I wonder if, like me, you have a collection of book tokens, given by kind friends and family as festive gifts. Mine are burning a hole in my purse, so if yours are similarly ready to pop out of the wallet, here are a few suggestions for you.
The Almanac – A Seasonal Guide to 2019 by Lia Leendertz
The Almanac 2018 was published through crowd-funding, and I am happy to say that I was one of the many who contributed to that initiative. Lia Leendertz’s success with that edition has led to The Almanac 2019 being published by a mainstream publisher, Octopus. This edition has been revised and updated, has illustrations by Suffolk artist Celia Hart, and is presented in the same pocket-sized format as the 2018 version. And even though we are just shy of a fortnight into 2019, there will still be plenty to enjoy through the remainder of January and into the months ahead.
Arranged in a month-by-month order, the rhythm of the year unfolds gradually, giving you time to appreciate each month ‘in its moment’. New features in the 2019 almanac are cheeses of the month, where Lia describes some mouth-wateringly delicious-sounding regional and local cheeses. As I had an early copy I cheated slightly by looking at the cheese entry for December 2019 and rushed out to buy a piece of Beauvale, a creamy spreadable Stilton made by Cropwell Bishop in Nottinghamshire, on the basis of her recommendation.
Meteor showers that you might like to stay up late to watch, folklore and stories from the diversity of people who live in Britain, as well as recipes, are among the many features. Lia notes when particular fruit, veg and herbs are at their best in each monthly rundown of what is available in the kitchen and garden
Seasonal and religious festivities, the tides, phases of the moon, sunset and sunrise times are all covered in the monthly format, giving you the chance to appreciate just what is happening in the natural world around us. Dipping in and out of it I found it easy to gaze and think… something that Lia hopes all readers will be prompted to do. Lia is asking all her readers to post images of their own almanac moments with the hashtag #myalmanacmoment
Rose by Catherine Horwood
Poster flower for romance and love, roses are undoubtedly the world’s favourite flower and there is a wealth of literature, art, and technical, botanical, and horticultural information that exists.
In Rose Catherine Horwood’s impeccable research is coupled with her skill at telling the stories of the rose in a logical and lyrical style and opening eyes and hearts new and old to their charms. She charts the history of the rose from fossils dating back 40 million years that were discovered in the 20th century to BBC viewers selecting the rose as “the most important and influential plant of the last fifty years” in 2017.
In this compact book she has also included two appendices. One covers the more technical classification of the rose family and its groups and the other offers recipes and notes on using roses in edible ways and to perfume the home.
Illustrations include evocative catalogues, illustrations of rose gardens of the past, modern colour photographs of today’s roses, as well as images of the rose in art, literature and ballet; from stained glass rose windows to Georgia O’Keefe’s Rose of 1957.
Dahlias by Naomi Slade
I have never subscribed to the often-quoted view that dahlias are ‘common’ and should be avoided. On the contrary, I have always found them to be a wonderful addition to the late summer border. When I sold bunched flowers at the Wyken Hall Farmers’ Market about 15 years ago they were the stalwarts of my summer-into-autumn bunches.
So it is with great pleasure that I read Naomi Slade’s book Dahlias, which profiles some 65 different dahlias. Naomi outlines the history of these sumptuous and varied flowers, and after giving a broad picture of dahlia classification, so that the reader can understand the main descriptive terms, the many divisions and classifications, she puts her dahlia delights into chapter headings such as Romantic, Fabulous and Funky, Dramatic and Daring, and Classic and Elegant. ‘Crème de Cassis’ and ‘Café au Lait’ are in the first category, with one of my favourites, ‘Roxy’, in the Fabulous and Funky chapter.
Naomi’s descriptions are fun: ‘Fascination’ is described as an “eye-popping hottie”. She offers suggestions of plants that might team up with each of the dahlias, as well as details of their height, spread, flowers size and foliage colour. Salvia ‘Super Trouper’ is her suggestion as a plant companion for ‘Fascination’. Naomi’s lively and zesty text is matched by close-up and personal photographs of dazzling dahlias shot by Georgianna Lane, a leading floral, garden and travel photographer.
The book concludes with a useful and practical, no-nonsense, section on growing and care. With this book in hand you can make your choices about which varieties to order and get those orders in swiftly.
