Philip Hensher: There's more to a good cookbook than recipes

It is most unlikely that Mrs Beeton ever dispatched a giant turtle herself. It is just there to titillate the reader
Click to follow

But the list as a whole doesn't necessarily convey the best cookbooks; rather, it focuses on the most effective works of instruction, the most thorough guides to the act of cooking. That is what we generally assume is the aim of all cookbooks, but I wonder whether that is really true. Some of the best cookbooks have, and have always had, no intention of supplying you with anything resembling instructions, and in many cases, no sane person would attempt some of these challenges. They are there for a completely different purpose.

The rest of the list is as admirably practical as Mr Hopkinson's book. Second, of course, comes Delia - as people used to say, you never ever go wrong with Delia. Nigel Slater's Real Fast Food is a book I use a lot during the week, as it were. Claudia Roden's book of Middle Eastern cookery is very helpful in an area which can seem daunting. Elizabeth David is usually fairly practical these days - the supermarkets eventually caught up with her. I personally, however, would use her for French cooking but not Italian (in the early editions of the Italian book, she actually suggests you could substitute Primula for ricotta). Like many amateur cooks, for anything Italian I would go to Marcella Hazan's brilliant, fuss-free books - I must have cooked my way through about three quarters of her recipes over the years.

The obvious omissions come from the current rash of television and celebrity chefs. I'm a bit surprised they left out Jamie Oliver's books, which are excellent and realistic. On the other hand, I've got individual cookbooks by Raymond Blanc, Gordon Ramsay, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, and Nigella Lawson; they've mostly been used once or twice, and now they stay on the shelf. It was just too much like faffing about.

But when I say "they stay on the shelf", what I really mean is "I don't cook from them." In reality, like many people, I read them all the time, day-dreaming away. You'd be mad to attempt some of Raymond Blanc's recipes; but you can still enjoy them in prose.

I once cooked Nigella Lawson's recipe for ham in Coca-Cola, encouraged by her lavish prose evocation of it; in reality, I fear, it was not much of a success. So I've stuck to reading her recipes, and enjoying - for instance - her "Camp, But Only Slightly, Dinner For Six" ("Pheasant with Gin and It") without actually proposing to cook or eat it.

That, surely, is one of the important pleasures of cookbooks, and always has been. It's absolutely fascinating to read, in Gordon Ramsay's books, how his wonderful food is actually put together. I love the recipe, in Patience Gray's amazing Honey from a Weed for a fox stew, and her blithe comment that it would also work for badger. Even in Marcella Hazan, you're not really meant to attempt the bollito misto; that's really only a restaurant dish, even in Italy.

As the list of "best cookbooks" suggests, there remains a kind of moral objection to the unusable cookbook. But that must be rather a Protestant attitude; cookbooks are not just handbooks of instruction, but narratives of fantasy as well. Ancient cookbooks, like the Roman one attributed to Apicius, are full of fantastically opulent dishes. More recently, when Elizabeth David first started publishing after the war, there was absolutely no possibility of attempting many of her recipes; a recipe for aubergine, or one requiring olive oil, would remain a fantasy for years.

The fascinating case is Mrs Beeton. Her Book of Household Management is remembered as a severely practical guide, and a lot of it really is usable.

But there is a vein of aspirational fantasy there which must always have been sharply removed from reality. Her vast menus for ordinary family dinners, with, often, a dozen separate dishes ("croquettes of leveret") are wildly implausible. At the luxurious end, she occasionally makes suggestions for boiling game birds in champagne and truffles, a disgusting idea.

Notoriously, there is an amazing recipe for turtle soup which explains how to dispatch and cut up a giant turtle in the kitchen. It is most unlikely that she had ever done, or ever seen such a thing done, herself. It is just there to titillate the reader.

The compilers of this list had a particular aim in mind, and of course they were sensible to recommend, first of all, books which will be of most use to the active cook. But there are recommendations to be made, too, to the day- dreaming cook. I love those vast, dictatorial European cookbooks, the Larousse Gastronomique, which this survey was very snooty about, or the lovely Ricette d'Oro, which ventures into some very strange notions about non-Italian food - you wouldn't want to cook a curry from their instructions.

Food is partly function, an expert craft; but partly, too, a subject for dreaming, a world where you can rustle up a terrine of larks' tongues for your children's suppers. A character in Barbara Pym keeps cookbooks by the bedside, as a consoling read; I have no doubt that, at a time when you could only get olive oil from Boots, what she was enjoying, quite rightly, was an effortlessly impractical book by Elizabeth David.