Christmas Books Special: Food

We could have it so much better
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The Independent Culture

What is the point of buying cookbooks? There isn't one, according to Joanna Blythman: all the typical Briton does is look at the glossy pictures, put the book on the shelf and go on buying ready meals and takeaway pizza. In Bad Food Britain (HarperCollins £7.99), Blythman, an investigative journalist, argues that food habits in this country are getting worse. "Books about eating or cooking are never out of the bestsellers lists. In 2005, cookbooks - already one of the trade's richest earners - reached new money-spinning heights. Sales of food and drink books grew by 22 per cent, while fiction grew by only five per cent." Yet do we cook? We do not. "Welcome to the peculiarly British world of food pornography, where watching other people cooking food or talking about food has become a substitute for doing it yourself. Chef Simon Hopkinson put his finger on it when he wrote: 'We watch endless cookery programmes, but prefer, finally, to spend lots of money on supermarket ready meals while idly turning the pages of spotlessly clean cookery books until the microwave pings.'"

Blythman has a point, but there isn't any question that food awareness in this country is changing, however slowly. You can tell, because supermarkets are changing. Buy local, buy British, buy organic: they've picked up on those trends, even if it's mostly just front. So have food books. Last year, there seemed to be a plethora of celebrity cookbooks out at Christmas time, by and large the kind of shiny "food porn" number that Blythman decries. This year, the tone has changed. A growing number of books celebrate British regional cooking, something that hasn't been trendy since Elizabeth David introduced the country to the joys of olive oil after the Second World War. Blythman argues that "regional" cooking has mostly died out. Perhaps it's time to revive it.

The Taste of Britain (Harper Press £25) by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown is not a recipe book; rather, it's a scrupulously thorough attempt to document the food specialities of each region of Britain, featuring not just local dishes (such as Yorkshire's Fat Rascal teacake and Norfolk Knob rolls), but also varieties of produce (Dittisham plums from South-west England, Wyken Pippin apples from Worcestershire). Other strong contenders include British Regional Food (Quadrille £25) by Mark Hix, chef-director at Le Caprice group and Independent columnist, and the Duchy Originals Cookbook by Johnny Acton and Nick Sandler (Kyle Cathie £25). Points off Duchy Originals for plugging their own products: but then what did I expect?

As for guides to seasonal produce, the most comprehensive is probably Grower's Market by Leanne Kitchen (Murdoch Books £18.99), which has fruit and vegetables covered: when to buy them, how to cook them. A Year in My Kitchen by the IoS's own Skye Gyngell (Quadrille £25) contains elegant seasonal recipes. Cooking Outside the Box (Collins £17.99) by Keith Abel, the owner of the London organic food box company Abel and Cole, is engaging and informal, measuring quantities for many of its recipes in mugs: "Every kitchen has at least one of them lying around and they pretty much all hold the same amount." Sophie Grigson's Vegetables (Collins £25) is an immensely practical book full of good ways to cook not just the more popular veg but the unloved winter ones as well, such as kale and Brussels sprouts.

Hugh Fearlessly Eats it All (Bloomsbury £15.99), a collection of journalism from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, is an irritatingly look-at-me title, but you have to hand it to him: few writers have tried to do more to get us to raise our game. Andrew Whitley, owner of the Village Bakery bread company, is less of a showoff but no less committed to the cause of getting us to eat properly. Bread Matters (Harper Collins £20) explains clearly what's wrong with commercial bread and how to bake your own.

Nose-to-tail eating is one of those buzzy phrases that's around at the moment, part of what you might call the new thrift: use it all up, don't waste it. Rose Prince, whose excellent New English Kitchen last year showed how to do this, has produced a directory of ethical food producers, The Savvy Shopper (HarperCollins £7.99). The two books together offer a useful rundown of how to buy proper quality food and then make it stretch. Cupboard Love, by Tom Norrington Davies (Hodder £9.99) aims to give novice cooks some basic recipes to help them make the most of whatever's in their store cupboards. Good Eating (Pan Macmillan £7.99) is a selection of wartime dishes from the pages of The Daily Telegraph: a celebration of British pluck (well, we won the war, didn't we?) as well as a guide to frugal cooking.

The second edition of Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University Press £40) is full of seriously fascinating, if useless, information: rat's brains with garlic and camphor, anyone? As is Sonja Patel's The Curry Companion (Think Books £9.99), a contradiction in terms: a miscellany about a single subject. Sound Bites (Fig Tree £12.99) by Alex Kapranos, the lead singer of Franz Ferdinand and a former chef, is surprisingly well written, an impressionistic food autobiography that intersperses tales of what he ate on tour with memories of his childhood and all the crappy restaurant jobs he ever had. Jay McInerney's A Hedonist in the Cellar (Bloomsbury £14.99) is worth it for the chapter on Auberon Waugh: "As head of a wine club, he once proclaimed an offering "anal" and was delighted to report that it immediately sold out, a fact that, he felt, said a lot about his countrymen." Lindsay Bareham's part memoir, part recipe collection The Fish Store (Michael Joseph £20) is a delightful account of living and cooking in the tiny Cornish fishing village of Mousehole.

If you absolutely must have one of those beautiful books that you're in danger of never using, I'd recommend Breakfast, Lunch, Tea (Phaidon £19.95) from the Rose Bakery in Paris: it's restaurant food, but relatively simple, and it all sounds delicious. Finally, there is always Bad Food Britain. If you know anyone who's desperately gloomy about the state of Britain today, who knows? It may even cheer them up.

To order any of the titles with a 10 per cent discount and free p&p call Independent Books Direct on 08700-798 897 and quote X10/06

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