The Oxford Companion to Food

This huge compendium of more than 2,600 entries is the result of 20 years’ work by the ex-diplomat and sea-fish expert supreme, Mr Alan Davidson.

The volume covers a vast canvas of cooks, cooking, eaters and the eaten. Beginning with the tasty nocturnal aardvark, it closes on the correct stuffing of the flower of the zucchini. In between there is much of use.

There is also a lot of quaint but gastronomically useless (for it may not be eaten) information, about, for example, the kiwi, which is alleged to have tasted like ‘pork boiled in an old coffin’.

Learned and scholarly, this is a tome to be dipped into. It might have been ideal bedside reading had not tests proved it so heavy and hard to handle. So also is the case with some of its contents. Prosaic and plodding entries on basting and grilling are not worth the space; but if you want to know about Ethiopian cookery, start here.

Yet there is a fey quality to too many entries. Why trouble with the understandably now uneaten fruit called a karaka? This sometimes caused such dire convulsions that the Maoris had a ready-made treatment, involving the binding of victims’ limbs and their burial up to the neck in the ground.

In contrast, some things that are eaten today are ignored. Take crackling; pork and lamb are cited, but gribenes, rendered-down goose skin loved by some in Jewish cooking, are ignored. The same goes for our own much less exotic invention, ‘pub food’, with its baskets of this or that.

On English cookery, alas, there are passages of hopeless political correctness, worrying about whether to refer to our traditional dishes in relation to those of immigrants. To do this involves something called ‘issues of political and social importance’ (p.276), the idea of which will cause derision among British cooks, whether labouring over Aga, balti or wok.