Nigel Slater’s first cookbook was published in 1992; in the intervening years he has written some 25 books, if my counting is correct. And yet this, his latest, A Cook’s Book, all 500 pages and nearly one and a half kilos of it, enters the world as if from the kitchen of someone fresh to the world of food writing, a-brim with ideas, vital and enthusiastic. And yet, of course, he has been cooking for 50 years, from childhood on, and so his culinary curiosity is tempered by decades of experience: we are in the hands of someone whom we trust, someone who just knows; it is a true comfort.
And yes, we learn from what he’s cooked and what he shares with us, but it’s how he shares it that makes those millions of us who love his columns and his books feels so importantly and intimately connected to them. He is king among foodwriters, with a voice so immediately, recognisably his: at turns encouraging, cosy, confiding, calming and arch. The problem I have in describing his writing is that I can’t bear not to quote vast tracts of it. It’s just too good not to glory in. But without going that far, let me just read some glorious sentences to you.
“I am a cook who writes”, begins his introduction: “You could measure my life in recipes. Each one a letter to a friend, a story of something I have made for dinner, the tale of how it came to be on my table.” And yes, that’s exactly how it feels to us, his readers. Over the page, he writes “Cooking - for me at least - is about making yourself something to eat and sharing food with others but is also - whisper it - about the quiet moments of joy to be had along the way.” He is at once resolutely down to earth and a poet in the kitchen. Few writers can make the moments that comprise a cook’s life so immediately alive. Take this: “The kitchen may have a sense of order and calm, but I keep a noisy table. I thrive on the sound of dinner. The clatter of plates, the tinkle of knives and forks, the chink of glasses. A table which, when food is placed upon it, comes to life. Can someone pass me the mayonnaise? Would anyone like some of this? Hands reach across. Bread is torn. Bottles are opened. The table, once so precisely laid, becomes untidy, messy even.” Or this: “High on my list of favourite smells (snow, old books, wet moss, bunches of sweet peas and a steaming basket of dim sum) is that of the inside of an Italian grocer’s shop. A cool and gentle smell of fresh pasta and San Daniele ham; of mozzarella in open bowls, Parmesan and basil in bunches beautiful enough to be carried by a bride.” And I know I must stop all this quoting and tell you about the recipes, but allow me one more. In ‘Pudding and other matters' he begins “‘Pudding’ is the most jubilant of words. ‘Dessert’, on the other hand, hints at something altogether calmer and more serene. Many desserts describe themselves rather well. The calm, undulating creaminess of ‘syllabub’. The shattering crispness of a ‘meringue’. The cuteness of a tiny dish of lemon ‘posset’. Sometimes, it is fanciful. I have always felt the word ‘crumble’ sounds like someone walking up a long gravel drive, just as ‘trifle’ is probably the sound you make as you fall into a bowl of sponge and whipped cream.”
There is not a cook or a reader in the land who wouldn’t gratefully hug this new volume of his to their chest. And that’s before we even get on to the recipes. And what I would say, chiefly, about these, is that every one will unfussily hit the spot, whether you want a quick supper or have invited friends over to linger at the table. Without naming every recipe in the book, let me just say Pumpkin Laksa to you. And Soft Rolls with Feta and Rosemary; A Chowder of Mussels and Leeks; Sticky, Seeded Malt Loaf; A Salad of Lentils and Red Peppers; Braised Pork Meatballs with Rib Ragù Sauce; Apricot Pan Pie; Marmalade Treacle Tart. I yearn for them all.
But the recipe I’ve chosen to share with you today is Nigel’s Marsala Almond Chocolate Slice. As he says himself: “Roasted nuts, dark chocolate. A marriage made in heaven."
From A Cook's Book by Nigel Slater, published by Fourth Estate, 2021.
Photography by Jonathan Lovekin.
The cover shows a detail from A Pale Reflection, 2015-2016 by Howard Hodgkin. The Estate of Howard Hodgkin, courtesy of Cristea Roberts Gallery.