers normally prefer those food and beverage products that meet their sensory expectations, as compared to those that give rise to a ‘disconfirmation of expectation’, we believe that the targeted use of such shape symbolism may provide a means for companies to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.” Some interesting applications to food presentation here.

Discrimination of roast and ground coffee aroma.
This paper looks at evaluating the different aroma profiles for different stages in the coffee brewing process.

Review of ‘Educated tastes: food, drink, and connoisseur culture’ edited by Jeremy Strong.
A book review of a recent book to come out, on socio-economic food tastes.

Interesting stuff, in my opinion.

Wild Mushroom Picking in Denmark and Oxford

During my recent trip to Denmark a friend and his father offered to take me mushroom picking. and I jumped at the opportunity. I’m a big fan of mushrooms in cooking, particularly the more prized varieties like morels, ceps, chanterelles, and of course truffles. Mushrooms like these add a lot to dishes, particularly in sauces, but usually come with a big price tag, and aren’t usually sold in supermarkets. So when we went foraging, I wasn’t expecting to find any truffles- just given the location we were in- but if I learnt to find some of the popular cooking mushrooms like chanterelles, I’d be pretty pleased.

Of course, one of the main things that makes foraging for mushrooms different from other kinds of foraging is the fact some of them are poisonous. Blackberries and lavender are very easy to forage. Even elderflower, for example, is fairly straightforward to recognise the smell of the flower and the shape of the leaves- and if you get the wrong thing, like cow parsley, it just tastes bad. But with mushrooms, something that looks slightly different- a yellow tinge on the stem, for example- can be the difference between edible and deadly poisonous. So this can make it difficult for beginners to start picking wild mushrooms with any confidence. One way to avoid this, as I was lucky enough to be able to do when in Denmark, is to go picking with people who already know what is safe and what isn’t.

But if you don’t have this luxury, there is still hope. I was told that you can pick a poisonous mushroom, take it home, identify it, and throw it in the bin, all safely (just don’t eat it). So if you get hold of a good field guide (I was recommended Roger Phillips ‘Mushrooms‘), you can pick with much more confidence. Similarly, if you can’t tell whether or not the mushroom you picked is edible, or can’t figure out the variety, just don’t eat it.

So how do you go about foraging for wild mushrooms? The most important thing to bear in mind is that mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with trees, that is that they help the trees, and the trees help them. So when you see a mushroom, it’s connected to some tree underground. Consequently, if you figure out which kind of trees to look for, and what kind of environment to look for, that’s the first part. Big, old trees are better, and woodlands, like forests, provide good growing environments. Mushrooms will grow in the same place year to year, so if you find a good crop in one place, remember where it is for next year. Most mushrooms are in season during Autumn and early winter, but a few, like morels, come out in the spring, or other times of the year. In picking the mushroom- pick the whole stem out of the ground- you are spreading the spores around, so helping the mushroom reproduce. Perhaps this is why they have evolved to be so tasty- being picked, then presumably eaten, helps them to reproduce.

In Denmark we drove out a little way into the countryside, and just pulled up at the side of the road running through a forest- clearly somewhere my guides had been before. We had to have a good look around to find the mushrooms, of which I would say around 1/3 were edible. Apparently, due to the weather, 2012 has been a terrible year for mushrooms, as it has for apples and other fruits. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that we didn’t find the chanterelles and ‘horn of plenty’ that we were looking for. However, after a trip to a local park, we had a handful of mushrooms to bring back (see picture at top), probably enough for a sauce, but not enough to dry any to keep for later use.

Looking for mushrooms in the UK has yielded less luck. During a few trips around local parks in Oxford, notably University Parks, I’ve barely seen any mushrooms, let alone edible ones. When I was visiting my brother and his wife in Bournemouth recently, we took a trip into the New Forest to see what we could find. Here we found many mushrooms (including some really poisonous ones). We saw loads of a variety called ‘puffballs’, but as with Oxford, nothing that could be identified as edible. Perhaps the areas we looked had already been foraged over.

But recently, just on a walk around my local estate, we found some ‘shaggy inkcaps’ (also named lawyer’s wigs, picture above left). The field guide described them highly common, and with their unique shape, we felt confident we had got the identity correct- it really couldn’t be anything else. What’s more, the book had the magic word ‘edible’, and even said they were “good” to eat. So eat them we did- steak, wedges, and fried mushrooms- and indeed they were good, if the texture was a little wanting. But, as usual with foraging, don’t rely on finding your dinner out there, and you might not even find anything. You’ll always get a nice walk in the woods, if nothing else, so give it a go.

