Saturday, 27 October 2012

The best place for cookbooks in London (and its not in Notting Hill)

The death of the bookshop

It doesn't take a genius to realise that physical bookshops are in a rum state. The inexorable rise of the e-book has gouged huge holes in a business model manifestly unsuited to a digital world.

The implosion of Borders (a chain so big it went bust not one, two but three times!) has been the highest profile example. Waterstone's decision to stock the Kindle is, depending on how you see it, the latest example of corporate hara-kiri, or an admission of the inevitable.

The cookbook-lover in me is profoundly depressed by these developments. A good cookbook is a trove to be treasured, not just content to be licenced. However the Wall St technology analyst in me tells me that you can't fight the future. Much as a love a good bookshop I suspect that in the long run the majority of them are toast.

So I say, enjoy it while it lasts.

London's best cookbook shop (and its not the one in Notting Hill)

London's Foyle's bookshop is just such a treasure. Sprawling across a large block on the Charing Cross Road, it was long renowned for its boozy literary lunches and idiosyncratic management practices. Fiction books were bizarrely arranged by publisher which made it impossible to find anything (if Kafka did libraries...). Then there was the Stalinist teller system where you took your book to the counter, were given a ticket to take to a separate booth to render payment, and then had to return to the counter to collect your goods (ironically it didn't help, given large financial discrepancies were later discovered the accounts). For many years the store's refusal to move with the times seemed to condemn it to a slow death in the face of faster-moving rivals like Dillons and Borders.

Happily in the last ten years the grand dame has enjoyed something of a renaissance. While the Borders opposite has long self-combusted, a revamped Foyle's sales serenely on. The lifts may be a bit ratty and the floor plan slightly confusing, but plans to move up the road to an expansive new site bode well for the future.

Best of all, their cookery department is by far the best in London. That didn't always used to be the case. Back in the day Borders could out-muscle them if you were in search of imported US editions, and Notting Hill specialist Books for Cooks was the go-to place for obscure French volumes. However Borders is now gone and I last time I was at BfC the selection seemed oh so tame.

Sooo many cookbooks... My head is already getting giddy...

In contrast the selection at Foyles is expansive and exciting. So I last week I thought I'd take a trip armed with my camera and a notebook and gut-and-fillet their current inventory. It's a good time of year as publishers roll out their new lists, peacock-like, for the Christmas rush. In no apparent order, here's what I came across:

Note - this is just a subjective flick through the books on show. Its not a definitive review of anything. I'm probably wrong on most of them. Not all of them are new (especially the ones from the second hand section!). It's just a look at the books that caught my eye. Nothing more.

Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing (Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn). Now I'm a sucker for dead pig. Particularly cured, salted or smoked. This is the follow-up to Ruhlman's previous book on Charcuterie, a much neglected topic, but from the point of view of an Italian-American deli. Pass the meatballs.

Modernist Cuisine at Home (Nathan Myhrvold & Maxime Bilet). Only one volume as opposed to the five volumes of the original MC (so I won't be able to use it as a bedside table this time...). Also makes more use of a pressure cooker this time round - a much neglected kitchen gadget IMHO.

Monica's Kitchen (Monica Galetti). TV sous-Dragon (and Le Gavroche sous-chef) Monica makes a surprisingly domesticated published debut, entirely at odds with her fearsome reputation. Will probably help her sell more books (basically the "you too can cook like Monica" line). Good to see that Le Gavroche head chef Rachel Humphrey's (probably the most underrated female cook in London, certainly the most underrated not to get on telly) gets a shout-out in the acknowledgements. Remember its Rachel who keeps the restaurant running while Michel and Monica are in the studio!

You're All Invited: Margot's Recipes for Entertaining (Margot Henderson). A similarly low-key debut from Margot Henderson, the lesser-known spouse of foodie deity Fergus Henderson of St John. Very much Simon Hopkinson/Nigel Slater comfort food. No obvious pigs trotters, but I may have missed them.

The Complete Nose to Tail: A Kind of British Cooking (Fergus Henderson). While I'm on that topic here's the hubby's book. Unfortunately its just a deluxe mashup of his previous two books rather than a new volume (I've a feeling this is a reprint of the expanded US version). So a bit of a cash-in from old Ferg, but worthwhile if you don't have the originals.

Memories of Gascony (Pierre Koffmann). I've blogged about this one before - the reprint has now happily arrived. It's got the recipe for the pigs trotter and the salmon confit. 'Nuff said.

