is filled with recipe books that date back to when I first began to cook in the
late 1970s. There are tatty, well thumbed books, pristine,
I-shouldn’t-have-bought-you books, books sent for review that might prove
useful one day – and - best of all, carefully chosen old cook books.
different stages of my life. Disintegrating paperbacks, such as Katie Stewart’s
The Times Cookery Book
by the brilliant, (but now sadly forgotten) Savitri Chowdhary still conjure
up memories of learning to cook in a ramshackle Earl’s Court flat.
Well-thumbed volumes of Jane Grigson,
Robert Carrier, Alice Waters and the Papermac series of the great French
Nouvelle Cuisine chefs evoke the intensity of working as a chef, while old
editions of Eliza Acton, Dorothy Hartley and Mrs Rundell remind me of the
pleasure I took in researching my own cook books.
a collection, I’m not easily tempted into buying new volumes. No, my weakness
lies with older books and as a result the Oxfam book shop on Marylebone High
Street acts like a magnate on me.
Every time I walk past, I find myself stepping in to have a look –
because you never know what you might find.
addiction started shortly after I’d moved to Marylebone.
I had dropped off a few unwanted review
copies and couldn’t resist a quick glance at the cookery section.
There it was, a 1957 Andre Deutsch
hardback edition of Mrs Chowdhary’s book.
I couldn’t believe my eyes.
It had lost its jacket, which reduces its value, but I didn’t care - I
loved its sun-yellow binding.
Inside, someone called John Slee had written his name on the flyleaf and
tucked amongst its pages a takeaway menu in English from Mogul in Den Haag in
the Netherlands. Clearly, Mr Slee loved Mrs C’s recipes as much as me, as there
were quite a few splodges on its pages.
I turned to the price.
I couldn’t believe my luck.
My favourite Indian cook book in hardback for £1.50!
I bought it immediately and still use
it today, although I have to admit, I haven’t the heart to throw out my
paperback edition, despite the fact that its pages are falling out.
then I’ve gone on to find other treasures, such as a signed, first edition of
Four Seasons Cookery Book
, still with its jacket still in good
It only cost £15, but
for me, it’s not about the money.
It’s about the book and its history. Margaret Costa was one of the great
British food writers of the 1960s.
She sowed the seeds of modern cookery writing and changed how we saw
food as much as Elizabeth David did. She
possessed the rare gift of writing a book that
still inspires with its simple, seasonal approach and sympathetic writing
I learnt how to make the
likes of date chutney, gazpacho and lemon surprise pudding from my paperback
edition in the 1980s, when I was working as a young, self-taught chef.
fascination with browsing the cookery section is the strange things you find in
the books, from dedications to extra recipes slipped in between their pages.
Inside an Oxfam copy of Madhur Jaffrey’s
Indian Cook Book
for example, I found a sheet of paper with a hand-written recipe for Peter
Smith’s home-made garam masala.
made seven ounces.
I left it there
for the book’s next owner.
in Robert Carrier’s
Taste of Morocco
was the following inscription: ‘Dear Eileen,
looking forward to the results! Love Sandy, Christmas 1987.”
The book was a very glossy 1980s
affair, but the recipes are among the most authentic I’ve ever found for
Perhaps it was
originally bought in memory of some trip.
Did Eileen dip into its pages and make Carrier’s lamb tagine with
quinces or his ‘serpent’ cake with almond paste and orange flower water
Every second-hand book
carries its own story.
the Marylebone Oxfam Shop is almost entirely supplied with books from locals.
“We get support from all sorts of people, from local chefs such as Peter Gordon
and the Caldesis, who are really generous and give us signed copies of their
own books, to residents who are just clearing out or down-sizing” says Martin
Penny, the shop manager.
chuckles and adds that
almost like a centre for recycling local books.
The thrillers are bought, read and returned like library
With a turnover in
excess of £400,000 per annum, Oxfam considers the Marylebone shop to be one of
their flagship bookstores.
book that appears valuable is priced according to gets on the internet- though
Martin is keen to stress that they don’t go by the asking price on the web.
popular cook books are new ones, they’ll sell as soon as they hit the shelf,”
“Luckily, we have one
or two people who regularly donate new books.”
They even get given recherché cheffy books, like
Heston Blumental. Recommended retail price £150, Amazon price £97.27, Oxfam
It’s hardly surprising
that local chefs and the students of the Cordon Bleu habitually drop in to see
what’s on offer.
cookery and wine section is always busy.
I have to admit that if it’s very crowded, I get a peculiar sense of
urgency in speed checking the shelves to prevent anyone spotting a desirable
tome before me.
Of course this is
unlikely: there is such an eclectic mixture of cookbooks and they cover everything
from cake decoration and microwave cooking to celebrity chef books.
However, I would have been distressed
if someone had picked up the hardback first edition of Jane Grigson’s
It was published in 1971
by The Cookery Book Club.
much-loved Penguin edition, which I bought in 1979 is now barely usable, while
this faded volume felt lovely.
Strange, how spacious and sturdy hardbacks feel, compared to paperbacks.
often, I’ll come across books that I already own.
Why, I wonder does someone what to give away Rick Stein’s
or Anna del Conte’s
Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes
, which is chock-a-block with
delicious Italian recipes?
they don’t like fish or find themselves with two editions of the same
All the more reason to
carefully inspect the shelves for other discarded goodies.
last couple of years Martin Penny has noticed a slight decline in sales due, he
believes, to the Kindle.
Where is the personality and atmosphere of holding a Kindle?
After all, I certainly won’t find a
download of Mary Norwak’s
The Complete Book of Home Preserving
(Ward Lock Limited, 1978) that I
bought from Oxfam. For me, picking up books, especially from the 50s, 60s and
70s, gives an insight into how we used to eat and cook.
Take Mrs Norwak’s book, I had no idea
that people were making gooseberry or apricot curd in the 70s, but it also
gives a sense of The Good Life with recipes for home-made butter, yoghurt,
cured bacon and parsnip wine. So, keep on donating your books and enjoy the
pleasures of finding new recipes and fresh insights in Oxfam’s old cookbooks.
Marylebone High Street
article first appeared in the Marylebone Journal in August 2011.