Review: The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert


The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert

Published by Bloomsbury

September 2012 – Price £35.00

When Paula Wolfert states unashamedly that her book is full of ‘previously uncollected’ recipes rather than brand new ones, you know you’re in the hands of an expert. The Food of Morocco is the result of Paula’s fifty years of research and, rather than featuring showy twists and fancy trills on historic recipes or startling combinations of traditional ingredients, it’s a glorious and exhaustive compendium of centuries-old Moroccan cooking. To give you an idea of its heft, it was delivered to me, not in a padded envelope, but in a large cardboard box.

I doubt I’ll ever get through all her recipes – in fact, I fully intend to avoid some of them. Spiced Brain Salad with Preserved Lemons or Liver and Olive Salad, sound terrifying. I will however, be trying the ingenious recipe for  warqa pastry, which comes with pen and ink drawings to explain the method.

As a long-time fan of the writing of Paul Bowles, I can’t wait to make the recipe for Chicken Tagine with Prunes and Almonds in the Style of the Rif Mountains. Wolfert heard about the dish from members of the ‘Tangier literary set’. The Moroccan writer Mohammed Mrabet had cooked it for them, but despite all their attempts to describe it to her, Wolfert couldn’t get the recipe right. ‘Finally Paul Bowles, who had discovered and translated Mrabet, recalled the measurements for me from memory’. A recipe whose labyrinthine path took it from Tangier, via Mrabet, translated by the great Paul Bowles, is as appealing to me as anything I’ve ever cooked in my life.

As the owner of three slightly unpredictable quince trees, I’m delighted to find a book with so many quince recipes. Chicken with Caramelised Quinces and Toasted Walnuts sounds and looks exquisite, as does Lamb Tagine with Quinces from Marrakech. Wolfert’s stunning collection also includes an Avocado and Date Milk Shake, which is worth trying for its oddity alone. I intend to cook from this book for years.

The Food of Morocco radiates integrity, scholarship and expertise. It shimmers with Wolfert’s passion for her subject. It’s so detailed that it should really be turned into a PhD thesis, but it also has a huge sense of romance and fun. When reading a book for the first time, I always look at the acknowledgements page. Authors often reveal their true characters when they thank – or don’t thank – those that have helped them. Any writer who pays a special tribute to ‘the snail wranglers of Sonoma and Napa’ – a group of Wolfert’s friends who attempted to collect enough snails for her to make Marrakech Snail Soup – is ok by me. The soup may have been disastrous, but the experience was a triumph – in other words, it demonstrates the perfect attitude to life. Just because something doesn’t work, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth doing.


Review: Polpo by Russell Norman

Polpo by Russell Norman

Photographed by Jenny Zarins

Published by Bloomsbury, July 2012

Price £25.00

Polpo’s food, in its restaurants and in this book, is so stripped back as to be almost indecent. Eat at Polpo and you will be served Venetian-style cichèti, or small snacks and plates of food, with simple china, no linen and very little cutlery. Even the luxury that Londoners have come to expect of being able to book a table, has been sliced away in Russell Norman’s mania for simplicity. Polpo‘s first cookery book includes all the classic recipes that smitten customers love and expect: Anchovy & Chickpea Crostini; Fritto Misto; Panzanella.

Panzanella photographed by Jenny Zarins

Amongst the hundreds of cookery books in my collection, just about every style, category, method and region of food is covered. Or that’s what I thought. But with the arrival of Polpo, I realised that I’d been lacking something… a postmodern cookery book.

If you’ve been reading Eggs On The Roof for a while, you’ll know I have a weakness for the postmodern. Postmodernism plus food would, you’d think, be an absolute winner as far as I’m concerned. And you’d be right. But how does Polpo show off its postmodern status? The answer is, on its spine. Russell Norman has taken his passion for reduction to new postmodern heights and stripped away the book’s outer spine too, to reveal its deconstructed, stitched and glued interior.

Show-off postmodernism for its own sake is tedious. It wrecks its original intentions and becomes merely tedious posturing. But this is where Norman and his publishers have been so clever. The subversive act of stripping away the book’s spine makes this the very first cookery book I’ve ever owned that sits entirely flat on the table when it’s opened. And that makes it a joy to use.

Photographer: Jenny Zarins

The recipes are as spare and simple as the ideology behind them. Typically, as a former English teacher, Russell Norman turns to literature to encapsulate that ethos. “We have a rule that a dish is ready to be put on the menu only when we have taken out as many ingredients as possible. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said: ‘Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.'”

