Review: The Good Table by Valentine Warner

Eggs On The Roof Reviews

Pub­lished 12th Septem­ber (Mitchell Beazley, £20.00)

Pho­to­graphs: Jonathan Lovekin

Toma­toes with Dijon mus­tard and cream on toast

In the dreary sea of food writ­ing cliche, where toma­toes ‘smell of sun­shine’, chocol­ate is ‘scrummy’ and cakes are ‘moist’, Valentine Warner is a perky, plucky life­boat. I want to eat what he’s cooked but more than that, I want to read what he’s writ­ten. How could you not love a man who describes razor clams as look­ing ‘like Cuban cigars in an elastic band, pale feet lolling out like the tongues of tired horses.’ Or a cook who claims that if his pickled onion, steak and ale pud­ding were a per­son it would be ‘the local thick-wristed, silent giant who whops crick­ets balls from the vil­lage green to king­dom come.’

Apply­ing the test in reverse, if Valentine Warner was trans­formed into a recipe, he’d be his ‘Dor­set Break­fast’ — sub­stan­tial, sur­pris­ing, full of good cheer and eccent­ric­ally Eng­lish. His writ­ing is the per­fect comic side-kick to his ser­i­ous food, although it has to be said that at times he reaches for a meta­phor bey­ond my grasp. I struggled with his descrip­tion of a steak that tastes of ‘bull sweat’ and was utterly baffled by his instruc­tion that potato for gnoc­chi should be grated on ‘the set­ting you would do children’s Ched­dar on.’ But when the food and the prose are as good as Valentine Warner’s, I really don’t care.

I can’t think of another con­tem­por­ary food writer who would dare include a delib­er­ately ined­ible recipe for burnt toast, boiled egg and black tea, con­clud­ing with the instruc­tion that you should ‘put everything on a tray, take it to the invalid and remove, uneaten, 1 hour later.’ But read­ing that recipe gave me as much pleas­ure as devour­ing his instruc­tions for more sybar­itic pleas­ures such as ‘cod with mus­sels and cel­ery’ and ‘ceps and apples in puff pastry.’

There’s a gen­er­os­ity of spirit to this book, a lack of pom­pos­ity and a huge joie de vivre. He exhorts us to ‘cook with love, shop like a European and don’t ignore the knobbly veg. Scrape the mould off the chut­ney, don’t for­get to hon­our the things at the back of the fridge; and above all remem­ber that this book, is, in a sense, no longer mine but rather yours.’ As if com­edy, fine prose and divine food aren’t enough — he’s giv­ing us demo­cratic rights to boot! As a mani­festo for life, The Good Table gets my vote.