Publishing cookbooks used to be a genteel business, with erudite heroines such as Elizabeth David. No longer. Following Delia Smith's spectacula r successes last year, everyone wants a slice of the action. Emily Green watches the gold-rush
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The Independent Culture
Once there were food mountains, and warehouses jammed with butter, flour, apples and skimmed milk powder. Today, our warehouses are full to bursting with cookbooks. There are the basic books from Good Housekeeping, Constance Spry, Julia Child and Reader's Digest. There are the classics from the giants of French cuisine - Careme, Escoffier and Curnonsky. Then there are books in the shapes of fruit, books with refrigerator magnets attached, spill-proof books. There are books on aubergines, olive oils, chillies, ginger; there are white trash cookbooks, National Trust cookbooks; food for one, two, three. There are cookbooks for people with asthma and eczema, books for people with bad hearts or fat thighs or both. For Italophiles there are books of Italian recipes with CDs of Verdi attached, or, if that's too tame, there's a "mafia" cookbook. There's also The Life and Cuisine of Elvis Presley; and any number of hit American comedies - Friends, Northern Exposure - each with its own cookbook.

Modern cookbook production is virtually inexhaustible. The combined alumni of Evelyn Wood's speed-reading academy, working 365 days a year, could scarcely keep up. There's even a bi-monthly International Cookbook Revue [sic] to help the industry keep track of itself.

Predictably, the surfeit gets worse at Christmas. This year, for example, Willi Elsener, executive chef of the Dorchester, offers recipes for carp in beer and festive sandwich parcels, accompanied by a CD featuring "It came upon a midnight clear". Then there is A Blanc Christmas, a posh little tome by Raymond Blanc with a deep-blue cloth cover and no mention of the pounds 25 price tag to embarrass the lucky recipient. Blanc's agent says she would be "amazed" if A Blanc Christmas sold fewer than 50,000 copies. The discount book clubs, meanwhile, are sticking to known quantities: "Editor's choice" at Worldbooks is a knockdown offer on last year's blockbuster: Delia Smith's Christmas, normally pounds 14.99, available to members for just pounds 10.99. Last year, more than 1 million copies were sold (or given away) in December alone.

No one has tallied just how many cookbooks are produced each year - one a day? two a day? - but it can safely be said that the number is high. The same cannot always be said about the quality. Jonathan Meades, novelist, design journalist and restaurant critic, looked at only the very best of the year's offerings when he served as a judge for the Glenfiddich Awards, an annual bash for food-writers sometimes referred to as the "cooker Booker". "There were something like 70 entered," Meades remembers, "of which one could confidently bin 60. There was a perpetual circle of plagiarism."

To be fair, there must be a limit to the number of things you can do with a leg of lamb and still persuade people to eat it, and you can't copyright an omelette. None the less, some of the cribbing is too exact for its own good: Middle-Eastern cookery writer Claudia Roden has seen some of her recipes reprinted right down to the mistakes. Yet the question of originality is perhaps less pressing than that of superfluity. Do we need all these books? For Rosie Kindersley of the London shop Books for Cooks, it depends who you mean by "we". "There are a lot of people out there and they all have to be catered to," she says.

The people she has in mind are consumers, but she might just as well be referring to the producers; for also out there is a growing band of publishers, multi-media outfits and celebrity chefs whose fortunes are tied to the public's apparently insatiable appetite for books about food. Name a publisher and it will have a cookery list, from giants such as Random House to academic houses like Oxford University Press. Even the art publishers Phaidon briefly became obsessed with the idea of pocket- sized volumes about soup and stock. Cookery is also the fastest-selling subject among the homes-and-gardens CD-Roms (although until boffins find a way around the sticky problem of actual food - flour is no good for machinery - such sales are likely to remain limited). The common motivation is a frenzied fear of being left behind in a gold-rush. Last Christmas produced an almost unimaginable bonanza for the publishers and writers of cookery books. No one involved in the industry in almost any capacity can bear the thought of missing out this year.

