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Review: The Good Table by Valentine Warner


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.


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