I revelled in recipes with only three or four ingredients, in combinations that require no cooking, in fresh ingredients that seem to have gone on a blind date, introduced themselves to each other on the plate and found perfect harmony. This is simple cooking at its best: Grissini, Pickled Radicchio & Salami; Rocket & Walnut Pesto Crostini; Pizzetta Bianca; Prosciutto & Butternut Squash With Ricotta Salata.

Broad Bean, Mint & Ricotta Bruschette photographed by Jenny Zarins

Warm Octopus Salad photographed by Jenny Zarins

So is this book, are these recipes, too simple to merit all the fuss? Absolutely not. To borrow another phrase from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, as the fox tells Le Petit Prince, ‘It is the time you have devoted to your rose that makes your rose so important.’ It’s the time that Russell Norman and head chef Tom Oldroyd have devoted to their passion for removing things that makes the removing of those things so important.


Review: Everybody Everyday and Eat Your Veg

 Everybody Everyday by Alex Mackay

Published by Bloomsbury May 2012

Price £20.00

Devising a new twist on an old favourite isn’t easy, as the creators of the umbrella hat, the fluffy mono-slipper and the Leonardo da Vinci action figure will tell you. But, remarkably, I think Alex Mackay has done it. Everybody Everyday is a superbly practical book in which he demonstrates how to cook six basic ingredients, six sauces and six slow-cooked meals and then offers a wonderful series of variations on each. Master the basics and the possibilities are seemingly endless.

Having been a cookery teacher for years, working with Raymond Blanc and Delia Smith, Alex knows how to get his message across. He’s a brilliant chef, but he makes his recipes appear effortless. Take for instance the section on baked chicken breasts. Alex has devised the following ways to cook them: with porcini, parsley sauce and spinach, with tomato, lemon and almond dressing, with soy, honey, orange and ginger, with mustard, chives, runner beans and peas, with corn and chilli relish and finally with sweet and sour kidney beans and avocado salsa. All the recipes are clear, straightforward and easy to make and there are further chapters on salmon, aubergine, risotto, pesto, tapenade and green curry paste, amongst others. Every recipe includes advice on how to adjust ingredients such as salt or chilli for babies and children.

This is a book that knows what it’s doing and knows who it’s aimed at. It’s informative without being patronising and it’s imaginative without being intimidating. Shrewdly, Everybody Everyday doesn’t get distracted by starters or puddings. I suspect though, that if the book is a success, which it certainly deserves to be, Everybody Everyday: For Afters will surely be next in line.

Eat Your Veg by Arthur Potts Dawson

Published by Octopus May 2012

Price £25.00

Arthur Potts Dawson’s CV must have to be printed in pamphlet form. He was trained by the Roux brothers, Rowley Leigh and Pierre Koffmann and went on to be head chef for Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray at The River Cafe, for the Soho House Group at Cecconi’s, for Jamie Oliver at Fifteen and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at River Cottage HQ. He founded London eco-restaurants Acorn House and Water House for the Shoreditch Trust and has slung in a few television programmes for good measure. And yet, to look at his photograph, you’d think he was still 17.

Eat Your Veg is my kind of cookery book. It’s not a manual about becoming a vegetarian; it simply makes vegetables the star of the show.  Roasted carrots with caraway and chilli cream, beetroot soup with cumin and coriander, wine-braised artichokes stuffed with herbs and creamed girolles with grilled polenta are all recipes that read like poetry and taste like heaven. There are oddities too, like roasted sweet potato with marshmallows and maple syrup or iced pea and mint lollipops, that I haven’t tried yet. But as far as I’m concerned, if Arthur says something works, then it works.

The only thing I’m not smitten by is the title. Eat Your Veg is just too stolidly prosaic a name to encompass the poetry that’s going on inside the covers. But, all things considered, that’s a pretty small complaint. Eat Your Veg is inspiring, creative and original. If I was a vegetable I’d be saying to myself, “finally, someone’s giving me the attention I deserve.”