Potatoes by Jenny Linford
Moving from seasonal thoughts to the potato. I would be glad to spend my book token on any of Jenny Linford’s books. Jenny is the author of several single-subject books including Garlic and The Tomato Basket. In this book she turns her attention to that staple ingredient of many cuisines, the potato. She highlights 65 recipes that take you through its history and arrival on our shores when it was thought of as an exotic novelty. Now on almost every menu, the potato is lower in calories than bread or rice and is a useful source of fibre, potassium and Vitamin B6. Good news for eternal calorie counters, perhaps?
Each section of the book begins with a background essay, such as History of the Potato (including its popularisation in France through the work of Parmentier; and the arrival of potato blight in Ireland in the mid 19th century, which led to the death of around a million Irish people and set off mass emigration).
The first section looks at potatoes used in summer dishes and includes New Potatoes with Mint Salsa, giving a fresh twist to the usual mint-flavoured potato salad.
Potato varieties are covered in the second essay, followed by recipes that fill the hunger gap for autumn and winter menus. In the chapter on Comfort Potatoes The Cult of the Chip is considered: recipes follow for Hash Browns, Hasselback Potatoes with Parma Ham, Stuffed Baked Potatoes and Lancashire Hotpot, as well as for iconic Triple-Cooked Chips.
Next up is Spicy Potatoes where Jenny emphasises the versatility of potatoes and the range of textures and flavours of different varieties, and their capacity to soak up flavour from other ingredients.
The concluding section, Luxury Potatoes, offers one of my own favourite dishes Rosemary Garlic Potatoes, a dish that conjures up holidays in France with no trouble. I recently made some rosemary salt, and I now regularly create small batches of salty, rosemary-encrusted potatoes, of which I feel sure Jenny would approve.
Other classics offered here are Saffron Mash Fish Pies (saffron strands and parsley are the lead herbs) and Classic Potato Gratin, where thyme leaves provide a rich and satisfying flavouring.
By now you may have run out of book tokens, so please put Jenny’s most recent book, The Missing Ingredient – the Curious Role of Time in Food and Flavour published by Particular Books, on your book list. It will be time and money well spent. From it you will learn so much about the importance of time and the way more or less of it, alters the taste and flavour of so many processes in cooking and food production.
Flour: A Comprehensive Guide by Christine McFadden
I am not known for my baking skills and (dare I confess) I usually have to check if the hardly-used bags of flour in my store-cupboard are in ‘use by’ date, so infrequently do they come out of hiding.
In Flour Christine McFadden has once again made me think about the nature of a particular ingredient and I have learnt so much (Christine has written 17 cookbooks, including Pepper, the spice that changed the world, and ran a successful cookery school in Dorset).
There are 45 flours listed in the book in an A to Z format. Each entry starts with a photograph showing the raw and processed material, together with a flour ‘CV’ giving its source, what it is known as, the Latin name of the source material, whether it contains gluten or not, its uses and what it goes well with. This gives way to an essay-like description of the flour, how to use it and any drawbacks, such as almond flour’s propensity to brown more quickly due to its high fat content. You know from these spreads that Christine has researched, used and got to know the particular flour intimately.
I loved her description of herself as a newly formed ‘flour junkie’ and that her flour collection, once easily housed in a single tub, was now curated in “a dedicated spare room, lined with shelf after shelf of carefully labelled boxes” which has become her “flour library”.
These introductory ID pages are each followed by one or more recipes that offer new ways of using the particular flour, with varying degrees of ease and difficulty. So now I am ready to take on almond, amaranth and atta flour (to make an orange and almond cake, cheese and chilli purple cornbread and spiced potato puris, respectively). I am not sure, though, that I am going to try cricket flour (yes, a gluten-free ground insect powder), even though, as Christine suggests, the main ingredients of the rum-soaked prune and sultana cake might be robust enough to prevent the cricket flavour dominating.
I enjoyed the flour-related discourses on topics such as the science of gluten, protein and resistant starch; an overview of wheat, an outline of milling and a description of stone grinding. However, I would have liked it if these had been signposted with a page number in the contents, as I came across them in a random way.
As I would expect from knowing Christine’s research skills there is an excellent bibliography and a list of sources of the more obscure or hard-to-find flours, as well as brands that Christine found particularly useful.
Mike Cooper’s stylish photographs of source material and finished recipes complement Christine’s research and writing. And I have updated my knowledge of this store-cupboard ingredient.
