Oil-splattered, dog-eared and flung in the corner of the kitchen... some cookbooks deserve a little more respect. As the chef Anton Mosimann auctions off part of his renowned library, Sybil Kapoor investigates the world of culinary collectables

It is a small step from buying your first cookbook to becoming a collector of culinary tomes. It sneaks up on you. One minute you have a well-thumbed favourite cookbook or two, and the next you've succumbed to a signed, first edition of Margaret Costa's The Four Seasons Cookery Book from Oxfam.

Collecting cookbooks is very addictive. Janet Clarke, a dealer in antiquarian cookbooks, explains: "People collect for different reasons: some for nostalgia, others for recipes, art work, or social commentary." Another respected dealer, Tessa McKirdy of Cooks Books, agrees. "It's surprising what is collectable, for example, rare war-time pamphlets which can look awful to the untrained eye, and some of the more influential 1960s and 1970's books, such as the first edition of Claudia Roden's Middle Eastern Food or Josceline Dimbleby's Taste of Dreams."

Both agree that most collectors start with a broad level of tolerance towards splattered or missing pages and torn covers. As a collection grows, these are replaced by better examples. Anton Mosimann, the Swiss-born chef, is facing just such a challenge. He has amassed the largest private library of cookbooks in Britain. "I'm now trying to refine my collection, as I have a lot of duplicates," he says, looking anxious at the thought of parting with even one beloved book.

Mosimann has decided to sell 25 lots of books, along with other culinary collectables such as war-time pamphlets and royal menus. The most noteworthy, is a 1605 edition of Bartolomeo Scappi's, Cuoco Secreto di Papa Pio Quinto. Scappi's book, which was first published in 1570, is widely regarded as the most authoritative cookbook to appear in Europe until the mid-18th century. Its thick pages are filled with around 1,000 recipes and beautiful drawings of Renaissance kitchens and equipment. A 1570 edition from the John Lyle Collection sold for £11,000 at Bloomsbury Book Auctions last year.

The practical nature of cookbooks has meant that they have always been directed at a specialised market. Books such as Scappi's were principally aimed at chefs. The note-like form of their recipes presumes that the reader understands the basics and is aspiring towards greater culinary elegance. This format of recipe writing remained until the 18th century, when books began to give more detailed instructions.

In Britain, many of these books were written for women by women, and proved popular among the middle classes who didn't want to be shown up when entertaining. The rise to fame of female authors such as Hannah Glasse or Mrs Raffald caused some debate among the likes of Dr Johnson who firmly believed that "women can spin very well; but they cannot make a good book of cooker".

Many amateur collectors, such as myself, prefer the idiosyncrasy of older books to the blandness of today's publications. Inspiration can be found in all manner of journals, whether it is from Dr Kitchiner's admirably sensible suggestion to parboil your roast potatoes in The Cook's Oracle (1818) or the wit of Ruth Lowinsky in Lovely Food (1931). And, if you need practical instruction, buy Delia Smith, preferably a pristine 1978 first edition of her Cookery Course. It'll be a collector's item one day.

Anton Mosimann's books will be auctioned on 7 October at Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street, London W1, tel: 020 7629 6602; Janet Clarke, tel: 01225 723 186; Cooks Books tel: 01273 302 707

Influential English cookbooks through the ages

No collector can agree on a definitive list. The following is simply a delicious taster.

Robert May The Accomplisht Cook or the Art and Mystery of Cookery 1660 The first English book to comprehensively tackle the subject of cooking. May was a chef and his beautifully written book is still practical today, albeit with a liberal pinch of common sense - I doubt many will want to slip live frogs into a pre-baked empty pie crust to jump out, "which make the Ladies to skip and shreek".

William Verral Complete System of Cookery 1759 A racy account from the chef owner of the White Hart Inn in Lewes, Sussex. Verral trained under the French chef M de St Clouet and his recipes cover everything from stock to fillets of whitings marinaded and fried with parsley. He has a confident cheffy style perfect for 18th century gourmets.

Elizabeth Raffald The Experienced English Housekeeper 1769 Written so clearly, it is still easy to cook from her elegant recipes. She has been plagarised by other authors such as John Farley (The London Art of Cookery, 1783) and copied into many ladies' domestic manuscripts, including a young Victoria before she was too busy being Queen.

Eliza Acton Modern Cookery for Private Families 1855 version. Miss Acton is the perfect link between Victorian and modern home cooking without the awful one-upmanship of Mrs Beeton.

Auguste Escoffier Le Guide Culinaire 1903 Written in collaboration with Phileas Gilbert and Emile Fetu while Escoffier was working at the Carlton Hotel in London, hence its inclusion here. It was written as a manual for professional chefs who still use it today as a reference for classic French cuisine.

Elizabeth David Mediterranean Food 1950 Awakened the British to fresh-tasting, sun-kissed food with recipes that read as though they were spoken to the cook and presume a fair amount of culinary knowledge. The beginning of the modern cookbook.

Dorothy Hartley Food in England 1954 Captured the sense of a pre-war rural Britain, linking the landscape with its local husbandry through recipes, anecdotes and illustrations.