I am reliably informed that Rudolf Nureyev always aimed to put on 7lbs in the winter. Passing silently over the depressing realisation that he probably put them off again every spring, I take this to be permission to crack on with the G-Plan Diet. No, not reducing waistlines by only eating while sitting on stylish modernist furniture: G stands for Greedy.
Now here’s where being an avid devourer of books pays off. As Pongo and Missus know (One Hundred and One Dalmatians), leather bindings are the tastiest, but actually I was for once thinking in terms of metaphor (try Terence Hawkes’ short but definitive exploration for dazzling insight into metaphors). We omnivorous readers can snack on cookery books, feast on histories of food and gulp down gasp-making accounts of edible excess – all without ingesting a single, wriggling calorie.
Cookery books divide themselves into two categories: instruction manuals (from Isabella Beeton to Delia Smith) and essays-with-recipes. That’s the sort of cookery book you can read for pleasure and not necessarily in the immediate pursuit of grub. The best were Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. It is almost an accidental auxiliary gain that their recipes work (sometimes more or less work, in the case of Mrs David). As the years sloosh by, both also begin to speak from a world we have lost. I am sure you know of the revolutionary impact on rationed post-war Britain of A Book of Mediterranean Food. It burst upon an entirely monochrome country with its unquestioning recommendation of lemons, garlic and olive oil as kitchen essentials. ‘Add little by little 4ozs. of butter and 4 beaten egg yolks,’ it said, in 1950: no problem for the cook complying with the ‘little by little’ advice – up to a week’s ration of butter and of eggs, gone in a transitory glory of béchamel sauce. No surprise, perhaps, that the General Election of 1950 was largely fought on the issue of rationing and how quickly it could come to an end. Even a generation later, my own garlicky, wine-y (as opposed to whiney, which of course I wasn’t) childhood was, like so many aspects of my childhood, distinctly unusual. All right, let’s face it, odd.
And no surprise, either, to find that the introduction to my later edition of Mediterranean Food was written by the great Jane Grigson. Unquestionably a writer you can read in bed (just don’t dribble – that’s never a good look), Mrs Grigson is in many ways the direct heir to Mrs David, passionately arguing for food and cooking to be seen as a central part of our cultural heritage. Whether she’s telling us about the village food of Troo, in the Loire Valley and home of a wonderful stuffed cabbage recipe (try it: it’s in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book and is just the thing for this rather dispiriting time of year) or reminding us that Mrs Raffald’s Bacon and Egg Pie (English Food) is every bit as delicious as quiche and travels better for picnics, Grigson writes with knowledge, enthusiasm and a sense of purpose. If the movement for Slow Food – the proper recognition of food and cooking as the central binding agent of families and communities – doesn’t yet have a patron saint, then I offer Jane Grigson.
Cookery books have a way of accumulating in kitchens if you’re not careful, and it can be quite eye-opening to go and take stock. When did you last use One Hundred and One Microwave Suppers (oh, I’ll bet there is a book called that) or 500 Cheescake Recipes (I know two, and they both work, and I have no interest in knowing any more)? An afternoon spent carrying out a cull might not only produce a helpful bag-full for your nearest Oxfam, it might also reunite you with some once-treasured recipes that, somehow, you have got out of the habit of making. When Katie Stewart died last year, I was reminded to dig out my battered and more or less loose-leaf paper-back Times Cookery Book. I have been cooking from it ever since: sensible, clearly and calmly-written recipes, not given to provoking you to rush out and buy exotic once-off ingredients (sherry vinegar, anyone?): and, by the way, the best – by which I mean simple and unfussed – instructions for turkey-roasting you are likely to find.
These three good ladies, David, Grigson and Stewart, all pre-date the age of the Celebrity Chef. Hurray! I do not want to cook like Gordon Ramsay – in fact there is no aspect of Gordon Ramsay that I wish to emulate. But cooks-who-can-write are a mercifully different kettle of fish (oh, you can’t begrudge me at least one cooking-based metaphor). The best of them is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, liked in the NorthernReader household because of his pleasingly practical solution to the Grey Squirrel Problem (clue: they’re delicious), but Nigel Slater, irritating though he can be with a self-regarding preciousness, has the great redeeming quality of liking his grub and writing about it with loving attention.
But, without question, the most memorable cookery book I have ever come across belonged to my great-grandmother. It may, indeed, have been given to her by her mother, and for all I know it may have been passed down for several generations before that. Several generations, that is, of redoubtable Highland women who could not only read and write – the book is hand-written – but who could stomach anything. Nearly all the recipes – and there are many – involve the simple core ingredients of lard, blood and oatmeal. Even more horrifyingly, several recipes have the simple annotation, ‘this is very good’, noted in the margins. Armed, possibly only, with this notebook, my great-grandmother travelled fearlessly across the length of the planet and took on whatever the outer fringes of the Empire could throw at her without batting an eyelid. Well, you can see why. Eat your heart out, Charles Marlow: if you’d been brought up on my great-grandmother’s cooking, what could Kurtz bring on that would have made you tremble?