So far on Siberia I’ve only looked at cookbooks from the bestseller lists, books by established writers and chefs, books, on the whole, with large initial print runs. Maybe Five Quarters was more of a punt, but there was a lot of good noise about that before it came out. And it is, of course, superb. Quality makes a difference to anything and usually a good difference.
In front of me I have Best Kitchen Basics, which may be more esoteric than the others. It is by Mark Best, a chef I hardly knew of before, which is perhaps not surprising as he works in Australia. It is here that I should confess I have a thing for Australian cookbooks, ever since I first picked up a copy of Sydney Food by Bill Granger, (in Books for Cooks in Notting Hill, which still doesn’t have a functioning website), before, ahem, anyone here had heard of Bill Granger, and I was sold. The promise of modern, easy, stylish food and cool, urban living was hard to resist. That must have been fifteen or twenty years ago and since then I have yearned to experience Australia’s food culture, indeed, Australia’s food, and, of course, Australia. I almost went a couple of years ago: I was sitting in a travel agent, about to buy a ticket, but I thought about the twenty-six hour flight and my finger stayed poised above the buttons on the machine. My pin number was never entered and I have never entered Australia. One day I will go by ship and sit on deck with a tartan blanket over my knees, reading a thick history of someone or something, while sipping beef tea with a big splash of brandy in it. One day.
Anyway, the book… Mark Best, I learn from a page at the back, titled, helpfully, Mark Best, taste-maker and culinary wild man, runs smart restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne including Marque, which is often found on World’s Best Restaurants lists. He was once an electrician in the mines of Western Australia, and Myffy Rigby, the author of this page, calls him ‘the Patrick Bateman of the Sydney dining scene’. So… he’s a butch chef. In his photograph he looks a bit like the personification of the beefed-up beef tea I’d drink on my way to Australia and the recipes suggest quite muscular cooking, as does his shaved head. Myffy also tells us that she would cross town not to be in the same room as [his signature dish] of crab custard with frozen foie gras. I haven’t tried it, and the recipe isn’t in here, so I may never know, but it can’t be as bad as Myffy says, can it, and why did they ask her to write this page? He makes, she continues, menus of blood. As a medal to his butchness, I suppose, this piece is featured on the Marque website.
To see if you’re man enough to continue, perhaps, you have to get past the cover, which some people may call smart but I find old fashioned, and, frankly, dull as dinner at my mother’s. Once you pass it you are in for a treat. Inside is smart, both the design, by Murray Batten, and the beautiful photography, by Petrina Tinslay. It uses the narrowest palette of white with muted colours of the food; green, pink, honey-brown. The pictures draw me in to the text and inspire me to try the recipes, which is pretty much their job, isn’t it. I think every time I talk about a cookbook I comment on the high standard of contemporary food photography. The pictures here are terrific, well styled and nicely under-propped.
The book is divided into ingredients with three recipes for each. Most look pretty achievable, although you’ll need builder’s lime for Shrunken Apples and Kuzu root starch for the Parmesan Gnocchi. I’m going to invite people over just so I have a reason to make the Chocolate Tart. I wish he didn’t roast his chickens with their heads on, but that’s the sort of thing the Patrick Bateman of the kitchen would do, isn’t it.
It is food at that interesting place where convention meets innovation. While it looks very contemporary, much of it is based on traditional techniques. Many cookbooks will have recipes for Beef Daube or Confit Duck, but they won’t be next to others for Corn Custard or Parsnip Cornetto. The custard, which I find especially intriguing, is savoury, and the parsnips are sweet.
I don’t think I have the patience to make Tomato and Parmesan Marshmallow, as much as I want to eat it. The Stuffed Cabbage looks beautiful, but needs, perhaps, more skill and working surface than I possess. There are enough ferments to please any chef in East London and a recipe for butter, which I’m sure they’ll know already. I think I’ll be very happy when I’ve cured my own egg yolks, possibly to grate over some Duck Ham. I’m sorry if I’m making this sound too cheffy, he does pass mashed potatoes through a drum sieve, after all, but I think almost everything here will be easy enough to make in a domestic kitchen.
This is already one of my favourite cookbooks of this year.
Best Kitchen Basics by Mark Best
Hardie Grant, £25.00
Photography: Petrina Tinslay