Simple wild mushroom sauce

30g dried mushrooms
100ml dry sherry or white vermouth
300ml double cream

1. Soak the mushrooms. Soak the mushrooms in 250ml water for 30 minutes. Keep the water you are soaking the mushrooms in, but strain it through a muslin to get rid of dirt.
2. Make the sauce. Add the sherry and mushrooms to the water. Bring to the boil, add the double cream, then reduce down to the consistency required.

Does living a ‘gastronomic lifestyle’ save money?

One of the knocks on organic food is that it is more expensive. Similarly, farmers’ markets are thought more expensive, as is buying meat from butchers, fish from fishmongers, and bread from bakers. Supermarkets have thrived because of economies of scale, being able to build consistent supply lines to produce groceries at a lower cost, as well as the convenience of being able to do a weekly shop there (or even have it delivered).

But what you also get in supermarkets is pre-prepared food, and you have to pay extra for that, as somebody has to prepare it (see my post on Sandwich Ham for example). So on the one hand, you have convenience, and on the other, quality and effort. And the effort part of it is not to be understated- when you do buy food that isn’t pre-prepared, you do have to spend extra time and effort making the dish. I know there are evenings when I don’t feel like cooking, and evenings where we just grab a pizza from Tesco and the only cooking that is involved is putting it in the oven. It’s a balance, and you want to figure out where on the gastronomic scale you want to be.

Here, though, I want to look at the financial side of things. What motivated me to look at this was a justification I made for buying an expensive stand mixer: “if I made bread in it for the next three years it will pay for itself”. Perhaps an overconfident justification (but so far so good), it does raise the further questions of how this effort/convenience balance works out for other foods, from a financial perspective. So, I decided to work it out.

To look at the costs associated with gastronomy in more detail, I’ve suggested three strategies: the regular stategy (RS), the effort strategy (ES), and the lazy strategy (LS). The RS consumer likes good food- buying quality products- but will buy basic, regular ingredients sometimes, and pre-prepared food sometimes. The ES consumer will buy the ingredients from Tesco, but make almost everything themselves. The LS consumer picks mostly based on convenience. I would imagine that each of us is a mix of these things, depending on what it is they are cooking. I’ve tried as hard to be fair to each one as possible, but there isn’t really enough room to show how I did these calculations (nor would you want to read about them), so if you think I’ve gone wrong somewhere let me know. Cost is over a year, to feed two people, and all prices come from Tesco. Here are ten examples:

1. Bread/Sandwiches
RS: Buys bread and meat, makes sandwiches. Cost: £620.36
ES: Makes bread, makes meat, makes sandwiches. Cost: £459.16
LS: Buys a sandwich for lunch each day. Cost: £819.00

2. Breakfast Cereal
RS: Buys good cereal. Cost: £234.00
ES: Makes own breakfast like granola/muesli. Cost: £140.40
LS: Buys reasonable cereal. Cost: £156.00

3. Cakes/Biscuits
RS: Makes 50% of cakes and biscuits. Cost: £274.82
ES: Makes all cakes and biscuits. Cost: £357.24
LS: Buys all cakes and biscuits. Cost: £192.40

4. Lasagne
RS: Buys red and white sauce, makes otherwise. Cost: £423.28
ES: Makes all except lasagne sheets. Cost: £340.08
LS: Buys all ready made. Cost: £156

5. Pizza
RS: Buys good pizza. Cost: £208
ES: Homemade pizza. Cost: £102.96
LS: Buys reasonable pizza. Cost: £104

6. Roast Dinner
RS: Makes dinner except stuffing and gravy, medium joint. Cost: £179.66
ES: Makes all, good joint. Cost: £248.38
LS: Buys frozen roast dinner. Cost: £114.40

7. Soup
RS: Buys fresh soup. Cost: £119.60
ES: Makes soup from scratch. Cost: £62.40
LS: Buys tinned soup. Cost: £41.60

8. Stocking up the storecupboard
RS: Some to buy here. Cost: £208
ES: Lots to buy here. Cost: £312
LS: Not much to buy here. Sauces perhaps. Cost: £78

9. Vegetables
RS: Buys selection of vegetables. Cost: £520
ES: Buys Abel and Cole veg box. Cost: £624
LS: Buys pre-prepared vegetables. Cost: £364

10. Wine
RS: Buys 2 bottles/week at £5. Cost: £520
ES: Buys 2 bottles/week at £7. Cost: £728
LS: Buys 2 bottles/week at £4. Cost: £416

If you add up the totals for the different strategies, the clear winner is the LS, with £2441.40. In some sense this is not surprising, as you can easily use economies of scale to your advantage. But it was clear when looking at the products bought just how inferior they were from a taste perspective. More interesting, though, was the RS and ES totals- £3324.72 and £3374.62 respectively- as near as makes no difference. The extra quality and cost you were getting in the wine, meat cuts, and vegetables was offset by cheaper sandwiches, pizza, and home-made meals. So that extra quality for extra effort, but no extra cost.