Belgian Café Culture by Regula Ysewijn
I met Regula Ysewijn briefly in summer 2018 at the Oxford Food Symposium. So when I visited Antwerp just before Christmas I felt bold enough to contact her and we arranged to meet up. She suggested a café called De Kat…. and I thought it would be tea/coffee and cakes. Of course it was one of the cafés that feature in her book and she introduced me and my two friends to some special beer including De Konninck served in ball-shaped glasses.
Regula wrote the book after she took a Belgian beer sommelier course, which naturally involved high-level homework – visiting cafés and experiencing first-hand the heritage and importance of the authentic café.
Regula has collected details of the customs and folklore associated with around 40 cafés that she visited and photographed. It is a loving record of places that once had seemingly unassailable roles in the social life of communities. Now the existence of many of them is fragile: given that the way of life in the various towns and cities is changing, as is the clientele and the owners too. However, there is good news, as Regula notes that for many visitors, Belgian’s beer cafés and their culture, are often the cornerstone of their trips.
Women played an important role as landladies as the café was often situated in the front room of their homes. The husband went out to work and the wife ran the café. There was often a shop, sometimes a hairdresser and they were places where people gathered to be hired for work, or more alarmingly, spent their entire wage packet.
I was fascinated by the ambiance of De Kat and realised why earlier in our visit to Antwerp we had mistakenly thought that another of the cafés, De Engel, might serve us coffee and pastries… no, these cafés are more like characterful pubs that some might see as ripe for rebranding.
The book is bi-lingual (Dutch/English), illustrated with Regula’s evocative images of the people and the places, capturing and holding their faded and fading splendour.
Regula is a dedicated Anglophile and the author of Pride and Pudding: The History of British Puddings, Savoury and Sweet.
In The Footsteps of Joseph Dalton Hooker: A Sikkim Adventure by Seamus O’Brien
If it is plant hunting adventure beyond the seasonal catalogues that usually transport us at this time of year from armchair into spring and summer garden activity, then Seamus O’Brien is the man to lead you in the footsteps of Joseph Hooker, a Victorian polymath. Hooker, like his father William Jackson Hooker, became Director of RBG Kew and published floras relating to many areas in the southern hemisphere including the Himalayas, India and New Zealand.
The bicentenary of Hooker’s birth was celebrated in 2017. From his exploration in Sikkim he brought back drawings and specimens of Rhododendron, many of which survive at Kilmacurragh in east County Wicklow where they seemed to urge Seamus, who manages the National Botanic Gardens, Kilmacurragh, to follow in Hooker’s footsteps and see them in their natural habitat.
He outlines Hooker’s visit to Sikkim and East Nepal and then expands our horizons with the details of the expedition he undertook with Irish botanists and horticulturists 170 years later. Hooker was fortunate to reach previously untouched floras and he spent some 50 years describing and understanding the plant collection from Sikkim, some thousands of species, pressed and dried and sent back to Kew for naming. He also understood that many of his ‘finds’ had horticultural potential.
It is fitting that the modern explorers came upon a previously unknown natural hybrid, Rhododendron x thupdenii, proof, if it were needed, that there is still much to discover in the world of plants.
Seamus sets the scene and explains how his work at Kilmacurragh piqued his interest in Hooker’s exploration. And you can see why since the first chapters of the book rely on Hooker’s illustrations of the flora and images of the places he visited. And the people – collectors and botanists – who were Hooker’s contemporaries are identified and amplify an understanding of the drive to explore and record new plants.
The later chapters, illustrated with a mix of colourful and lively contemporary photographs of the many and wonderful plants that Hooker first saw and identified, and archive material, are the next best thing to being on the trek in person. Seamus re-tells the history of Hooker’s travels and interposes his own appreciation of the breathtaking places and plants.
The book doesn’t gloss over incidents such as Hooker’s unauthorised incursion into Tibet and the political ramifications that followed. In conclusion Seamus posits the hope that the degradation of formerly pristine landscapes can be halted. The book concludes with several appendices listing Hooker’s Rhododendrons, his Nepal and Sikkim plants, place names and a select glossary.
It is undeniably a great celebration of one of Hooker’s explorations and the exuberance of the modern explorers makes them perfect travel companions for plant lovers kept indoors by damp, cold and sunless days in January.