Lots of us have been dealing with the challenge of social isolation with serious bouts of quarantine cooking – these two new cookbooks are perfect for the times.
Now that we’re all stuck home we’ve had to become a little inventive with all of our new-found spare time. Television sets are getting a through workout, and quarantine cooking and baking has become the new big thing. Many are turning to cookbooks that have languished on our shelves for years, but there’s also plenty of new ones to spark our imaginations and to feed our culinary curiosity.
Oats in the North, Wheat from the South by Regula Ysewijn(Murdoch Books $49.99) definitely falls into the latter category. It’s basically a guided tour of British baking history, but you just know it’s going to give you more than another great recipe for scones when you read the dedication – which is an acknowledgement of the human cost of this particular culinary tradition. The sweet baked delights that are so deliciously documented in this volume owe their existence to the sugar trade, a trade steeped in the human bondage and misery of slavery.
Surprisingly, the author is Belgian, not British, but with a particular interest in British baking, and a slew of commendations evidence her expertise and knowledge in the field.
The title of the book comes from the dominance of each grain in each end of the nation, and is reflected in the types of bakes found in each region. Unlike much of the highly technical baked goods of Europe, British baking was largely done in the home, and is often distinctly regional. There’s an immediacy to many of these recipes – who could possibly argue that scones and tea cakes always taste best when fresh out of the oven.
The recipes Ysewijn has developed are based entirely on those she discovered in her extensive historical research, and she’s resisted all urges to pimp them – as she says, a Chelsea bun made with pistachios and no currants would certainly be good, but it wouldn’t be a Chelsea bun. And she’s not afraid of fat – you’ll need to hunt down lard and suet for some of these bakes but, if my experience a few years back of authentic Eccles cakes made with lard is anything to go by, you won’t regret it.
As so many of us have recently gone baking crazy (or is that just me?), I really can’t think of a better book to see us through this phase of quarantine cooking. From the challenge of a lofty Savoy cake and the comfort of fat slices of warm tea cake, slathered in butter, to the satisfaction of baking the almost extinct Goosnargh cakes or the uniquely local Whitby lemon buns, it’s all fascinating – and inordinately tempting.
The other cookbook that is bringing me particular joy at the moment in Falastin, by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley (Penguin $49.99). Tamimi is the business partner of Yotam Ottolenghi and co-author of the smash hit cookbooks ‘Ottolenghi’ and ‘Jerusalem’. Falastin, a book about Palestine , it’s food, history and produce, is distinctly personal for him, and is quite openly a love letter to his country and the mother he lost as a small boy.
The identity of Palestinians is irrevocably tied up in the rich culinary culture and produce of their nation, and thus affected by the political situation of the region. Their recipes are their stories and, like stories in the telling, are best shared. The authors have chosen to do this by sharing profiles of the people and places behind the 110 recipes in this volume. The recipes aim to present traditional Palestinian dishes in a contemporary light, but without trampling on the history behind them.
Middle Eastern food is my favourite cuisine, and their spice palate is one that finds it’s way into much of our family food (even my baking, like my not quite authentic ma’amoul cookies), so this book was always going to be a winner as far as I’m concerned. Within half an hour of sitting down with it, I’d already decided that I really needed to visit Nablus – if only to eat my body weight in knafeh – and I’m sure I need to meet some of these remarkable producers.
The recipes are all totally accessible – fresh, singing with flavour and deeply, deliciously satisfying. My quarantine cooking has been much enriched by meals like kofta with tahini, potato and onion, lentils with tahini and crispy onion and fragrant Palestinian couscous.
The wonderful photos and stories will show you a different side to this troubled land, a land where, despite enormous hardships, life goes on, the best is made of things, meals get cooked and families enjoy each other.
And that’s a bit like our lives now – we’re stuck in close quarters with a situation not of our choosing and one during which we need to go about our day to day business in a much more limited fashion than we’d prefer. If we can manage it with a similar warmth to those in these stories, we’ll be doing very well indeed.