Cookery books are almost as old as books themselves. Fragments of recipe books can be found in China from the Zhou dynasty of 11th century BC. And what is the culmination of 31 centuries of evolution? To judge by the British bestseller list, it's Ready Steady Cook. For those who may have missed it, this is the book of the daytime TV game show of the same name, in which celebrity chefs cook against the clock while preparing, say, "Tina Turner's Breakfast" (a sort of bubble-and-squeak) or "Many Coloured Steak" (steak with polenta and instant ratatouille). Its success demonstrates the one essential ingredient the modern British cookbook needs to make it run off the shelves: a television series attached.

Ready Steady Cook (the programme) is the invention of Peter Bazalgette. His first success was BBC2's Food and Drink programme which he launched in 1984. Three years later he set up Bazal Productions and the following year the company started making the programme independently, selling it to the BBC. The 1990s have been good to him. Six years ago he was working from a converted factory near Kensal Rise Cemetery in north-west London; today, Bazal Productions is part of a larger company, Broadcast Communications, which has offices in an elegant Georgian square in Bloomsbury. The secret of his success? To have identified an apparently limitless market.

Bazalgette is a man from whom ideas tumble at a speed familiar to anyone who has attended a marketing brainstorming meeting. It is often not the idea itself that counts, so much as its potential for being packaged, sold and resold. "The key point is that TV is a linear medium that takes you along at the same speed," he explains. "That's why it's a medium of emotion and general impression, but not a medium of detail. It's not a medium for telling people exactly how to cook a recipe. So there's two reasons for there being an inbuilt demand for hard copy information. First, it allows you to read at your own speed. Second, the programmes axiomatically give rise to the need for recipes."

The long-term growth of Bazalgette's empire was assured in 1993, when the Government decreed that 25 per cent of the BBC's programme output be commissioned from independent producers. Jealous of its tradition in drama, current affairs and arts, controllers farmed out the lifestyle sector. Three years on, some 400 programmes each year on food alone are made by Broadcast Communications. "It is only food-writers who think what we do is of unparalleled vulgarity," says Bazalgette. He is proud of the programmes he reels off too quickly to remember all the titles: "150 episodes of Ready Steady Cook, 150 episodes of Can't Cook Won't Cook, 12 Delias, six programmes with Carluccio and ... blah, blah, blah."

All of these programmes - including, presumably, blah, blah and blah - will have books. "BBC Enterprises [the BBC's publishing arm] only got on to Food and Drink once they saw it succeeding," he says. "They wanted to put a book out in the autumn of 1985, which they did and it sold a lot of copies, about 100,000, although it was a naff little book. The quality was very poor. Then a new publishing team came in and they really smartened up their act." The upshot is that BBC Worldwide (as BBC Enterprises is now grandly called) is today the most powerful publisher of cookery books in the UK. Seven of its titles are currently in the top 10 of the cookery book bestseller list: Antonio Carluccio's Italian Feast, Ready Steady Cook parts one and two, Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course, Delia's Winter Collection, Delia's Summer Collection, Mary Berry's Ultimate Cake Book.

Penguin is the best illustration of the puniness of the written word next to television. Its cookery list is the most distinguished in Britain: built up over more than 30 years, it includes the complete Elizabeth David, much of Jane Grigson, Margaret Visser, Claudia Roden and Rick Stein's elegant first book English Seafood Cookery. Penguin estimates that since it was first published in 1960, UK sales of Elizabeth David's most successful book, French Provincial Cookery, have been approximately 237,500 copies in paperback and about 8,000 hardbacks. By contrast, the BBC estimates that Ready Steady Cook volumes one and two have sold 290,399 copies in three years. As Jonathan Meades says: "If a TV publisher did 100 different ways with pineapple chunks and shoe polish, it would be an incredible success."

