Cooking the books

My study 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.

They span different stages of my life. Disintegrating paperbacks, such as Katie Stewart’s The Times Cookery Book and Indian Cooking 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.

With such 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.

My 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.  

Since then I’ve gone on to find other treasures, such as a signed, first edition of Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book , still with its jacket still in good condition.   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 style.   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.

Half the 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.   It made seven ounces.   I left it there for the book’s next owner.   Written 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 Moroccan food.   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 filling?   Every second-hand book carries its own story.

Amazingly, 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.   He chuckles and adds that   “it’s almost like a centre for recycling local books.   The thrillers are bought, read and returned like library books.”    With a turnover in excess of £400,000 per annum, Oxfam considers the Marylebone shop to be one of their flagship bookstores.   Any 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.

“The most popular cook books are new ones, they’ll sell as soon as they hit the shelf,” says Martin.   “Luckily, we have one or two people who regularly donate new books.”   They even get given recherché cheffy books, like The Fat Duck Cookbook by Heston Blumental. Recommended retail price £150, Amazon price £97.27, Oxfam price £40.   It’s hardly surprising that local chefs and the students of the Cordon Bleu habitually drop in to see what’s on offer.

The 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 Good Things from under my nose.   It was published in 1971 by The Cookery Book Club.   My 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.

Quite often, I’ll come across books that I already own.   Why, I wonder does someone what to give away Rick Stein’s eminently useful Seafood or Anna del Conte’s Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes , which is chock-a-block with delicious Italian recipes?   Maybe they don’t like fish or find themselves with two editions of the same book?   All the more reason to carefully inspect the shelves for other discarded goodies.

In the 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.

Oxfam Marylebone

91 Marylebone High Street

020 7487 3570


This article first appeared in the Marylebone Journal in August 2011.


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