Food: The year's best books reviewed

The joy of goat and parsnips
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The recipe for daube of beef in Sophie Grigson's Country Kitchen (Headline, £25) is a wholly orthodox prescription for this classic from the south of France. Brown your shin beef, fry your lardons and veg, combine with a bottle of decent red wine and a bouquet garni (don't forget to dry your orange peel for the latter, the fresh version is "less agreeable") and casserole. But, two hours into this vinous alchemy, Ms Grigson blows a big raspberry in the face of la cuisine Française. Sophie's solecism is the addition of 900gms (2lbs) of chopped parsnips. This homely root is unknown as a form of human nutrition in France. "Allons zut! Nom d'un nom!" as P G Wodehouse's chef Anatole might have erupted.

In fact, the combination is Elysian in its perfection. Losing their aggressive earthiness, the parsnips become tender, emollient, almost exotic. Their soft, grainy texture is as interesting as their spicy sweetness. Classified according to season, the recipes in this book are admirably lucid, practical and inventive without ever being flashy. Marinaded in good cooking from childhood, Sophie Grigson knows what works and what doesn't.

Just like her mother Jane, she is not afraid to include such apparently mundane dishes as potted meat and real baked beans. The key to her "Very Good Cauliflower Cheese" lies in its execution. "Casual inattention is the death knell," she warns briskly.

Millions may like it hot, but I suspect I am not alone in tiring of curry. Too often, the spicy heat masks rather than enhances its subject. Yet a brief study of Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible (Ebury, £25) prompted a Pavlovian response from my salivary glands and a determination to replenish our spice rack. For once the title is no exaggeration, with offerings ranging from Kerala Squid Curry (with roasted coriander seeds and coconut milk) to South African Vegetarian Bunny Chow (curry in a bread-roll bowl). From naan to ginger lassi, Jaffrey's coverage of curry's elaborate trimmings is equally encyclopaedic. With a host of lengthy chapter introductions, essays ("The Story of Goat Curry" is a highlight) and chatty recipes, this is a cookbook for reading.

Terence Conran started his career as restaurateur in the Fifties at a joint called the Soup Kitchen. His new collection Classic Conran, written in partnership with his wife Vicki (Conran Octopus, £25), might be its recipe book. There is nothing wrong with steak and kidney pud, bangers and mash or chocolate mousse, but are we really going to spend £25 learning how to cook such retro nosh, especially since the idea has already been done (with rather more élan) by Simon Hopkinson, Conran's former star chef? Osso bucco is a trattoria classic of the era, but it may prove a little tricky laying your hands on "four to six slices of shin of veal, including marrow".

You might expect a book containing recipes for Bess's Marmalade and My Mother's Scotch Collops to be one of those nice charity collections put together in virtually every village in the country. However, this work also includes such demanding dishes as Twice Baked Parmesan and Goat's Cheese Soufflés (serves 12) and Seafood Bombe with Saffron Sauce (serves 12 or 50).

What sort of person will shuttle between standard family fare and grand banquets? The answer is a ducal sort of person. The Chatsworth Cookery Book (Frances Lincoln, £9.99) is the work of the Duchess of Devonshire "with the help of the chefs at Chatsworth". One of the chefs contributes a recipe for Slow-Baked Tomatoes, but the accompanying comment has a distinct flavour of Duchess Debo: "They shrivel up while baking, but at Chatsworth we think taste is more important than appearance." Admirable.

It is hard to imagine anyone working their way through every one of the 800 pages of instruction in Leith's Techniques Bible by Susan Spaull & Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne (Bloomsbury, £35) - there are, for example, nine pages on aspic and eight pages on meringues - but anyone who did would emerge a veritable Escoffier. Containing a host of tips, the book also makes the perfect gift for the culinary greenhorn. Whether you need to know why your chips are dry in the centre ("They have been overcooked") or the nine stages in sugar syrup concentration, it's all here.

Oddly, the same nine stages also appear in one of this year's bestsellers, though Schott's Food & Drink Miscellany (Bloomsbury, £9.99) gives different names ("Vaseline" in Leith's becomes "coated" in Schott), different temperatures and insists there are 10 stages. Schott's is an odd beast. With this combination of genuinely useful culinary gen (roasting times, conversion tables) and particles of knowledge for which the word "trivia" is too weighty (food and drink of the Bay City Rollers, Coca-Cola logos around the world), you don't know whether it should go in the kitchen or the loo. Either way, it's utterly irresistible.

The same applies to Toast by Nigel Slater (Fourth Estate, £16.99), though anyone expected an in-depth account of Welsh rarebit will be disappointed. It is a tender, exquisitely written account of his near-simultaneous discovery of food and sex in the early Sixties.

Anyone who survived that grey, straitened era will empathise with Slater's joys and despair, from the different flavours of processed cheese ("tomato, celery (my favourite), mushroom and blue cheese") to the disgusting behaviour of adults. Of his father, Slater writes: "He always had something disgusting in his mouth, a Settler, a glug of kaolin and morphine, his pipe." You read this remarkable memoir partly cringing, partly marvelling at Slater's hallucinogenic retrieval of times past. He is the Proust of the Nesquik era.