Review: Eat London² and Hazan Family Favorites


 Eat London² By Peter Prescott & Terence Conran     

                     Published by Conran Octopus

April 2012 – Price £20.00 

The difficulty all restaurant guidebooks wrestle with is how to stay current and authoritative when the food industry is so mercurial. Eat London² hits that problem with its very first entry. Petersham Nurseries Cafe and Teahouse may have been run by the chef Sky Gyngell, ‘one of the top food personalities in London’, but, much to the disappointment of her fans and, presumably, the authors of this book, she’s now left. But this is where Eat London² plays such a clever, smart game. Published to coincide with the London Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee, Eat London² shrewdly offers so much more than a guide to the capital’s great restaurants. Terence Conran and Peter Prescott recommend cafes, bakeries, fishmongers, butchers, food markets and – new to the guidebook game – pop-ups.

Atmospheric photographs by Lisa Linder and inventive recipes from the chefs of the restaurants featured, make this a good buy as a cookery book as well as a beautifully produced guidebook. As far as I’m concerned, it’s worth getting for Rowley Leigh’s recipe for Parmesan Custard and Anchovy Toast alone. Having eaten his exquisite signature concoction at Le Cafe Anglais I’ve puzzled ever since exactly how to replicate it.

Terence Conran and Peter Prescott proudly admit this isn’t an ‘objective’ book. It’s their idiosyncratic view of what makes a great restaurant – ‘quirkiness, wonderful personalities, service, ambience, design, location…’  With recommendations from Twickenham to Brick Lane and Stoke Newington to Southwark, as well as fold-out maps for new visitors to London, it’s a perfect example of what a guidebook should be: beautiful in its own right and full of insights, personality and insider knowledge.


Hazan Family Favorites By Giuliano Hazan, Foreword by Marcella Hazan

Published by Stewart Tabori & Chang

May 2012 Price £19.99

Last night my teenage daughter embarked on a complicated dough recipe without checking how long the various stages would take to complete. With school the next morning, she was in bed and fast asleep hours before the dough was finally ready. I promised to finish the baking for her, but at 1 am, still applying the glaze to the admittedly beautiful buns, I was wondering why she couldn’t have opted for a plain old Victoria sponge instead.

Getting your timings wrong isn’t a mistake Giuliano Hazan would let you make. Each of his recipes starts with a brisk ‘time from start to finish’ guide and the instructions are both simple and concise. It’s a book that is characterised by the calm, capable charm that must make him such a reassuring tutor at the cooking school in Verona that he runs with his wife, Lael.

Hazan Family Favorites is as much a tribute to family as it is to food, filled as it is with photographs of Giuliano as a boy, his mother Marcella, his daughters and his wife. Each recipe is accompanied by Giuliano’s memories of eating it as a child, or watching one of his grandmothers cook it. He has a heritage that’s rich in food influences. His paternal grandparents were Sephardic Jews who settled in Italy and then fled to the United States. His maternal grandparents brought the cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna to the table, along with Arab-influenced dishes from his grandmother’s time living in Egypt. The result is a style of cooking that is traditional and yet with a light, modern touch.

A test of any cookery book is do you want to head for the kitchen? I have an overwhelming desire to make Swiss Chard Tortelloni with Tomato sauce immediately. This is a book that I would give to someone who loves to cook, but who wants to become more confident and knowledgeable. At breakfast this morning, I presented my daughter with a plate of her time-consuming buns that I finally completed at 1.30 this morning, along with a copy of Hazan Family Favorites on the side. ‘Can you try cooking from this one next time?’ I asked.


Review: Tasting India by Christine Manfield

Tasting India by Christine Manfield
Published by Conran Octopus, November 2011, £40.00
Photography by Anson Smart

Combatants in the fight over e-cookery books versus printed ones have new ammunition. Or should that be heavy artillery. If you believe paper books take up too much room, you’ll no doubt point accusingly at Christine Manfield’s new book, Tasting India. It’s vast – the biggest, heaviest and most lavish cookery book I’ve ever seen. Its turmeric yellow satin cover embossed with vivid pink peacocks is just about as showy as it’s possible to be.

Yes, it’s impractical – one splash from an unruly, bubbling pan of dahl and its gleaming golden jacket would be ruined. And yes, its girth puts it in the super heavyweight class. It’s not a book to amble through so much as rock-climb over. But, call me a romantic if you like, I’ve fallen in love with it.

The Australian chef Christine Manfield has been visiting India for more than twenty years. Her reverence for the country, tempered with a pragmatic understanding of its faults, shines through the text. It’s part travelogue, part encyclopedia, part memoir, part cookery book. Where she’s been so shrewd is to avoid a pedestrian, dogged tramp through each region. That’s not how cuisine works, and certainly not in India. As she says, ‘For me, part of the excitement of contemporary Indian cuisine lies in the way each cook or chef carries the recipes and heritage of their homeland with them, wherever they happen to find themselves.’

