To be told there is nothing for breakfast, is cold comfort for which one's half-strung nerves are not prepared, and throws a damp upon the prospect of the day," says William Hazlitt in his 1827 essay "On the Want of Money". Hard to disagree, particularly now that it won't be long before none of us will have the cash to slap breakfast on the table either – if you believe the gloomier predictions. The quotation is from A Food Lover's Treasury by Julie Rug and Lynda Murphy (Frances Lincoln £9.99) , a jolly compendium of observations on food taken from classic literature. It would be a relatively cheap present, which puts it in step with the times. Publishers are rushing to produce books on thrifty cooking. Two high-profile contenders have already appeared, both reprints from kitchen stalwarts: Delia Smith's sensible 1970s effort, Delia's Frugal Food (Hodder & Stoughton £17.99) and Marguerite Patten's Best British Dishes (Grub Street £25). Patten, now 93, is a product of austerity Britain and, though the book isn't overtly about saving money, she always has one eye on the issue ("a good proportion of British fare is based upon economical food").
Thrift is not a theme with most of this year's books, however. Instead there is a new emphasis on cooking for people who don't know where to start, though perhaps it just seems that way because of Jamie Oliver's thoughtful and well-publicised effort, Jamie's Ministry of Food (Michael Joseph £25). For people unsure of the basics, Leiths Simple Cookery Bible by Viv Pidgeon and Jenny Stringer (Bloomsbury £30) would be a practical standby guide, while Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food (Michael Joseph £25) contains sound advice on issues such as storecupboard ingredients and how to plan menus.
The Cooking Book, edited by Victoria Blashford-Snell (Dorling Kindersley £25), includes pocket shopping lists and a DVD that explains techniques. The Kitchen Revolution by Rosie Sykes, Zoe Heron and Polly Russell (Ebury £25) also offers downloadable shopping lists: it contains a year's worth of recipes based on a clever weekly system that aims to minimise the workload of cooking and reduce waste.
At the opposite extreme are two books by star chefs who are decidedly uninterested in beginners or in thrift. A Day at El Bulli by Ferran Adria (Phaidon £29.95) offers a blow-by-blow account of the operations of El Bulli, a restaurant near Girona, Spain, often labelled the world's best. Too much of the book consists of photographs, but the sections on how Adria, its head chef, thinks the creative process works with food are intriguing. Similarly thought-provoking, though at a much more lunatic price, The Big Fat Duck Cookbook by Heston Blumenthal, pictured left, (Bloomsbury £100) is a book that sweeps you on a tide of mad enthusiasm into the world where science meets gastronomy. Like the El Bulli book, it is full of recipes you won't try at home – unless you have oak moss extract, deionised water, malto-dextrin and BioPolymer Viscarin in your cupboard – but it's good fun.
Also asserting his place on star chef turf, Joël Robuchon has produced The Complete Robuchon (Grub Street £25), a compendium of French cookery that claims to "stand alongside Larousse Gastronomique". That's a step too far, though it's certainly comprehensive – and businesslike; there's no space for pictures. For fans of French cuisine, there are also two books by Stéphane Reynaud, who produced one of last year's best cookbooks, Pork and Sons. The first, Ripailles (Murdoch Books £25), is as hefty as the Robuchon, covers similar ground, and is considerably less solemn (he throws in some pages on rugby, just because he likes it). The other, Terrine (Phaidon £16.95), covers all kinds of terrines, savoury and sweet; a good present for people who like to entertain.
Les rosbifs have kept busy too, with the focus on local produce and seasonality, still happily, going strong. Mark Hix's British Seasonal Food (Quadrille £25) gives mouth-watering recipes for each month of the year. Valentine Warner's What to Eat Now (Mitchell Beazley £20) doesn't, annoyingly, include all the recipes from his BBC series (where are the delightful-sounding pear and Stinking Bishop cheese tarts?) but is still a fine book. Skye Gyngell's My Favourite Ingredients (Quadrille £25) focuses on 16 key ingredients – asparagus, game, chocolate – and gives a narrow but exquisite range of recipes for each.
The excellent The Full English Cassoulet (Chatto £16.99), by the nature writer Richard Mabey, is more than just a recipe book. As he puts it, it is "a series of reflections about food use, about seasonality, how to cope with gluts, diversity of crops, gleaning and scrumping, energy-saving cookery". It covers a useful skill in a downturn, the art of foraging, as does Wild Food by Jane Eastoe (National Trust Books £6.99), which is a slim, unpretentious book aimed at those of a self-sufficient bent. Home Smoking and Curing (Ebury £10), isa new edition of a 1970s book by Keith Erlandson, full of detailed advice. Meanwhile, Sara Paston-Williams, who last year published the fabulous Good Old-Fashioned Puddings has this year produced the equally fabulous Good Old-Fashioned Jams, Preserves and Chutneys (National Trust £16.99, pictured below).
Two books that might help with the stress of Christmas are Nigella's Christmas (Chatto £25) and Sarah Raven's Complete Christmas Food & Flowers (Bloomsbury £25), which energetically cover all culinary and, in the latter case, decorative, bases. My own solution to surviving December and the dreary winter months, however, is the liberal use of spices. Therefore I recommend Indonesian Food (Pavilion £25) by Sri Owen (whose The Rice Book can be called a classic), and Middle Eastern Cookery by Arto der Haroutunian (Grub Street, £18.99), a reprint of a much admired 1982 book that covers an impressively disparate range of cultures. A Culinary Voyage round the Greek Islands by Theodore Kyriakou (Quadrille £20) and Turquoise, an exploration of Turkish food by Greg and Lucy Malouf (Quadrille £30), cheeringly bring sunnier climates to mind and celebrate rather underrated cuisines to boot. Still in the Mediterranean, Venezia by Tessa Kiros (Murdoch Books £25) is a stunning book in presentation and content.
Gumbo Tales by Sara Roahen (Norton £15.99) contains no recipes, but its sustained love affair with the food of New Orleans makes you want to rush there. A History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat (Wiley-Blackwell £22.99), an expanded edition of a 1987 work, is a fascinating study that starts with the era when we were all still living in trees (yes, really). Scrupulously thorough and pleasingly idiosyncratic, it promises the reader many a happy hour blissfully contemplating our ancient relationship with our stomachs. And that's as much as you can ask from any food book.