The case of Delia Smith is something again. The first Delia series was commissioned by the old continuing education department of the BBC and broadcast in 1978. Called The Complete Cookery Course, it was followed by three relatively modest books (before Ceefax, these books might have been information sheets). The books were revised into a single volume in 1983. The combined three volumes have now sold 3.9m copies and remain number five on the bestseller list.

The BBC expects the sales of all the Delia titles to exceed 10m this year, earning a handy income for BBC Worldwide, which made profits of pounds 12.7m in 1995-6. (The 1994-95 figure was pounds 14.1m, but escalating print prices have affected profits - despite turnover increasing from pounds 53m to pounds 77m.) All this money cannot be made without tarnishing old aunty's once lofty independence. Jancis Robinson's Wine Course had a tie-in with Sainsbury's. Homely advice from BBC cooks, from Delia to the tipster celebs of the Food & Drink programme, steers us to ingredients from supermarkets as opposed to greengrocers, butchers, dairies and wine merchants. Chef Gary Rhodes promotes Tate & Lyle sugar on ITV in the same distinctive, dizzying glad-rags he wears in his BBC series. Delia is the face not just of the BBC, but of Sainsbury's Magazine.

To modern marketing men such as Peter Bazalgette such blurring of boundaries is both inevitable and desirable: resources are there to be exploited. "It's crucial that we as independents have the right to exploit our ideas," he says. "With programmes like Ready Steady Cook, it's entirely consistent for it to be exploited in a number of ways." Among the spin-offs he hopes eventually to see are programme-branded leisure centres.

Until that happy day, who are these legions of cookery book readers, this inexhaustible market? What do they want? To judge by the number of books about cooking quickly, it would seem most of them are in a hurry. Good Fast Food, More Taste Than Time, Fast Suppers, Fast Cakes, More Fast Cakes, Fast Desserts, The Cosmopolitan After Work Cookbook, Quick & Easy After Work Cookbook, Good Housekeeping 30 Minute Recipes, Fast Food for Friends, The 30 Minute Chef, 10 Minute Cuisine, 5 Minute Feasts and, easiest of all, No-Cook Cookery.

The Irish foodwriter John McKenna dubs such books the "quickfast" school. McKenna is co-founder with his wife, Sally, of Estragon Press, which publishes the Bridgestone Irish Food Guide. The McKennas are about to expand, cautiously, into cookbooks, and have been studying the British output from a comfortable distance: they work from a house in the hills of Durrus, Co Cork. Theirs is a world where pints of Guinness take more time to pour than most Britons are prepared to spend cooking dinner. "The quickfast thing seemed to me the classic example about how people in food publishing wanted to sell cookbooks to people with no interest in food and no time to cook," says McKenna. "It says, you can cook even if you have no time, no affection and no aptitude for it."

Time, aptitude and affection are hardly requisites for those who support another leading school of cookbooks, known in the business as "gastroporn", where it is not food that makes us drool, but photographs. No matter that the salad making your mouth water might be fixed with hair-spray, or that the steam rising from the piping hot cassoulet is probably cigarette smoke. The rise of gastroporn in the Eighties certainly tilted the industry. Its greatest (if inadvertent) proponent was Nigel Slater, working with photographer Kevin Summers. First in Marie Claire, and later for Penguin and the Observer, they did for the sweated red pepper what Cecil Beaton did for Greta Garbo. "Slater changed the business," says one publisher, "though I doubt he would have wished his imitators on us." What sets Slater apart from the run-of-the- mill gastroporn merchant is that his food is accessible, simple and delicious. Caroline Davidson, a literary agent who specialises in food books, notes: "The rise of the highly illustrated cookbook has inflated costs. Producing that kind of book can easily cost pounds 80,000, where a non-illustrated one can cost as little as pounds 3,500." But for today's publishers there is little choice. "Non-illustrated cookery books now rarely make money," she adds.

