Thunder stolen by a turnip; whatever next? My portal into reviewing Pen Vogler’s enthralling new social history of food, Stuffed (Atlantic, £22), was to be via the humble root vegetable. But trips to Florence and Paris delayed my words and, meanwhile, The Observer’s Rachel Cooke went down that same route (sic), name checking naturally the departed agriculture minister Thérèse Coffey, who responded to salad dearth in our supermarkets by advocating we all ‘cherish’ the turnip. Did she mean the cute purple and white version the French call ‘navets’, or our own more rustic swede or rutabaga, often confined to being over-wintering livestock fodder? Even though her advice might count as a plea for seasonality, as so often, ‘Nellie The Effluent’ muddied the waters. The UK’s biggest turnip grower happened to be in her Norfolk constituency and he was giving up on it because those same supermarkets wouldn’t give him an affordable return.

Appropriately, Stuffed, subtitled ‘A History of Good Food and Hard Times in Britain’, is a surprisingly political survey of feast and famine with a particular emphasis on the damage wrought on subsistence by 300 years of Enclosures forcing 6.8 million acres of communal land into private ownership. The book title is not just about a full stomach, it’s also about being shafted.

Its predecessor Scoff, with its examination of class within English eating and drinking was her ‘Nancy Mitford’ book; this is her ‘Jessica Mitford’, constantly drawing parallels with times of scarcity in the past with, say, today’s children going hungry. In the introduction she puts herself firmly in the camp of medic Chris van Tulleken in bemoaning the baleful effects of UPF (ultra-processed foods), toxic equivalents of the adulterated horrors of the Victorian era, detailed in chapters such as ‘Bread and Butter’ or ‘Mustard and Pickles’ in lurid detail.

It took an outsider to chronicle the industrialised food short-cuts that could wreck or even kill a consumer. In 1820 London-based German chemist Frederick Accum published A Treatise on the Adulteration of Food and Culinary Poisons, its cover warning “There is death in the pot”. But it was not until half a century later that the Sale of Food and Drugs Act finally legislated against universal excesses such as the addition of alum or aluminium salt to make a baker’s loaf heavier and bleached whiter. Pen writes: “It was not lethal but it could cause swollen gums and inflate the gum, leading to dyspepsia, diarrhoea and gastritis, all of which impeded the absorption of nutrients.” Alum grinders inhaling its dust became seriously ill; it is still around today.

If all this sounds a mite dour, don’t fret. Born out of impeccable historical research, Stuffed shares the same lightness of touch that made Scoff a best-seller. Particularly wry is her take on the link between that Dickensian twist, gruel, and a ‘healthy brunch mate’ of 2023. While porridge had 5oz of oatmeal per pint, gruel managed just 2oz. A similar ratio to our oat milk, which thankfully avoids the workhouse pollution of rat and mice droppings!

As with Scoff, the book is divided into chapters devoted to a particular foodstuff, 26 in all, ranging from carp to strawberries, from goose to pumpkins with a recipe tagged on the end of each, each account riffing across the centuries, driven by the weight of her research.

Which brings us back to where we came in. The turnip gets a chapter to itself, introduced as a surprising flagship for Renaissance wellness theory based upon ‘the humouds’… revered too for its aphrodisiac qualities. So not just the neglected foodstuff it has become across our shores. According to Stuffed, improved farming techniques on a grander scale slowly transformed the turnip into primarily animal feed for winter.

Let us salute Baldrick’s proud and upright turnip

Witness for the turnip’s defence, unearthed by the diligent Pen, is much-travelled Tudor cleric Andrew Boorde, A Compendyous Regyment or a Dyetary of Healthe (1423) puts the turnip on a pedestal for its medicinal properties, particularly in a sexual context. She writes: “His prescriptions closely follow a slightly earlier book by Sir Thomas Elyot, as they both agree that turnips boiled and eaten  with flesh ‘augmentyth the seed of man’ and a small amount of raw turnip was good for the appetite.”

Hence the aptness of those running turnip jokes across the first two series of BBC’s Blackadder. In the launch episode the new King Richard gives a speech: “This day has been as ’twere a mighty stew in which the beef of victory was mix’d with the vile turnip of sweet Richard slain and the grisly dumpling of his killer fled. But we must eat the yellow wobbly parts two serves. In life, each man gets what he deserves!”

The apogee of the dick-shaped turnip gag comes in series two when the Edmund Blackadder’s servant prepares his ‘Turnip Surprise’. Edmund: “And the surprise is…?” Baldrick: “There’s nothing else in it except the turnip.” Edmund: So, in other words, the Turnip Surprise would be…a turnip.”

To much merriment the Turnip Surprise turns out to look like a “thingy”. Baldrick: “A great big thingy! It was terrific.” Edmund: “Size is no guarantee of quality, Baldrick. Most horses are very well endowed, but that does not necessarily make them sensitive lovers. I trust you have removed this hilarious item?” Baldrick: “I found it particularly ironic, my lord, because I’ve got a thingy that’s shaped like a turnip!” Miriam Margolyes as Edmund’s Puritan aunt (whose inheritance he seeks) demands she must have her turnip not mashed but as “God intended”. It arrives and further priapic hilarity ensues.

I have turnips. What do I cook with them?

The batch of un-suggestively shaped turnips I brought back from the market demands I prepare something that does them humble justice. Maybe use the beef stew with turnips recipe from 17th century diarist and gardener John Evelyn that’s appended to Pen’s turnip chapter. My gut instinct is to go for the great Richard Corrigan’s take on the French classic Navarin that pairs lamb shoulder with anchovies, but it requires tiny purple spring turnips. Mine are larger but still intense, so I stew them in butter and thyme with chopped chestnuts and black garlic, add rich beef stock, simmer for an hour, liquidise and serve as a rich veloute. A proper winter warmer.

Anthony Bourdain called AJ Liebling’s Between Meals (1962) “the benchmark for great food writing”, so there’s palpable excitement among gastronomes that 60 years on it’s about to be republished. This Francophile expat contributor to the New Yorker is an obvious inspiration for Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, quirkiest of odes to La Vie Parisienne mid-20th century (though that movie is set in the fictional provincial town of Ennui-sur-Blasé).

Liebling was more gourmand than gourmet and his unreconstructed attitude to women matched his gross appetites at table, which in turn led to obesity, gout and death at just 59 in 1963. Yet the guy could undoubtedly write. Like his almost exact contemporary also renowned for evocative prose rather than recipes, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. She  survived him by a further 30 years, dying as a feted grande dame in California’s Napa/Sonoma wine country.

As with Alice Waters or our own Elizabeth David, hers is a formidable foodie name to drop. Meryl Streep was never destined to play her. Snooty MFK in an apron for telly demos à la Julia Child? Quelle horreur! All we have is the writing and a certain cult following, of which I’m happy to be a fully paid-up member. If Liebling got Bourdain’s vote, I’m happy to endorse WH Auden’s verdict on her: “I do not know of anyone in the States who writes better prose”.

The great poet died in 1973 (a year after I had dinner with him in Oxford – we disagreed over the merits of the avocado), so that view of his may have dated. Indeed there is a certain antipathy in some quarters towards her legacy and the genre of food-centric life memoirs she initiated. Nadir? Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. 

Yet MFK doesn’t really deserve this diatribe from one Josh Ozersky in Medium magazine, culminating in “Her legacy suffocates us, immobilises us, covers us as tightly as puff pastry in a beef wellington. Food writing today is one great echo chamber, and the voice it echoes must be silenced. M.F.K. Fisher must die.”

