This book made it to Number 5 in my Top Ten Cookbooks of 2008. I said then that I’d review it soon, but I forgot. Yesterday’s egg boiling brouhaha reminded me of my tardiness, so without further ado here’s a review.
It’s a cookery course and, as you’d expect, it covers all the basics as well as some more advanced techniques.
The chapters include:
- Stocks & Soups
- Rice, other grains & pulses
- Pasta & noodles
- Fish & Shellfish
- Pork & bacon
- Cakes & biscuits
- Breads, scones & pizzas
- Jams & preserves
- Finger foods
Even though I use this book a lot it came as a mild surprise to me that there’s so much in it!
The introductory chapter includes a bit of biographical information, in particular about running the cookery school at Ballymaloe. There’s also plenty of talk about cooking in general, “Cooking is cool… This trend owes a lot to the young TV stars, such as Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver who’ve made it cool.” She also tells us to “taste, taste, and taste again”. I can’t agree more, being able to follow your own tastebuds is a far more useful skill than being able to pedantically follow a recipe. I guess that’s a big part of why I’m not a Delia Smith or Orlando Murrin fan.
[Yes, I know that “to pedantically follow” was a split infinitive but only pedants think that split infinitives are wrong anyway.]
She talks about fresh herbs and spices, and again I’m nodding in agreement. There’s a little about table manners – sensible advice and nothing stuffy. She talks about food and health, as well as kitchen safety. (I really ought to get around to reading this introduction properly one of these years.) There’s a page devoted to store cupboard basics. It’s mostly as one would expect, although I’d have thought that things like tapenade – nice as it is – wasn’t really such a “basic” store cupboard requirement. I am also disappointed to see that brandy isn’t listed as being essential. Brandy is a must-have in the kitchen! I passed the book to Mr ND for confirmation that brandy had indeed been excluded from the list, and I’d not simply overlooked it. He confirmed that it wasn’t there and also remarked about the lack of red or white wine for cooking as a basic store cupboard ingredient. (To be fair, there is a bit about wine later in the Introduction.)
Now she moves on to essential kitchen equipment. Mostly I agree. She has this to say about saucepans:
Buy the best heavy stainless steel saucepans you can afford. Some have a 50 year guarantee and you will be able to pass them on to your grandchildren. They don’t burn or stick and do wonders for your cooking and your temper!
I said pretty much the same thing myself not so long ago when I was helping my friend Paul decide how to equip a luxury riverside apartment for self-catering holidays. As I said then, “Cheap pans are a waste of money.” By the way, Paul is running a competition where you can win a short break in the luxury apartment.
Next there’s some sensible advice on using the freezer – a subject which many people seem to get their knickers in a twist about. Interestingly, she doesn’t give the usual blanket rule of NEVER REFREEZE, which is the official and legal guideline. She takes a fairly pragmatic approach to it, the same as I do.
Finally, the Introduction winds up with a section about wine. On wine essentials, she has this to say:
Ten years ago, perhaps even five [the book was first published in 2001], it would have been easy to contemplate the possibility of a comprehensive new cookery book with no reference to wine. Not any more. In a remarkably short space of time, wine has abandoned its rather grand, formal air, shrugging off its Sunday suit to don a pair of jeans.
It’s all pretty good stuff, and I’m starting to remember why this book made it to such a high position on my top list.
The book itself
Well, I don’t think you need me to go through every chapter individually so let’s just have an overview. The recipes are great and include a variety of cuisines. I’ve never been disappointed by any of them. Many of them include a Master Recipe and then several variations on a theme. I like it and it encourages creativity in the home cook rather than stifling it in the way the you-must-follow-orders brigade do.
They’re practical and modern and they’re presented with wit and humour. Now, this is where I start to get a bit narked. It’s all very well having the fun and humour but not at the expense of doing the job properly. The editing of the book is atrocious. C’mon, you didn’t really think anyone would get away completely without some criticism in a Not Delia piece, did you? The book comes with an erratum slip as long as an orangutan’s arm. Even then they’ve missed loads of errors. I’m getting fed up of correcting the index. Béchamel sauce, for example, is not on page 582, as stated. It’s on page 580. Maître d’hôtel butter is on page 586, not 588. Et cetera, et cetera, you get the picture. There are also plenty of silly spelling mistakes and some grammatical errors.
I came across another two yesterday on my “how to boil an egg” piece. One, the apparently incorrect use of the word “complimentary”. What I didn’t mention yesterday was that there were two spelling mistakes in that very same paragraph – oeufs spelt as “ouefs” and even eggs spelt as “egs”. OK, I know I can be a bit pedantic at times – we even made it to Private Eye‘s Pedantry Corner – but I just think that things like that should be done properly. Whoever edited and sub-edited that book can’t do the job for peanuts (which, by the way aren’t nuts, they’re legumes).
I also ran aground briefly with the soda bread recipe, which is a terrific, very quick and easy recipe. It works every time too.
In conclusion, it’s a great book. I use it a lot and I’d recommend it to you because it’s interesting, it’s very useful, it has good recipes and loads of great photos by Ray Main. It deserved its place on my top list. It just gets a little bit frustrating sometimes that the editing hasn’t been done very well. As I said earlier, my edition dates back to 2001. A quick glance on Amazon revealed that there seems to have been a new edition published in 2007. I don’t know, I’ve not seen that one – I just hope that there aren’t so many errors in this later edition.
[Update February 2021, I’ve since bought the revised edition – linked to below – and hope to review it shortly.]
Ballymaloe Cookery Course by Darina Allen
Hardback, 640 pages
2007, Kyle Cathie Ltd
ISBN 185626 729 6