The best of 2004: food books reviewed

The rules of the game

It has been a bumper year for cookbooks although, as usual, the ones that will sell most are far from being the best. Somewhere inside the 472 pages of Nigella Lawson's bloated
Feast (Chatto & Windus, £25) is a quite decent cookbook signalling to be let out. She knows what goes together and her formulations work, but it's hard to hack your way through a score of often unlikely festivals (they include "breakfast"). Stuffed with an amazing variety of odds and ends (chocolate Malteser cake, pretend "pus" for Hallowe'en), this bulging package is intended to be as sexy, maternal and blooming as the author's TV persona, but it's more like Mr Creosote.

It has been a bumper year for cookbooks although, as usual, the ones that will sell most are far from being the best. Somewhere inside the 472 pages of Nigella Lawson's bloated Feast (Chatto & Windus, £25) is a quite decent cookbook signalling to be let out. She knows what goes together and her formulations work, but it's hard to hack your way through a score of often unlikely festivals (they include "breakfast"). Stuffed with an amazing variety of odds and ends (chocolate Malteser cake, pretend "pus" for Hallowe'en), this bulging package is intended to be as sexy, maternal and blooming as the author's TV persona, but it's more like Mr Creosote.

The other big TV spin-off is Jamie's Dinners by Jamie Oliver (Michael Joseph, £20). Ranging from the couch potato's "double-decker cheddar cheese sandwich with pickled onions and crisps" to the fairly demanding "Italian-style upside-down fish pie", it is a mess, both visual and culinary.

The solitary TV regular who can write a decent cookbook (with the exception of Rick Stein) is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. His River Cottage Meat Book (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) is another doorstep, but the enthusiastic carnivore will relish all 550 pages. The first half is an excellent primer-cum-polemic on British meat, the second contains recipes that induced vigorous Pavlovian reactions in this reviewer - but I'd have licked more on tripe.

This is amply remedied in Anissa Helou's The Fifth Quarter: an offfal cookbook (Absolute, £20), which contains eight recipes on tripe, six on brains, five on trotters and one on pig's lungs. Anyone attempting trippa alla Fiorentina (page 97) should be aware that the unctuous original, available from a stall outside the central market in Florence, is made using veal tripe, rather than the ox specified.

A seminal text for adventurous meat eaters, Nose to Tail Eating by Fergus Henderson (Bloomsbury, £16.99) is a welcome reissue, though stingily downsized from Macmillan's original. Despite the consequent decline in legibility, it is a treat to encounter the staccato poetry of Henderson's titles once again. "Dried salted pig's liver, radishes and boiled eggs" has the elegance of a haiku.

Henderson's American devotee Anthony Bourdain has produced a gutsy manual of bistro cooking in his Les Halles Cookbook (Bloomsbury, £20). Standards such as brandade de morue, paté de lapin and bouillabaisse are evoked with Bourdain's characteristic salty brio. It can safely be said that no previous cookbook has contained a higher incidence of swear words.

This does not apply to Thomas Keller's Bouchon (Artisan, £40), though it tackles the same culinary turf. Bouchon is the bistro sister to Keller's French Laundry, voted the world's No 1 restaurant in May. Keller's language is more sacerdotal than street-tough ("I feel an almost mystical connection to the bistro") and this is reflected in the finesse of his approach. His vast book is a showpiece of elegant design and lucid description, but whether you would want to risk its looks by using it for, say, braised rabbit legs with buttered egg noodles is a moot point.

Another meaty American book is All About Braising by Molly Stevens (Norton, £25): a surprisisng topic for a large monograph. Stevens ranges from creamy braised Brussels sprouts to Vietnamese braised scallops, but her concern is mainly carnivorous.

Excellent on technicalities, she elucidates 150 examples of one-pot cooking. some at considerable length: the coq au vin runs to four pages.

Sam and Sam Clark expand their investigations into the cuisine of Moorish Spain in Casa Moro (Ebury, £25). Fully the equal of the first Moro cookbook, it is both serious and seductive, packed with earthy recipes infused with smoke and spices. Equally tempting, Elizabeth Luard's Food of Spain and Portugal (Kyle Cathie, £25) takes a lighter, more classical approach to this great if overlooked cuisine. By the same author, European Peasant Cooking (Grub Street, £25) is a welcome reissue about gutsy comfort food. The recipe for reindeer meat with berries starts with the elemental injunction: "Crack the bones. Roll and tie the meat."

On the same theme, The Game Cookbook by Clarissa Dickson Wright & Johnny Scott (Kyle Cathie, £19.99) imparts a tang of the moor the instant you open its pages. Authoritative and adventurous in its recipes, it deserves to become a classic.

Annoying, finicky techniques are the bane of fish books, but you're spared all that nonsense in Fish Etc (Quartet, £18.99) by The Independent's resident food writer, Mark Hix. Here's his shellfish technique: "You can't beat freshly cooked shellfish in their natural and simple state, simply accompanied by some good mayonnaise and brown bread and butter." His grilled squid with chickpeas and pancetta is a lovely mélange and a doddle to do.

Another fine fish book is Fresh: great simple seafood (Michael Joseph, £20) by fishmonger/restaurateur Mitchell Tonks. His tone is informed, enthusiastic, intelligent. Like Hix, his fish recipes stress simplicity. Deep-fried smoked haddock with lime, cucumber and mint salad got my juices flowing.

Despite the fine crop of new cookbooks, if you have to buy a present for someone really obsessed with cooking, the outstanding choice is a work that is not new and does not contain a single recipe. McGee on Food and Cooking (Hodder & Stoughton, £30) is an expanded version of Harold McGee's classic exploration of science in the kitchen. Not only does he explain how every culinary reaction works, he also explores the history of everything we eat. For the price of a meal, you'll get a lifetime's nutrition.

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