Harsh. Contrast it with the unlikeliest of MFK homages in Birmingham last weekend, which sparked this, my own reminder of her greatness as a writer. No, I didn’t attend the supper club ‘Lunch with MFK Fisher’ hosted by Matt O’Callaghan, whose Italophile blog isthe rather excellent MangiaMangia, but I’d like to have shared that menu of tea, bread and honey, sherry, tomato, chicken and wine broth, cheese tarts (with white wine), roast pigeon with herbs and bread (with red), iced fruit, gaufrettes and Tokay, coffee and Armagnac.

This ‘fusion of food and art’ apparently replicated a meal she served for friends and family in her rural Swiss home, Le Pâquis above Vevey, just before the outbreak of World War Two. This was just one stop-off in a peripatetic life that also took in Italy, various parts of France and later, her native America (she was born in Michigan). 

Food was integral but she always aimed to chart her life in its entirety, summed up beautifully in the opening to her most popular book, The Gastronomical Me, “Our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.” 

She was a great beauty. Photographer Man Ray worshipped her bone structure. Her determinedly independent life had its fair share of glamour, but also trauma, especially when her terminally ill second husband, Dilwyn Parrish shot himself. Life after the war as a single mother can’t have been easy but those years yielded two of my favourite books of hers on Marseille and Aix-en-Provence. I visited both cities last year and her ghost was there, particularly in Aix along the Rue Cardinale, her base in the Mazarin Quarter.

The area on which she is most evocative is Burgundy. In 1929 she moved there with her first husband, A,l to Dijon, where both studied at the university. Heady days as the newlyweds celebrated its rich food pickings: “We ate terrines of pâté ten years old under their tight crusts of mildewed fat. We tied napkins under our chins and splashed in great odorous bowls of ecrevisses a la nage. We addled our palates with snipes hung so long they fell from their hooks, to be roasted then on cushions of toast softened with the paste of their rotted innards and fine brandy.”

A touch florid, even Lieblingesque, maybe but, especially as her marriage faltered, she grew into her razor-sharp narrations. My favourite of these, set in the Burgundian Avallon region, is I Was Really Very Hungry

It was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1937; I discovered it in a delicious ‘greatest hits’ compilation, As They Were (1982). The centrepiece is a kind of a joust between a serving girl besotted with the cuisine her chef is producing backstage and the solo diner (MFK is always brilliant on the ‘woman who dines alone’).

It starts: “Once I met a young servant in northern Burgundy who was almost frighteningly fanatical about food, like a medieval woman possessed by a devil. Her obsession engulfed even my appreciation of the dishes she served, until I grew uncomfortable.

“It was the off season at the old mill which a Parisian chef had bought and turned into one of France’s most famous restaurants, and my mad waitress was the only servant. In spite of that she was neatly uniformed, and showed no surprise at my unannounced arrival and my hot dusty walking clothes…”

3,000 words later, after being pressed with glasses of marc and settling the large bill, the relentlessly sensuous ‘tasting menu’ is over, our heroine ready to leave…

“Suddenly the girl began to laugh, in a soft shy breathless way, and came close to me.

‘Permit me!’ she said, and I thought she was going to kiss me. But instead she pinned a tiny bunch of snowdrops and dark bruised cyclamens against my stiff jacket, very quickly and deftly, and then ran from the room with her head down.

“I waited for a minute. No sounds came from anywhere in the old mill, but the endless rushing of the full stream seemed to strengthen, like the timed blare of an orchestra under a falling curtain. She’s a funny one, I thought. I touched the cool blossoms on my coat and went out, like a ghost from ruins, across the courtyard toward the dim road to Avallon.”

You’re hooked? You must be. Follow this link to read the full 3,500 words.

The best introduction to Fisher at her peak is The Art of Eating, a compendium of four books, her debut, Serve It Forth, Consider The Oyster, The Gastronomical Me and An Alphabet for Gourmets. Her most recipe-led volume, How To Eat A Wolf, was published at the height of Second World War food shortages and its wryness still resonates. One chapter is called How to Be Cheerful Through Starving, another How To Boil Water, and she helpfully tips us off on creating a life-saving ‘sludge’ for 50 cents, yet the message, echoing the rest of her 25-strong oeuvre, is ‘food is pleasure’. When we “nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy and ever-increasing enjoyment it is a way to “assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains”.

That message was there at the start of her writing career in Serve It Forth: “If you have to eat to live, you may as well enjoy it.”

Main image is courtesy of the Audubon Canyon Ranch, a sustainable nature charity based at Stimson’s Beach, who are custodians of MFK Fisher’s Californian legacy.

PJ Harvey’s wonderful return to form, Inside the Old Year Dying, springs from the epic Dorset dialect poem, Orlam, she published last year. It’s an album I have on constant repeat as it yields its surprises, aural and verbal. I’ve still to tackle the poem itself, product of eight years’ mastering the neglected linguistic heritage of her native county (it has an English translation on facing pages).

Yes, Thomas Hardy remains synonymous with Dorset but the parson poet of Blackmore Vale, William Barnes, is Polly’s literary inspiration A greater poet, Edward Thomas, described him as “the mouthpiece of the Dorset carters, cowmen, mowers and harvesters”. The rustic patois of the region that populates his verse is a wellspring for the raw, supernatural growing-up story of nine-year-old Ira-Abel, whose oracle is the all-seeing eye of a dead lamb, the Orlam of the book’s title. 

The vision of Barnes (1801-1886) himself is altogether more grounded as I was reminded when researching another great Dorset survivor, Blue Vinny – a large newly-purchased chunk of which faces me as I write (Calder Cheese House, £2.95 per 100g.)

Vinny (or Vinney) was apparently Hardy’s favourite cheese, fancifully linked by some to Talbothayes Dairy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where Tess and Angel Clare’s love ripened against a backdrop of its “lush, fertile land” in contrast to ‘starveacre’  Flintcomb-Ash where, in a memorable low point she’s forced to wrench swedes from the rugged terrain. 

Yet I can find no reference to tangy, blue-veined cheeses across Hardy’s extensive oeuvre. Barnes, though, sings of its merits loud and clear in his poem, Praise O’ Do’set, just after a fulsome plug for frothy cider:

“Woont ye have brown bread a-put ye,

An’ some vinny cheese a-cut ye?”

In truth, it’s not one of Barnes’s best, omitted from my browning 1972 selection of his work, edited by Robert Nye. At that time true Dorset Blue Vinny was just a fading memory, even in its Vale of Blackmore heartland. The image of that perfect dairy country was sealed into the English DNA at that time by the ‘boy on the bike’ Hovis ads, filmed on Golden Hill, Shaftesbury. Alas, it was probably processed ‘Cheddar’ going on that processed brown bread.

The Second World War had been almost the final straw for a cheese already in decline when the government concentrated essential dairy production on a few key hard cheeses. By the Seventies with a revival of interest in traditional British foods, the cause was not yet lost, though. 1978’s groundbreaking In Search of Food by David and Richard Mabey desperately turns the search for any existing Blue Vinny farmhouse producers into a two-page ‘Detective Story’. They toured all the villages of the Vale, including Barnes birthplace Bagber, Glanvilles Wooton, Buckland Newton and beyond to Piddletrenthide and Cerne Abbas. Ultimately the quest was all frustrating dead ends but they set the bar.

From them I learned ‘“The Vinny of the name is a corruption of ‘vinnid’ or veiny, referring to the mass of blue veins that run through the cheese. The milk for the cheese would be hand-skimmed, since mechanical skimming takes away too much of the cream from the milk…”

It was all a bit hit and miss. In unhygienic cold, damp dairies cheeses were left for months while spores of penicillium roqueforti would grow. “In some dairies, farm hands would dip harness leathers in the milk churns when the day’s work was over, and they might leave mouldy bread or old boots in the cheese room. The final trick was to store the cheese at the bottom of a vat of cider; it might take months but eventually the cider would clear and the cheese would ripen. What a harmonious and practical partnership between two foods.” For a current similar symbiosis of booze and blue cheese check our my recent report on Oregon’s Rogue River Blue.

