So Nigel Slater's willingness to include the occasional cock-up in The Kitchen Diaries comes across as refreshingly frank. Take the entry for 30 January: "The warm smell of baking pastry wafts into the rest of the house. Heaven. Half-way through baking, I check the tart's progress, only to find the pastry case empty and the citrus filling forming a lemon-coloured pool on the baking sheet. I pile the whole damn failure into a basin (and later eat it in secret after everyone has gone home) and start again." Or 2 August: "Ruined a perfectly good salad today... For some reason I decided to add a bit of blue cheese I had in the fridge. Don't know what I was thinking of."
He's also unusual in admitting quite openly that he doesn't whip up a gourmet masterpiece for every single meal. On 11 February, "dinner is a couple of tins of Heinz baked beans, tarted up with finely chopped chillies, several shades of Tabasco and mushroom ketchup, and a tablespoon of black treacle. It will do... For the most part, I eat one decent meal a day and then some other stuff. Under which you can file beans on toast, bacon sandwiches, fish fingers, cheese on toast, more cheese on toast and shop-bought sushi." On 19 August, he writes ecstatically about takeaway pizza.
This is intended to be something more than a standard cookbook, and its format - selected entries from Slater's diary chronicling what he cooked and ate during the course of a single year, with recipes provided - allows for a much more fleshed-out description of how cooking fits into everyday life and the passing of the seasons than usual. His intention, he says, is to write about "rebuilding a cook's relationship with nature". He seems to mean two things by this. Firstly, pay attention to what's seasonally and locally available, and get it as fresh as you can. Though not original, this point is pertinent. It's becoming politically correct these days to have a pop at the way supermarkets fly in foods to make them available all year round, but he's absolutely right: "Our culinary seasons have been blurred by commerce... I have honestly never met anyone who wants to eat a slice of watermelon on a cold March evening, or a plate of asparagus in January."
And that's his second point: to fit what you eat to the mood of the season, to how it makes you feel. So he offers recipes for braised lamb with leeks and haricot beans for February (solid and comforting), grilled zucchini with basil and lemon for August (fresh and light), and pot-roast pigeon with luganega sausage for October (gamey and autumnal). He writes in detail about what the weather was like, how his garden was, and how it affected what he cooked: "The air is again clear and cold, and there are paper-white narcissi in a bowl on the table, filling the kitchen with their gentle, vanilla smell. Winter at its purest. This is the sort of day on which I like to bake..." To drum home how closely the food fitted the daily rhythms, he's at pains to point out in the introduction that the pictures weren't mocked up by stylists at a studio: they were taken in his house, on the exact day he cooked that particular meal.
There are some criticisms to be made. Firstly, though it's lovely to be told to focus on buying from good-quality local suppliers, not everyone has those, and this is where he comes across as, well, writing for a particular type of London consumer: shopping in Kensington, at Marylebone farmer's market or Steve Hatt's legendary fish shop in Islington. His style can be a little overblown ("There is something romantic about falling snow..."). And though the jacket sticker announces "over 300 recipes from Britain's best-loved food writer", the decision to divide the book by month can make the lists seem oddly limited when you come to choose, especially for vegetarians. None of the recipes is mindblowingly new or radical, either - though, to be fair, novelty in a cookbook isn't always a good thing.
Despite these quibbles, it's easy to warm to The Kitchen Diaries. It's seductively presented, with suitably mouthwatering photographs. The recipes sound uniformly delicious, rustic and tasty, peasant food in the best sense; but they're also straightforward: easy to follow, easy to cook. And Slater is a likeable writer - earthy, unassuming, and open about his faults. I'd eat one of his ruined salads any time.Reuse content