Whenever I’m troubled with that age-old conundrum of what to buy for someone at Christmas, I always turn to my trusty trick of a cookery book. That’s not to say though that I mindlessly trundle into the bookstore, grab the first book I see in an impatient urge, and then hide my half-hearted attempt in a mille-feuille of cheap wrapping paper. I’m sorry but that doesn’t quite cut the mustard.
A good cookery book isn’t just a bundle of recipes, piled together by some extraordinarily talented home economist, to be credited solely to the ‘celebrity chef’. There’s nothing wrong with that, I guess, but for me I like to feel the chef or cook’s presence. A good cookbook, a real cookbook, is one that exhibits the writer’s own passion, manifest and almost tangible, either through their prose or their recipes.
I’d go as far as to say that a bloody good cookbook can be excused for exuding an air of solipsism. After all, food is one of the most personal things we can create and write about. We all experience food through our own mouths; we can compare our interpretations, but ultimately it is down to us to make the decision on whether something is right for our own palate.
So this Christmas, consider a cookbook. And consider, if you will, my top ten books of 2014.
The Best Book: A Year at Otter Farm, Mark Diacono. Bloomsbury, £25.
Simply breathtaking. This book is so beautifully descriptive, that as you read it goosebumps will cover your skin. Mark's writing style is so personal. He's so in love with the land and what it offers, and that is all that is required to create a masterpiece. It's a book that brings back the memories of every walk with my father and the feelings I had whenever I ate something new for the first time.
It's also insightful. Mark works through the seasons and the ingredients therein, explaining sometimes how to store those ingredients, as well as any notes he may have made. As you read those notes, you can almost see, in macro, his hands, slightly muddy from the ground, writing down his observations.
If you only buy one book ever again, please make it this.
Patisserie Made Simple, Edd Kimber. Kyle, £19.99
For so long, patisserie was mystified by a veil of French arrogance, achieved only by the greatest pastry chefs on the planet. Edd makes it clear, in his loveable unassuming style, that actually patisserie is for anyone who likes to bake.
The recipes are excellent, and the best thing about this book is the simplicity, as promised in the title. No obscure ingredients or equipment are required.
Persiana, Sabrina Ghayour. Mitchell Beazley, £25.
This is a book of great beauty. From the textured front cover, right through the the back page, via those mesmerisingly spiced recipes. Sabrina has created, not a cookbook, but a book of cookery magic. Her Mechouia-style lamb leg recipe is special.
This is a book that you will use over and over again, until the pages are worn down and you know the recipes by heart.
A Change of Appetite, Diana Henry. Mitchell Beazley, £25.
Let’s face it, come January most of us will recoil in a pit of guilt for the overindulgence we are sure to enjoy during the festive period. But I cannot stand, and will not tolerate, a healthy eating book that leaves me nibbling on a plate of gristly and bland turkey mince.
Diana Henry’s A Change of Appetite is an exquisite book. That’s never an adjective I thought applicable to a book centred on healthy eating, but in this case it is truly the right one. From the delicious photographs to the recipes: this book is first and foremost a cookbook. One, as Diana notes, that just so happens to be healthy.
Montezuma's Chocolate Cookbook, Simon and Helen Pattinson. Kyle, £16.99.
Chocolate cookbooks have become really rather popular in the past year or so. This book is one of the best. and I think to appreciate why, it's important to consider Simon and Helen's background. They both gave up their jobs as lawyers and travelled South America where they got to know cocoa plantations and how chocolate was produced. That's when they fell in love with chocolate and opened their own factory.
I think the fact that they taught themselves about chocolate really translates into their recipes, which are uncomplicated and incredibly tempting. This absolutely is the best chocolate book of the year.
Do-Ahead Christmas, James Ramsden. Pavilion Books, £16.99.
The best kind of gift is one that you buy for yourself a few weeks before Christmas. This is the perfect book for that. Whilst I revel in the sheer panic and stress that comes with Christmas food preparations, this book is the perfect solution.
Cleverly, James has created some seriously beautiful recipes, with the fact in mind that you may wish to make these in advance. It’s thoughtful, it’s appealing and it’s definitely reassuring.
The Duck and Waffle, Daniel Doherty. Mitchell Beazley, £25.
Daniel is a truly lovely bloke. I've been to his restaurant - one of my favourites in London - so many times and his food is exceptional. Even my mother in law who is severely fussy about food - sorry Irene - licked her plate clean. So when this book came out, I already knew it would be superb. And it hasn't disappointed.
If you ever get the chance to pay a visit to the Duck and Waffle - a 24/7 restaurant on the 40th floor of Heron Tower - you must try the title dish. But until then, this book is the perfect amuse-bouche.
What to Bake & How to Bake it, Jane Hornby. Phaidon, £19.95.
This is an awesome book for those who love to bake, or even for those who are just starting out on their baking adventures. Jane makes the recipes so clear with step-by-step instructions, as well as pictures of each vital stage.
Jane gives away so much information in this book, starting with a great deal of advice on mastering cakes, bread and pastry, as well as recommending certain equipment.
Make Mine a Martini, Kay Plunkett-Hogge. Mitchell Beazley, £14.99.
I've always found that cocktail books tend to be those stocking-filler types, which one would buy on a whim when at the bookstore checkout. They usually end up on the shelf in the loo alongside the 'well dressed gentleman's guide'. There's nothing wrong with those books, until you compare them with this one.
Everything about this book makes me want to nip over to my drinks cabinet - yes I own one, and I'm proud - and shake up something wet, crisp and cold. From the dedication 'For Fred my chief barman, who stirs and shakes me always' you just know this book will be full of humour. I love how in the 'Home Bar Basics' chapter, Kay lists a 'little black dress, or a sharp suit. Obviously.' as an essential for a home bar.
Like a true drinks party, this book isn't just about the drinking. There are 50 canapé recipes too, and boy do they look good. This isn't a book that mindlessly delivers a handful of trite cocktails; it's a book in which every single word has been considered.
A Modern Way to Eat, Anna Jones. 4th Estate, £25.
Vegetarian cooking has become increasingly popular, even amongst the hungriest of carnivores. This book is full of varied and exciting recipes - 200 in fact. Anna's style is so sophisticated; she has taken a subject that too often falls into a 'hippyish' trend, and yet has managed to make it stylish and substantial. It's a very refreshing cookbook.