By the time the legendary Patrick Rance updated his The Great British Cheese Book in 1988 a Vinny saviour was at hand. The monocled Major had charted various small scale attempts at revival, plus the the passing off of second-grade Stilton off-cuts as the real thing, but finally he welcomed what has proved to be a successful champion for four decades now and the source of the creamy and crumbly, intricately-veined specimen in front of me. Bravo Mike Davies and his family at Woodbridge Farm, Sturminster Newton.

It all came about as a means of using up surplus milk on the family farm. Trained cheesemaker Mike unearthed a 300-year-old recipe. bought a second-hand vat and set to work in the pantry, where – learning curve – soon everything from the walls to marmalade jars turned blue. Production today is still based around their own pasteurised milk and the cheese, lower in fat than most, matures at the farm for 15 to18 weeks.

I can’t better Ned Palmer’s evaluation of it in his A Cheesemonger’s Compendium of British and Irish Cheese (Profile Books, £14.99): “With a rough, fawn-orange rind and a deep, well-distributed indigo blue, the cheese has an aroma of digestive biscuits, a satisfyingly chewy texture and a long, hot peppery finish.”

Their Blue Vinny has won numerous awards and has been recognised by the European Commission as one of a select group of foods worthy of carrying its “Protected Geographical Indication” (PGI) mark.

Like Lancashire crumbly It’s a great cooking cheese. A decade ago River Cottage, just across the border in Devon, created a ‘Leek and Dorset Blue Tart’ that is a stalwart of the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall rustic repertoire:


For the shortcrust pastry:

250g plain flour

125g unsalted butter

Pinch of sea salt

1 medium egg yolk

25-50ml cold milk

For the filling:

2 large or 3 medium leeks (about 500g), trimmed of tough green leaves, washed and sliced into 1cm rounds

Knob of unsalted butter

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

100g Dorset Blue Vinny grated

2 medium eggs

2 medium egg yolks

350ml double cream


First make the pastry. Put the flour, butter and salt in a food processor and pulse until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk, then pour in the milk in a gradual stream. Watch carefully and stop adding the milk as soon as the dough starts to come together. Turn out and knead lightly a couple of times, then wrap in cling film. Chill for half an hour.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the pastry out quite thinly and use to line a 25cm loose-based tart tin, letting the excess pastry hang over the edges. Line the pastry case with greaseproof paper, fill with baking beans and place in an oven preheated to 70C/Gas Mark 3. Bake blind for 20 minutes, then take the tart out of the oven, remove the paper and beans, lightly prick the base all over with a fork and return to the oven for five minutes, until the base is dry but not too coloured. Carefully trim off the excess pastry with a small, sharp knife. Turn the oven temperature up to 180C/Gas Mark 4.

To make the filling, put the leeks into a saucepan with 100ml water, the butter and some salt and pepper. Bring to a low simmer, then cover and cook gently, stirring once or twice, for about 10 minutes, until just tender. Drain well, reserving the cooking liquor. Spread the cooked leeks in the tart case and cover with the grated cheese.

Put the eggs and egg yolks, cream and leek liquor in a bowl and beat until smooth. Season to taste, then pour this custard over the cheese and leeks. Put the tart back into the oven and bake for about 30 minutes — the custard should be just set when you gently shake the tin. Serve warm or cold.

This is Niki Segnit. She is up there with the great British food writers. Her debut cookbook/compendium, The Flavour Thesaurus was an instant classic when it was published 13 years ago. Lauded by her peers, it found an eager market among those of us who look beyond glossy recipe repetitions. There had never been anything quite like it before, this playful exploration of ingredient matches springing from a flavour wheel of her own random devising. A reference book born out of erudite research that was equally at home by the bedside or on the kitchen table, it delivered a unique, inspiring perspective on food combinations and the science and social mores behind them. EM Forster’s ‘Only Connect’ applied to our store cupboards.

If the ‘difficult second album’, Lateral Cooking (2018), saw her via diagrams consolidating the technical bedrock of her encyclopaedic taste research, it now looks like it was essentially the springboard for her masterpiece, the recently published The Flavour Thesaurus: New Flavours (Bloomsbury, £20). Those new flavours are predominantly plant-based. It was intended to be zeitgeist-led vegan, from kale to cashew, pomegranate to pistachio, seaweed to tamarind, but Niki’s reluctance to abandon cheese and eggs won the day in this parade of 90 flavours and their cross-fertilisation in the kitchen. 800 references in total with a scattering of recipes spontaneously blooming out of them.

What was special about the original Thesaurus was the frame of reference equal to the greats, David, Grigson, Roden. And, of course the sheer chutzpah of her prose that’s the sweetener for so much erudite exposition. 

Let’s celebrate the sly, almost metaphysical, wit she brings to the task of cross-referencing flavour profiles. Words stimulating appetite? Bon mots, bon appetit? Bring it on. 

Take her tall tale about the penicillium origins of Roquefort blue cheese (in her Rye section) … “The story involves a shepherd retiring to a cave for lunch. He was about to tuck into his rye bread and cheese when a passing shepherdess caught his eye/ he set off in pursuit and by the time he came back – after what microbiology 101  yells mus have been several days of vigorous lovemaking – his food had gone mouldy. Here the story takes a bold narrative turn to focus on him eating the spoiled food. 

“(Was it a lovelorn death wish on the shepherd’s part? Was the lovemaking so perfect nothing could possibly ever measure up to it? Or was he so smitten that he simply didn’t notice it had gone mouldy? Find out in my sizzling international bestseller, The Shepherd of Roquefort.)”

Corn and Honey yields this account of middle-aged inverted libido: It’s said that John Harvey Kellogg invented the cornflake as a means of suppressing carnal yearnings. Eat bland food, the theory went, and the fire in your loins would soon gutter and fail. He had it exactly the wrong way round. The Western world’s collective equator-sized  waistband stands as proof that humans will drop anything for another bowl of something delicious. Across the world women reach across the bed to find a cool absence where their husband once was, as, downstairs, in the unflattering light of the open refrigerator, he tucks into the fifth bowl of breakfast clusters while browsing the Damart catalogue for the next size up in elasticated leisurewear.” 

She recommends instead a few hot corn pancakes, glossy with butter and honey, Chestnut honey because of the slight bitterness that offsets the sweetness of the corn. Finally comes the inevitable scientific punchline: “It also contains an aromatic ketone called aminoacetophenone, which characteristic of corn tortilla, grapes and strawberries and for the unsentimental and more adventurous gastronaut, dog’s paws.”

Elsewhere there’s an abundance of rock and roll or film references, not all of which come off, but I do like her response (in Vanilla and Passionfruit) to Pornstar Martini creator Douglas Ankrah insisting the flavour pairing was inspired by cakes and pastries… “which is a bit like finding out that Mötley Crüe’s inspiration for Girl, Girls, Girls was a Women’s Institute Easter Bonnet Competition that Nikki Sixx attended with his gran.”

Aubergine and Miso 

Chocolate with aubergine in a dessert is one of her more challenging forays (for me), even if my own addition of chocolate to caponata should make me welcome fellow Sicilian dish, melanzane al cioccolato. Nikki almost convinces me with “Some might say that given enough chocolate, ricotta, dried fruit and toasted pine nuts you could wolf down a boiled Birkenstock…” Instead I tried out her aubergine and miso combo, which turned out perfect culinary co-ordination.

