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About cookbooks - and why yet another one?

I love cookery books. I started out with two terribly trendy products of the íswingingí sixties - Len Deightonís Oý Est Le Garlic and The Action Cookbook, both published in í65, well after the authorís secret-agent anti-hero Harry Palmer had established his culinary credentials on paper (and on the silver screen in the person of Michael Caine) by whisking up an omelette to the strains of Mozart as part of his seduction routine. These were great as far as they went, full of well-presented, easily-cooked recipes for quite impressive dishes, in the form of Deightonís trendily-drawn Observer Cookstrips, and Deightonesque (or do I mean Palmeresque?) wisecracks.

I dug them out of a dusty box in the loft, partly as research for this work and partly out of sheer nostalgia. Oý Est Le Garlic is actually remarkably informative on basic French cooking for a small paperback costing 10/6 (52Ĺp, for the benefit of the very young) - in 1965 about twice the price of a reasonably weighty paperback novel. Though, as I have said elsewhere, the recipe for vinaigrette dressing leaves something to be desired.

The Action Cookbook offers everything a trendy young sixties Londoner in his or her own flat needed to know to avoid starvation and culinary humiliation. Or so it seemed at the time. There was actually a problem, though. Neither book told you how to boil or fry an egg, or to do any number of other very basic things in the kitchen. I suppose this is the exact opposite of Delia, who devoted a whole half-hour on TV just to egg-boiling.

Nevertheless, I survived on these two books (because I actually knew how to boil, fry and poach eggs already) until Wife Number One and I got married. Then we joined the Cookery Book Club. One of the very first books we bought (probably as one of our four introductory books for 17/6 or whatever they charged in those days) was the 1200-page Constance Spry Cookbook - literally an encyclopaedia of cookery. It tells you not only everything you do need to know, and many things you donít expect ever to need to know but suddenly discover you do, but vast numbers of things you will under no circumstances ever need to know. That isnít a problem because itís a well-indexed reference book. I still keep it in the kitchen, despite the fact that it has never heard of grams or degrees Centigrade (let alone Celsius), and I probably refer to it on average every other week.

However, it is not A Good Read.

Elizabeth Davidís French Provincial Cooking is An Absolutely Wonderful Read, full of personal anecdotes and semi-relevant background information, as well as superb recipes. We bought it from the Club shortly after Constance, and I have often taken it to bed in preference to a novel. I did the same with her French Country Cooking and An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, which were added to the kitchen shelf over the years, and with the more recently acquired An Invitation to Italian Cooking by the splendid Antonio Carluccio, because itís the same kind of book.

I had a lot of cookbooks. Patricia had a lot of cookbooks. Now that we share a single kitchen (something that was a slightly scary in prospect but has worked very well in practice for over a decade) we have a vast collection, and every one loved and treasured either as an el dorado of essential information or a stimulating read. Or - in the best cases - as both.

So why am I writing yet another cookery book - even, thanks to the shortsightedness of publishers, an online one? Itís a kind of conceit, I suppose. I have my own slant on food and its preparation and Iím arrogant enough to think itís just different enough to be interesting. If The Online Cookbook offers anything new, itís my encouragement to build on basic recipes, ringing the changes to make them truly your own. Who knows? Do this for thirty years and you might be ready to write your cookbook...

Using cookbooks

Eating has a lot in common with making love. They are both profoundly sensual pursuits in which physical activity leads to intense stimulation of sensitive and specialised sensory organs, sustained gratification of very basic appetites and, ultimately, a profound sense of satisfaction. Well - they are for me, mostly. I hope they are for you.

In both activities, too, preparation is everything.

A good cookbook provides information and inspiration. Some lean more towards the information and are therefore a bit like manuals of sexual technique - useful, even fascinating, but not really a turn-on. The inspirational ones are more like erotica - titillating and exciting and sources of tricks you hadnít thought of before. To labour the analogy totally, I guess those great glossy ones full of pretentious recipes and full-page colour pictures of impossibly beautiful dishes (in which I suspect many inedible - if not toxic - ingredients are used to enhance the photographs) are equivalent to hard-core pornography.