Davidson identifies the frenzy in the cookbook market as part of the ever-spreading tentacles of the fashion industry. It isn't just what we wear, it's what we eat while we wear it. "There's a sort of one-upmanship and frantic desire to know what one is supposed to be cooking and eating," says Davidson. Perhaps this had something to do with the phenomenal success of The River Cafe Cookbook - which was published in May 1995 by Ebury Press, sold 30,000 copies in hardback and is now shifting at a healthy pace in paperback. Certainly the River Cafe is a very good restaurant, where London's cognoscenti spend handsomely to dine casually (lunch easily runs to pounds 60 per head). But the food is only part of the appeal; the River Cafe is co-owned by Ruth Rogers (wife of the architect, Lord Rogers), and thus delights the design crowd. It was no coincidence that Elle Decoration (not to mention the Independent on Sunday) joined in the sighing and swooning over the book. It did cross certain minds to wonder if, at pounds 25, it was really worth pounds 5 more than The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, the result of more than 20 years' work by the eminence grise of Italian cookery writers, Marcella Hazan (and a book well-thumbed in the River Cafe itself). But the publishing industry has little time for such sour-sounding quibbles. Random House already has a River Cafe sequel in the offing.

The success of the River Cafe Cookbook has done little to cool another overheated breed of cookery writers: chefs. One could be forgiven for wondering what chefs actually do - cook, or write about cooking? The foyers of many successful restaurants now offer cookbooks for sale - a sort of "You've had the meal, now buy the book" marketing technique. Penguin delightedly report that some of the highest orders for Rick Stein's title in their Penguin 60s series have come from his restaurant in Cornwall. Nor is he alone. Nico does it, Raymond does it, Bruno Loubet does it, Mezzo does it, Bibendum does it... Flip through the Good Food Guide and they're all at it: Pierre Koffmann, Anton Mosimann, Marco, Alastair Little... Hell, even Cranks is at it.

Just how useful these books are depends on how keen you are on Thai-Algerian hybrids, or passing everything through fine sieves, or getting lost in spinning your own sugar rosettes. But at least they have relatively good chance of avoiding the biggest pitfall of over-hastily mass-produced cookbooks - that of not being any good.

"Since Jane Grigson, the writing of cookbooks has been abysmal," says Jonathan Meades. "When people say they `read cookbooks like novels', I can only wonder if they have ever read a novel." And it's not just the writing. Despite the hype surrounding many of today's books, not every best-selling recipe actually works. Food writers rarely mention this fact in public: to do so would be professional suicide. (The punishment: banishment from the freebie trail.) But Sheila Dillon, producer of BBC Radio 4's hard-hitting Food Programme, doesn't give a damn. "It's like a conspiracy. Everyone knows there are a group of food-writers whose recipes are a joke," she says, "They're often the ones with the most media exposure." Caroline Davidson adds: "As an agent, one of the things that has always amazed me most about cookbook contracts is that they have never specified that the author is supposed to test the recipes, or that the recipes should work."

This even applies in the most litigious land in the world. "The assumption that recipes work," says Andrea Glickson of Workman Publishing in New York, "is a holdover of a gentleman's agreement." During the last 10 years, Workman has emerged as one of the more spirited and distinctive of American cookery imprints. It took years to nurture the production of the runaway bestsellers The Silver Palate Cookbook and The New Basics. They were co- written by two authors, Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso. After the team broke up in the early Nineties, Rosso quickly produced a low-fat cookbook for Crown Publishers in 1993. The reaction to the book shook American foodwriting.

Called Great Good Food, Rosso's book contained 800 recipes, which she claimed were whittled down from 1,500 tested in 10 months (that's about five a day, seven days a week, provided they are right on the first go). Contempt for the quality of the recipes made front page news in the New York Times, which also published a lengthy lead feature in which leading food-writers made such charges as that a recipe with a preparation time of 30 minutes took a professional cook two hours, or that the low-fat guacamole only stayed within its calorie limits because servings amounted to one teaspoon.