“Aubergine mellows miso, absorbing its salty stridency to make a tender savoury sponge. Nasu Dengaku, a variation on tofu dengaku, is the classic Japanese take on the pairing. For 2-4 servings, as an appetiser or side dish, halve 2 aubergines lengthwise. Score the cut sides with a criss-cross pattern. Brush with a little neutral oil and roast at 200°C for at least 30 minutes until they have softened and charred slightly. In a small pan over a low heat, whisk together 2tbsp red miso and 1tbsp each of mirin, sugar and sake untril both the sugar and miso have dissolved. Glaze the scored sides of the aubergine with the miso mix, then put  the under a hot grill for a few minutes until he glaze is flecked with dark brown patches and bubbling. Note: sweetened miso burns quickly, so don’t leave unattended.”

I didn’t and the result was so remarkable I didn’t regret the absence of chocolate!

The Flavour Thesaurus: more flavours by Niki Segnit is published by Bloomsbury at £20.

What links the sprightliest greenery in my early summer garden with a dish created in 1962 at a railroad halt at the head of the navigable Loire? L’oseille is what the French call sorrel and in the unassuming industrial town of Roanne two chefs created culinary magic by marrying this acidic, zesty herb to a salmon escalope.

I first read about it in 1978 in remarkable book called Great Chefs of France, essentially a handsomely illustrated roll call of all the figures who created ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’. Roanne-based Les Freres Troigros, Jean and Pierre, sounded the most fun. Asked to create a dish for Paul Bocuse’s Legion d’Honneur lunch for Giscard d’Estaing, they came up with Escalope de saumon  a l’oseille and the rest is history. I have been slavishly following the recipe for this delicate, almost Zen-like dish since 1980 when the brothers published their own cookbook, Nouvelle Cuisine, part of a series translated into English that included Cuisine Minceur by Michel Guerard, the only one of that groundbreaking kitchen generation still alive.

By 1968 the brothers had gained a third Michelin star for the restaurant, which it has held ever since, while morphing from the station’s Hotel Moderne, prospering from the Route Nationale 7 running past, via a more sophisticated makeover in 1976, to its current incarnation after a switch to a rural site in 2007. Jean died of a heart attack in 1983, Pierre in 2020 at the age of 92, the Troigros legacy long since consolidated in the hands of Pierre’s son Michel (and now a new generation). Influences on the menu in recent times have been Japanese, a logical extension of the pared down intensity of the original Nouvelle Cuisine movement.

Alas, I’ve never eaten in the restaurant proper. On a press trip to explore the wines of the Roannaise region a Troigros lunch was organised for us. A lovely prix fixe three courses yes, but it was in a spin-off down the street, the Cafe Epicerie Le Central. It cost just 23 euros, quarter of the price of a main at the big place, where the other day I struggled to find salmon with sorrel on the website menu.

My own sorrel crop has mostly been perennial. When one year it failed we were rescued by a cutting from the unlikeliest of sources, the Michelin-starred Mr Underhills in Ludlow. 

Chris Bradley was virtually a one-man band at the stove (hence a no choice five course menu) with his wife Judy front of house. Quite a team, both now retired, the building down by Dinham Weir sold on as a private house. 

The no choice dinner we had in the garden was utterly memorable with salmon and sorrel as a starter. Which led to our lament about our own lost herb. Not only did Judy come up with a replacement from her own garden, she even volunteered Chris to drive us back to our hotel in the absence of Ludlow taxis. Now that was Michelin star service. Here’s my take on the original Troisgros recipe…

Salmon in a creamy sorrel sauce – a dish that has stood the test of time


1kg fresh middle cut of salmon, skinned; 80g fresh sorrel leaves; 2 shallots;  500ml fish fumet; 4tbsp dry white wine; 2tbsp Noilly Prat; 400ml double cream; 40g butter; juice of ½ lemon; salt and freshly ground pepper; small amount of arachide or other light oil.


Divide the salmon into four fillets and put them between two sheets of lightly oiled wax paper and flatten the fish evenly, using a mallet. Remove the stems from the sorrel by stripping the central veins from each leaf.

To prepare the fish sauce put the fish fumet, white wine, Noilly Prat and shallots into a saucepan and cook over high heat until a near glaze is reached. Add the cream and reduce until the sauce is slightly thickened. Add the sorrel for around 20 seconds while stirring. Then incorporate the butter off the heat.  Before serving add a few drops of lemon juice

To cook the fillets, sprinkle salt and pepper on the least presentable side. Heat up the oil (or use a non-stick pan), then add the salmon with the seasoned side down for 25 seconds. then turn to the second side for another 25 seconds. The salmon should be undercooked since it will continue to cook after plating. Add the sorrel sauce, enlivened with a squeeze of lemon, to each warmed plate then add the salmon. Voilà!

One boon of the lockdowns, as we sought solace beyond our isolation, was stumbling upon digital escape routes for which we felt a kinship. Mine were strangely consoling. Among the social media tumult of misinformation and malice what a relief each day to receive via Twitter an Eric Ravilious artwork (@Ravilious1942) or a snatch of Seamus Heaney verse (@HeaneyDaily)? Best of all was my discovery of the Friends of Friendless Churches. I was not alone – there were 46,000 followers of @friendschurches helping spread the word about a tiny 65-year-old charity ‘caring for 60 redundant but beautiful places of worship in England and Wales.’

I also follow @BatsinChurches. This project tailors the interests of our 18 native species to the delicate structures they choose to inhabit. Both these niche organisations – the first mostly privately resourced, the second a Heritage Fund recipient, each a labour of love – get their moment in the spotlight in Peter Ross’s vivid trawl across the ecclesiastical edifices of our island, Steeple Chasing (Headline, £22, published May 11).

Appropriately enough, Friendless Churches is the focus of the chapter titled Dust. The author meets its director, Rachel Morley an Irish woman in her thirties, on site on a bend of the River Monnow just across the Welsh Border. St James Llangua is nearing the end of its working life. It’s not in a good state. Can they afford to rescue it it? It will take £300,000 to fix the roof and make it safe. That’s half of the Friends’ annual income. 

Further chapters are entitled Steel, Fire, Stone, Bone, Fen, Light etc in this award-winning Scottish feature writer’s neo-WG Sebaldian quest for meaning among the steeples and bell towers. Elegiac, yes but more… The melancholy element is inevitable, if not as pervasive as in its predecessor, A Tomb With A View: The Stories and Glories of Graveyards (Headline, £20).

That came out in 2020. This suggests a publisher cashing in with a quickfire follow-up. Far from the case. Steeple Chasing is given an extra dimension by the intervening pandemic. The quirky stories are still there, as is Ross’s wry charm, but essentially this is a book about people caring deeply. About the fabric of churches and the fabric of community. It has become a state of the nation book. While focusing on structured religion in decline.

The dressing-up box meets secret anointment excesses of this weekend’s Coronation (of the ‘Defender of the Faith’) made me wish for a simpler communion with history. Alone in a Norman church, perhaps, among fields. Such architectural survivors, of course, feature in Simon Jenkins’ comprehensive England’s Thousand Best Churches, which offers a star rating for each. This can easily become a tourist ticker exercise. I say this as a man already compiling a Steeple Chasing bucket list. On it for starters are two slightly spooky churches – Holy Trinity at Stow Bardolph in Norfolk and St Peter’s and St Paul’s at Chaldon in Surrey.

The former is host to a life-size wax effigy of one Sarah Hare, a member of the local gentry who died aged 55 on April 9, 1744 ‘after poisoning her blood with the prick of a needle’. It was her wish to be memorialised this way; the body itself is buried beneath the church floor. The face is “plump and over-ripe, ingrained dirt gives the impression it is veined like cheese, The eyes are blue. Dark curls fall across the forehead. The effigy has grown grubby and worn. The neck and décolletage are filthier than the face and the hands are filthiest of all. Her left index finger is coming away at the knuckle, “ writes Ross.

