Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
A tale of two cookbooks: Simple and Gather
The nights are now longer than the days, the quinces on the tree across the road have turned golden, and people keep reminding me that it’s less than a hundred days to Christmas. Autumn is most definitely here, and with it a whole collection of delectable new cookbooks.
My pick of Septembers releases are Diana Henry’s Simple and Gill Meller’s Gather. Both are beautiful and inspiring books, but I particularly like the way the compliment each other. It was the brilliant (honestly, I can’t praise this book enough) Salt, Sugar, Smoke that turned me into an almost evangelical Diana Henry fan, since when each new release has been eagerly awaited.
‘Simple‘ concentrates on food that can be prepared with a minimum of fuss but is big on flavour. Each chapter takes something as a base and uses it to build on – so for example toast; toast as something to set off carrot houmous, roast tomatoes and harissa yogurt. Toast turned into cider rarebit with the addition of an egg, toasted brioche with boozy mushrooms, warm eggs with roast tomatoes and watercress cream on toast… The chapter on eggs does the same thing – takes a humble enough ingredient and offers a whole range of suggestions to turn it into something special.
There are back to basics moments – a recipe for baked potatoes with yogurt – which underscore the point that for simple to really work it should be done well. A good baked potato is a real pleasure (crispy outside, fluffy inside), a bad one is utterly disappointing, there’s no reason not to make a good one.
My favourite chapter is ‘fruit puddings’, again it’s the range of suggestions to take something as good as a peach or an apricot and just do enough to it enough to make it feel a little bit decadent and indulgent. It sums up the generosity of spirit that runs through the book which speaks of sharing and taking in pleasure food.
It’s also tempting to characterise Henry as the town cook to Meller’s country cook. It would be an over simplification, but ‘Simple‘ does feel as rooted in town life as ‘Gather‘ does in the countryside and seasons of Devon and Dorset.
‘Gather‘ is one of those books that comes along every known again that feels important as well as being useful and desirable. Gill Meller is the head chef at River Cottage, which hints at the kind of thing you can expect to find in the book. From my point of view the most exciting thing about the whole River Cottage project is the number of obviously talented people who have been involved and the interesting things they’re doing (the series of handbooks is a brilliant showcase for this). The resulting books form a conversation about what the food we eat could and should be. Meller’s contribution to that conversation is particularly satisfying and the key to it is care. Care in buying good ingredients (which is not the same as expensive) and treating them with the respect they deserve so they can truly shine.
There is an emphasis on both good quality ingredients and the landscapes that produce them here – which is what I expected. What I hadn’t expected is how much Meller would make me think about them, but he does – it’s a very thoughtful and thought provoking book. It’s also a beautiful expression of modern British cooking full of things that look and sound fresh without relying on novelty.
There are a couple of recipes that sum the book up for me, things like chocolate rye brownies with bay and almonds, where the combination of the nutty rye flour and the perfume of the bay leaves makes something altogether more interesting than the brownie recipe I’ve previously favoured (they are really, really, good). The other one is cured trout with rhubarb and rose petals, which is basically a gravadlax with the rhubarb and rose taking the place of lemon and dill. What appeals to me so much about it is the way that it sounds both practical and somewhat romantic. It’s a theme that runs through the book; practical, unfussy, delicious sounding recipes that have a touch of magic to them.
I urge everyone to pick this book up and have a flick through it.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader She is looking forward to a winter of cooking and knitting, mentions of Christmas are not entirely welcome.
Diana Henry, Simple, (Octopus 2016). 9781845338978, 335pp., Hardback
Gill Meller, Gather, (Quadrille 2016). 9781849497138, 287pp., Hardback