What is scandal in America is common practice here. Caroline Davidson says, "The British reader tends to assume that the problem is not with the books, but something they did wrong, even if, after slavishly following the instructions, they are left with ingredients lying on the counter." She does not see publishers correcting the situation. "In a way, it's not in their interest that the recipes work. It's a kind of built- in obsolescence."

Will the public wise up? Perhaps one day; but, if and when, it might be too late for independent imprints, those tattered vestiges of a cultured culinary meritocracy. Go to a medium-sized branch of WH Smith, and the cookery section is dominated by BBC titles. In common with sugar companies and supermarkets, book retailers are not going to miss out on so much free promotion - effectively paid for by the Government and by TV-licence- payers. It certainly works. WH Smith reports that its sales of cookery books last year were up 60 per cent, and credits this to two things: the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, and the BBC book. Last winter, Delia Smith's Christmas was reduced on special offer from pounds 14.99 to pounds 9.99. Later it was given free to those who made a pounds 25 purchase. WH Smith shifted 500,000 copies in three months. In Sainsbury's, sales of cranberries trebled.

Sales, gifts, added value... whatever the gimmick, the basic philosophy is the same. Marketability is all. Or nearly all. Clarissa Dickson Wright, a scholarly and humorous woman now best known as one of the two "fat ladies" in the current BBC series, runs the Cook's Bookshop in Edinburgh, one of the last refuges for proper foodwriting. Those in search of a book on Chinese cookery will receive expert advice on the relative merits of the books of Ken Hom versus Yan-Kit So. "There's an amazing amount of junk produced," she says, "but I'll tell you what there isn't: we've lost MFK Fisher and Elizabeth David, food-writers with a stress on the writing. People come in and want something to take away on holiday to read. There is room for literate books." She pauses before adding, "However, I think if someone came out and wrote like MFK Fisher, they would have difficulty getting published."

As for the original poets of food-writing, their fate may lie in anthologies. Mrs Fisher, who wrote beautifully about food for many years in the New Yorker, is only one of the authors whose work is in the newly published Penguin Book of Food and Drink. The same book reprints this reminiscence from Elizabeth David: "From 1956 to 1961, I contributed a monthly cookery article to London Vogue. In those days cookery writers were very minor fry. Expenses were perks paid to photographers, fashion editors and other such exalted personages. Foreign currency allowances were severely restricted, so cookery contributors didn't come in for subsidised jaunts to Paris or marathons round three-star eating cathedrals. Cookery writers were supposed to supply their articles out of some inexhaustible well of knowledge and their ingredients out of their own funds. At a monthly fee of pounds 20 an article (increased at some stage, I think, to pounds 25) it was quite a struggle to keep up the flow of properly tested recipes, backed up with informative background material, local colour and general chatter."

How times have changed. Today, advances for a television "author" might safely run from pounds 30,000 to pounds 200,000 - and it is to television authors that the future belongs. In September, Carlton launched its cable television food network. Two of its stars are Antony Worrall Thompson and Brian Turner, the men behind volume one of Ready Steady Cook. Carlton, too, plans to move into cookery books. To be fair, commercial television isn't undermining standards - merely imitating the BBC's already low ones. But it is hard not to worry about the general trend - when a cookbook is merely a spin- off of a television series, to go with the endorsement of this retailer, that manufacturer, as sold in this leisure centre. Like ET and Jurassic Park, will tomorrow's cookbook contract stipulate T-shirt terms? Will we have Delia dolls and Marco Pierre White mobiles?

It sounds all too plausible. But there is another view. Jonathan Meades thinks that the madness might simply fizzle out. "I suppose its analogous to the boom for coffee table books in the mid-Seventies," he says. "It's a craze, it's a fashion, and it will go away, like war adventure books in the Fifties." !