Time and place have again emerged as the dominant themes in food writing this year. Site-specificity - from the Bosphorus to the shores of Loch Broom - has the twin effect of highlighting the internationality of our modern food influences, while underpinning hyper-localism as a key barrier to relentless globalisation. More urgently, perhaps, celebrating - rather than lamenting - food cultures old and new helps protect them from disappearing under sustained warfare, enforced migration and cultural repression.
The emphasis this year has been as much on narrative as it is on recipes, pushing the modern cookbook yet closer into travelogue territory.
Two stand-out titles in particular nail the genre. Black Sea (Quadrille; £25) by the Edinburgh-based travel writer Caroline Eden focuses on the cooking of Odessa in southern Ukraine, Trabzon in northeast Turkey, and Istanbul, “the ultimate Black Sea diaspora” and “arguably the world’s greatest kitchen”. She also chronicles the smaller towns and settlements in a series of essays, literary extracts and poems as well as recipes. Some of the real-life stories are magically extraordinary: the tougher-than-leather last fisherwoman in Bulgaria with a tragic secret; the Turkish family whose anti-oxidant Black Sea honey is created by acorn-fed lice; the Romanian socialist-turned-miner-turned-master-spoon-carver being ignored by the Navy Day crowds of Constanta in search of fresh covrigi (pretzels) from the patisserie next door, yet bearing a beatific smile.
At one point Eden quotes the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov: “Beware nostalgia. You can’t run on, and look back”, and I hope her handsomely produced, sometimes deeply intense, work takes the flavour of the region and all its ancient complexities into the foodie future.
Slightly closer to home, James and Tom Morton’s Shetland: Cooking on the Edge of the World (Quadrille; £25) manages to marry ancient and modern in the most engaging way – by writing from the heart about the island (actually a scattering of over 100 different islands and islets) Tom first visited 40 years ago and in 1993 moved to permanently from the mainland to marry James’ mother Susan. James, a doctor in Glasgow, is a former Great British Bake-Off finalist and author of three previous cookbooks, while Tom, the well-known journalist and broadcaster, makes his cookbook debut. The unusual son-and-father co-author combo makes for a beguiling double-act in which empirical facts about Shetland’s history and long-established food culture are served up with characteristic dry wit.
The recipes are rooted in ancient crofting skills – preservation, fermentation, pickling, smoking - honed over centuries by the need to survive in a place cut off from the mainland by “a long and particularly rough sea journey” and prone to invasion. These are echoed in modern adaptations, mostly by James, that will surely talk to a whole new generation. Bravo for that.
How to recreate a Viking pit feast on the beach kicks off proceedings, with an interpretation for home cooking “dirty” (hot smoked) mackerel over seaweed. The history of reestit mutton is twinned with a recipe for making it at home, and even if you never manage it, the mere act of reading about it brings this revered old dish back to life. Among many other rivetingly descriptive asides and instructions, plus recipes by local women friends and neighbours, I particularly enjoyed James’ meticulously scientific dissection of roast chicken. I’m not so sure about trying the piglet testicles, though.
Old Europe gets a somewhat more nostalgic nod in Diana Henry’s gently tactile How to Eat a Peach (Octopus; £25, complete with fuzzy peach-skin cover) in a series of entire menus based on her travels, and which she began to collate as a 16-year-old backpacker.
The book’s title is taken from an Italian-Provencal menu and is reminiscent of the English writer Elizabeth David in its ability to conjure memories of pre-Brexit-angst summers past. White peaches in chilled sweet white wine is sipped along with melon and goat’s cheese curd with a lavender dressing; there’s roast sea bass with fennel and anise aioli, tomates provencales aux anchois and broad bean crostini. Mexico, New York, Turkey, Spain and Morocco also generate some gorgeous ideas and if the recipes – divided here into seasons - don’t feel terribly new now, they were at the time they were written. And so the stories associated with the meals are what draw you in.
Let’s Eat France, a large-format tome weighing 3kg by Francois-Regis Gaudry (Artisan; £36) is probably better described as an encyclopedia. It chronicles over 1000 speciality foods, 357 iconic recipes and hundreds of topics and personalities – and all the classic regional recipes. There’s a history of France in Camembert pack labels, ranging from Cardinal Richelieu to World War II and if it sometimes feels like going back to school with a fun-loving French teacher, its real merit is that it reminds us of France’s historic and lasting influence on British cooking – no matter what the Brexiters may say.
Much closer to home, the Scottish chef Tom Kitchin positively basks in the joys of sourcing hyper-locally, and then deploying his various global influences to create some interesting and simply beautiful dishes. In his Fish and Shellfish (Absolute; £26), aimed at the home cook, the various fruits of the Scottish coastline – be they foraged winkles, cockles or spoots, hand-dived scallops or line-caught mackerel – take centre-stage in various guises here.
A Thai monkfish curry inspired by The Kitchin’s head chef Lachlan Archibald’s travels to South-East Asia; squid ink and seaweed crispbreads inspired by the author’s Swedish brother-in-law, the Brooklyn chef Frederik Berselius; and cured mackerel and vegetables on toast, inspired by a meal in Portofino, Italy, are among many clearly presented recipes. Chef’s impassioned, but relatively short, chat may prove a refreshing relief compared to some other titles. But for me, roasted cod head with a citrus dressing takes the zeitgeist biscuit. It recalls the ancient Scots dish of crappit heid with all its associated myths and legends, while smashing the trend for ‘forgotten’ flavours with a modern twist. And no doubt it will also satisfy the desire to cut costs and reduce food waste in Generation Z and beyond.
[This article was first published in The Herald Arts & Ents magazine, December 8, 2018.]