Living: Why home cooking is back on the menu

The complex creations of celebrity chefs all too often end in tears when tried out by amateurs. Now a new wave of traditional cookbooks is fuelling a back-to-basics approach. By Annie Bell
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Indy Lifestyle Online
As a nation of cookery gannets, we shamelessly swoop on fads and fashions, abandoning yesterday's trend as soon as something more exciting comes along. But there are interesting stirrings in the world of cookery. Could it be that we have run out of new ingredients and dishes? By comparison to the 1980s the chart of discovery is on a plateau rather than a steep curve.

One obvious solution is to recycle, and certainly we are rediscovering the dishes we unceremoniously ditched for more modish Mediterranean fare - "crostini" elicits a yawn these days, but serve up a menu of prawn cocktail followed by coq au vin followed by lemon meringue pie and you will be seen as being at the sharp end of fashion.

Not just any old version, mind you: the British have learnt how to cook since the 1970s, and you can bet the prawns will be freshly peeled and not frozen, the mayonnaise homemade, and not a leaf of floppy green lettuce in sight, more likely mache with a little mizuna thrown in.

But there is another strand to this revival. The past 10 years have seen the publication of an unprecedented number of cookery books by a brigade of celebrity restaurant chefs - from the glittering brilliance of Raymond Blanc and Anton Mossiman to the more recent offerings by Alistair Little and the award-winning River Cafe Cookbook by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. To begin with, amateur cooks seemed to be bowled over by the notion that here at last was the solution to their dinner parties and to gracious living.

Manual in hand, they could produce the same food for which they would pay in a restaurant. But disillusionment gradually set in and hopes collapsed like a souffle gone wrong. Such food comes out of a kitchen that is geared up to produce it. A domestic kitchen is not.

Home cooks tend to cook alone, whereas there may be an entire brigade of chefs involved in the piecing together of any one dish in a restaurant: one for the meat, one for the vegetables, one for the sauce, one for the garnish and so on.

Then there is the problem of the oven - domestic versions are just not as powerful as their restaurant counterparts. So unless the chef has made a point of testing everything in a domestic kitchen, the whole performance may be very different.

Ingredients, too, can pose a problem for home cooks, who are likely to depend on supermarkets rather than a top-notch local fishmonger, butcher or delicatessen.

As the owner of many such cookery books I would not be without them, but they are more a source of inspiration than the answer to the looming dinner party. Now, it would seem, we are witnessing a backlash towards cooking geared up for the home kitchen that inspired it.

This spring has seen a spate of re-publications, the most significant being Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book. When Grub Street announced that it was re-publishing this Seventies classic, all manner of passionate cooks, myself included, spoke up: "But that's my favourite ever cookery book."

It seems as fresh and relevant today as it was 20 years ago, filled with classical dishes based on seasonal produce, instilled with Margaret Costa's love of ingredients and good cooking.

The Conran Cook Book by Caroline Conran and her former husband, now Sir Terence, is also set for re-publishing early next year, this time with additional recipes by Simon Hopkinson. First published in 1980, it covered the buying of ingredients and kitchen equipment as well as cooking. And Caroline Conran's Delicious Home Cooking from around the British Isles (Conran Octopus, pounds 9.99), published in 1992, is very here and now, with recipes including Devon potted shrimps, Kentish chicken pudding, shepherd's pie and trifle.

What accounts for the attraction of these homely sources? Part of it must be the business of recipes working or not working. Underpinning the unwavering popularity of Delia Smith, the most common remark about her recipes is simply that "they work".

As every cook knows, the foolproof factor is worth its weight in gold. Delia's work isn't pioneering, but as there have been 15 reprints of Complete Illustrated Cookery Course since 1989, it is safe to assume we don't care.

One recent publication that illustrates the making of an old-fashioned cookery book is Elizabeth Luard's new Family Life - not strictly a cookery book in fact, but an autobiographical account of her life bringing up four children, interspersed with the recipes that were relevant to her family at various stages.

So when the children are all tiny, a delicious-sounding "vanilla flan" is the order of the day, and later, ensconced in Algeciras in southern Spain, there is "fifteen-minute soup" - the first resort of the Andaluz housewife confronted by a lot of hungry people who want something hot to eat immediately.

Whatever the meals, what comes across is how naturally the cloth fits. Here is a woman cooking to suit the time available with whatever ingredients she could procure locally, matched by what was in her pocket, taking into account the ages and tastes of her children. It seems to be a message that is finally sinking in.

For the average home cook, the books most likely to be useful will be those written by someone in a similar position, someone whose lifestyle reflects their own. The pendulum is swinging, and this time it's homeward bound.

STAPLE FARE FROM THE HOMEBODIES

'Family Life', Elizabeth Luard, Bantam Press, pounds 16.99

The author of The Rich Tradition of European Peasant Cookery, and The Flavours of Andalusia gives an account of her peripatetic life with her husband Nicholas Luard, co-founder of Private Eye, and their four children in her latest offering. From London to Andalusia to southern France and back again, the narrative is interspersed with recipes that kept the family going. Exuberant and funny: food and the kitchen are the threads that hold it together, even in the final chapters that tell of the tragic death of her daughter, Francesca, from Aids.

'Four Seasons Cookery Book', Margaret Costa, Grub Street, pounds 17.99 (published 31 May)

Margaret Costa ran the fashionable London restaurant Lacy's in the Seventies with her husband Bill Lacy, who did the cooking. Those that were fortunate enough to dine there remember it well. Younger than Elizabeth David and older than Jane Grigson, Margaret, while their fame grew, drifted into obscurity after the restaurant closed. Each season is broken down into ingredients and types of dish, or occasion. Summer, for instance, sees cold soups, crab, salad dressings, cooking with cream, peaches and custard cup sweets.

'Geraldine Holt's Country House Cooking', Boxtree, pounds 16.99 (published 24 June)

The kitchen of her Devon farmhouse and its garden have inspired a clutch of books starring home grown produce and vegetables. Now this veteran writer and contributor to Homes and Gardens and the Independent on Sunday explores the possibilities of traditional range and stove cooking, while illustrating how aspirational the back-to-your roots style has become. A Provencal boeuf en daube slowly simmers, oven-roasted asparagus and tomato tarts acquire a special crispness and flavour that only tradition can provide.

CLEVER STUFF FROM THE SUPERCHEFS

Alistair Little: 'Keep it Simple', Conran Octopus, pounds 18.99

Plenty to cook at home home from the Cambridge graduate whose eponymous London restaurant business has had its ups and downs but is now back on course. Big on exotic flavours and all things Italian, so make sure you have tracked down your dried tangerine peel and black beans and that there's a top-notch Italian deli nearby. Be prepared to home dry your tomatoes for the accompaniment to baron of rabbit.

Marco Pierre White: 'Wild Food from Land and Sea', Ebury Press, pounds 25 hardback/pounds 9.99 paperback

This is a work of art from the erstwhile enfant terrible who is now the mastermind behind some of London's most elegant restaurants, including the Criterion and the Hyde Park Hotel. Roll your sleeves up for terrine of knuckle of pork with foie gras, sauce Gribiche, but this collection is probably best left on the coffee table rather than the kitchen shelf.

Raymond Blanc: 'Recipes from Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons', Macdonald Orbis, pounds 25 hardback/pounds 16.99 paperback.

Here is Michelin-starred cooking from the kitchen at Blanc's chi-chi country house hotel in Oxfordshire. Most recipes include several stages - even one of which might put an amateur culinary enthusiast to the test. But if pan-fried Dublin Bay prawns served on a julienne of courgettes garnished with ravioli appeal, then press on.

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