He compares the experience to Dorian Gray, Miss Havisham or the end of Don’t Look Now. “It would be the most natural thing in the world, the most dreadful thing in the world, if she smiled.” After which he takes tea with her descendant, Lady Rose Hare, who is rather fond of Sarah. The only other funeral effigies in the UK are in Westminster Abbey. Surely some Royal hangers-on were auditioning for the part last Saturday.

Grand Guignol in pictorial form at the Chaldon church, tucked in a fold of the North Downs. Dating back to 1170, ’The Ladder of Salvation of the Human Soul and the Road to Heaven’ is a 17ft by 6ft red mural depicting purgatorial torment. Demons stir a cauldron full of murderers, a hell hound chews a woman’s arm, devils press forks to the head of a money-lender until white-hot coins spill from his mouth. How precious to find such a masterpiece still in situ rather than transported to a museum.

As so often in the book, Ross’s empathy comes to the fore. Acknowledging it is intellectually quite complex, offering new ideas about the afterlife, he writes that “the total  effect is visceral. It must have been a fearful experience for medieval churchgoers to stand facing the altar with this horror show behind them. I bet they smelled the sulphur. I bet they felt the heat on the back of their necks.” 

Linking it tenuously to Picasso’s Guernica, Ross concludes: “it seems both ancient and queer and radical and modernist”. That could apply to Stanley Spencer. In the same chapter, Paint, Ross takes in his vast religious war painting, Resurrection of the Soldiers, at Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, Hampshire. I love these (sic) leaps of faith throughout Steeple Chasing.

The book ranges far beyond country churches. Sheela-na-gigs and other ruderies, wooden angels among Norfolk rafters, Glastonbury’s sacred springs, the abandoned brutalist seminary of St Peter’s outside Dumbarton. The mighty centres of Christendom are also tackled – Lindisfarne, Durham Cathedral, St Paul’s. With the latter, in the Fire chapter, his fascinating tangent features the air wardens who stood sentinel over it during World War II, when miraculously it survived. My favourite London contribution, though, is in the next chapter Cats. Worth buying the book just for this account of a feral Borough Market ratter enlisted to serve in the same capacity at adjacent Southwark Cathedral. Christened Doorkins Magnificat, she patrolled the grounds by night and found favourite spots inside to snooze during the day. This famous feline even met The Queen on one royal visit. 

Alas, Doorkins’ eventual end was hastened by being caught up in the 2017 Islamist terror attack on London Bridge with its fleeing crowds, sirens and flashing lights. After the Cathedral doors were blown open in a controlled explosion, she was never the same cat again. No spoilers. Buy this fabulous book to find out what happens to Magnificat.

A YouTube postscript

Each time I finish reading a Peter Ross book there’s a pattern developing. I Google a film. In the case of A Tomb With A View it was One Million Dollars, Anife Kellehers’s documentary about Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery that’s also an elegy for its legendary tour guide, Shane MacThomais (who committed suicide aged 44, though that’s not mentioned in the film). It’s a remarkable watch.

In Steeple Chasing John Betjeman’s A Passion for Churches gets a mention in relation to Norfolk’s rich holy building heritage. The BBC screened it in  1974 and it’s still available grainily on YouTube. Watch it and be amazed at how 50 years has transformed Britain (an absurd lapse into medieval kingship ritual aside). Did people really look like that? Was it all so grey? It out-Larkins Larkin, a vastly superior poet to Betjeman (witness Church Going or An Arundel Tomb). And yes, at least in the country parishes, we were still clinging on to being a church-going nation.

Take in the Indian food shot above. The mutton keema is adapted from a recipe by my beloved Dishhoom, the paratha was bought in frozen, while the date and tamarind chutney and coriander/mint dip were both home-made. Star of the impromptu tiffin, though, is hidden under that tangle of radish sprouts. Step into the spotlight Gurdeep Loyal’s Punjabi Ranchero.

It comes from his Mother Tongue (4th Estate, £28) and follows the template of this utterly utterly distinctive cookbook, whose playful manifesto proclaims: “Food is a living form of culture that evolves: its boundaries are fluid, blurred, porous and dynamic… authenticity is an unending reel of culinary snapshots, an evolving spectrum that captures many transformative moments along flavourful journeys in generations of kitchens.”

So where we are at with this “second generation British Indian food writer and home cook, a descendant of Punjabi farmers and Leicester market traders with big appetites” is a dish such as this ‘Aloo Chaat Wedge Salad with a Pink Peppercorn Ranch Dressing’. Potatoes and chaat masala meet American iceberg lettuce dressing. His aim? To marry the “same splendidly kitsch garnishing skills as Indian street snacks” with the “Fanny Craddock meets breakfast buffet school of culinary arts.” Cue some ‘visual mood board’ fantasy about the iconic Fanny sporting a sari on Christmas Day!

Like all the 100 determinedly hybrid recipes in his debut collection, it works a treat. Hard to imagine in advance Gurdeep’s anarchically fusion take, Lasagne Rolls with Kasunda Keema (the recipe for which is at the end of this piece), but I was won over by his introduction to it. A charming, accomplished writer, he is as good on intros as tweaking traditional food styles.

“It was the daytime clubbing scene where the boundaries of bhangra and Asian underground were pushed, blending Punjabi folk music, classical Indian melodies and Bollywood anthems with hip hop, R’n’B, soul, dance and garage. I remember South Asian friends bunking off college on Wednesday afternoons, heels in their bags, to get to afternoon raves. 

“Created by and for the diaspora, they served a generation of young adults, united by a need to party coupled with a need to be at home in time to make roti. I encountered offshoots of the scene much later, through the queer-desi night Club Kali and sporadic bhangra DJs that played Popstarz at the Apollo. Those 2am moments on the dance floor were rare times I could be every layer of my identity at once, illuminating with lasers what was often concealed by the code-switching of my life by daylight. Identity is like lasagne: each layer unique, but transformed when brought together as a whole.”

A professional level cellist, 39-year-old Gurdeep can’t resist peppering his food writing with musical analogies. Born in Leicester, he has pursued his passion for flavours across an eclectic career path that has included helping grow Innocent Drinks and exploring global food trends for Harrods and Marks & Spencer. All this while coping with plural identities as a British-born son of Punjabi immigrants. He recognises the irony of the title Mother Tongue when his mother will never have the English language skills to read it.

And, of course, there is another Loyal identity – as a gay man. It’s not the kind of memoir that dwells on prejudice and the struggles that brings. For that try The Go-Between by the equally flamboyant Osman Yousefzada (Canongate £14.99). He wrote: “My parents come from an underclass; they were illiterate and couldn’t read or write in any language.…they came from humble rural areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan and moved to the UK in the early 1970s to fill the low-level jobs no one else wanted.”

Much of his account is of a child perceptively exploring the confines of the immigrant ‘ghetto’ that was Balsall Heath, Birmingham and the restrictions on women, particularly his beloved mother and sisters. Eventually, he breaks through the barriers to reach university in London, starting his own fashion label (Beyoncé and Lady Gaga were clients) and more recently becoming renowned as a multi-disciplinary artist.

Brought up in America, another gifted gay writer Mayukh Sen trades less on his Asian descent (Bengali). His own breakthrough book of 2021, deals with the marginalisation of female voices within a patriarchal 20th century culinary culture. Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women who Revolutionised Food in America (Norton, £11.39) profiles cookery writers familiar to me on this side of the Pond – Italian champion Marcella Hazan and Indian Julie Sahni, restaurateur and recipe rival of the higher profile Madhur Jaffrey – but the remaining five were equally fascinating in their struggles to promote their authentic cooking styles.

