Books for Christmas: Cookery - Aardvark and other starters

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The Independent Culture
The only minus about The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson (OUP, pounds 40) is that it is a tad pricey as a Christmas gift. So you'll just have to treat yourself. It is simply indispensable, not so much in the kitchen (Davidson imposed a strict rule against recipes) but for feeding the mind. From Aardvark ("commonly described as tasting like pork"), via Elevenses, Grigson and Shipworm ("may be pickled in vinegar or fried and eaten with eggs"), to Zucchini, it contains over 2,600 entries. All are authoritative, many wonderfully recondite and quite a few hugely amusing. Twenty years in the making, this titanic achievement is a great big raspberry in response to the prejudice that the British are indifferent to food.

However, the top-seller in this year's tidal bore of food books will probably be New British Classics by Gary Rhodes (BBC, pounds 20). The trouble with Mr Greasy-Quiff is that he is two people: the preening, vainglorious telly-cook who fancies himself as having the common touch, and the top- flight chef-patron with a chain of upmarket eateries. The contradictory characters of Gary and Rhodes emerge in this 400-page compendium, which oscillates between fine but challenging dishes like pigs' trotters Bourguignon and depressingly patronising recipes for fig rolls and, God help us, sardines on toast.

For all his double-yolked ego, Rhodes is not infallible. Do not follow his over-egged Yorkshire pudding recipe, which has to be turned over half- way through. If you're tempted by his seared scallops, ignore his instructions and heat the pan before adding the oil, otherwise they won't sear on a domestic range.

A much more coherent approach is evident in Two Fat Ladies: Obsessions (Ebury Press, pounds 19.99), the final joint offering from Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson (we're told the latter died "peaceful, painlessly and full of caviar"). Chapters are dedicated to 18 robust ingredients, such as anchovies, offal, oysters ("like kissing a mermaid"), eels, snails and, inevitably, beef on the bone. Though it will probably mean divorce, I intend trying tripe a la Madrilena ("the Spanish do wonderful things with tripe"). Also from Clarissa is the unimaginatively titled anthology Food (Ebury Press, pounds 25). A scissors-and-paste job, it is fine in its way, with Alice B Toklas on hash cakes and Evelyn Waugh on cannibalism, but you'd be better off lashing out the extra 15 quid on Davidson.

As you would expect, Sally Clarke's Book (Macmillan, pounds 25) by the celebrated restaurateur, stresses the importance of sourcing the finest ingredients (a lesson she learned at Alice Waters's legendary Chez Panisse in California). Hence the division of the recipes into seasonal sections. But why is slow- baked duck leg with onion marmalade appropriate for spring or a salad of mussels with samphire for autumn?

Similarly, the profusion of menu suggestions seems misplaced. However, the recipes - parsley soup with morels, a salad of warm smoked eel with crisp pancetta - are exemplary in their detail.

In a kitchen overflowing with superfluous food books, the only ones I find myself repeatedly using are those devoted to soup. Soup by Nick Sandler and Johnny Acton (Kyle Cathie, pounds 16.99) will certainly join these well- thumbed favourites. From the founders of the hyper-trendy Soup Works, it is as much an ardent polemic for liquid food as a cook book, though authors are pushing their luck when they start a history of the topic with a reference to "primordial soup".

Snaffled from all over the globe, their concoctions are tantalisingly exotic. In the slightly alarming pictures, squid tentacles curl from a creamy bowlful, and a lobster waves its claws from a mess of black-eyed beans. My salivary juices started oozing at the prospect of ajo blanco ("a luxurious, creamy soup" based on ground almonds) and a broth of hot spicy chicken with guacamole.

Don't be put off by the gabby American text of Mediterranean Grains and Greens (Kyle Cathie, pounds 25) by Paula Wolfert. We don't really need to know that Aicha Rouatri is "a smiling, sunny Tunisian widow with a well-lined face", but her recipe for semolina bread sounds excellent. Despite its title, the book is far from being solely vegetarian, with recipes ranging from black rice with mussels (the blackness comes not from squid ink but an onion and chilli "jam") to "lamb stew smothered with cactus". But vegetables do get star billing, in particular Swiss chard (the Med's most popular vegetable, says Wolfert) and polenta. Sauteed rocket, garlic and anchovies on polenta sounds like a stunning starter. One warning: you need to be in striking distance of a good ethnic grocer for many ingredients. Also, some of the recipes have been insufficiently anglicised.

Chocolate: The Definitive Guide by Sara Jayne-Stanes (Grub Street, pounds 20) is precisely what it claims. This glossy production includes an 80-page history of chocolate - the word xoco-atl meant bitter-water in 10th-century Mexico. Not until page 98 does Jayne-Stanes get down to recipes, ranging from Black Forest gateau, that old war-horse of the dessert trolley, to Sachertorte (subject of a famous lawsuit in the Fifties).

She is diffident about Death by Chocolate ("Personally, I don't like any reference, be it recipe or not which indicates that chocolate is a sinner"). In case you're glutted with sweetness, the book ends with a classic Bordelaise recipe for lamprey in chocolate sauce: "Take a live lamprey, bleed it and reserve the blood for the sauce."

Le Caprice by A A Gill (Hodder, pounds 25) is the joker in the pack. A companion to his volume on The Ivy (another celeb-packed London restaurant), it achieves the remarkable feat of being even worse. The book includes a clutch of unfeasible recipes - fried egg with foie gras and ceps, risotto cooked in champagne with Perigord truffles - along with Gill's tedious pontifications ("etiquette is deadly serious, with a deadly serious purpose."), but mostly it is photos. Lots of elaborately arranged food, lots of high heels. The ultimate in gastro-porn.