Beyond Nose to Tail, By Fergus Henderson &Justin Piers Gellatly</br>Eating for England, By Nigel Slater</br>Week In Week Out, By Simon Hopkinson

The sweet tastes of the past
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

These are all rather bluff books by chefs: real food for real men. They are meaty in every sense, and all are in some ways memoirs. Only Fergus Henderson is trying for a past before his own memory, a past that is to some extent invention, but a valid invention made from putting together bits in new ways. His style of cooking is reminiscent of a more prudent and also more richly indulgent past, using unwanted or cheaper cuts, making jars of "trotter gear" that perfume and give body to a variety of dishes.

Most of Henderson's reviewers will doubtless focus on his rediscovery of offal and offcuts such as pigs' ears. But his contribution to other areas of cooking should not be neglected. Henderson's instructions are sometimes extraordinary. Most people would not feel comfortable putting a cling-wrapped tart shell in the oven, and one suspects a careless editor here. Nor does he tell you how to care for your painstakingly made starter, except by sticking it in the fridge.

But you do need to know, so you can emulate Henderson's bread, perhaps the best in Britain. And the bread recipes do work, and are easy if you have a heavy-duty mixer. It's engaging that Henderson corrects his previous treacle tart recipe, admitting to error. The new one works a treat, and was voted "best ever" by my son's hungry friends. The baking sections alone are worth the purchase price.

In contrast with Henderson's single-minded vision, Nigel Slater is a divided man. Slater's ideal in his new book about "the delights and eccentricities of the British at table" is a foodie who can savour a Jaffa Cake with the same slow rapture as a fresh vegetable from the farmer's market. It's plainly a self-portrait, but is he typical? Top chefs think so: Fat Duck diners will know that Heston Blumenthal asks them for their childhood food recollections, serving a pre-dessert that recalls the sherbets sold by local shops, and Marc Veyrat does something not dissimilar in France. But when Guy Savoy and Raymond Blanc recall the foods of their childhoods, what they remember is the vraie île flottante prepared by maman. English cooks and chefs are reduced to rhapsodising over Mint Humbugs.

Anything his mother actually cooked is hastily binned by Slater in the manner of a little boy slightly ashamed of Mum, and so too are the restaurant offerings of his childhood. All lost... only the chocolate digestive is reassuringly always the same, a constant in a dangerous and changing world. Food is what we cling to when all else is lost. In this sense, Slater's evocation of the enjoyment of slowly ripping the foil from a triangle of Dairylea processed cheese is tinged with much more sadness than a Proustian madeleine. The Dairylea has survived in a way good food might not.

Slater's descriptions of food bliss are a trifle hit-and-miss, sometimes risking pretentiousness. But he can be hilariously funny, as on the British inability to tip properly, with the dread of being thought mean on the one hand and a sucker on the other. If Slater seeks to evoke the extremes of food-memory pleasure, he also trawls food disgust in a manner that seems boyish. Recollections of barren picnics and unlovely dinners are fraught with the child's suppressed nausea. He can also be spiteful, with a child's quick vengefulness; he lashes back at Julian Barnes, and attacks some foodies, especially male "experts".

But what people will remember and discuss is his evocation of the inadequacy of the digestive as a dunking biscuit, and his faith that no one really dislikes Kit-Kats. The book inspires lively conversation, its belligerent certainties provoking equally unguarded agreements or denials.

Slater's memories read less like demotic reveries than a kind of anti-foodie child's plea for a diet of sherbet lemons and gooey chocolate cake. Like the indulgence of a hungry boy, the result might leave adults nostalgic but also faintly dyspeptic. Slater eats – in his head, at least – like a supermodel; organic veggie salad, followed by a biscuit binge and a couple of sweets. No wonder he's sometimes cranky.

I'm not immune to the mumsy feeling Slater induces in British womanhood, and I want to help that boy. I think he should delve further into the past. I feel pretty sure a curry fan like Nigel would relish young pig and chicken poached in white wine and spiced with galangal, cinnamon and sugar, in a sauce thickened with almonds and egg yolks: it's from the reign of Edward I. Of course, his mother never cooked anything like it, but it's just as British as stew that "smells of old people". As cookbooks morph into foodie memories, there's a risk of shrinking horizons. Food history needs to reach back further than memory for inspiration, as Fergus Henderson does.

Simon Hopkinson gives a more gargantuan and hearty impression, more grown-up and travelled too. If Slater is a man divided, presiding over a nation divided, Hopkinson is a man in control. He can save us. His frequent outbursts are occasionally choleric, but fuelled by an unapologetic passion for an English equivalent of French bistro cookery – simple, sensuous, and passionate.

He is bugged by irritable memories of the brilliantly ripe tomatoes of Dieppe, the delectable fare at Parisian brasseries. Comfortably large, with magnificent photography, his book celebrates Hopkinson's kind of food, warming fare like his magisterial roast grouse. His instructions are friendly and precise. They are barded with memories: from his teenage self cooking "Pork Basil Brush" to the best-ever coffee granita at Piazza Navona in Rome, he has enjoyed himself. Gusto in the best sense animates his use of pigs' trotters as a thickener, but this is also what great-grandmother would have done. Hopkinson's recipes have diverse sources, from Edouard de Pomiane and Michel Guèrard to his local fishmonger. They work superbly. My sister-in-law once said that it was her dream to live with Nigel Slater. Funny and touching as he is, I think I'll take Hopkinson instead.

Diane Purkiss teaches at Keble College, Oxford; her 'The English Civil War: a people's history' is published by Harper Perennial

Comments