These may seem yesterday’s battles when we now have a bewildering proliferation of cookbooks defining authentic cuisines of nations, even regions. And with one click online you can source multiple variants of one exotic recipe or other. In the midst of this tumult my tip is to seek out those second generation Asian writers who are not on repeat, who have loyalty to tradition but bend it to their own culinary will. 

I’d first recommend the remarkable Nik Sharma, California-based molecular biologist/photographer/cookbook author and, a theme developing, also gay. Start with Saison (Chronicle Books, £25), then move on to the more challenging, science-based The Flavor Equation (Chronicle Books, £26) and perhaps his A Brown Table website.

In the UK women writers are to the fore. Sumayya Usmani blends an expectation-defying memoir and a contemporary take on her native Pakistani cuisine in Andaza (Murdoch £20). Meera Sodha’s Made in India and Fresh India (both Penguin Figtree, £20) are my go-to weekday meal gospels. Her story, too, is one of emigration. She was born in Lincolnshire to Ugandan Indian parents and the cross-fertilisation shows in a dish like a brussels sprout thoran and she is not too purist to promote a curry featuring a Lincolnshire sausage. On the fipside, I’m not sure how much beaching up in Coventry from the Tamil northern tip of Sri Lanka has influenced Cynthia Shanmugalingam’s recently restaurant Rambutan near Borough Market. Her cookbook of that same name is a retro look at the (delicious) family food she grew up with and its transformation in exile, while not shying away from the tragic sectarian strife of her homeland.

More recently another second generation Punjabi, Sarah Woods, in her Desi Kitchen (Penguin, £30), has charted the diaspora of a variety of regional Indian cuisines in assorted UK regions, again recognising the mutations of ‘authentic’ dishes. Ravinder Boghal, Kenyan-born to Indian parents, doesn’t even claim, in her Marylebone restaurant Jikoni and the cookbook of the same name to be remotely ‘traditional’. ‘Proudly inauthentic recipes from an immigrant kitchen’ is the sub-heading of Jikoni (Bloomsbury, £26).

I’m a big fan of Ravinder’s paneer gnudi with saag or clove-smoked venison samosas with beetroot chutney but, for the moment, I‘m loyally smitten with Gurdap. Oh, those Coconut Crab Crumpets with Railway Crispy Eggs (I kid you not), Tahini Chalai Chicken Wings, Hariyali Coconut Fish Pie, Miso-Masala Fried Chicken Sando, Desi Kofta Meatballs with Sticky Mango-Lime Tomatoes, Sweet Chilli-Gunpowder Roasted Cauliflower, and Chocolate-Orange Jalebis. Pure genius. Meanwhile, finally, lasagne as you’ve never known it…

Kasundi keema lasagne rolls

(Serves 4) 

For the kasundi keema: 

2 tbsp ghee 

2 large onions, finely chopped 

1 tbsp coriander seeds, crushed 

1 tbsp black mustard seeds 

1 tbsp cumin seeds 

8 garlic cloves, very finely chopped 

2 tbsp finely grated fresh ginger 

2 tsp chilli flakes 

500g minced lamb (20 per cent fat) 

2 tbsp Garam Masala (see page 23) 

2 tsp fine sea salt 

5 tbsp tomato purée 

2 tbsp dark brown sugar 

3 tbsp apple cider vinegar 

½ x 400g can of chopped tomatoes 

For the cheese paste: 

200g mature Cheddar cheese, grated 

2 tsp cumin seeds, crushed 

3 tbsp coarse semolina 

1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper 

1 egg, lightly beaten 

For the greens: 

200g cavolo nero, coarse stalks removed 

1 tbsp English mustard 

4 garlic cloves, very finely chopped or grated 

4 tbsp lemon juice 

For the lasagne rolls and tarkha: 

10-12 lasagne sheets 

500g jar of tomato pasta sauce 

2 tbsp vegetable oil 

30–35 fresh curry leaves 

1½ tbsp black mustard seeds 

1 tsp chilli flakes


To make the keema, heat the ghee in a large pan, add the onions and cook for 7–8 minutes until golden. 

Next add the coriander, mustard and cumin seeds, cooking for another 2–3 minutes, before adding the garlic, ginger and chilli flakes. Now add the lamb, browning for 4–6 minutes before mixing through the garam masala and salt. Finally add the tomato purée, sugar and vinegar, along with the tomatoes. Simmer and reduce for 5–7 minutes, then set aside. 

To make the cheese paste, mix all the ingredients together into a crumbly mixture. 

For the greens, boil the cavolo nero in salted water for 5–6 minutes until tender, then blend with the mustard, garlic and lemon juice into a thick smooth paste. Add a little water if needed, then let it cool. 

Preheat the oven to 200°C fan. 

Cover the lasagne sheets with boiling water and leave for 4–5 minutes to soften a little. Slice each lasagne sheet down the middle lengthways, making 2 strips ready for rolling. 

Take one pasta strip, spread with 1 tablespoon of the mustard greens, sprinkle over some cheese paste and finally add a spoon of keema. Roll up tightly into a snail. Repeat to form all the lasagne rolls. 

Pour the jarred tomato pasta sauce into an ovenproof dish and tightly pack in the lasagne rolls. Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for a final 10–15 minutes until piping hot and crusty on top. 

Meanwhile, for the tarkha, heat the vegetable oil in a pan, then add the curry leaves, mustard seeds and chilli flakes. Sizzle for 1 minute, then drizzle over the baked lasagne rolls just before serving. 

Bushy-tailed serendipity rules. There I was, digging out my copy of Robert Owen Brown’s Crispy Squirrel, Vimto Trifle to check out what, as ghost writer, I’d written about the origin of Eccles cakes – for a review of a new biography of 18th century cookery writer/force of nature Elizabeth Raffald –  and realising the book is a decade old this year. I still remember the legal worries we had about Vimto challenging the use of their brand name and my own stickler qualms that really it should not be ‘Crispy’ but ‘Crisp’.

In the same week I spotted on social media one of those weary local newspaper clickbait forays – ‘The Manchester restaurant serving up WLD SQUIRREL to adventurous diners’. The story claimed: “For many, it was seen as a culinary step too far, with some urging the restaurant to ‘please leave the squirrels alone’. Others said they drew the line at ‘creamy rodent stew’, but there were also a fair few who were keen to give it a taste.”

Crispy Squirrel recipe. Images and design by Joby Catto, Anti (Design Services) Limited

The admirable Street Urchin in Ancoats  weren’t exactly skinning endangered red squirrels for the pot, just taking a sustainable approach to the over-abundant grey variety, duplicating pretty much (with interesting twists) Rob’s Southern-fried recipe that put the crispy into deep-fried rodent parts. See below.

Street Urchin chef/patron Kevin Choudhary at Street Urchin has subtly modified his take on buttermilk fried rabbit since the press exposure, partnering it with home-made black pudding, puy lentils, wild garlic and pickled blackberry salad.

Earthy flavours there to echo squirrels’ woodland habitat. 20 years ago Fergus Henderson gave it his own ‘nose to bushy tail’ treatment, braising it with bacon and porcini. That was at his St John restaurant alongside London’s Smithfield Market, which I’m sure didn’t trade in squirrel meat.

The best place to buy it (as recommended in Crispy Squirrel) is the Wild Meat Company in Woodbridge, Suffolk, though I‘ve just checked with their website and it’s fur-on only at the moment, not the ‘oven ready’. Rachel Choudhary tells me squirrel is available from their supplier, the Cartmel Valley Game. Her husband Kevin once worked for Robert Owen Brown, who in turn is an acolyte of Fergus Henderson. From little acorns, as they say.

Whatever your source, do bear in mind it tis one whole squirrel per person. The only substantial fleshy bit is the haunch. Otherwise, it tastes like a subtler version of rabbit with the same low carbon footprint and available the year round.

