Books for Cooks is the world's first and most famous bookshop selling only cookbooks. But it is a bookshop, like no other, since inviting smells of garlic sauces, baking rolls and sweet pies assail your nostrils as you enter. For also there is one of the smallest restaurants in London, a 15-seater with five tables.
The open-plan kitchen which leads on to the bookshop and "restaurant" is smaller than most home kitchens. But it is like a home kitchen in that it has only a single cook at work. One who has done the shopping, the preparation, the cooking and the washing up with no help from anyone else.
It differs from the home in several ways. Each cook has a single day per week on a duty roster, and a team of eight take turns. One of them, who is Italian, Ursula Ferrigno, has only to step down the stairs from the top-floor flat. Another, Livvy Mason, comes in by train from Berwick- upon-Tweed, 300 miles away, staying with London friends. A third, Victoria Blashford-Snell (if the name's familiar, that's because her father John is the explorer) comes up from Wiltshire every week.
All the cooks except one, Eric Treuille, are women. In the Portobello Road vicinity around the bookshop, in Blenheim Crescent, Eric is a Pied Piper figure followed by children who know him as Eric the Cooker. He gives free classes (sponsored by the flour people Allinson) to classes of seven children as young as three to five in the bookshop. This is another feature of Books for Cooks. An upstairs room has been converted into a neat and modern demonstration kitchen accommodating 25.
What are they, these cooks? Professional amateurs or amateur professionals? They come in off the street, see what's going on, their imagination is fired, they beg to be involved, and off they go. Their inspiration, of course, is the feast of cookbooks that surround them them, 8,000 mint titles written by the world's best cookery writers and chefs. Ask them their favourites, and these are the names which tumble out: British stars such as Claudia Roden, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, Marco Pierre White, Simon Hopkinson, Nigel Slater, Alastair Little, Richard Whittington; Americans such as Alice Waters, Patricia Wells, Sheila Lukins, Richard Olney, Anna Thomas; Australians Stephanie Campbell and Donna Hay; and many authors representing world cuisines, Anna del Conte on Italy, Sri Owen on Indonesia, Anissa Helou on the Lebanon, Vatcharin Bhumichitr on Thailand, Julie Sahni and Camellia Panjabi on India.
The bookshop has been a mecca to food professionals for 16 years, when Heidi Lascelles opened it. Heidi, married to the New Zealand-born guide and map publisher Roger Lascelles, had been scouring London in vain for a book on the cooking of her native Germany. She was struck by the poor quality of cookery sections in bookshops - usually buried in dusty corners.
Not only was the international scene largely ignored, but so were the broader aspects of food - cultural, social, historic, scientific. A nurse by training, Heidi noticed there was little on the serious aspects of nutrition and diets. Books for Cooks soon became a magnet for foodies the world over. The stand of up-to-date food magazines from America (with Saveur, Bon Appetit and Gourmet) Australasia (Entertaining in Vogue) and others ensures the shop is bait for top London chefs. The younger ones dump themselves in the deep sofa to catch up on the new chefs' books, and eyebrows are not raised when they leave without buying; their elders, such as Jean-Christophe Novelli and Marco Pierre White, buy them by the armful. Marco is always after an original Careme (Antonin Careme was the father of French haute cuisine) but they are as rare as hen's teeth, says new manager Liz Seeber, who also has her own antiquarian cookbook mail-order business
Books for Cooks soon won the reputation for being the most obliging of bookshops, where no request seems too silly or tiresome. Many journalists use it as a library. "Are there any books on muffins," came a recent request. "Yes, five quite recent titles." Five new titles on muffins, that's just extraordinary. Is there a muffin-book buying public?
Liz Seeber recently took a phone call from a woman on holiday. "I bought a book from you on cookies but I left it at home. Would you mind looking up a recipe and reading it over to me?" Well, of course, madam.
Ten years ago, Heidi had the idea of creating a test kitchen where recipes from the books could be tested. The results would be offered to customers. At that time, Caroline Liddell, now a distinguished cookbook author, had been working in the bookshop with her. "Caroline was horrified at the idea of cooking in a bookshop and opposed it."
But she insisted, and a tiny kitchen was built. Heidi approached Annie Bell. "Have you done this before," Heidi asked, almost as an afterthought. "No," said Annie. Heidi sees the kitchen as a way towards summing up her philosophy of cooking. "First you smell the food. Then you see it. Then you taste it. When the meal's over, it remains in your heart. That's culture."
