Food: COOKING THE BOOKS

PUTTING RECIPES TO THE TEST WITH RICHARD EHRLICH

IT'S SLIGHTLY perverse to make a cookbook with the pictures first and the recipes afterwards, but that's the story with Gillian Riley's A Feast for the Eyes. This unorthodox volume was "inspired" by paintings in the National Gallery. The author is a food historian rather than cookery writer, and her book is as much about history as it is about recipes.

My Cooking the Books Guinea Pig for this feast was Anna Evans, of Cowley in Devon. She worked almost as hard at the project as Cezanne did at Mont St-Victoire, cooking eight recipes and providing a lengthy report, and her conclusions were not entirely happy.

PHYSICAL EASE AND DESIGN

"Easy to handle, stays open well on a book stand, paper has a good-quality feel. I have left the book lying around the house and most visitors have picked it up and been enthusiastic."

RECIPE QUALITY

"The writer assumes that the buyers of her book are all experienced cooks. Quantities are not always stipulated." This forced Anna to "rough-guess" in a dish called Medieval Chicken - with unhappy results. She also objects to the old-fashioned use of "low", "medium" and "hot" for oven temperatures, which, again, assumes an experienced readership. Although there is a guide to temperatures in the back of the book, this surprised me as well, even if others using the convention include Elizabeth David. Some instructions were so economical with detail as to be misleading, and "there were no helpful tips included for the cook's benefit."

But Anna was most concerned that Riley dismisses the idea that dried pulses need pre-soaking, and sent contradictory citations from other books. Soaking is not absolutely necessary in a life-threatening Armageddon- ish way, but it is the best way to eliminate mild toxins which can turn pulses from A Feast for the Eyes into An Assault on the Nose. It also shortens cooking times, which is reason enough to do it even if the famously audible after-effects don't bother you. On the other hand, Anna acknowledges that she managed to produce some good food from A Feast for the Eyes.

It was tasted by a total of nine Eating Guinea Pigs, and of the eight dishes cooked only one, a Pumpkin Soup "inspired" by Van Gogh, failed to win plaudits. (This is one of the dishes containing dried beans, and I must say the cooking times look hopelessly optimistic.) Anna was particularly impressed by the way a huge volume of whole spices "mellowed to such a delicious taste" in a Spiced Chocolate Cake. She also liked Orange and Pistachio Tart, even though the "over-generous" quantity of pastry produced "a rather thick shell".

PRACTICALITY

"Some of the recipes are quite time consuming (of necessity). Also, I could not cook all I wanted to because in Devon the fresh herbs stipulated are not always readily available. Some ingredients are on the expensive side, but I don't think this would put readers off - especially if they wanted to cook for special occasions. The book is a good read, and very informative on various periods of history."

PICTURE QUALITY

"Could not be faulted", says Anna, and with contributors including Mantegna, Jan van Eyck and Velzquez, who could disagree? The paper is good and reproduction of sound quality.

VALUE FOR MONEY

"Overall I enjoyed this book and feel that it is not overpriced at pounds 15. With the exception of the Pumpkin Soup the dishes I cooked were well received, and the flavours were excellent." But Anna qualifies her praise by calling A Feast for the Eyes "more of a pic- torial record of food consumed during different times" than "a cookery book which would be well used in modern kitchens." Without having actually cooked from the book, I have to say that I agree with this sentiment.

MARKS: SIX OUT OF TEN

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