Ard Bia Cook Book (Aoibheann Mac Namara & Aoife Carrigy). A bizarrely minimalist volume which could easily be mistaken for an IKEA catalogue. On closer inspection it appears to be a semi-sleb cookbook from an Irish restaurant I've never heard of.

Faviken (Magnus Nilsson). The good news - cult Arctic-Circle new-Nordic restaurant has a new cookbook out. The bad news - its been published by Phaidon the form-over-content-mongers who are a blight on the cookbook world. Unsurprisingly it embraced high production values and a surfeit of recipes. Actually some of the content is so pretentious its virtually beyond parody - such as the recipe for Vinegar Matured In The Burnt-Out Truck Of A Spruce Tree. I kid ye not.

If I Were Your Wife or how to make every day taste like Saturday (Lotta Lungren). Another one I include purely for entertainment rather than culinary value. This appears to be a badly-translated Swedish housewife's take on Mediterranean Cooking. So this is what Italians must think when they see Nigelissima!!

Ruhlman's Twenty (Michael Ruhlman). On top of the salumi, Mr Ruhlman has a second book out! Like his earlier Ratio, it's a brave but slightly flawed attempt to codify an attempt to cooking - this case taking twenty basic principles (ranging from acidity to butter to onions) and showing how they should be applied with recipes. It almost works.

The Pressure Cooker Cookbook (Catherine Phipps). As I mentioned, the pressure cooker is my current gadget du jour. A sensible selection of recipes - quite brave to include a pressure-cooked fish en papilotte recipe I have to say (generally, pressure cooker + fish = mush). She does make the very good point though that a pressure cooker can pulverise octopus to tenderness in twelve minutes (as well as making yummy congee in thirty!)

Burma: Rivers of Flavour (Naomi Daguid). As blogged about before, Naomi's first solo effort since the end of her partnership with Jeffrey Alford. Versus their previous books I think its more recipe driven. Tellingly in the acknowledgements she thanks their children but nary a mention for poor Jeffrey, so I guess (sadly) we're unlikely to see them writing together again.

New Beijing Cuisine (Jereme Leung). I've had this and his New Shanghai Cuisine on my to-by list for a while. They are very interesting books on haute-Chinese cuisine written by a Shanghai-based chef. Most Haute-Asian Fusion (HAF) books are basically French cuisine with soy-sauce. Jereme stays truer to his Chinese roots, while still adding the obligatory dash of truffle and foie gras. Well work seeking out.

Japanese Farm Food (Nancy Singleton Hachisu). Annoyingly I forgot to take a picture of this one for some reason - so I've nicked one off the web instead. But don't hold that against it this is a great book. Basically Cali girl goes to Japan for an exchange. Marries a local farmer/cowboy. Likes on the farm in Japan, teaches Japanese food and writes about it. Sounds like a recipe for disaster but its not - this is a brilliant, vibrant book which gives you all the Japanese home cooking basics with a fun twist. Interesting also she got famed American cookbook author (and Robuchon groupie) Patricia Wells to supply the foreword - a mark of quality in this case.

Memories of Gascony (Pierre Koffmann). So good I mentioned it twice! Actually no, Foyle's also has an interesting second-hand selection which has of number of notable volumes, including this one by Pierre. Also in-store was Raymond Blanc's Blanc-Mange (the original food-science-molecular-inspired-chefbook - written years before Heston came on the scene), a French version of Fernand Point's landmark Ma Gastronomie, and a copy of Patricia Well's brilliant Robuchon-for-the-masses book Cuisine Actuelle. The catch is that unlike most second-hand places, Foyle's prices are extremely keen. Memories for example is sixty five quid which is hard to swallow when the reprint is available on the next shelf for less than half that.

A Book for Cooks: 101 Classic Cookbooks (Leslie Geddes-Brown). A book after my own heart! A glossy run-down of 101 landmark cookbooks ranging from Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery to Terry Durack's Noodle. Though some of the volumes she cites are slightly obscure, I think she show's good judgement and I agree with many of her books. Hmmm a blog about cookbooks writing about a cookbook shop which stocks a book about cookbooks. Now that's meta! lol

Neurogastronomy - How the brain creates flavour and why it matters (Gordon Shepherd). Written by a US academic this could have been a valuable contribution to the molecular gastronomy/flavour perception debate. Unfortunately it looks a bit too plodding and academic. Too much neutrology, not enough gastronomy.

