The best food books for Christmas

Some like it extra, extra hot
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The Independent Culture

Let's not hide our lights under a bushel. Two of this year's top food books have been written by The Independent's culinary luminaries. Concentrating on the what rather than the how of gastronomy, Mark Hix's British Regional Food (Quadrille, £25) combines an enthusiastic tour of our finest producers with 140 ungussied recipes (fresh pilchards on toast, roast mallard with elderberries). From gull's eggs to grouse, his no-nonsense writing is lucid, informative and irresistibly tempting. In the section on Hix's native county, we learn that the technique for cutting into a Dorset Knob biscuit is "rather like opening an oyster". Thomas Hardy used to eat them with Blue Vinney.

By some distance the best of the half-dozen barbecue cookbooks available, Charles Campion's Food from Fire (Mitchell Beazley, £16.99) tells you everything you need to know about techniques, anointments and breads. But the heart of the book is its spiced meat dishes. His lamb's kidneys devilled in mustard, Worcestershire sauce and honey was a sensational success on my Weber grill. Same goes for kaburga, an unctuous Turkish dish of lamb ribs marinaded in lemon, sumac and garlic.

Giorgio Locatelli's Made in Italy (Fourth Estate, £30) is the equivalent of about five ordinary cookbooks slammed together. Prodigiously informative, but not recommended for reading in bed. The excellent antipasti section (ox tongue with green sauce etc) runs to 130 pages. There is so much in this book, which ranges from autobiographical musings and historical background to a five-page essay on porcini, that some important items may be overlooked. For Locatelli's version of the bread salad panzanella, an often-repeated favourite in our house, you have to turn to "sardines".

Like Michelangelo or Dante, merely the Christian name appears on the spine of Cook with Jamie (Michael Joseph, £26). Modestly described by the author as his attempt at "a timeless, modern-day classic", this latest offering reveals a distinct turning-down of the ladometer. The 32 portraits of the author in his Jamie's Dinners have declined to a mere three. Despite his cliché-rich recommendations (baked John Dory in the bag is "a win-win combo of flavours"), Jamie Oliver's recipes are straightforward and successful. His "incredible lamb shanks" turned out to be juicy and intensely flavoured, though not quite to the point of incredulity. While not endowed with any superlative, his "baked potatoes stuffed with bacon, anchovies and sage" proved to be comfort food of impressive élan.

Jamie's mentor Gennaro Contaldo stresses the seasonality that lies at the basis of Italian cuisine in Gennaro's Italian Year (Headline, £20). From pumpkin ice-cream to focaccia with wild garlic, every season has its temptations, but some ingredients, such as the turnip tops required for the Apulian dish orcietta con cime di rapa (winter) and the barbecued baby cuttlefish with roast red pepper and aubergine sauce (summer), may prove elusive at any time of year. Annoyingly, the 120 recipes are prominently titled in Italian but the index is English.

A good idea taken to an extreme, Cooking on the Bone by Jennifer McLagan (Grub Street, £20) ranges from the predictable (braised oxtail with root vegetables) to the slightly daunting (fried fish bones "might take a leap of faith"). Some dishes, such as bone marrow pudding and the three recipes incorporating pigs' tails, will require a compliant butcher. Occasionally, McLaglan ventures beyond food. She suggests that you'll have to "ask your butcher for lamb metatarsal" if you want bones to play the game of jacks. I'd like to know how that request goes down on a busy Saturday morning.

Heston Blumenthal's In Search of Perfection (BBC/Bloomsbury, £20) looks like a cookbook with lots of double-spread pictures, but this flashy TV spin-off only contains eight recipes for such staples as fish and chips, steak and treacle tart. By seeking the finest ingredients and applying scientific principles, the Professor Brainiac of Bray attempts to achieve Platonically ideal renditions.

Cynics may cavil at the practicality of his ideas. When I essayed his Black Forest Gateau for this newspaper, it took 10 hours and cost over £250 in materials and ingredients. Anyone interested in the search for culinary perfection would be better off seeking out the entertaining books of Jeffrey Steingarten, who has been doing the same thing thing in American Vogue for years. In particular, Blumenthal's efforts with the pizza have an uncanny resemblance to Steingarten's essay "Perfection Pizza".

The Year of Eating Dangerously by Tom Parker Bowles (Ebury, £15.99) is a (literally) gutsy yarn in the tradition of Mungo Park and Sir Richard Burton. While those heroes found adventure in extremities of heat and cold, Parker Bowles seeks out the wilder shores of gastronomy. Displaying impressive energy and fortitude, he eats goose neck barnacles in Spain, buffalo tripe in Laos and dog stew in Seoul. Some may feel that his descriptions are heightened for effect, but, after dining at one of his destinations, I can confirm they are pretty much spot-on. My piquant lunch at Prince's Hot Chicken in Nashville did not quite make my lips feel "stung by a swarm of hornets", but I went for "medium" chicken while the dauntless Parker Bowles demanded "extra hot".

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