In my experience there are three kinds of cook, at least as far as cookery literature goes:
Category One: This type of cook holds recipe books in much the same regard as a bomb disposal team would their 'how-to' guide; that is to say, there is no veering away from any given recipe, at any given point. Ingredients are painstakingly measured out, and their trust in the narrator is absolute. If Jane Asher tells them their sponge needs 20 minutes at 180 degrees, then no way on God's earth is it coming out early- even if there is a suspiciously acrid smell emanating from the cooker, and the smoke alarm is screaming at them.
Category Two: Cookery books, magazines and websites serve more as a form of inspiration than instruction, and recipes are adapted according to season, quantity, or mood. These cooks have faith in their own senses and intuition- or at least they pretend to. Their food can be imaginative, daring, and occasionally disastrous.
Category Three: Now I mean no offence, but from what I can ascertain this category is dominated largely by men. This can be seen as both good and bad, I suppose: I'm fairly certain Heston never felt the need to stay safe within the realms of Mrs Beeton et. al., and without his flagrant disregard for the 'rules' of cooking, we'd exist in a snail-porridge free world, which would be very sad indeed. That said, I've lost count of the number of times I've come home to a decimated kitchen, a husband coated in flour (amongst other less-identifiable substances), sheepishly announcing that his tequila bread has 'gone a bit wrong.' Apparently tequila and yeast are quite volatile when mixed. In short, category three cooks have failed to cast a glance at a cookery book. Ever.
And so, in no particular order...
1. The Silver Spoon, Phaidon Publishing:
The Silver Spoon is widely toted as 'the bible of Italian cooking', and with over 2,000 recipes it's certainly long enough to justify the reputation. First published as 'Il Cucchiaio d'Argento' in 1950, it's been tweaked and translated numerous times, and I will say that despite this, it's definitely worth still baring its original context in mind. It features very traditional Italian fare with a hint of post-war austerity still clinging to its recipes, which regularly feature cheap, easily obtainable produce like perch, tench and offal. However, this is something inherent in Italian cuisine- it does rural peasant food famously well, and The Silver Spoon provides mouth-watering, solid and reliable recipes in abundance. In terms of value for money, the book is fantastic: half encyclopaedia, it will teach you almost everything you need to know about food and how to cook it, and the recipes themselves have aged well- every serious cook should give it at least a cursory flick-through. And you know what? Simple Italian works well, and that's why The Silver Spoon still sells.
2. Je Sais Cuisiner ('I Know How To Cook'), Ginette Mathiot:
Another hefty tome, Mathiot's guide to French cooking is regarded as the Gallic equivalent to The Silver Spoon. Both feature as much in the way of ingredient advice, cooking techniques and seasonal guides as they do actual recipes. Published much earlier, in 1932, Mathiot is very much present in the book's narrative- the bossy (or confident, I suppose you could say) and succinct instructions proffered by the French matriarch give the book a rather amusing dimension, and make it very readable. The recipes themselves are far less intimidating than you might come to expect from a compendium on French cooking, but just as sophisticated.
3. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child, Louisette Berthole and Simone Beck:
Another French one, but where Je Sais Cuisiner is rather like being lectured on cooking by your stern maiden aunt (in a good way), Mastering the Art of French Cooking is like being let loose with the fun auntie who buys you age-inappropriate presents, and lets you lick the bowl. All within the context of 1950s France, of course. The recipes in themselves are classic staples, but it's the tone of the book I love so much. As the lead writer, Child's clamouring to prove herself equal to the rigours of French cooking (borne of being a Yank in France) is palpable. The work essentially serves to demystify much of French cuisine, and it does so in a thoroughly charming way. The narrator is immediately likeable, which is important given the book's teeny-weeny print and lack of pictures.
4. Great British Recipes, Jamie Oliver:
Sorry, who? Exactly. Love him or hate him, you do know him- and he's certainly a man on a mission. This hyperactive, cheery celebrity chef has waged an assault on our country's eating habits which, let's be honest, were probably in need of a bit of attention. I'm a patriotic person- I love local produce, and I love quintessentially English food. However I've found that of late, many chefs and restaurants have been too concerned with appearing stubbornly British and have turned a tad, well, xenophobic. And that's why I bloody love Jamie. I do. I'd wear a Jamie Oliver badge if I could find one. Yes, he can be irritating. Especially when you're hungover and struggling to muster enough energy to cook baked beans on toast- the last thing you want to see and hear is Mr. Oliver telling you that in seven minutes you can concoct a fantastic meal for a family of thirty-six. Or something like that. But I love his attitude to food; YES, buy local produce. YES, avoid supermarkets (we'll ignore the fact that he's the Sainsbury's poster boy- in his books and magazines, he rarely advocates supermarket shopping,) but embrace our HUGE cultural heritage!
Great British Recipes is a fantastic source of ideas that embody all of Britain's cultural influences, and is a great tool of inspiration in the kitchen. Its recipes are easy to read, easy to cook, and even easier to eat. It is not, however, 30-Minute meals: there are a lot of over-night marinades and slow cooks. In fact, my favourite recipe is the slow roast pork belly, which I've tweaked endlessly to suit whatever occasion I pull it out the bag for, as it really is very adaptable. However, it does take a good nine-hours of love and attention. I had to sleep in half hour stints the first time I attempted it- I soon learnt it is not a Sunday lunch dish- early evening at the very least.... But then sometimes a little bit of sleep deprivation can be worth it.
So there you go- the first four. I do hope you're all still awake...