(My own contribution to the world of gastro-porn was a deliberately mouthwatering little booklet for our catering business - The Fine Art of Feasting. It and the brochure that accompanied it are the only surviving traces of that exhausting enterprise.

You need solid information when youíre making something like pastry or cakes, because if you muck about with the recipes for those they probably wonít work (not unless you really know what youíre doing, anyway).

You also need accurate information if you want to produce a really authentic version of a dish, even if you will never cook this version again but simply use it as a starting point for new creations.

And you need the right information the first time you try out somebody elseís new idea, again - hopefully - before experimenting with your own variations.

But for the competent and enthusiastic cook, with a feel for how ingredients behave and how flavours combine, what is needed more is inspiration. Ideas. I like to raid books like Carluccioís for interesting ingredients and combinations and then go away and interpret them for myself. I know how much olive oil and garlic and chilli I like in a dish - and itís usually a lot more than the excellent Antonio recommends, because heís writing for the general population and he doesnít want his British readersí first tentative forays into Italian cooking to put them off for life.

Novice cooks can probably do no better than start with Delia Smithís Complete Cookery Course. Itís fairly comprehensive without being intimidatingly vast, and it pursues the commendable aim of reassuring the terminally insecure by demystifying cookery. There was a copy in my kitchen for years, and I would occasionally dip into it to refresh my memory about something (the crŤme caramel recipe is a cracker). It isnít there any more. Significantly, it was the only cookery book Wife Number Two took with her when she departed. What can I say?

So precision where itís needed - and that means, incidentally, that you must use either the metric measures or the Imperial ones for the whole recipe: donít mix the two as they are not identical. For the rest, read, try and develop.

Bargain cookbooks

Iíve found many real bargains by waiting until sales of new cookbooks start to decline. WH Smith sold Travels ŗ la Carte by Sophie Grigson and William Black for £3.99, and a local Tesco had Rick Steinís Fruits of the Sea for £9.99. Brilliant books, both, evoking happy memories of memorable TV series. Itís worth keeping your eyes open - recipes donít go out of date, even if people lose interest in the TV series in which they saw them cooked.

Iíve already mentioned book clubs. The Cookery Book Club gave Wife Number One and me the nucleus of an excellent kitchen reference and inspiration library, but you often find a good range of cookbooks in other clubsí catalogues, too. Theyíre great, provided you take full advantage of their ludicrously cheap introductory offers, remember not to let them send you the Editorís Choice every month and donít forget to terminate your membership as soon as youíve cherry-picked the catalogue and fulfilled your basic obligation.

An outfit called The SoftBack Preview was unusual in that you weren?t obliged to buy any books - though, if you weren?t careful, they did send you their editor?s choice every month. Their superior paperback editions of quality books were excellent, and among my promotional offers was Leithís Cookery Bible. It only cost me £3.99 rather than the 30-odd quid demanded for the hardback, and it largely superseded the ancient and non-metric Constance Spry as the standard work of reference in my kitchen. It wasnít that easy to use, though, because the index - at least in the TSP edition - keeps sending me to the wrong pages! I got one of Rick Steinís other TV books for just £1 as part of the same offer.

And finally...

I donít send fan-mail, but when Nigella Lawsonís How to Eat landed in my lap I was most impressed, and when she published her email address at the bottom of her Observer column (not about food) I felt moved to send her a thankyou for this excellent book. And she was kind enough to reply by return. Her email is pasted in the front of my copy as a kind of electronic autograph.

This is the cookery book I wish I could have written - full of good recipes, information and anecdotes and, remarkably, with no photographs of finished dishes. Buy it - even at the full price (it cost me £20 from The Observerís discount book shop!). Itís a classic.

(Given that the author is the daughter of the former Tory Chancellor, and Iím an old socialist from way back, this is praise indeed.)

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.