The test kitchen was an instant success. Within six months Annie Bell had enhanced both her own reputation and that of the bookshop. Now she is considered our leading vegetarian writer, with several prize-winning books to her name. We had better declare an interest; Annie also writes for ISM, the Independent Saturday magazine.
The onus on one person cooking was considered too great and a roster system evolved. The chief contributing cooks have been Victoria Blashford- Snell, Jennifer Joyce, Ursula Ferrigno, Sophie Braimbridge, Patricia Collins and Celia Brooks Brown.
Most of the cooks develop themes of their own, teaching cookery classes, writing books, running catering companies. The most famous old girl is the former manager, Clarissa Dickson Wright who, with Jennifer Paterson, is one of the inimitable Two Fat Ladies.
Then Books for Cooks moved into producing their own cookbook. Rosie Kindersley (daughter of the publisher Peter of Dorling Kindersley), who had become the new manager, linked up with Frenchman Eric Treuille, together with their in-house cooks, to produce an anthology of 75 recipes from the pick of the year's books, as tested in the kitchen.
A useful idea, the recipes being adapted and written in a conforming style, moderating flights of fancy, substituting strange ingredients where necessary, translating the mystifying American measures by volume (by measuring cup), and above all adding comments, (admiring) critiques, stories and insights of their own.
They have produced three such annual books now, in paperback, sold at the staggeringly modest price of pounds 3.99. A new, bigger, better volume of recipes with colour illustrations is planned, along with other ventures, such as a book on bread by Ursula Ferrigno and Eric Treuille, and a guide to cookery schools and wine courses in Britain.
Heidi Lascelles has all but stepped down, beating a retreat to her home in Tuscany, but she remains the owner, coming in for a week every month to inspire and comfort her "brood".
After 16 years in the business, Heidi Lascelles' staff asked her which were her favourite books. They are extracted, right, from their new, entertaining, 16-page Books for Cooks Newsletter and Workshop List. This is available free (send a stamp and an address, or an sae) from Books for Cooks, 4 Blenheim Crescent, London Wll INN; tel 0171 221 1992; fax 0171 221 1517.
HEIDI LASCELLE'S FAVOURITE BOOKS AND RECIPES
If I had to choose one book alone, it would be Patience Gray's Honey from a Weed. It is a cookbook of the utmost beauty, lyrically written and entrancingly illustrated - when I see it lying on the table at home, the cover design alone makes me go and pick it up. And every time I do open it, I am re-awakened to the real significance of food in our lives, for food is not only about appetite, but sustenance, healing, nature, sharing, nourishment and celebration. A book rich in living and learning.
I have chosen soffrito as the sample recipe and I quote verbatim from the book. Although it is simplicity itself to make, it is supremely useful. I keep a jar of it in my fridge (it keeps for two to three days); I use it as a base in soups, sauces, casseroles, omelettes and so on, and it imparts a lovely colour and wonderful taste to the finished dish.
"The Italian soffrito normally consists of a little handful of fragrant herbs - parsley, dill, thyme, savoury, rosemary - and aromatic vegetables - onion, leek, garlic, carrot - very finely chopped, simmered in oil before the meat, beans, fish or whatever is added, the moment they start to colour."
From Honey from a Weed, Patience Gray; hardback, pounds 17.50, paperback, pounds 10.99.
Jill Dupleix's New Food is a book for your eyes, mind and stomach. The bold design and bright photography straightaway get your tastebuds jumping around and make you want to go into the kitchen and cook. But this isn't just a glossy, empty-headed-and-hearted designer book; in addition to being a truly useful collection of modern and traditional classics that has a proper place in everybody's kitchen, Jill talks real sense about cooking, eating and living in today's world.
SOY CHICKEN WITH BAK CHOI
4 bak choi, quartered lengthways
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin
1 tablespoon honey
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
4 boned and skinned free-range chicken breasts
4 tablespoons sunflower oil
A quick word about ingredients: mirin is a sweet rice wine, use sherry if you can't find it; bak choi is a Chinese cabbage with white stalks and green leaves, but spring greens, broccoli florets, spinach or shredded Savoy cabbage are all excellent too - and those need no blanching.
Blanch the bak choi in boiling water for one minute, then drain. Stir the soy, mirin, honey, chilli and garlic together and pour over the chicken to coat well. Heat three tablespoons of the oil in a heavy frying pan or wok. Fry the chicken until golden brown, about five minutes. Turn the chicken over, pour in the marinade and fry for another 10 minutes or until cooked through. Remove and keep warm. Add the remaining oil and stir-fry the greens until wilted, about three minutes. Slice the chicken across on the diagonal and arrange on warmed plates with the greens. Spoon over the pan juices and serve.
