Why we love it: There are cookbooks and then there are food… ‘bibles’. Those books about food that deserve a prominent fixture on every serious cook and food-lover’s kitchen shelf. Books like Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion and that most famous French culinary classic, Larousse Gastronomique. Now there’s River Cottage A-Z, from world-renowned food writer and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the talented team at River Cottage.
River Cottage A-Z differs from your run-of-the-mill cookbook in that it is, as the name suggests, an encyclopedic list of ingredients. Each ingredient features an entertaining, enlightening discussion of all that’s interesting about that foodstuff, accompanied by one or two delicious recipes. Take an ingredient as humble as the carrot. We learn all manner of carroty facts in an interesting, beautifully written piece.
“It may not be glamorous,” says Hugh of the carrot. “But I struggle to think of anything bad to say about it. So let’s say something good: the carrot is arguably the most useful vegetable we have.” Who knew? So Hugh goes on to expound on all the wonderful things about this mighty root and there are two gorgeous recipes, including Carrot Soup with Ginger and Coriander and Raw Carrot Salad with Peanut and Cumin Dressing. Yum!
The whole list is extensive but deliberately not all-inclusive – for instance tuna is intentionally omitted due to the difficulty in finding sustainable sources. What it does cover are all the ingredients that the River Cottage team love best and use most often.
Turn for example to the letter Q – here we have the quince, and all the fantastic things that you can do with this ancient and underrated fruit. Also under Q is the newer – at least to Australian and Europe palates – ingredient, the much sought-after quinoa grain. Many fruits and vegetables are featured, as well as common and not-so-common herbs, many spices, and most of the more regularly consumed types of meat and here and in the UK.
A book that’s listed by ingredient makes it a wonderful resource for when there’s there’s a glut of something – for example, too many raspberries right now? Look up raspberries and you might be inspired to eat them simply sprinkled with sugar and a splash of cream, or to turn them into a drink or ice-cream, or you could find out the best way to freeze your overstock. Or for when there’s something lurking at the bottom of your fridge that you don’t want to waste – say a couple of old parsnips you haven’t got round to using – Parsnip, Leek and Potato Mash anyone?
“We see this book, more than anything, as a celebration of the amazing spectrum of fruit, veg, herbs, spices, meat and fish that surrounds us,” says Fearnley-Whittingstall in the intro. “It’s all too easy to get stuck in a rut with food – to buy the same things, week in, week out, and to cook the same recipes. When so many great ingredients are available to us, that seems a shame. And so, when it comes to the original recipes we have devised for this volume, our design is to inspire you to try new foods, or new ways to cook your old favourites. Where some culinary reference books can feel a little dry and rusty, this one aims to be your hard-working kitchen companion, nudging you to expand your repertoire.”
River Cottage A-Z is tastefully illustrated with stunning, clean photography and gorgeous watercolour illustrations. Of course it’s a weighty tome, it has to be; it is a big, beautiful, green mass that will look right at home on any beautiful kitchen shelf.
Most will be familiar with Fearnley-Whittingstall and the healthy and sustainable way of eating promoted in his River Cottage television series in which he “foraged, fished, farmed and fumbled” his way to greater self-sufficiency. The River Cottage has gone on to produce television shows both here and in Australia and numerous cookbooks with a whole crew of experts on board. This ‘stellar team of experts’ who contributed with recipes and wise and often beautiful words include Gill Meller, Nikki Duffy, Mark Diacono, Pam Corbin, John Wright, Nick Fisher, Steven Lamb and Tim Maddams.