Thursday, January 28, 2010

Books for Cooks

One of my favourite book shops is Books for Cooks in Melbourne . Here they have an excellent selection of current titles and a huge and diverse collection of second hand books. Tim knows his stock backwards, the staff are cheerful and helpful and altogether it is a great place to browse and potter about – very hard to visit without purchasing something.
The London Books for Cooks  was a little disappointing by comparison – a tiny space which for some reason seemed much more intimidating. And there were no second hand books! What the Notting Hill establishment does have however is a programme of workshops (held upstairs) and a miniscule café at the back of the shop. The café is their ‘test kitchen’ where the recipes from the books they sell are prepared by one of their resident chefs and then tried out on the clientele. On the day we were visiting there was a rush for the tables at lunch time – first in best fed, although the eaters appeared rather too sophisticated to actually push one another out of the way.
The combination of books and food isn’t the novelty that it used to be and the idea that shop which specialises in books about food should actually also sell food seems so obvious that it’s incredible it doesn’t happen everywhere. And indeed it does happen even here in Sydney – the Book Kitchen in Surry Hills  for one.
What was so appealing about the Books for Cooks approach was that they were using recipes from the books they had on the shelves. If you really enjoyed your slice of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Chocolate and Chestnut cake you might just feel inclined to purchase The River Cottage Year. Alternatively you could always take home a copy of Books for Cooks 9 the latest collection of the most popular recipes from the test kitchen which would also introduce you to recipes by Maggie Beer, Bill Granger and Greg and Lucy Malouf – perhaps not so surprising since almost all the Books for Cooks cooks are from either Australia or New Zealand.
Surely the best way to evaluate any recipe book is to cook from it. Unfortunately the average purchaser has no access to sampling before they buy. Doesn’t the potential buyer want to know whether the recipes actually work? Perhaps not. These days so many books are more photograph than recipe any way perhaps it doesn’t matter how well the recipes are written or how well they have been tested. Since it is unlikely that the average celebrity chef who is travelling the world opening restaurants and attending book signings has written all or indeed any of the recipes which appear in their books we can only assume that someone somewhere is doing the hard yards.
Which brings me to one of my perennial gripes – why don’t newspaper and magazine reviews do justice to recipe books? All too often the ‘review’ is a mere paragraph of publicity blurb rather than a thorough evaluation.
The illustration at the top of this post is a post card of an original oil painting by Selina Snow.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Neal's Yard Dairy - Cheese Heaven

There must be people who don’t like cheese. People who would find the idea of visiting a shop where the counter and shelves are piled high with rounds of cheese unexciting, even unpleasant. Such people do not swoon at the rich and pungent aroma, do not beg to be given even the tiniest taste. They are to be pitied.
If you are ever in London and need to visit a little bit of cheese heaven you must make a pilgrimage to Neal’s Yard Dairy.

Here you are not only welcome to browse but encouraged to sample and talk about their cheeses – from something like 70 cheese makers in Britain and Ireland and from Italy and France, made from the milk of cows, sheep, goats and buffalo – the choice is overwhelming. And the staff are unfailingly friendly and knowledgeable.

My favourite was the Stitchelton
a gorgeous soft, buttery blue with a rich complex flavour, produced on the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire using organic, unpasteurised cows milk.  It was divine especially teamed with the most fabulous Eccles cakes I have ever eaten which we also bought at Neal's Yard.

If you don’t know about Eccles cakes – rich currant filling wrapped in flaky/puff pastry and dusted with sugar -you should try them. Named after the town of Eccles (now part of Greater Manchester) where they originated, there is a good, authentic recipe at The Cook and the Chef.

Now that we are back home my latest favourite cheese is a simple guy called Tom from Bruny Island - available at the Eveleigh Carriage Works markets in Sydney.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Holiday Shopping

Although travel is suppose to broaden the mind, in this modern age when most of the world comes to you via one means or another, there is very little about the world outside Australia that comes as a real surprise once you get there. That said I still think travel should be compulsory – if only to get things into some sort of perspective and reaffirm that Australia is perhaps the best place on earth to live even if it is much too far from everywhere else (which is of course half the reason why it is such a wonderful place to be).

Watching all those English chefs on television and reading their books could seduce you into thinking that we were missing out on something here in the Antipodes but you would be wrong. I had naively let myself think that somehow shopping in Sainsburys or Waitrose or Marks and Spencer might just be that little bit more exciting than being in Coles or Woolworths. It isn’t. A supermarket is a supermarket is a supermarket. OK there are a few different products to look at – many more home brand, ready prepared bits and pieces – and the Waitrose magazine Food Illustrated is a much better production and far more interesting than any house magazine you might find at the checkout here but that is about it. The supermarket shopping experience is impersonal and sterile almost by definition.

The best places to shop, and my favourite holiday attractions, are always fresh food markets – where ever they may be.

And in London the most exciting place to spend a Saturday morning is the Borough Market in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral. Not only is the produce here wonderful (fresh and diverse), the market appears to be very professionally run – there’s a map to guide you around (who’s where and when they are open) and a quarterly magazine called Market Life which introduces the stall holders and what they have available. This is perhaps as it should be for a market which can trace its origins back 2,000 years or so and has been operating on its present site for over 250 years.  The market is administered by a Trust, a charity administered by the Board of Trustees, whose mandate is to hold a market for the benefit of the community - now there's a novel idea.

Everything available on the Saturday we were there looked so tempting! From fresh fruit and vegetables, to fish, shellfish, Bresse chickens, rabbits and game birds, pies, pastries and the most seductive cheeses! I could shop here every week!