So of course, the model is flawed in many ways, not taking into account cooking equipment, meals eaten out, and the costs are massive estimates, therefore you can’t put too much stock in the conclusions. But the idea that there is a good amount of money to be saved by making the “basic” meals- breakfast and lunch- youself, I think that’s still valid. Similarly, buying sauces and other simple ingredients often puts the cost noticeably higher than making them from scratch. And that all frees up money for the more exciting things- wine, good fresh fruit and vegetables, and quality meat and fish. A change in strategy in one of these areas could make a significant difference. Who knows, I might be able to afford that expensive stand mixer after all.

Danish Cuisine in Pictures

This last week I spent in Denmark, mainly visiting Aarhus University, but I also spent a few days in Copenhagen beforehand to explore a little. There were plenty of foodie things to do- the excellent Torvehallerne KBH food market in Copenhagen was a morning well spent: a large market of boutique food and drink shops, bakeries and eateries, and local farmers and traders coming in to sell their wares. In Copenhagen I also found ‘Fiskens Dag’ (fish day), a mini festival where many local fishmongers and retailers were there with samples to try and get local people to learn about and eat more fish. In Aarhus there was plenty to do, with great restaurants, local cuisine, and I always enjoy looking around foreign supermarkets- an underrated way to learn about a country’s eating habits and gastronomy.

Denmark, and Nordic countries in general, seem to have a healthy attitude towards food and cooking. In my experience, Danes cooked with the seasons, ate what was locally produced (organic if possible), and supported small traders and bakers. I didn’t see a lot of fast food eateries at all. But what I found particularly surprising was that Danish people ate Danish food- students were sitting in the common room putting pickled fish onto rye bread and eating it- I certainly don’t eat steak and kidney pudding, roast beef, or spotted dick very often. There’s too much in Nordic gastronomy to discuss in detail here, but if you’re interested, an excellent book I have is The Scandinavian Kitchen, by Camilla Plum, who seems to be the Nordic version of Delia Smith. But to get an idea of Danish cuisine, here’s a taste of my trip, in 10 pictures.

Smørrebrød at the Torvehallerne KBH food market in Copenhagen.

1. Smørrebrød- The Open Sandwich
Seen everywhere in Denmark, the open sandwich is a slice of (usually rye) bread, topped with egg, prawn, ham, steak, etc.- whatever leftovers you have from last night’s dinner. Often they have a condiment with them, like mayonnaise or remoulade, to help counter the dryness of the rye bread. Nicely presented, but not posh food, I saw a good few Danes eating these for lunch. I enjoyed the ones I had.

An ‘Overskåren’ from the Torvehallerne KBH food market in Copenhagen. A combination of chocolate, icing, and custard.

2. Danish Pastry and Bread
The thing I was most surprised about was the quality of the pastry and the bread- it was really, really good. Denmark has many signature pastries, like the cinnamon danish and cheese danish, so I was expecting good things, but the croissants, for example, were as good as I’ve had in Paris. The breads too- It would be tough to beat the grainy breads, like spelt and rye, found in Denmark, even those in a Danish supermarket. People just ate rolls by themselves, which was fine by me.

Loganberries from one of the local traders at Torvehallerne KBH food market in Copenhagen.

3. Berries
Denmark, and certainly other Scandinavian countries are famed for their berries, not surprising, given the climate. I found drinks, liquers, and jams based on loganberries, blueberries, hawthorn, elderflower, and rosehip, as well as the usual strawberries and raspberries. There seems to be a strong tradition of family trips to gather berries, then using the finds in meals at home. Commonly made into tarts seen in bakeries, they have a real depth of flavour which is not to be missed.

A Carl’s Special I had in central Copenhagen.