The Wild Meat Company suggest an alternative recipe to make the most out of this lean beast – roasting it with squash sage or hazelnuts. Or maybe give it the ragu treatment.

Still there remains a taboo feel to squirrel. Like badger hams, horse meat or Mexican mole (oh, no, that’s something quite different). Mountain folk in America’s Deep South are not so squeamish, even if the racoon (different family from the squirrel) apparently makes better eating. 

Not that everyone subscribes. US President Calvin Coolidge was sent a raccoon from Mississippi to be served at the 1926 White House Thanksgiving dinner. Rescued from that rocky fate, Rebecca was kept as a pet by First Lady Grace Coolidge.

ECCLES cakes  and orange custards. Blame it on a pair of puddings for a mutual obsession with the greatest English cookery writer you may never have heard of. My own interest in Elizabeth Raffald was piqued a decade ago during research for Crispy Squirrel and Vimto Trifle (MCR Books) by chef Robert Owen Brown. She was one of his culinary heroes and when we included a recipe for Eccles cakes it turned into a homage to this 18th century cookery writer/entrepreneur, who led a remarkable life. Not just as housekeeper of stately Arley Hall (above).

Her own hugely influential The Experienced English Housekeeper of 1786 contained a ’receipt’ for ‘Sweet Patties’ that’s not a million calories from Eccles’ finest, even if the ingredients include boiled calf’s foot, apples oranges, nutmeg, egg yolk, currants and brandy, in puff pastry, and it could be baked or fried.

Meanwhile Dr Neil Buttery, scientist and fledgling food historian, had already chanced upon Mrs Raffald’s recipe for Seville orange custards in English Food by the great Jane Grigson, another Raffald fan. Levenshulme-based Neil famously went on to blog his attempts to cook every recipe in her 1974 classic. Now finally he has authored a biography of Elizabeth Raffald that encompasses the huge impact she had on Manchester beyond the dishes she created and catalogued so brilliantly. It’s enthralling.

That the book is titled Before Mrs Beeton is a polemic provocation. Brand Isabella Beeton has never faltered since her untimely death at just 28 in 1865, four years after the publication of her Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Dr Buttery points out chunks were compiled by anonymous contributors with much copying of recipes and her husband soon sold the copyright, allowing it to be modified over successive editions. “Contrary to public perceptions,” he writes, “Beeton is less the Nigella Lawson or Delia Smith of her day and more the Colonel Sanders.”

Contrast with Elizabeth Raffald, the real deal, publishing 800 recipes. most tried and tested by herself. Indeed the only time this stellar cookery phenomenon “missed a trick”, in Buttery’s words, was with those prototype Eccles cakes, which she developed at her bakery shop in Manchester’s Market Place.

The Guardian of the time reported “a worthy female leaving her, and going to settle at Eccles, Mrs Raffald made her a present of the recipe for this dainty, which made the recipient’s fortune, and that of her niece, who succeeded her in the business – many thousands of pounds having, we are told, been realised by this sweet little monopoly.”

Not that every recipe in The Experienced English Housekeeper is as accessible or as ‘monetizable’, to use that dyspeptic tag. Take ‘Rabbits Surprised’ or, my fave, ‘Pigeons Transmogrified’. The first requires “Take young Rabbits, skewer them and when they are roasted, draw out the Jaw-bones and stick them in the eyes to appear like Horns… stick a bunch of Myrtle in their Mouths, and serve them with their Livers boiled and frothed.”

The Pigeons get off lightly. They are stuffed into hollowed out cucumbers with heads sticking out with ‘a bunch of barberries in their bills’.

Such elaborate show at table is a legacy of her time as housekeeper at Arley Hall, Cheshire, where her aristocratic overlords loved tounleash a ‘Grand Table’ banquet on their guests – some 75 separate dishes on more than one occasion. Other challenging recipes included one for turtles, using their blood and fins and, of course, an elaborate mock turtle substitute. Yet also in the book you’ll find simple dishes that seem quite modern like the first mention in English cookbooks of macaroni cheese and burnt cream (creme brulee by any other name).

The book is split into three parts – the first dedicated to browning, soups, fish, plain meat, game, pies and puddings, the second covering confectionery and ‘directions to set out a table in the most elegant manner and in the modern taste.’ In the third she discusses pickling, potting and distilling. Eminently practicable if you discount the likes of staggeringly elaborate pastry work. Elizabeth can also lay claim to creating the first English wedding cake, as we know it.

Though she wrote English Housekeeper in Manchester, its gestation was undoubtedly at Arley Hall, four miles from Lymm, where  she arrived from her native Yorkshire as Elizabeth Whittaker in 1860. For four years she was housekeeper for Lady Elizabeth Warburton, to whom she later dedicated her book, before marrying the head gardener John Raffald and moving to Manchester. After which it’s really hard to keep up with her hyperactive schedule. in the midst of compiling a series of Manchester business directories  – the original ‘yellow pages’ – launching an employment agency and two newspapers, promoting what might be the first ever ‘ready meals’, running shops and public houses, including her own, The King’s Head, she gave birth to at least nine children. 

Eventually it all went downhill until she died suddenly aged 47, of a stroke or aneurysm, in   1781. Husband John’s alcoholism undoubtedly contributed to the business failure, but she showed him little sympathy. One one occasion he was drinking heavily and feeling suicidal. When he said he wanted to drown himself, Raffald replied: “I do think that it might be the best step you could take, for then you would be relieved of all your troubles and anxieties and you really do harass me very much.”

Dr Buttery is compassionate:“He’s the perfect scapegoat, the one who caused the collapse of Elizabeth’s empire, hurrying her death as she exhausted herself… but the truth is Elizabeth was working too hard before the coffee house, indeed even before the King’s Head; working too hard was her natural state and something was going to give eventually…

“Elizabeth’s untimely death released him from the life choices he had regretted, a life that led him into a depression he self-medicated with alcohol, a life that took away his wife. Returning to his beloved brothers and working in the family gardens was the only sensible thing to do.”

Elizabeth was buried in the Old Church family plot in John’s home town of Stockport, but you can’t locate her gravestone because John couldn’t afford to pay for an inscription. That run-down Exchange Coffee House, the Raffalds’ last venture. was on the site of today’s Selfridge’s. Check out the discreet blue plaque to Elizabeth on the side of the store. Market Place, epicentre of her commercial success, was destroyed by World War II air raids. Arley Hall, much changed architecturally from her tenure, remains the sacred Raffald place.

And it’s here that I like to think of Elizabeth in culinary over-drive. This new Buttery book, like its precursor, The Dark History of Sugar, occasionally gets bogged down in heavily researched historical context (nothing that keener editing wouldn’t obviate), but it’s at its best when the author’s deep empathy with kitchen practice comes to the fore. It inspires me to recreate one of those ‘receipts’ that earned Mrs Raffald such a following (including Queen Victoria).

So let’s conclude with an ode to flummery. We are back in the exhausting territory of those Arley banquets with their emphasis on display and munificence. In her book Elizabeth includes a table plan for her ‘Grand Table’. Fortunately diners weren’t expected to devour every dish of the litany of delights – mock turtle soup, broccoli, kidney beans, bottled peas, salad, house lamb, fricassee of veal, a small ham, sweetbreads, ox paletts, ducks almonde, boiled turkey, pigeon compote, chicken fricassee, haricot beans, beef olives, hare soup, florindene of rabbits, pork griskins, larded oysters, sheep’s rumps and kidneys, cod sounds, French pye, lambs’ ears stuffed with forcemeat and transparent soup.

