The overall rating of a review is different from a simple average of all individual ratings.
Share this review on
One of the many problems I have with supermarkets is that they try to persuade me that any fresh fruit and vegetable I want is available all year round. I can eat fresh raspberries in January, green beans in February, leeks in June, asparagus in October and strawberries for Christmas dinner. The problem is that they'll have been flown half way round the world and taste of little more than wasted money. What I needed was a book to flag up when food is at its peak and give me some hints as to how it can best be used.
Nigel Slater is an obliging man. For more than a decade he's written a food column in The Observer. I've read him slavishly and he's had more influence on the way I buy and prepare food than anyone else. I think I've read just about everything he's written and when I thought of a book I needed he wrote "The Kitchen Diaries".
For a year he recorded his food shopping expeditions and the food he cooked and ate. He goes out to shop for food most days and frequents farmers' markets, health food shops, the local deli and artisan producers. He lives where he does because it's close to good shops and he has a proud boast that he has never set foot in a branch of Tesco. He cooks in a normal kitchen. It's not a restaurant kitchen or a high-tech theatre which costs more than most people's homes. It's a family kitchen with doors which open out onto the garden. He has the sort of pots and pans that we all use.
There's a peel-off label on the front of the hardback book saying that it contains over 300 new recipes from Britain's best-loved food writer. I'd quibble slightly with this as some of the recipes are distinctly familiar to me as a reader of The Observer Magazine. I've certainly not seen them in any of his other books though. Anyone buying Delia Smith books these days is likely to find that the books are compilations of recipes that she's published previously or re-workings of older recipes. On that basis the cover price of £25 for "The Kitchen Diaries" (available for £15 on Amazon in October 2005) is very reasonable.
Each month some fifteen to twenty recipes are given. They're listed at the beginning of the month and also covered in the excellent index. The recipes are almost incidental though, as the book is written in the form of a diary. Not only do we see how food varies in the course of a year we see how it changes in the course of a month. As Nigel points out the beginning of May and the end could be two completely different months from the point of view of the food available.
Nigel's principle is simple. It's the way he begins the book - "Right food, right place, right time". He believes and shows that this is the best recipe of all. Refreshingly it's not all about preparing difficult recipes with hard-to-get ingredients. It's about eating fish and chips on the beach or ordering a pizza and then ringing up afterwards to say how good it was. I've read right through the book now and re-read September and October. I haven't seen one recipe that I've thought looked complicated and most have a very limited number of ingredients. There's copious use of seasonal ingredients.
One problem that I've had with a number of cookery books is that the recipes cater for a ridiculous number of people. A recent Gary Rhodes book regularly had recipes feeding six, eight or even ten people. These are not the family groups in which most people live. Many of Nigel's recipes are for a snack for one or a meal for two people. Very few of the recipes even cater for six. There's a good variety too of the everyday food and the more special, the healthy and the more indulgent.
If I had to quibble over one point about variety (and this is me being VERY picky) then I noticed a lack of savoury egg dishes. Nigel doesn't eat eggs as eggs - if you read his book "Toast" you'll see the reason why - and there's only one recipe, for a Spanish omelette. We eat eggs regularly and I would have loved some more inspiration, but it's not as though they're exactly seasonal!
Nigel is quite open about mistakes and failures too, such as the lime tart where there was a small hole in the base and all the filling ran out. I found it reassuring that someone of his experience and expertise could make the odd blunder. My own failures don't seem so disheartening now.
The book is beautifully presented. Nigel's articles in The Observer Magazine are always accompanied by photographs taken by Jonathan Lovekin. He's the photographer for this book and the pictures are exquisite. They're not restricted to pictures of prepared food but include shots taken in the garden and around the house. I was pleased to read that the food was prepared and then photographed before being eaten. This might sound like a strange point to make, but it's not unusual when food is being photographed for cookery books for it to be coated in engine oil to "enhance" the appearance. It's then binned and I hate the waste. A nice presentational touch too is the silk book mark attached to the spine.
Many people who read "Toast: the story of a boy's hunger" hoped that Nigel would write about the later years of his life. I'm afraid that anyone hoping that these diaries would reveal more about his personal life will be disappointed. There are references to "we" and "us" but there is no further elucidation and it might even mean that the cat is particularly well-fed.
The book is highly recommended. It excited all the senses and gave me inspiration.
The Kitchen Diaries ISBN: 0 00 719948 1 Published 3 October 2005 by Fourth Estate Cover price: £25 in hardback but currently available from Amazon for £12.50 plus £2.75 P&P if total order is under £15. Paperback not yet published.
His ealier book was serialised and I could not get into it, but this onesounds better.
sparklya 07.01.2006 15:52
Thanks, I was wondering whether this book was any good as Waterstones have it reduced to £10, less than half price. I have Nigel Slater's other book, Real Food (reviewed here), which I really like. A couple of questions about the Diaries though - would you say it's hard to pick out the recipes amongst the rest of the writing, ie is it more of a book to read rather than use as a straightforward recipe book? Also, do you find that a lot of the recipes are rather heavy / fattening? That's what I found with Real Food, though I do love the food. Thanks!
Kukana 29.11.2005 17:10
Very, very tempted... though I don't usually pay even £15 for cookery books. Still, it's gone on the wishlist and I'll keep an eye out for further reductions, or perhaps a paperback edition in a few months. Sue