It would be difficult to dispute the charms of a well-chosen cookery book. Not only can they be precious keepsakes – special ones, complete with added scribbles and folded-over ears, are often passed down through generations – but they also make near-perfect gifts. Obviously, they're remarkably practical too. But for many, that's the least of their attraction. It is the foreign lands, flavours and lifestyles they evoke that seduce the cookery-book junkie.
We're all aware of the industries struggling in the wake of the internet: music, the Post Office, film. But publishing has arguably been hardest hit, including the book market. People aren't buying as many books as they used to. According to The Bookseller, physical book sales in the first three months of 2012 were down 11 per cent, or £39m, compared with the same period in 2011.
Recipes, once only accessed in the pages of Julia Child or Jamie Oliver, are now available for free on hundreds of thousands of websites and blogs. Many predicted the gradual death of the cookery book. And as sales of ebooks, with their handy online purchasing, have soared (sales increased by 366 per cent last year), would foodies replace their colourful books with a Kindle?
So it's interesting to learn that sales of cookery books have never been better. "Very basically, the food and drink sector has been one of the most reliable sectors of the book market in recent years," says Philip Stone, charts editor at The Bookseller. "In total, £87m was spent on food and drink titles last year, down slightly (6 per cent) on the previous year when Jamie's 30-minute Meals broke all sorts of sales records, but well ahead of five years previously when the sector was worth £20m less."
So why have cookery books enjoyed such blossoming prosperity amid otherwise gloomy statistics? And what does the future hold for them?
It's impossible to look at cookery books' continuing popularity without factoring in the economy. And while the recession could have resulted in the public spending less on cookbooks, it seems they are buying more than ever because eating out is one of the first luxuries to go in tough times. Now, more and more, choosing a certain cookery book means buying into a whole lifestyle. Titles such as "101 Ways with Chicken" or "Vegetarian Cooking" are less visible. People buying those titles have been lost to online recipe searches. But the demand for tomes full of colourful images and dazzling prose remains high.
This is the cookery book as an escapist experience, with many buying them in a similar way as they would do a coffee-table book. They are for inspiration and pleasure, just as much as they are for the recipes. They can be a way of asserting identity. When on display, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management is going to make a hugely different statement to the new Polpo book.
And while ever-growing numbers of cookery books are being made available for e-readers, many doubt the appeal. In a piece for The New Yorker last year, Julie Powell (of Julie & Julia fame) was extolling the merits of having Julia Childs' Mastering the Art of French Cooking on the iPad, before she opened the physical copy and came across a big purple stain smeared across one of the recipes. "Certain books need their weightiness, their awkwardness, to take on their full meaning," she wrote. "Mastering the Art of French Cooking on the iPad is more practical, but it's far less personal."
Besides, many would argue that ebooks are not particularly practical when it comes to cooking. Who wants buttery fingers pawing their iPad? Where can you make the notes or seasoning adjustments that scatter battered, much-loved recipe books?
And what about the people writing the recipes? With the numerous opportunities and outlets offered by the internet, are cooks still bothered about getting published? James Ramsden, who began blogging before starting The Secret Larder supper club and publishing the book Small Adventures in Cooking, is one cook whose aim was to get published.
"Some people insinuate that if you do a book, as opposed to doing it online, you're in some way joining the Man, which I find odd because books seem to be an obvious progression," Ramsden says. That's not to say it's easy getting published, however. "You look at the books that are selling at the moment and they're all television tie-ins."
Ramsden is certainly right about television chefs making the big sales. "The cookbook sector is dominated by celebrity chefs and tie-ins to TV," says Stone. "For example, at the moment it's titles by the Hairy Bikers, Lorraine Pascale, Gok Wan, Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and chefs involved in the Great British Bake Off. And thanks to the show's popularity, baking books have been huge over the past 18 months. In the first half of this year 26 baking books have sold more than 5,000 copies."
Chefs might need other platforms to really shift copies, but our love affair with recipe books doesn't look like it's going anywhere. "I'd be surprised if even one in every 100 cookbooks sold in the UK is a digital edition," argues Stone. "The reason? Those big, weighty, glossy, lavishly-illustrated cookbooks by your Jamies and Nigellas look like a dog's dinner on a Kindle, and I think home chefs would much rather their cheap paperback books get accidentally splattered with pasta sauce than their shiny iPads."
Top five cookery books for autumn this year, according to Amazon
'Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration' by Nigella Lawson (Chatto & Windus, £26)
Always a bestseller, this time the camera-friendly, finger-licking cook turns to Italy for inspiration. Published next week, following on from her latest BBC series this summer.
'Jamie's 15-Minute Meals' by Jamie Oliver (Michael Joseph, £26)
More Jamie Oliver for hungry fans, but in half the time on this outing – his '30-Minute Meals' was the fastest-selling non-fiction book ever. Out later this month and undoubtedly destined for many a Christmas stocking.
'Jerusalem' by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ebury, £27)
Middle-Eastern accord in a cookbook, as Jerusalem-born cooks Ottolenghi (born on the Jewish side) and Tamimi (Arab side) explore their culinary roots.
'The Kitchen Diaries II' by Nigel Slater (Fourth Estate, £30)
Another outing for the unfussy and inspiring Slater, presenter of 'Simple Suppers' and 'Simple Cooking'. Out next week.
'Gordon Ramsay's Ultimate Cookery Course' by Gordon Ramsay (Hodder & Stoughton, £25)
Top cooking, without the complexity. Anyone can cook wonderful food at home, says the rackety chef, restaurateur and star of the small screen.