And the flummery then? Her actual menu is mind-bogglingly labour-intensive. With a wacky whiff of Heston Blumenthal about it. Let me quote Dr Buttery’s paraphrase: “Jelly and flummery were the media of choice for 18th century ‘subtleties’. They were made from gelatine derived from calves’ feet, ground hartshorn or, on fast days, isinglass extracted from the swim bladders of sturgeon. (I’m tickled by one of the author’s acknowledgements – “I’m also indebted to Ellie Huxley for going through the rigmarole of of making Mrs Raffald’s calves’ foot jelly, so I didn’t have to.”)

“Flummery was a sweetened dish made from the boiling of cracked oat grains in water. The resulting opaque ’stock’ was strained through cloth, flavoured and sweetened. Once cool, it set to a delicate jelly. Elizabeth needed her flummery toto form a wobbly, quivering but ultimately stable structure, and therefore made hers from almond milk mixed with calves’ foot jelly, rather like a modern blancmange or panna cotta.”

Don’t even ask how all this segued into gargantuan, moulded creations such as ‘Eggs and Bacon in Flummery’ and the cochineal and brandy driven showstopper, ‘Solomon’s Temple in Flummery’. To find our more you’ll have to acquire Dr Buttery’s excellent tome.

Upstairs and downstairs incarnate, all this endeavour was about creating an “immersive experience for guests while, Elizabeth, the creator, worked tirelessly with her staff out of sight and earshot in the hot, noisy kitchens.

Before Mrs Beeton – Elizabeth Raffald, England’s Most Influential Housekeeper by Dr Neil Buttery (Pen and Sword Books, £20) is out now.

It all sounds a mite deja vu Noma announcing 20 years on from its foundation it will soon be abandoning the formal restaurant concept that finally won it a third Michelin star in 2021. Adding to its cluster of World’s No.1 restaurant awards that focused the world’s eyes on the culinary wizard of Copenhagen, René Redzepi.

Didn’t that previous groundbreaker, El Bulli in Catalonia close its doors to customers a decade ago to mutate into a culinary research laboratory? The critical Sabatier knives were out then for the perceived pretension. Not everyone had bought into the refined spheres of ‘molecular gastronomy’ and the heavy-handed satire of recent movie The Menu is witness to continuing hostility to a fine dining world few of us can afford – or, when it comes to epic tasting menus, tolerate.

As with El Bulli the broadsheets were quick to react to the Noma ‘bombshell’ with ‘Is This There End for Fine Dining?’ headlines, Observer critic Jay Rayner wading in with ‘Twenty Six courses. £400 bills, artichoke creme brulee… I won’t miss super-luxe restaurants’.

He has got form for whacking bloated, exorbitant establishments, but Noma is a different beast despite its exclusivity. I remember a leaner Rayner lauding Redzepi in the same pages back in 2009 when he was viewed as a natural successor to super chefs Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal. Since when the Dane’s templates of foraging and fermentation have filtered down to absorb a whole generation of chefs.

It’s not even clear what form Noma 3.0 will take when it emerges at the end of 2024, the statement hinting “serving guests will still be a part” of a “Noma Projects’ experience that will not be a conventional restaurant. What is certain is that the team will decamp to Kyoto in Japan between March and May 2023. So Japanese influence looks certain. A previous sabbatical foray to the Yucatan in 2017, while the Copenhagen base relocated to include an urban farm, resulted in the swerve in direction that became Noma 2.0.

Simon Martin was along for that Mexican ride and the success of his Michelin-starred Mana in Manchester is proof the expensive tasting menu experience is not dead. I‘m a fan and last year I endorsed the multi-course extravaganza offered by Gareth Ward’s mighty Yynyshir. At both these places the waiting list stretches into the distance. Expect Noma now to be even harder to get into despite a dinner menu for its recent ‘game & forest season’ that cost £415 a head with an additional £214 for wine pairings or £154 for juice pairings. 

Or you could just buy the book, Noma 2.0: Vegetable, Forest, Ocean

Quite a stocking filler. 2.5kg is a lot of cookbook. Particularly for one without printed recipes. And ingredients you are unlikely to pick up at your local Waitrose. So what makes this magnum opus (Artisan, £60) my Food Book of 2022? Pipping very different, pleasurable tomes from Jeremy Lee and Debora Robertson, it is the polar opposite of their domestic charm. Lord Sauron to their Hobbit. Except, tenuously extending the Lord of The Rings conceit, it ultimately casts a near Elvish spell.

Beyond its extreme pictorial beauty there’s nothing approachable and immediately useful about this latest edict from the realm of Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant and its shape-shifting magus, Rene Redzepi. That may represent its true magic.

Regular readers of this blog will recall my (rewarding) travails tackling 2018’s Noma Guide to Fermentation. The new book is more a follow-up to Rene’s original mission statement, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine (2010), tracing the literal journey that took Noma from derided obscurity to world’s best restaurant. Noma 2.0 records the leap forward, via a sabbatical that involved ‘cuckoo nesting ‘in Mexico, to a new custom-built site in the Danish capital with that radical fermentation lab to the fore, providing all the menu’s building blocks. Noma is relocating to Kyoto, Japan in spring 2023 and friends close to the operation tell me that might mark a radically different stage 3 in its restless evolution.

The story so far is captured by the remarkable photography of New York-based Ditte Isager, who is on back on board for the new book, more brilliant than ever. Her startling image of Blue Mussel and Quail Egg (above) represents an element in one of the three seasonal sections. Ocean reflects the menu for January to April. The others are Vegetable (May through August) and Forest (September through December) – teasing us with 200 dishes in all.

Let Rene and his co-authors explain: “This book is a cookbook, but it is not necessarily meant to be cooked from. At Noma we constantly return to nature as a primary source of creative inspiration, however, creativity is a unique process for each individual. This book is meant to help catalyse that unique creative spark for each reader. If you do wish to recreate any of the dishes, there is a QR code in the book which will bring you to every detailed recipe exactly as they are used in the kitchen at Noma.

“It is about composing a plate that delights the eye as much as the palate, whether through the trompe l’oeil of a “flowerpot” chocolate cake or a dazzling mandala of flowers and berries. It is about pushing the boundaries of what we think we want to eat—a baby pinecone, a pudding made of reindeer brain—to open our palates with startling confidence.”

Let me quote one daunting dish description. It’s my promise to myself next year, aided by what lies through the QR portal to recreate Noma’s Wild Boar and Nasturtium. That’s ‘Forest’,  I’ll have hang fire until Fall. The journey starts when “nasturtium leaves are compressed with parsley oil, then folded over dots of gooseberry-coriander paste and smoked egg yolk paste to form nasturtium ravioli. 

“Chestnuts are cooked in smoked butter until crisp and caramelised, glazed in roasted kelp salt, peaso reduction and smoked seaweed shoyu, and then diced. Fermented wild boar belly is fried to brown its surface and then sliced. Smoked egg yolk paste is piped onto the boar slices, which are then topped with the diced roasted chestnuts and folded to enclose the fillings.

“Three fermented wild boar belly wraps are brushed with chestnut smoked butter and briefly grilled over charcoal. The belly wraps and one nasturtium raviolo are skewered with a blackcurrant wood skewer. The belly wraps are brushed with cep tamari and seasoned with ancho chilli paste, quince vinegar, salt and black pepper. The skewer is served on a hay plate with a wedge of Japanese quince.” 

Or maybe I’ll divert to the more straightforward Sikha Roast, one of many deer recipes, including Reindeer Brain Jelly or Reindeer Marrow Fudge or, gulp, Reindeer Penis Salad. Off-puttingly exotic? Definitely, but what shines through is the determination to make the most of whatever is local and seasonal and sensual. Here not just empty nods to fashion. And if it’s not our ‘local’ who cares? That’s no excuse not to buy an exquisitely beautiful volume for the foodie in your life.