Summer’s Lease by Thom Eagle

Review by Hayley Anderton

I’ve heard universally good things about Thom Eagle’s first book, First, Catch and it has a clutch of awards to back up the word of mouth. But it’s Summer’s Lease that I bought as a premature release from lock down celebration and ended up reading in a couple of sittings as if it was a particularly gripping novel.

Summer’s Lease is a book about food, and cooking without heat, but it’s not a traditional cookbook although unlike First, Catch it does contain some recipes. It’s partly about the how and the why some things work, but it’s also a lot about Thom Eagle’s food philosophy and the things he’s learnt along the way that seem worth sharing. I cannot overstate how easy it is to fall into this book and keep reading.

It’s divided into four chapters: On Breaking, On Salting, On Souring, On Ageing. The premise of On Breaking is that almost everything we eat must be broken in some way before we cook it. It’s a simple enough truth, but not a way I’ve ever thought about cooking before, and this is what Eagle is so good at – making his reader look at food from a different angle, it makes sense of a whole lot of things that I’d barely considered before.

A vinaigrette will coat a tomato that’s been ripped apart differently to the way it does one that has been sliced. Torn herb leaves taste different to ones that have been chopped, how we break things matters. I stopped reading at this point to make a loaf of bread because there was a discussion about how fundamental breaking down grains is, and the symbolism of breaking bread. It’s also a book that encourages you to get hands on with your cooking and feel how textures change as the process of breaking down certain ingredients progresses, and I’d rather do that with dough than with some of the meat recipes.

Traditionally a lot of summer cooking is about preserving things to eat through the rest of the year, and again Eagle’s take on this is interesting at a point when so much writing about food concentrates on eating things when they’re fresh, the growing fashion for fermentation aside. There are questions about why we assume that well aged meat is better, but don’t consider the virtues of ageing some kinds of fish – he makes a good case for this backed up by sound science, please don’t be put off.

The big thing here though is just what good company Thom Eagle is in this book. He encourages experimentation in the kitchen, but also cautions against the desire to try and make everything yourself whilst acknowledging how seductive the lure to do so is. There are plenty of fermenting and curing projects which would be both distinctly antisocial, and eventually yield results that won’t be as good as the product you can buy. Instead the focus is on things that there’s a genuine benefit for the home cook in tackling, along with an admission that things will go wrong and turn out badly from time to time.

As fermenting becomes increasingly fashionable this is a particularly useful thing to read and understand – I would have been happy to see a brief discussion about whether it’s yeast or mould expanded on, it’s something that would be useful to know, but at least I understand it’s a possibility now which will make further research easier.

There’s a lot to think about here, and a lot of simple things to take on board that will help you make better food – there’s advice on how to salt a salad that I wish I’d learned a long time ago. Highly recommended.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Thom Eagle, Summer’s Lease (Quadrille 2020) 978-1787135338, 215pp., hardback.

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