William Sitwell is one of Britain's foremost food writers. Having edited Waitrose Food Illustrated and Waitrose Kitchen for many years, he is now the author of A History of Food in 100 Recipes (one of our favourite food history books). Here, he gives us a fascinating tour of his collection of cookbooks, accumulated over the course of his long and distinguished career in the food world.
There are three areas at my home in Northamptonshire where I keep my cook and food books. There are the shelves in the library – a dark red room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling designed by the illustrator and painter Glynn Boyd Hart as a homage to the breakfast parlour of the Soane museum in London. Along two walls are books by my literary ancestors – Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell – along with Edith’s own collection of books, as well as a travel section, biographies, art and music. The cookbooks are some of my favourites, spanning Stephane Reynaud’s Pork and Sons, Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and Caroline Conran’s Poor Cook (a present from her son Tom). The books tend to stay on the shelves, although whenever I pass by I make a shallow pledge to myself to move one to the kitchen.
For that is where the second lot live. In a cabinet over four shelves live the books we actually use, regularly. There’s Nigella’s awesome How to Eat, Simon Hopkinson’s charming Roast Chicken and other Stories (voted – with a little help from me – The Most Useful Cookbook of All Time, in the magazine I edit some years ago) and Jane Hornby’s brilliant What to Cook and How to Cook It. And there is the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book always reliable for sauces, classic cakes, virtually everything – and equally good is the Ballymaloe Cookery Course.
But then there’s my favourite stash, six shelves in the corner of my study – a room gained access through a secret door from the library. Because I write about food a great deal more regularly than I cook it (in spite of countless New Year pledges), this is my beloved resource. Many of the books found their way in to my own tome (A History of Food in 100 Recipes) and so I view them as my little helpers, my foodie elves – my elves on the shelves – so frequently do I scour them for help.
There’s an ancient copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which I took (invited) from the kitchen of a distant relative after she died. Larousse is there, as is the epic Davidson’s The Oxford Companion to Food, a large wine encyclopaedia, Joanna Blythman's essential Shopped and Rose Prince’s seminal Kitchenella.
There’s also a whole shelf that I am devoted to, bought from a sale at Sotheby’s, a very small of part of what was once a huge collection owned by New Yorker Stanley J Steeger. As well as the wonderful Victorian Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery there is what is possibly my favourite cookbook of all time. Cook’s Oracle was written by Dr William Kitchener in 1817. It’s the book that got me fired up to write my own. When he wasn’t obsessing about telescopes or the sea songs of Charles Dibdin he gave dinner parties and wrote about food.
It was a line in his book, that I came across as I turned the thick yellowing pages, which made me warm to him. He was fed up with his food-writing contempories and their forebears writing recipes with vague instructions and inaccurate timings and measures. What was the use, he moaned, at recipes that urged you to use, ‘a bit of this, a handful of that, a pinch of t’other.’ Most cookbooks included recipes, he said that were of no more use for the cook ‘than reading “Robinson Crusoe” would enable a sailor to steer safely from England to India’.
It’s food writing at its punchy, witty, opinionated best. It’s old and weathered but it’s there on my shelf as I write, comforting, nudging me forward, sustaining me as I punch out my foodie thoughts.
William Sitwell's A History of Food in 100 Recipes is out now (Harper Collins). Photos by Vanessa Kimbell.