BOOK REVIEW / How many Romans to make a salad?: Sue Gaisford confronts wild boars and jalousies of kohlrabi, in the cookbooks of 1993

My father's wedding present to my mother was Isabella Beeton's famous book on household management. He bought it largely so that he could inscribe it to Mrs Can't-be-beaten, but it was a great book anyway, the Johnson's Dictionary of cookery books. Now poor Mrs Beeton has become a trademark and her name purloined to shed a golden glow of bygone glory over our fevered humdrum lives.

The latest spurious offering is Mrs Beeton's Traditional Christmas (Ward Lock), which invites its readers to rediscover the simple pleasures and old-fashioned family fun of the season. Doesn't quite sound like the Christmas we anticipate here, but then, nor is it exactly Victorian. It seems likely that only the recipes which actually bear the Beeton name have ever had any contact with the lady herself. She could have had little truck with kumquats, nor, I suspect, did she ever tinker with tahini, but doubtless Mrs Beeton's Boiled Salad was her personal triumph.

Buy this festive volume if you want to alarm your hostess with impossible rules about how things should be done - or if you need instructions for wall-mounting your Christmas tree, a pattern for making a pleated cracker or some ideas for stocking-fillers for 'sons and nephews'. These include useful Victorian gadgets like T-shirt transfers and a cassette cleaning kit. There are games, too: my favourite one is called Three Steps and a Kick, which is all too rapidly mastered.

There's nothing traditional about Sarah Beattie. Her Neither Fish nor Fowl (Optima) is the kind of book that makes you long for a good red herring. Who could have suggested such a gem of a title? Possibly the same publicist who used a picture of her clad in a teeny dress on the back, while announcing on the fly-leaf that she looks forward to warmer weather. Well put some clothes on, woman, and eat a nice hearty stew. Oh no, not our Sarah, the National Cheese Challenge Champion of 1990. She is a vegetarian in the heroic mould of, she tells us, Pythagoras, Shelley and Shaw. If the Beeton book is nostalgia as cookbook, hers is stream-of-consciousness. You can learn all about her ill-fated teenage marriage, why she had to drop Spanish at school in favour of German, and when she first became interested in recycling phosphates.

As for the cooking, well you have to be very biddable. Sarah Beattie admonishes a lot: 'Please, fresh not frozen spinach,' she says, telling us to be subtle but not bland, definite but not strident - and to pay attention to daintiness. The recipes are for things like Jalousie of Kohlrabi, or Sesame, Ginger and Soy Vermicelli and the instructions so long and didactic that enthusiasm wanes along with appetite. As she says, a little unfortunately, cooking is a performance art with instant feedback.

A much better veggie-book is Judith Barrett's Food From an Italian Garden (Michael Joseph). Despite a rather whimsical introduction by John Mortimer featuring stories about Sienese labour wards, this is an attractive book, well-produced and sensibly written, whose recipes really work: my copy is already comfortably thumbed and messy. Last night everybody in our house was tired and hungry and the cupboard pretty bare so we tried her spaghetti with courgettes. It was easy and quick, but I worried that it might not taste of much so thought of adding some ham. The fridge yielded only a greenish slice which even the dog didn't fancy, so we ate the pasta exactly as she prescribed and it was a universal success.

Her book is eclectic, unsanctimonious, practical and inspiring, happy to suggest microwave or pressure-cooker now and again if time is short, but equally happy to dwell for a moment on how Pizza Margherita got its name or why it takes four Romans to make a salad: in case you are wondering, you need a miser with the vinegar, a spendthrift with the oil, a wise man with the seasoning and a lunatic to toss it. The only recipe that worried me a little was for aubergine and olive stew with cocoa.

Vegetables play little part in Jeanne Strang's Goose Fat and Garlic (Kyle Cathie). This is cookbook as travel literature. Even to contemplate cooking from it, you'd need to acquire a flock of geese and a housepig - don't worry, there are detailed instructions for parting the lobes of a goose liver to remove the gall, and for sticking the pig. Nearly every recipe calls for goose fat or belly of pork - even trout is cooked with salt pork - but the book is much more than recipes. It is a celebration of south-west France, land of the cassoulet and of truffles black as the souls of the damned, where the idea of cuisine minceur is as alien as McDonald's. Although, once having snared your rabbit, shot your grouse or speared your wild-boar, the recipes look perfectly possible, most of us will prefer to mull over this one at leisure on cold winter nights, dreaming of armagnac and summer, wondering why we don't emigrate.

At the other extreme from the extravagantly delicious cholesterol of Perigord, Alastair Little's Keep it Simple (Conran Octopus) is indeed simple, delighting in the pleasures of the fresh, but it is also full of useful ideas, clearly presented and seasonally arranged. A successful chef producing a practical manual is a rarity this winter.

Commoner is the vast cookbook as ego-trip, of which two examples are too loud to be ignored. White Heat (Mitchell Beazley) is a Marco Pierre White fanzine-with-recipes, larded with absurd, posturing comments like: 'At this moment I'm in the middle of a revolution with myself.'

The Essential Mosimann (Ebury Press) is a loving self-portrait of a man who set out to do precisely what he has done: who achieved, as he says 'every possible award there was to achieve'. His book has huge, beautiful pictures of chicken roasted with gold leaf, of supreme of grouse, and of Mosimann - with his father, his dog, his son, his staff, his honorary degree robes, his diplomas, his traditional Bernese costume, his famous customers, his logo, bow-tie, moustache and winning smile.

Only Mosimaniacs will be able to stomach it.

(Photograph omitted)