Looking back, 1999 seems like another world. Jamie Oliver was still naked, people had just discovered rocket and Bernard Matthews was still a name to be reckoned with. British food was served only with a side of disillusionment. We wanted Italy, we wanted sundried tomatoes, we wanted something Peter Mandelson might eat. And then, this man, this chef in a suit with a pinstripe that seemed just that little bit too broad, came along and told us we were doing it all wrong. To say Nose to Tail by Fergus Henderson ran against the prevailing culture is to understate it.
This was a cookbook that didn't look forward down the road, it looked back to the thrifty past and said, we could do with a bit more of that now. What exactly we could do with more of seemed to be offal. It encouraged us to eat chitterling, to glory in the delights of lamb's brain and conquer our fears of tripe. It implored us to eat balls, instead of talking them.
Now, maybe you read this and think, never heard of it. Or, I wouldn't touch chitterling with a bomb disposal robot. Fair enough. But there was another implicit message in the book, one that has become received wisdom: if you are going to do the animal disservice of killing it, it is only polite to eat it all. It was a book threaded with wit. Lots of people read it in bed. Little surprise then, that it's scooped first place in the 1,000 best cookbooks list.
The list was thought up by a man name Matthew Cockerill, who asked various chefs and writers and other assorted food luminaries to nominate the book they really adored. You can tell the people questioned were sound (and no, I wasn't one of them). Why? Well, not only is Nose to Tail there but there is Julia Child, Simon Hopkinson, formerly of this newspaper, Prosper Montagne, Ruth Rogers, Claudia Roden, Marcella Hazan, a full panoply of people you would like to have round for diner and whose food has filled millions of stomachs.
They are all laudable and have all left an imprint in the culture of cooking. But Henderson's book was something more as well, it was a blueprint for a better way of living – it was a bold, boisterous redefining of British food. Look inwards, it said, you'll like what you find.
And as much as all of that, it is also an archetype of what a cookbook should be. Its shtick is to be wry and spry, very much likes its author, and to inspire you to do better things, rather than beat you about the head with the folly of your current behaviour. With the greatest respect to Delia Smith, she never made you giggle at the stove. Henderson's dry humour crept up on you, and jumped out at you while you were considering what to cook at 9pm on a Friday night. What it was, and what it remains, simply put, is not boring. And, in the end, what more can you ask of anything in life?
- More about:
- Fergus Henderson
- Bernard Matthews
- Jamie Oliver
- Delia Smith
- Peter Mandelson
- Matthew Cockerill
- Julia Child
- Simon Hopkinson
- Claudia Roden
- Ruth Rogers