A.A. Gill restaurant critic of The Sunday Times, sees critics as ‘civilisation’s traffic wardens’. When we’re the object of their attentions, we want to inflict horrible torture, but, the rest of the time, we know they keep things running smoothly. Mr Gill has a true talent for invective, but is so bitingly funny that I bored everyone by reading out long passages, snorting periodically. He’s a master of simile: a dish is ‘as fishy as a chancellor’s promises’ (doesn’t that ring a current bell?), a restaurant exudes ‘the warm welcome of a Norwegian small-claims court’ and a dish is like ‘a Kurdish insurgent duck that’s been interrogated to death by Turkish policemen’.
He sneers at vegetarians and eco-warriors, his review of the Millennium Dome’s Acclaim! restaurant is a vituperative masterpiece, and he’s deadly at pricking menu pretensions ‘…bee’s honey (just in case you thought it might be snail’s honey…)’. Elizabeth David, wrongly, gets a special sneer: ‘A good travel writer of the Peter Mayle type.’ Civilisation deserves a traffic warden as eager and nasty as this.
Tamasin Day-Lewis has been described as ‘the Elizabeth David of our time’, and this book proves that she’s a travel writer vastly superior to Peter Mayle. For this is an autobiography, a traveller’s tale and a love story rather than a recipe book, although some are thrown in half-heartedly.
The book mixes food and travel from San Francisco to Puglia, Venice to New York, much in the company of Rob (I never found his surname), her lover, companion and owner of the smartest cheesemonger in New York. Rob is a bit of a wimp about British food, and is terrified that he might be faced with bubble and squeak, oxtail or toad in the hole. He is, however, indefatigible in search of a good cheese, and the pair are pretty dismissive of exaggerated cheffery, citing a meal of foraged foods, cucina povera, ‘as delicious a lunch I have ever eaten anywhere in the world… without a single air or grace or needless embellishment… where probably nothing has travelled more than a dozen miles’. She helpfully gives the address. Food is poetry in this book?not surprising as the author is the daughter of a poet laureate.
Eating for England is poetry, too. But, where Tamasin Day-Lewis is definitely right side of the tracks, Mr Slater comes from the bourgeois world of net curtains and biscuit tins. His book is all nibbles, sweet and savoury, which contradict Mr Gill’s assertion that British cooking has vanished under a Mediterranean blanket of olive oil. Mr Slater speaks of treacle tarts and cream crackers, gingerbread, Branston pickle, black puddings and sausages ? many either rediscovered or doughtily clinging on. He sees bread and dripping as ‘wartime bruschetta’ and roast beef as one of the world’s greatest dishes. He’s as soothing a writer as Mr Gill is hot, crumpet not curry.
I groaned when London got the Olympics, but Sam and Sam Clark’s book makes me loathe the costly, destructive beast. Their book is an elegy for the Manor Garden Allotments in the East End, 81 plots given ‘in perpetuity’ by Arthur Villiers in 1900?perpetuity being 107 years.
It was home to a mixed trug of gardeners: Turks, Kurds, North Africans, East Enders and the two Clarks. Its loved and fertile soil has now been concreted over?to be a footpath for four weeks. The recipes, the photographs of home-from-home sheds and the horny-handed gardeners now thrown off their plots make me despair of politicians and bureaucrats. Okay, they have been rehoused (would that have happened without the help of the celebrity Clarks?), but it’s not the same loved soil. The book, with superb recipes that show how Moorish and similar food can be made and grown in Britain, scarcely conceals the authors’ fury.
In Nigella Express, Ms Lawson appears in dressing gown and pinny whipping up a storm. The recipes are surprisingly down-to-earth and, true to the title, fast. She’s writing mostly for mothers, and this would make an elegant present for those hard-worked cooks.
This book is written by a farmer’s daughter who has worked with the house’s farm shop since 2002. Seasonal dishes such as carrot and ginger soup, spiced beef, fillet of venison with juniper sauce and port and blackberry jelly prove Mr Gill to be wrong to write off British food. It’s alive in Chatsworth, if not Chelsea.