Cooking by Jeremy Lee (Fourth Estate)

“The simple truth I’ve learned from a lifetime of cooking is that good food is honed from fine ingredients”.

THAT opening sentence may not sound so radical, so revolutionary but it is a statement of courage and intent, the kernel of an idea that even in our fast food infected times, stands out as a prime virtue and validation of both the pleasure in cooking but also its why and its wherefores.

We all love Jeremy. Or those of us who follow such things. He is the most exuberant of cooks. So here we have the exuberant cookbook, boy from Scotland comes down to London and finds his way through the kitchens that have helped define modern British cooking – Bibendum, Blueprint Café, Quo Vadis.

Radio 4 marked the publication with a heartwarming valediction, one I could have written 40 years or so ago, did write 40 or so years ago. It takes a while for the BBC to catch up. Sadly it was prompted also by the death of one Jeremy’s compadres and mentors Alastair Little. I coined the term modern British cooking in 1985, after lunch at Little’s with Jeremy Round. Lee was in the kitchen.

A cadre of intelligent, book-reading chaps took over the stoves, eschewing stocks and sauces for simple olive oil. The old cooking was about suppressing the ingredients, disguising them, it was a tomato sauce so who cares what kind of tomato, but Little, Simon Hopkinson, Roley Leigh, Mark Hix, and a solitary female in Sally Clarke and later Ruth Rodgers championed the ingredients themselves, like Alice Waters in San Francisco who called it her light bulb moment, and to an extent Michel Guerard in France whose sauce vierge managed to straddle two eras. It was an intellectual change, a breaking out of the disciplined hierarchy of cuisine laid down by Escoffier. A return to the market. A need to discover the true value of a tomato. To say, enough, it is a tomato. And also an emancipation by which a single chef could take back control of the cuisine from the brigades.

Lee writes:

“It was a new kind of cooking best summed up by dishes such as a whole grilled seabass or sardines dressed only with superb olive oil and lemon.”

There are some lovely old bits of language revived here. An ashet being an old Scottish term for a large serving dish, a charger for a larger platter on to which you might put a salmagundi being an assembly of many – not just meat and two veg but more than a dozen vegetable and salad leaves or so – different ingredients, topped with a single showpiece like a roast chicken or a whole fish. Cecils are small meats balls. Sippets are smaller variations on croutons, an old southern Italian device for turning breadcrumbs into things of significance by mixing them with parsley and garlic, black olives, sherry to such a point that one recipe detailed here is simply spaghetti with lemon and fennel flowers..and breadcrumbs.

Salads, as the grower Frances Smith says on Radio 4, were grown to stretch the market, open up new avenues, to make a point that lettuce dos not mean one thing, one lettuce, but many varieties, each with their own characteristics. That diversity is important.  And the job of the kitchen is to understand that and show it off. One hand me down of this approach, pioneered by Smith, is actually rocket, once rare and obscure, now ubiquitous, available to all. Hurrah.

These days when the recipe book weighs more than the chicken you are cooking, there is the question of where or how to read such a tome – because for all the fandango of photos and lovely illustrations, this is is at heart a reading book full of intelligent culinary diversions. I used to read these kind of books in the public library where you had a table and space to write notes.

Even for old stagers like myself there are tips I may follow like the caramelised apples in the rummage of the salmagundi, like blanching the lemons for 30 minutes before slicing the skins thinly, but mostly I will turn to it for the things I don’t usually cook like the pies, the tarts, the pastry.

This was written in lockdown, a sort of pared down restaurant book designed for home use although some of the elements you may find hard to uncover outside of Soho, and some of the processes you might need to be in lockdown again to have the time.

Lee credits a lot of his enthusiasm to his mother and father, and any aspiring young cook reading this might well be jealous of such parents. That they could approach food in this manner in the ‘50s and ‘60s just north of Dundee is a statement in itself.  It could be done, even if, as he laments, many of the Dundee bakers of his childhood have disappeared.  In that sense this book is important because it sets out a stall. It connects the kitchen with the producers and countryside, in a way that is second nature in France and Italy but here even now is too often spuriously confused. This is a book that may change your mind more even than your cooking. The best reason to cook at all, as Lee points out, is that you want to eat what you want. And you will probably want to eat quite a lot of this…

About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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