A YEAR OF GOOD EATING

If Nigel Slater was an actor, he’d be Jeremy Irons.

If he was a poet, he’d be Simon Armitage. If he was a musician, he might be Nils Frahm. If he was a football writer (okay, struggling a bit here) he’d be …  Jonathan Northcroft, maybe.

Anyway, like these folk, Nigel Slater is just very, very good at his trade, and I think a bit of a class act – especially because you always have the sneaky feeling he’s actually pretty subversive and feisty.

Many, many cookery celebrities are fun, they’re clearly good cooks, and they’re very influential, but there is only one Nigel Slater. For lots and lots and lots of us, year after year, no matter how long you take to get him, despite any competition, he’s away out on his own, fishing at the end of the pier, mulling over sixpence batter bits or “intriguing” couscous – unique and yet at the same time, everyman.

His work’s appeal is in part due to his completely self-effacing approach, his easy learning appeal to brick-handed cooks like me, and his cool water in the desert standpoint – still as vital as it was in 1997 when Real Cooking came out – that “there is too much talk of cooking being an art or a science – we are only making ourselves something to eat.” Without change, he is still kicking at the pedestals, shuddering at “the very notion of someone being a foodie” and just cooking food to eat.

Of course, he is also one of the most talented writers about food that the UK has ever produced. That’s not hyperbole, it’s the seasoned cast iron pan of fact. In The Kitchen Diaries III, he’s in Japan …

“Go when they are busy. That way, you will be led not to the counter with its wide copper pan of crackling oil and bowl of frothing batter, but to a holding area, where your shoes will be removed and you will be nannied with roasted buckwheat tea on a tray by the fire.”

Later, he’s in Norway, in a dreamy dwam:

“The train from Oslo to Bergen. head phones in … Leaning back, watching the rain. Silver needles falling on black fjords. Dense forests of dark firs line the track, here and there golden birches …”

In the garden:

“The garden table, a patchwork of zinc and recycled wood held together by rusty nails and love, can be a place of green tea or a riot of gluttony …”

If his writing has a startling Larkinesque ping about it sometimes, and the chapter headings a haiku appeal (‘A Mysterious Sauce’) the actual recipes themselves are finally just as compelling and the work of both together, you think, is the point. Within the first couple of flips of the book, at least half a dozen meals will simply be insisting on existing in your kitchen. The vivid imagery of his writing is accompanied by a comforting simplicity in putting together a recipe so that page after page brings that quick imaginative buzz of a good cookbook – “I think I can make that.”

A Year of Good Eating works on you in this way – inspiration, then instruction. Inspiration, instruction. And when I say instruction, I don’t mean hectoring Masterchef monomania; Nigel Slater writes recipes as if he was in the room with you, conversationally. In that kitchen of his on the TV, maybe, the one that makes you green with envy.

But The Kitchen Diaries III is never showy, never elitist in tone – even if some  of the recipes are fantasy ingredient time in the stores down your way. Nigel Slater takes the cooking, shuns all intimidating foodie attitude, and just shows you how to make really nice, often eye-poppingly simple stuff. Chicken with goose fat. Check. Salmon with Macaroni. Check. ‘A light fishcake for a summer’s day’. Sigh. Check. Above all, I think, he makes it okay to experiment, to fail, to burn stuff, and leads the vanguard of writers who came along and just let us all cook for a change.

I love this book.


Update No.1 3rd April

The other night, I made the Chicken & Bacon Stew. For a long time cooking and testing I was thinking, this is fantastic, I’m going to ruin it when I put in the sour cream, I always ruin stuff with sour cream. Maybe there’s a typo in the amount, I thought, looking at all of it in the jug. But there can’t be.

So, in it went, and careful not to let it boil, presumably to avoid ending up with Marshmallows. He was of course absolutely right, and the effect of thick tan gravy running into the scrunched up new potatoes from a simple pan warming is like a card trick.

For a minute there, you almost think you can cook. A lesson in sour cream.