It’s a bit of a surprise to open a cookbook in 2016 and there not be any lush photography to seduce me. It’s a long time since I last bought a cookbook without pictures. It reflects, possibly, the slightly monk-like food philosophy of the author, who values localism and seasonality highly. Photography is expensive, as are photographers, and £20 feels a bit steep for a book without them. Actually, I didn’t buy this. Faber, which doesn’t often publish cookbooks, generously sent me a copy, saving me £20. However, this isn’t a regular cookbook. There are recipes, of course there are, but, unlike almost every other cookbook in the shop, reading this will not just give you a better dinner, but will make you a better cook, too.
I once ate at Konstam at the Prince Albert, Oliver Rowe’s Kings Cross restaurant, which closed five or six years ago. It only, I think, used ingredients sourced from within the M25*, the motorway that circles London, like a moat. (Moatorway?) That is a romantic proposal, but localism and food miles are about as complicated as any ideas in the world of food. Of course there are virtues in not transporting food thousands of miles, but how would Kenyan farmers do without fine bean money, Peruvian farmers without asparagus revenue? Fish swim in the Thames, but not necessarily fish I want for supper. I’m not saying tomatoes grown in Northern Europe are worthless, but I do think they are worth less than ones grown under warm, Southern sun. I couldn’t, wouldn’t, want to cook without lemons. Besides, we aren’t medieval peasants, relying on the fields and forests around our hamlet.
I do pay attention to the seasons, though, albeit inconsistently. I don’t want to eat strawberries on Christmas Day, but I eat new potatoes all year round and can’t tell you when their season is. Oliver makes quite a persuasive case for seasonality, though, saying that eating things when they are at their best gives him a deeper engagement and better understanding of food. I think this is what the book is urging us towards; foods in season often taste best when eaten with other foods at their peak at the the same time, and that this suits our constitutions, too. Apples and walnuts are perfect companions, raspberries and chestnuts less so.
The book is divided into months, beginning with October. The abundance and variety of the harvest is when he considers the food year begins. I really enjoy the way he writes, and even now, in the middle of a cool and damp summer, he makes me look forward to the pumpkins and pears of autumn. Of course, reading the chapter on July males me appreciate soft and stone fruits, peas and cues, even more than I already do. Oliver has relaxed his rules; there are sections on capers, oranges, chocolate, but most of the foods here are grown in the British Isles. I disagree with him profoundly on picnics, but would happily eat anything he makes to take on one. I’ve always liked his style of cooking. All the recipes sound good, all his suggestions and asides give you alternatives. If asparagus is over, or rained out, there’ll be another route to a fine meal using broad beans or courgettes, maybe. He doesn’t lead you by the hand, as such, he points you in directions you’ll enjoy exploring.
I hope this does well. I think it’s a book that I’ll pick up often for years. The cover is striking, I like the illustration on it very much. I like this book very much, too. Recommended.
Food for all Seasons, by Oliver Rowe. Published by Faber and Faber. £20
*I spoke to Oliver Rowe on Twitter. He was lovely about what I’ve written, but he pointed out that the ‘within the M25’ line was an invention of a journalist. Konstam did source ingredients from a small area, but not as small as that.