4. Danish Beer
Carlsberg is the most famous of the Danish beers, and rightly so, considering the key role they played in patenting and standarising strains of yeast. Not many people there drink the regular stuff, though. Popular was the beer on the right, a Carl’s special, a lovely red ale, full of hoppy flavours. But it was the stouts that I loved. Denmark produces very good darker beers, few of which are exported, sadly. One I liked in particular was made from muddy river water, for those extra flavours. It’s not uncommon to see ABV shoot up as well, with one boutique beer I had at 10.5%, a Hornbeer ‘Black Magic Woman’. So good is the beer, there is a dessert made of rye bread soaked in beer, that is meant to be a favourite of children.

Frikadeller in the Torvehallerne KBH food market in Copenhagen.

5. Frikadeller- Danish Pork Meatballs
How can you object to snack which is basically just a mound of meat? My first experience with Frikadeller was from Ikea, but the real ones stand up much better. For breakfast, in Denmark these meatballs are served with spiced red cabbage and a liver pâté, but you’ll find them for lunch and dinner too, in salad bars, or just as a side dish if you fancy more meat. Which I usually did.

Large jars of pickled fish with dill in a Danish supermarket.

6. Pickled Fish
Given Denmark’s huge coastal regions, it’s not surprising they have a culture of eating fish, and if you want to preserve fish, pickling is a good way to go. I stumbled on a “fiskens dag”, a fish day, aimed to promote people eating fish, and tried some pickled herring. If you are into pickled fish, I imagine it would be quite nice, but otherwise… not so much. The fresh and smoked fish I had was delicious though, particularly the smoked salmon

Danish cheeses in the Torvehallerne KBH food market in Copenhagen.

7. Cheese
Denmark produces a good number of cheeses, but apart from the Danish blue, many don’t make it out of the country. At a restaurant I had a platter of Danish cheese, which were very nice, some reminding me of Gruyere or Comté, a smoked cheese, and some softer ones, almost like sheeps’ milk cheese in flavour. Often, it seems, it’s just a slice of cheese with a roll. Worth trying some if you get the chance, though.

A hot-dog cart in central Copenhagen. I suppose every country is allowed a culinary vice.

8. Hot dog carts
Much more common than I would have expected are the Danish hot dog carts, which I saw frequently around Copenhagen and Aarhus. Serving a German style frankfurter in a roll with various condiments, they didn’t seem much better than their American counterparts. But when discussing with Danes, they recommended trying one as part of the cuisine, and I did see Danes eating there. Also common were Shawarma huts, basically kebab houses, but I didn’t make it to one of those.

A beer fridge at the Computer Science Fredagscaféen in Aarhus.

9. Fredagscaféen- Friday bar
A ‘gastronomical tradition’ is the Friday bar. At around 3pm on Fridays, departments will host a student-run bar in a classroom, much like a student-run bar in the UK, I suppose. You can do a “department crawl”, checking out different bars, as each one has a strong culture. We spent most of our Friday at the Computer Science bar (more fun than it sounds, I promise).

“Danish-bacon, Danish-bacon, yummy yummy yummy yummy yummy yummy yum.”

10. Danish Bacon
Last but not least, Danish bacon. Perhaps the one food here not eaten so much in Denmark, but bacon and other ham products provide one of Denmark’s key food exports (as well as a memorable marketing campaign). Large co-operatives have been formed for exporting bacon, to help keep costs down, and they even breed a ‘UK pig’, according to UK legislation, particularly for the British market. The UK has imported Danish bacon since the industrial revolution, when Britain became no longer self-sufficient in food, and pork products were a large part of a worker’s diet. However the pork products are in the UK, the ham and bacon I tried in Denmark was very good quality, I can see why the British wanted it.

Old Cookbooks

Looking through boxes from an attic is not usually a task I find enjoyable. Going through boxes, deciding what is worth keeping and what isn’t… not often an afternoon well spent. But when sorting through boxes which used to be in my grandparents attic, I stumbled across a box of old cookbooks, some a good few generations older than my grandparents themselves. After looking through everything  else, I spend a good couple of hours looking through this box, all the recipes, and discovering a good deal about culinary lifestyles, and lifestyles in general- many years ago.

Most of the recipe books aren’t actually that helpful for cooking- which goes for classics like Escoffier as well. A lot of the recipes assume you have good cooking skills already, and know a lot of the techniques you’ll need for the meal. For example, in ‘Cookery For Every Household’ by Florence Jack, published 1938, on a stuffed bass:

…prepare some oyster forcemeat, according to recipe 1275. Put this into the fish and sew it up… Bake in a hot oven, basting occasionally with the bacon fat. When ready, remove the fish carefully to a hot dish and draw out the trussing needle.

