Eating in: Eating their words

Whether you're looking for a food encyclopaedia or a book of recipes devoted solely to tomato recipes, Michael Bateman has found it. Here he selects the best titles from 1999, each of which deserves a place on your shelf
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The Independent Culture
A STOCKING-FILLER it is not, for it weighs in at just under half a stone. However, The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, a 900- page tome with 2,650 entries is the book every food-lover will most want to devour this Christmas. And pounds 40 is by no means too much to pay for it.

From A to Z it is nothing less than exhaustive. A is for Aardvark, meaning earth pig, an animal from southern Africa which tastes like pork, and for Acacia whose seeds are eaten by aborigines in Australia. A is also for Agar-agar, the most powerful of gel-forming gums which is extracted from red seaweed found in Japan.

Z is for Zebu (hump-backed African and Asian cattle) and for Zedoary (an Asian dried herb with leaves like lemongrass and roots like ginger). Finally Z is for Zucchini - surely a nicer word for baby marrow than courgette?

The Companion is the ultimate one-stop reference book, strong on food products and prepared foods, as you'd expect, but especially invaluable for exploring food cultures, diet, religion and food science. Above all, it provides the best accounts I've seen of national and regional cuisines, old and new, from Babylonian, Aztec and Anglo-Saxon through to modern- day Chinese and American.

The Companion dwarfs any other similar reference book, the last of any worth being Tom Stobart's Cooks' Encyclopaedia in 1980, which is about the time when Alan Davidson, a former diplomat, started work on his tome.

Amazingly, most of the book (80 per cent of it) is the work of this one man, although he did recruit some 50 other writers and historians to pull the material together.

Davidson is more than our leading food scholar, for he must be credited with turning what had been an amusing area of study for amateurs into one of the most vigorous growth areas of world scholarship. However, food scholar he is, not a scholar cook like the great Jane Grigson, so perhaps this is not a book to give to your average home cook.

It was during a posting to Tunisia that he started cataloguing the various names by which fish were known in the Mediterranean countries. The end result was a book called Mediterranean Food, which married this information with accounts of food practices and recipes. It was an overnight success, attracting enthusiastic praise from Elizabeth David, and for a long while, it was the book that people packed for holiday excursions to Greece, Italy, France and Spain, holding it out at quayside fish stalls for confirmation and explanation.

Elevated to ambassador, Davidson was posted to Laos where he continued his piscatorial studies and published The Seafood of South East Asia. He retired from the Diplomatic Service in 1975, and followed up his encyclopaedic commentary on the world's fish with Atlantic Seafood, which was published in 1979.

By this time Davidson's passion for food history had led him to launch a food history journal, Petit Propos Culinaires, which Elizabeth David admired and contributed to. Soon after this he co-founded, with Dr Theodore Zeldin, the now world-famous annual Oxford Food Symposium, held at St Antony's College. Food scholarship has blossomed here as never before, and it's no coincidence that many of Davidson's contributors cut their teeth here, prompted by him to give papers on an ever-widening range of topics.

Another great Christmas book for every food-lover is Food, an anthology of 200 pieces of food writing from the last 100 years compiled by Clarissa Dickson Wright (BBC, pounds 25). Her inimitable, thunderous voice booms out from every page, praising and blaming in the manner now so familiar from Two Fat Ladies.

Her selections will send you scurrying off to find some of the sources for yourself. A few references are puzzling - she writes about Margaret Coster instead of Costa and gets the wrong co-author for Paul Levy's Foodie Handbook - but then I imagine her editors were too cowed to correct her. After all, would you dare tell Clarissa she's wrong?

Any new book from Claudia Roden is an event, and Tamarind and Saffron (Viking, pounds 18.99) is no exception. Roden, who introduced us to the world of Middle Eastern food, also published her great comprehensive historical study, The Book of Jewish Food, last year. This has just come out in paperback (Penguin, pounds 12.99).

If you thought you'd seen enough books about Italy you must make room for one more: Recipes from Paradise by Fred Plotkin (Little Brown, pounds 22.50). Plotkin, the witty author of the excellent guide, Italy for the Gourmet Traveller, is a New Yorker of Russian extraction, who spends half the year in Liguria, one of the least fashionable holiday destinations in Italy. This is a meticulously drawn portrait of the food and cooking of a people he dearly loves, with fabulous original recipes.

While Italy has a profusion of books about its cooking, you can number the authors writing on Spain on the fingers of one hand (Colman Andrews, Mara Jose Sevilla, Pepita Aris and Janet Mendel). To this we can happily add Robert Carrier, now that he has produced Great Dishes of Spain (Boxtree, pounds 20). This is the best work he has produced since his book about Morocco, though it isn't as comprehensive. For the nostalgic, Carrier's enduring Classic Great Dishes of the World is republished this Christmas in paperback (Boxtree, pounds 12.99).

From Ireland comes a gem; The Richard Corrigan Cookbook (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 25). This contains recipes from Ireland's best chef (who cooks at Lindsay House in London's Soho). His cooking, which is simple and seasonal, is shaped by his childhood on a farm in Meath where his family cured their own bacon, churned their own butter and grew their own fruit and vegetables.

For this time of the year, suggestions in his book include rabbit and lentil soup, venison with pickled red cabbage, pan-roasted ox tongue, sprouts with chestnuts and bacon, broccoli with anchovy butter, and, colcannon (mashed potato with attitude). Francesca Yorke's photographs are a delight, taken as they are, in the kitchen, just as the food is coming off the stove.

Talking of photographs, Peter William's shots of breads in Baking with Passion by Dan Lepard and Richard Whittington (Quadrille, pounds 18.99) are mouth-wateringly good. This book is inspirational and practical, a must- have book for any would-be baker. Dan Lepard is an advisor to Baker & Spice, one of London's best bakers. Richard Whittington is an acclaimed cookery book writer - he won the Glenfiddich Best Food Book award in 1994 as co-author of Keep it Simple with Alastair Little.

Two more books to make great presents for the specialist. The Big Red Book of Tomatoes by Lindsey Bareham (Michael Joseph, pounds 17.99) is the last word on cooking with this delicious fruit, with every good recipe there's ever been.

And there's never been a noodle book like Noodle by our own Terry Durack (Pavilion, pounds 16.99) with its 100 slippery, slurpy recipes. Or a funnier book about food than Terry's previous book, Yum, published last year (New Holland Publishing, pounds 19.99).