Immerse yourself in the pages of this book – there are nearly 500 of them, so it will take a while. Marvel at the stunning photographs by Anson Smart. Savour the recipes for tea-leaf fritters, scallops in spiced coconut, desert-bean koftas with onion curry and curd dumplings soaked in saffron milk. Just imagine what they must taste like, or throw caution to the wind and lug this book into the kitchen and actually cook from it. Either way it’s entrancing.

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.


Review: In at the Deep End by Jake Tilson

Wafts of fishy scent drift insistently into my nostrils as I talk to artist and writer Jake Tilson in his Peckham studio.  ‘Oh, it’s that’, he says, pointing upwards, when I ask him what the smell is. Hanging from the ceiling above my head is a large dried cod. The wizened, grey fish is just one of literally thousands of fishy souvenirs piled up around us: nets, floats, snorkels, dried squid, packaging, a plastic grilled plaice, empty tins of sprats, boxes of anchovies and fish-shaped jelly sweets.

The heaps of fishy objects are the flotsam collected over years which Jake has used to illustrate his beautiful book, In At The Deep End. He’s a passionate, obsessive collector and considers nothing too small, crumpled or insignificant to bring home. While in Japan he gathered hundreds of soggy fish labels which had been trampled underfoot in the vast fish market. Before flying home he washed them in his hotel bathroom and dried them on the heated loo seat. When he spotted a particularly fine wooden fish crate, he tried to pack it into his suitcase but found it was a fraction too large. So he simply bought a hammer, took the box to pieces and rebuilt it in Peckham.

In At The Deep End began as an attempt to shrug off a fish phobia that developed from reading a lavishly illustrated book about sharks when he was a boy. But his research turned into a passionate desire to know everything about just about every edible species. By the time this eclectic, magical and indispensable book ends, it’s moved from phobia therapy to become a gently persuasive political manifesto, alerting us to the ecological dangers of over-fishing. Think of it as a recipe book, memoir, travelogue and a cultural history and you will get just a  hint of what In At The Deep End contains within its jaunty yolk-yellow covers.

Jake has designed, photographed, drawn and written this work of art with a meticulous eye. Each double-page spread took him up to a week to construct, made up as it is of a mosaic of images, drawings, fragments of text and photographs blended and overlaid. He designed specific typefaces for each chapter, so the section on Scotland uses lettering inspired by the registration numbers hand-painted on Scottish fishing boats. The chapter on Australia uses a typeface developed from the intricate, lacy ironwork that appears on the balconies of Federation era houses in Sydney. In At The Deep End is a fishy cornucopia on a breathtaking scale that continues to reveal new delights with every reading.

Jake’s wife, the ceramicist Jennifer Lee known as Jeff, and their daughter Hannah travelled with him to Sweden, Venice, Scotland, Australia, New York and Japan to research the book, developing recipes as they went. The book is as much a touching testament to family as it is to food. The delight with which Jake describes finding a flattened, rusty tin on the floor of a fish market, knowing that Jeff will be thrilled because ‘she loves rust’ is infectious. ‘The book wouldn’t, couldn’t have existed without the three of us travelling together’, he says disarmingly. ‘Jeff and Hannah’s names should really be on the front too.’

For a man so obsessed by visual details, it’s perhaps odd that he prefers to buy cookery books without pictures. ‘It’s because I get very bored by styled recipes’, he says. ‘I don’t do any styling at all. I might move things to the light, but that’s it. It’s a protest against the norm.’ There’s a wonderful photograph in the book, taken at his mother-in-law’s farmhouse in Scotland to illustrate a recipe for smoked haddock and bacon. The star of the picture is an ancient frying pan, its cracked handle proudly and defiantly stuck together with parcel tape. 

In At The Deep End has been seven years in the making, a remarkable testament to hard work and persistence. Not that Jake cares how long something takes. ‘I just love making things. I am a creator. If you were writing a novel you wouldn’t dream of calculating your  hourly rate. I’m the same about design. You have to be generous with your time. I look at my book now and I’m just very happy that it’s finally here. In the end it’s the one copy that sits on my shelf that matters. If other people like it, then I’m pleased.’

Like it? I’m mad about it. So much so that I was forlorn when I got to the final page. In At The Deep End is a book to read, study, marvel at, cook with or simply to smile at. It’s the finest book about food and family that I’ve read in years.