No cooking times, few techniques explained- of course you have gutted, cleaned and scaled the fish yourself before you even start the recipe. Many of the recipe books are just like this. Huge, exhaustive tomes of thousands of recipes, they are fantastic if you already have a good knowledge of food, good technical skills, and are likely to be dedicating a lot of time to cooking, most days for the rest of your life. Of course, I liberated a few of these, not really to cook from, but for posterity’s sake. But there were also a few ‘interesting’ books and pamphlets that I saved as well, some of which I think are worth sharing.

‘The Stock Wartime Cookery Book’ (published unknown) is just that: how to make the most of rations, how to use every scrap of food in the house, and, as seen above, how to save your dinner in the case of emergency. At first thought it seems incredible that, when an air raid struck, the thing you would think about would be saving your dinner. But of course, if you didn’t, you may lose the day’s meal for your family. Also containing patriotic recipes like “Army Cake” and “Air Force Cake”, made without ingredients like currants (that would have been tough to get hold of at the time, due to rationing), you can see how everybody was swept up in the war effort, trying to keep up morale “for families grown suddenly large … [and] temporarily small”. The whole thing is fascinating to read. For those interested in some of the ways to save your dinner if air raids come:

[T]he first thing to do is to stop the heat, that is, turn off the gas or electric current or close the dampers of a kitchen range. If you do this your food cannot get burnt, and we will tell you how to continue the cooking when you can come back to the kitchen.

Meat is the easiest to deal with. Leave a roasting joint in the oven. The heat that will remain for some time in a gas or electric oven will be enough to go on the with cooking for a time, but not enough to burn the joint. When you come back to the kitchen, you may find that the meat is cooked. If it needs more cooking, start the oven again, baste the meat well with hot fat, and finish the cooking. Your own common sense and your knowledge of how long the meat has been in the oven will help you here…

Cakes. If by chance you have left a cake in the oven, leave it where it is, after turning off the heat, and test it with a knife, just as you test your baked pudding, to see if it is cooked. If the knife shows any dampness or stickiness, bake it for a little while longer, and in many cases you will find it none the worse. If, however, the cake is heavy when cut, or if it sinks in the middle, you can always make it into a pudding. There are two good recipes for a pudding…

On no account throw any food away if there is any way of using it. After a few experiments, and perhaps one or two failures, you will find ways to rescue food that has had to look after itself for a time, and I am sure your successes will outnumber you failures.

The Palmine Cookbook (published 1909) is a recipe book for a revolutionary type of butter: vegetable butter, which we are of course all familiar with today. A little internet research suggests this really was one of the first implementations of vegetable butter- Wikipedia states “Procter & Gamble researchers were innovators when they started selling cottonseed oil as a creamed shortening, in 1911”, post-dating this book by two years.

Objection to the use of animal fats in the modern kitchen has opened the road for a fat produced solely from a Vegetable origin. “Palmine” – the latest and most perfect production- is extracted from the fruit of the Palm- Cocoanuts- and is absolutely free from those qualities that render animal fats objectionable. Lard, the fat of pork, for instance, retains the flavour of pork throughout, in spite of any purifying process to which it may be subject, and this flavour obtrusively manifests itself during cooking.

With a lot of the recipes you would expect to see in any modern day cookbook, like puff pastry, cup cakes, royal icing, and tomato sauce, it’s also a little surprising to see how little some of our cuisine has changed in the last hundred years- Victoria sponge is still a popular cake, for example. Equally the idea that everybody would already know how to make a lot of these recipes- the book is really only demonstrating they can be done with this fat substitute- just shows how eating habits and gastronomy have changed.

The Radiation Cookbook (published unknown) looks at how to cook with modern “New World” gas cookers, issued by a company called Radiation Limited. The construction of the cooker looks very like our modern cookers, with burners, taps, and a griller. It’s hard to tell quite what features are new in this oven, compared to other products on the market at the time, as the book is also trying to sell the oven. However, with a tagline of “For perfect cooking by gas”, it does suggest that cooking by gas may be a relatively new thing in domestic kitchens. The recipes are nothing special, but with several diagrams on how to use the gas ovens most effectively, it makes for an interesting historical read.

It’s only when you start to read books like this that you really appreciate how society has changed in only a couple of generations- my grandmother grew up without a freezer, unthinkable now, but completely normal then. International ingredients like ras-el-hanout and other spice mixes, sushi ingredients, and gram flour are all available in supermarkets now, but would have been very hard to find when my parents grew up. I wonder what will be the equivalent in several generations time.