I’ve lost count of the number of cookbooks I own but I have thousands, all ordered by type of cuisine, specialist subjects, and by chef and food writers. They are crammed into floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in my study and take up most of the book space in a corner of my sitting room. The biggest concentration is in my kitchen, where a whole wall is covered with bookshelves full of them.
The books span my life in food, predating my first book, In Praise of the Potato, published in 1989 and written in my kitchen, part of which – the book end – used to be my study. After Potato, I moved my study up into the loft, which we call the bunker, and that’s where I wrote A Celebration of Soup. I was fully established in what is still my study – I swapped the bunker for my son Henry’s bedroom – when I helped Simon Hopkinson write Roast Chicken and Other Stories. Simon used to come to my house three times a week and we’d work in my study, me encouraging him to tell stories, which I edited as I typed, later going over the copy after he’d gone. He cooked a lot at my house too, and several times we took the computer away, first spending occasional weeks cooking and writing in Walberswick and Southwold. Later, when we wrote The Prawn Cocktail Years, we took more writing trips to France, in Tom Conran’s house, and Suffolk again.
It was on one of our working weeks away – staying at the Walnut Tree at Abergavenny when Franco and Ann Taruschio were still living and working there – that Simon bought me a copy of Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book (available in a Grub Street facsimile edition). Mrs Costa wrote for the Sunday Times magazine in the late sixties and seventies, and together with her husband – Bill Lacy – ran a highly respected restaurant called Lacy’s in Whitfield Street, off Tottenham Court Road. I remember going there in my days as a restaurant critic. Her recipes are typically sensible but special and always work, which is more than can be said for an awful lot of published recipes.
All my books are a bit like my sons, I love them intensely and want to see them repeatedly. I dip into my own books all the time, constantly surprising myself at long-forgotten recipes I promptly cook again, usually making a change or two. The first cookbook that I fell in love with was Claudia Roden’s Middle Eastern Cook Book. Moutabal and stuffed vine leaves are the two recipes I particularly associate with it but I feel as though I have cooked the book. I own all the River Café books, most inscribed by Rose Gray and her partner in cooking Ruthie Rogers. I love their food and love their classy books. I refer to them all they time, either to enjoy their sassy design or great photos, as well as the must-cook recipes. I love the Moro books by ex-River Café chefs Sam and Sam Clark but two particular favourites that give inspiration when I’m fed up with the whole cookery fandango are The Independent Cook by Jeremy Round and An Omelette and A Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David. Both books make me laugh. Both authors write so well and obviously love their food without submitting to gastroporn. I was lucky to have known both of them and reading their work brings them back to life.