I’ve always been an avid reader, but sometime ago I lost the joy for reading novels. I think it was when my interest in food rose, that my compulsion to read fiction waned. I didn’t lose my love for reading, I just found fiction less fascinating and I turned to cookbooks and the history, science and sociology of food and the occasional travel memoir. If you have ever seen me on holiday nose first in the leaves of a book, then it’s 99.99% certain I was scouring recipes or food history.
Disappointingly, many cookbooks aren’t actually up to snuff to being read this way, especially modern recipe books. I suppose there’s no rhyme or reason that someone who is good at recipes ought to be good at writing too. However, this seems to be a sad and increasingly common situation with modern cooks’ and chefs’ books. Yes, the recipes are flavoursome and imaginative, but the writing could be dull or, worse, misplaced and contrived. So, put off from modern cookbooks (excepting Nigel Slater and a few others), I normally read secondhand copies of past classics. Step forward Ms E. David (although I have now read everything by her) Jane Grigson et al, food history writers Bee Wilson, Clarissa Dixon-Wright etc or I reach for reproductions of historical recipes such as Francatelli, Carême, Apicius, Bugialli, Fry, Acton and others, some anonymous with their authors’ names lost in time.
Now, one brand spanking new book has appeared where the author has clearly had this dual role in mind: great recipes intertwined with narrative. Tellingly, it’s described as ‘part travel diary, part memoir, part history and all cookbook’. It’s going to give bookshop owners a headache trying to categorise it. I think its author, Karen Burns-Booth, must read in the same way that I do and wanted to create her own recipe book for that purpose.
Karen Burns-Booth is a familiar name to anyone with an interest in food, running the incredibly succesful Lavender and Lovage website and who has a long, prestigious roll call of recipes and food writing being published online and in printed media. A preview version of Karen’s book has happily landed in my hands (along with a number of fellow online food-addicts).
If you’ve visited Karen’s website or seen any of her social media sites, you’ll not have failed to notice she makes – and styles – moreish, comforting food. This book is full of similarly tempting recipes, interspersed with her pretty photography.
The introduction is unmissable in this book. I’m sure you’ve picked up many cookbooks and not even bothered to more than skim read the intro. Yes? Me too. Here it’s both easy to delve into the friendly writing style and imperative to do so, in order to understand how Karen came to food writing and recipe development. Born in South Africa, Karen’s rich travelogue includes time spent in Hong Kong, Cyprus, the USA, France and North West England (amongst additional travels and holidays) which has afforded her an incredible melting pot of food cultures. Her taking root in France for a number of years and running a B&B (with a kitchen garden or ‘potage’) provides even richer layers to uncover. She imparts this information as if she’s sat you down, poured you a cup of tea and you’re mid-chat about what you made for dinner last night and the plans for your next weekend away.
One thing that’s charmed me in particular is that the chatty style of her memoirs is carried on throughout the whole of the book. Little titbits of information (or ‘snippets’ as Karen’s labelled them) intersperse the recipes, punctuating the food with relevant and endearing information. Sometimes she applies a geographic reference, explaining her experience with the recipe in context, sometimes it’s about the taste and the reasoning behind bringing the flavours and ingredients together or something else entirely that’s jogged her memory. It all ties the book together as a whole. Most cookbooks have a stand alone intro, then are divided rigidly into sections without considering continuity. By interleaving smaller stories and anecdotes between the recipes, Karen’s woven a holistic book, where the recipes only make full sense with the voice, and vice versa.
The recipes reflect the huge range of food that can be found on the Lavender and Lovage site – Karen’s not afraid to cover anything from the seemingly simple to extravagant food. Several of the recipes have caught my eye and I shall be trying them: from Pork Balchão – Goan pickles spiced pork, to a chicken satay recipe from the authentic newspaper clipping that Karen retrieved from her mum’s recipe scrapbook, to Alabama peach crisp (a gorgeous looking crumble style dessert) to all of the soups. Don’t think because there are some well-known names of dishes in here that it’s all just the same that you’ve seen somewhere else. Karen has either created a dish close to the original from a location because she knows what it’s authentic taste should be, or she’s taken time to find a new, but not faddy, twist to a classic. There are even some surprising things that she’s written in for complete classics: for instance, I’m very well used to using a raclette indoor grill, but having had my experience in Switzerland I’d never seen anyone cook a pancake or omelette on one. That’s clearly a more French way of using it, but now I’m going to have to try this too.
It’s a soup, potage Crecy, a cream of carrot soup that I have tried first from her recipes (as I make more recipes I will add them here). I did halve the recipe quantity as it was given for six people. This smelt delicious while it was cooking; a ten minute sweat in oil with thyme, tarragon, parsley and a bay leaf brought out the aroma. The inclusion of rice to thicken it, as an alternative to more typical bread or potato, produced a fine-tuned result from what at first glance appeared to be a straightforward cream of carrot recipe and resulted in a very luxurious dish.
Lavender and Lovage, a culinary notebook of memories and recipes from home and abroad by Karen Burns-Booth is out by Passageway Press on 13th November.