Food: Chef's choice

Annie Bell picks her favourite cookery bible books
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Anyone who cooks will, at some point, have picked up a knife, looked at a chicken, and thought "where to from here?" Every cook begins as a novice, and novices need help: a book - it need only be one book - but it must be accessible, explanatory, and it must work.

I'm not sure what I cooked when I was at university, nothing great but nothing so bad it put my husband off marrying me. The learning came thereafter, I was a Margaret Costa baby and delighted to see her Four Seasons Cookery Book back in print - my original copy, lent by my mother-in-law is now rather battered.

As a novice, this was my bible, and I ventured on a delicious voyage of moules marinieres and braised shoulder of lamb with apricot stuffing; a starter of cucumber cooked with prawns and mushrooms; and paprika goulash. For several years, this was the only cookery book I possessed. I wouldn't, though, call Costa's a classic bible, although it's a favourite with many who know it.

The first cookery bibles were written by Eliza Acton and Mrs Beeton, and, while I do know one or two people who find tips on household management like boiling tea-towels to be indispensable, these books are period pieces rather than books of serious practical use. In the 40th edition of Acton's The People's Cookery Book, "foreign cookery" gets all of two pages, the skate is stewed for an hour and a half, and heaven help you if you are an invalid - beef tea and gruel all the way.

At the rate that our tastes in food and styles of cooking change, it is a challenge for any book to withstand more than a decade of popularity. Constance Spry's Cookery Book, written in the 1950s, is still excellent on many accounts, but you won't find a great deal on olive oils, salads, wild mushrooms, char-grilling and the like. And, sadly, this is now out of print.

One former bible making a comeback this autumn is New Great Dishes of the World by Robert Carrier (Boxtree, pounds 25). A blockbusting success when first published, it sold two million copies in 14 countries. But I'm not sure the updated version will pull quite the same heart strings as the 1963 copy with its wildly kitsch and dated coloured plates. You can't find a poached salmon decorated like that any longer for love or money.

But Carrier, for all his popularity, is no nanny. He might point out where the nappies are kept but the potty-training is left up to Delia Smith, who can also afford to round off the sales figures of her Complete Illustrated Cookery Course to the nearest million. She goes virtually unchallenged as the modern day equivalent to Beeton, Acton or Connie Spry, with Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave coming a close second with Leith's Cookery Bible.

These are hand-holding bibles. An adventurous cook, though, is unlikely to want it handed them on a plate, and might instead consult several different sources before devising their own version of a dish. A thirsty, experimental cook like Alastair Little says he cut his teeth on Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volumes I and II, by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child. And being an eclectic soul, he reels off an erudite list of titles that go to form the make-up of his cooking: one for every country or cuisine.

Such specialised titles form a second strand: Elizabeth David on French cookery, Jane Grigson on fruit and vegetables, Alan Davidson on fish, Yan-Kit So on Chinese cookery, Claudia Roden on Middle Eastern, and so on across the globe. And there is a lesser-known tome that also deserves to be up there with the greats - Honey from a Weed: fasting and feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia, by Patience Gray (Prospect Books, pounds 12.99).

I think this is the only cookery book I have ever read cover-to-cover twice in succession. It's exquisitely written, set against the extraordinary background of the author's life with a sculptor who set down roots beside the marble quarries of the Mediterranean. Her cooking has none of the cultish voyeurism linked to the fashion for peasant cookery. Instead, it's written by someone who lived the life and understood its cycle - the rhythm of planting and harvesting, olive picking and wine-making.

On the subject of fire, Gray writes: "Apple, pear, plum, apricot woods have fragrance. So do pine branches and nut woods. Sweet chestnut makes a slow smoky fire; the wood is too sappy. Fig wood is poor, Tamarisk has an unpleasant smell. Olive wood makes the most incandescent braise, and ilex is nearly as good. The most fragrant fires are made from dried Mediterranean mountain scrub and the withered shrubs of the maquis - cistus, rosemary, Jerusalem sage, lentisk - which burn with the violence of a blow-torch, produce spurts of blue and emerald fire, and a smell of incense."

In fact, I'm due to read it a third time. That's the mark of bible, it never quite leaves you, and the best, often as not, come round again into print