For the second year running, our Food and Drink section has been dominated by Jay Rayner and his tiny paperbacks, last year’s My Dining Hell and the follow up The Ten (Food) Commandments. The top three is completed by another tiny paperback, Jancis Robinson’s The 24-Hour Wine Expert. Lovely as those books are (and highly recommended, if you’ve got any stockings to fill), there’s also a whole load of big, beautiful, hefty cookbooks that have come out in 2016, and since the London Review of Cooks is an entirely personal and unashamedly partisan survey of the year in cookbooks, it’s the big and beautiful that I’m going to talk about.
Starting with my favourite cookbook of the year: Diana Henry’s Simple. A shop favourite, Henry appeared on this list two years ago with her brilliantly luxurious approach to healthy eating, A Change of Appetite, and her introduction to preserving, Salt, Sugar, Smoke, is a kitchen essential. With Simple, she’s stolen Nigel Slater’s crown - it’s all hearty, delicious recipes, with undauntingly short lists of ingredients, that you can whip up on a weeknight. And unlike Slater, she doesn’t (always) feel the need to sling a pint of cream in at the end.
If pints of cream are your bag though, Ruby Tandoh’s second cookbook, Flavour, is for you. With the subtitle ‘Eat What You Love’, Flavour provides a glorious counterpoint to the clean living misery that’s been sweeping the cookbook shelves in recent years. As she says in her introduction, ‘The pursuit of good health is fine if that’s what you’re interested in, but when health becomes all you think about, that’s not healthy. I want you to eat without paranoia, or shame, or fear. Eat what you want.’ Amen, sister.
Alex Hely-Hutchinson’s 26 Grains manages to be both healthy and totally appealing by taking porridge, AKA everyone’s favourite winter breakfast, as her starting point. From there the book moves through breads, salads, stews, risottos, cakes - all based around different grains. It’s healthy food that’s more interested in being warm and nourishing, than saintly and superior. It’s hygge, without needing to shout about it.
This year has seen Phaidon give their encyclopedic treatment to the cuisine of China, with Kei Lum Chan and Diora Fong Chan’s China: The Cookbook. These exhaustive volumes are always brilliant, but for something both more specific and more easily penetrable, Fuchsia Dunlop is the person to turn to. Every Grain of Rice, her 2012 book on Chinese home cooking, is one of the most useful, and used, cookbooks I own; this year’s Land of Fish and Rice is just as good. Focussing on the Jiangnan area to the south of the Yangtze River, the recipes are delicious and, even for the totally uninitiated, simple.
Lastly, to the cookbook oddities, which this year have been surprisingly usable. Taschen’s fabulous reprint of Salvador Dalí’s 1973 cookbook, Les Diners de Gala, while huge and shiny and so gloriously illustrated you’ll want to keep it as far away from the kitchen as possible, does actually contain recipes you could cook at home. The food within is definitely of its era, so whether you’d want to cook it at home is another matter, but as a book to leaf through and marvel at, it’s unbeatable. My favourite oddity this year, though, is a cookbook forty years in the making: The Photographer’s Cookbook started life in 1977 when a museum registrar struck upon the idea of asking photographers for their favourite recipe and food-related photograph. The project was forgotten until recently, when the impressive number of submissions were stumbled upon in the museum’s archive. The resulting book is beautiful, and great fun, and while some of the recipes in it would’ve been best left in 1977 (Ansel Adams’s microwaved poached eggs in beer, anyone?), lots of them are worth revisiting. Joseph Jachna’s Potato Chip Cookies sound totally delicious, Stephen Shore’s Key Lime Pie Supreme is the most perfect combination of photographer and dish, and Robert Heinecken’s Serious Martini is very serious indeed and comes with the advice, ‘This drink is not recommended before 11:00 a.m.’