From New Food, Jill Dupleix; hardback, pounds 19.99.
Verdura was the first book I took to my home in Italy, where I fell in love with the simplicity of the recipes that so beautifully combine fresh, natural ingredients. But I discovered its real magic when I came back to London: the finished dishes taste as though one is eating in Italy.
GRILLED BREAD WITH ROSEMARY-SCENTED WHITE BEAN PUREE
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 rosemary sprigs, finely chopped
400g/14oz cooked cannellini beans
salt and pepper
4 thick slices ciabatta bread
2 garlic cloves, halved
1 ripe tomato, finely diced
extra olive oil to drizzle
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan. Add the finely chopped garlic cloves and sprigs of rosemary and cook over a low heat until soft, this will take about five minutes.
Add the cannellini beans, salt and pepper to taste and stir well to evenly coat with oil. Cook for about 10 minutes, adding a tablespoonful of water if the beans begin to dry out. With a fork, mash the beans to a rough puree. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Grill or toast the slices of ciabatta bread. Rub all over with the cut side of the garlic cloves and sprinkle with more olive oil.
To serve, spread the beans on the bruschetta, spoon over extra oil and decorate with the tomato dice.
From Verdura, Viana La Place; paperback, pounds 12.99.
While Verdura has had pride of place in my kitchen for years, Ghillie Basan's Classic Turkish Cookery is a recent passion. I attended the launch party at the Turkish Embassy where I marvelled at the wonderful banquet of fragrant and beautiful dishes. Claudia Roden introduced me to the author, who was so knowledgeable and passionate about the food she and her husband had discovered as they travelled all over Turkey. We talked about the history of Turkish cuisine and the Ottoman Empire, and it all brought back to me a trip I made many years ago to a food symposium in Turkey when we went to see the first cookhouse in Konya.
Fired with enthusiasm, I took the book to Italy this summer and cooked my way through it. When Eric, Victoria, Sacha and Rosie visited me this summer, I served these entirely delicious carrot morsels to this gastronomically rather intimidating group and they were greeted with rapturous applause. Mrs Basan suggests a sharp creamy sauce of yoghurt seasoned with lemon juice and crushed garlic as accompaniment; I prefer a big dollop of the Thai sweet and spicy chilli dipping sauce (available from Tawana on Chepstow Road, London W2) but it is strictly unorthodox!
CARROT ROLLS WITH APRICOTS & PINE NUTS
10 carrots, sliced
2 slices bread
6 dried apricots, finely chopped
4 spring onions, finely sliced
2 tablespoons pine nuts
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 free-range egg, beaten
4 tablespoons finely chopped mint
4 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
salt, pepper and cayenne
flour for coating
sunflower oil for frying
Steam the carrots until they are soft and then drain well. Put them in a large bowl and mash with a fork.
Grind the bread to crumbs and add to the steamed, mashed carrots. Stir in all the remaining ingredients. With well-floured hands, mould small portions of the mixture into oblongs and then dip each roll in flour. Shallow-fry the rolls in hot sunflower oil until browned all over. Serve piping hot with dipping sauce.
From Classic Turkish Cookery, Ghillie Basan; hardback, pounds 19.95.
Finally, an absolute favourite with the staff at the shop, and often on sale.
MON GATEAU AU CHOCOLAT
360g/12oz bittersweet chocolate, preferably Lindt or Tobler, broken into pieces
150g/5oz unsalted butter
160g/412oz granulated sugar
5 large eggs, separated
45g/2oz unbleached, all-purpose flour
For the chocolate ganache (icing):
50ml/134fl oz cream
Preheat the oven to 350F/175C/Gas 4. Butter a 24cm (9.5in) springform pan or deep, non-stick cake pan.
For the cake: combine chocolate, butter and granulated sugar in the top of a double boiler placed over simmering water. Melt over medium heat, stirring until the ingredients are thoroughly blended. Set the mixture aside to cool.
Whisk the egg yolks into the chocolate. Whisk in the flour. Beat the egg whites in a large bowl, until they form firm peaks; do not overbeat.
Add one-third of the egg whites to the chocolate batter and mix vigorously. Gently fold in the remaining whites. Do this slowly and patiently. Do not overmix, but be sure that the mixture is well-blended and that no streaks of white remain. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the cake is firm and springy, 35 to 40 minutes. For the ganache, melt the chocolate and the butter over a bain-marie. Once melted, take off the heat and add the cream. Mix together thoroughly.
Marie-Claude Gracia's Chocolate Cake is from Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells; pounds 9.99.