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Delia Smith taught me to put food on the table, but two people have influenced more than any others the way that I buy and prepare food. Theyre Nigel Slater and his predecessor as the Observer food writer, the incomparable Jane Grigson. I indulged myself at Amazon last year and bought Jane Grigsons Fruit Book, first published in 1982, but republished in the Penguin Cookery Library in 2000. I was going to say that its as relevant today as it was when it was published, but I think its actually more relevant today given the poor choice of fruit provided by the supermarkets.
The format is very simple: think of a fruit and it will be there in alphabetical order. If it might be known under a different name Chinese Gooseberry/Kiwi fruit for example - then it will be cross-referenced and to tie it all together theres a very comprehensive index. Each fruit is considered in real depth. Lets take apples as an example.
We start with some interesting facts about the history of the apple and even some speculation that the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was actually a banana rather than an apple. The discussion about the best apple variety is knowledgeable and comes down in favour of Coxs Orange Pippin, Blenheim Orange or Orleans Reinette, but only if the Coxs is of the standard that it was many years ago. She doubts that Mr Cox would recognise his apple these days. Our growers have turned the richness of the Cox into a boring crunch all the smart packaging in the world will not disguise its descent. She laments the fact that supermarkets want every food to be as cheap and inoffensive as every other similar food. Theres a woman after my own heart!
She separates apples into eight different groups according to their individual characteristics and gives advice on choosing and preparing them. Then we get to the recipes. Like me you probably thought that a book on fruit would be about pudding/dessert recipes. I was certainly wrong. There are recipes for every course of the meal, ranging through a Waldorf-type salad, apples stuffed with a spicy beef filling, Normandy pork, apple and horseradish sauce and more desert recipes than you can shake a stick at. When I read a book of this type I leave slips of paper in as markers for recipes that I want to try I gave up with this book because I had a marker in just about every page!
In amongst all this youll find quotes from books, sometimes going back for centuries, frequently translated from a foreign language and topped off with some rather lovely and relevant - poetry.
Now, think of this being done for every fruit you can imagine. I tried dreaming up exotic fruits to see if they were there. I tried cherimoya, medlar, mangosteen and physalis. Theyre all there. Mrs Grigson admits that she hasnt included the durian, mainly because it couldnt be brought out of Pakistan at the time. The variety of fruits is breathtaking. The depth of research which backs up what she has to say is amazing.
At the end of the book is an appendix and this is an absolute gold mine. There are one or two miscellaneous items such as which wines go with which fruit, along with excellent sections on fruit preserves, pastry, biscuits, bread, creams and sugars. On the front cover theres a recommendation from Loyd Grossman: If you were marooned on a desert island this would be the book to have. Personally, I think it would be frustrating to have this book and no means of producing the food, but if it was the only recipe book in my kitchen we wouldnt go hungry. In fact, wed eat very well indeed.
When I read books this well-researched I usually find that theyre hard going learned books written for learned people. Well this book isnt like that at all. The writing can only be described as seductive. Shes the master of the telling phrase: a strawberry that becomes acquainted with water loses its virtue. Youre drawn in, wanting to know whats next. When the book was published her views were ahead of her time: even today shed be a forward thinker, wanting quality rather than quantity and diversity rather than being reduced to a steady bottom of horticultural plonk as provided by the supermarkets. Her writing isnt as easy on the brain as Nigel Slaters, but shes more accessible than Elizabeth David.
As a writer Mrs Grigson was never frightened of pointing out the truth. She maintained that the most flavoursome bananas were those from the Canary Islands and was taken to task by a major banana-importing company because only 5% of its imports came from the Canaries. Sadly its probably much less than that these days the last time I tasted them was when I was in Madeira.
One of the things that I love about this book is that there are no glossy pictures of food thats been artfully arranged and carefully lit. The only illustrations are exquisite line drawings in black and white of the individual fruits done by Yvonne Scargon. Theyre only about two or three inches square and they complement the text perfectly without intruding. I often feel that large colour photographs in cookery books are there to pad out a flimsy text. Theres definitely no need for that in this book.
I didnt find any recipes which I thought complicated or which required a lengthy shopping list before you could start. Just occasionally she uses a cookery term which might not be in common usage she talks for instance of larding the pheasant but what she means is obvious from the context in this case covering the pheasants breast with lard to stop it drying out. This isnt necessarily a book that I would recommend to a complete beginner, but if youve reached the stage of wanting to put quality fresh food on the table then I think youd get a lot out of it. All quantities are given in metric, imperial and American cups. You can use any version, but dont mix them. Temperatures are for gas, centigrade and Fahrenheit.
Some cookery books live in the kitchen. This isnt one of them. Its the book that sits at the side of my bed and Ill dip into it if I cant sleep. In the early hours of this morning I was reading about oranges and well be having an Andalusian Tart for pudding this weekend. Thats a pastry base covered with cooked apples and topped with slices of orange and cooked in the oven. I shall serve it with ice cream, I think!
Ive only one quibble with the book and thats that most of the recipes cater for six people and sometimes more. This is fine if were entertaining but the majority of the food in the book is glorious everyday food rather than dinner party fare. Recipes can be reduced, but you do need to have some knowledge before you do it and this effectively limits the number of people who will get value from the book.
- Paperback: 528 pages published April 2000
- Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
- Price: £8.99 but available on Amazon for £7.19 in January 2006
- ISBN: 0140469982
The companion to Vegetable Book, this is an alphabetical guide to fruit, from apple, apricot and arbutus to sorb apple, strawberry and water-melon. The author adds fragments of history or poetry, and explains the why' as well as the how of cookery.