My Bread - The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method (Jim Lahey), Kneadlessly Simple (Nancy Baggett), No Need to Knead - Handmade Artisan Breads in 90 Minutes (Suzanne Dunaway). Jim Lahey's innovative method for no-knead bread not only kicked off a baking revolution, it seems to have kicked off a mini-genre too. TBH Dunaway's promise of no-knead artisan bread in 90 minutes sounds too good to be true - I'd probably stick to Lahey's original work.

Whole Beast Butchery: The Complete Visual Guide to Beef, Lamb and Pork (Ryan Farr, Brigit Binns & Ed Anderson). Pretty self-explanatory really. A sumptuously-photographed step-by-step guide to how to break down the beast of your choice. Really interesting for anyone who wants to understand why their tri-tip is different from their tricep. Not recommend for vegetarians though.

Testicles: Balls and Cooking in Culture (Blandine Vie, translated by Giles MacDonogh). Probably a book which only a French person could write with a straight face, though interesting they got MacDonogh (notable FT food writer) to handle the translation. To be honest, looks like a load of old bollocks to me...

Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal (Jennifer McLagan and Leigh Beisch). Another entry in the offal is really cool genre (cf anything by Fergus Henderson, Offal: The Fifth Quarter etc.). Written by the team who produced the wonderful iconoclastic Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes a few years back, so worth a look.
The Square Cookbook, Volume 1: Savoury (Philip Howard). Another one I've previously blogged about. Good to see it's landed and at over 400 pages its a whopper. And yes it does include the recipe for crab lasagne. Phew!

Secrets of the Sommeliers (Rajat Parr & Jordon Mackay). Another cracking book giving the view of the wine world form the perspective of a top US sommelier. A really interesting insider perspective on everything from buying tasting, matching and serving wine. A reminder of how US food books are often streets ahead of their UK rivals, especially with "prosumer" titles.

Also don't forget that Foyle's also has a wide range of food-related periodics, including Momofuku's bleeding-edge Lucky Peach (and before you ask they don't have issue 1 in stock, only 2, 3 and 4), the UK's Fire and Knives, Gastronomica, a new one called The Gourmand, the Proceedings from the last couple of Oxford Symposiums on Food and Cookery and the house journal of every self-respecting wine snob, World of Fine Wine.

In summary a great selection. The one's that stood out for me were the Japanese Farm Kitchen book and the Sommelier volume - both books I had no idea about before I stumbled into Foyles. I'm sad that when the physical bookshop does go the way of the dodo I shall miss these sort of opportunities (or at least have fewer places to seek them out). But let's just enjoy it while it lasts!


  1. I must pop in again. I remember last time thinking that if I could sell my old books at their second hand prices I would be a wealthy man.
    I'm also a very keen pressure cooker user-just putting the finishing touches to a game glaze made from 20 pigeon carcases and a pigs trotter with the kind of minimal effort that would be simply unimaginable any other way.

    1. Quite. I've got a copy of the Great Chefs of Framce I'm sure I could make a few bob out of of I could find the right outlet! The good thing about Foyles is their second hand selection is clearly put together by someone who knows what they are doing. The bad news is that they also know what it's worth! I guess that's a contrast to most second handlaces where you have to wade through piles of "entertain with your microwave" crud but them occasionally find an absolute gem knocked off!

      On pressure cookers they seem to have a terrible 1970s unfashionableness about them. I suspect this is because their traditional role (cooking stuff faster than a normal oven) has been massively usurped by the microwave, leaving people unsure quite what they are good for. In an age where kitchen tech is cool though it's incongruous people sell their souls for a pacojet or sous vide supreme but the equally high tech pressure cooker is ignored.

      Hopefully there will be something of a renaissance - the original modernist cuisine commended them highly for stocks but preferred sous vide for most meat. However the At Home version seems to use it much more for everyday dishes.

      Completely agree on using them for pigeon carcasses! (not doing hestons pigeon gelee are you?). I've also been blasting pig, ox cheek and oxtail with them successfully. Brilliant for congee too. Really want to try squid/octopus! As well as the Phipps book I've also got my eye on a recent one by Richard Ehrlich..

      And on subject of trotters I mean to write a piece on the various incarnations of the Pierre koffmann recipe... If I can only shake off this damned flu!