“I grew up in a house called Pinewood Cottage. The larder there was a large wooden cabinet lined with old newspapers. It was always filled to the brim …”
Some cookbooks you just carry with you – to begin with, you might not try many of the recipes, and you might save your Granny first in a fire, but they stay with you somehow. And, as you keep them, you cook more and more from their pages, because you learn to trust the writing. Eventually, you can’t be without them.
Florence Knight’s One is just such a book, and our copy bears all the hallmarks. Salt Yard Book Co. must have known what they were doing in the design department to make it such a tactile white, and my one is a mess – but for cookbooks, this just makes it better. With One, it’s largely down to the super-rich ‘Hazelnut chocolate brownies’ recipe which has been tried quite a few times. “My head is going to explode,” someone once said, eating them. They aren’t difficult to make, and mad intense.
I got my copy in that occasional treasure chest for cookery books – otherwise known as the place where I go shopping for them when I have no money – The Works. Immediately struck by the cover I started leafing through it, sure I would buy it, then suddenly convinced I would buy it: there was a good looking shortbread recipe.
I knew someone once who made shortbread – brilliant, shivery shortbread – and seemed to whip up the crumbly rectangles with such incredible ease to store in a great Kilner jar that I was pretty much in awe of him. It remains the best shortbread I’ve ever tasted. No one here has ever been any use at making shortbread, but the seasalty recipe here in One is the closest I’ve ever come to replicating that unfair, sad & drifty shortbread of memory.
On the whole – and this is very unusual – I spent more time initially baking out of the book. The shortbread, the brownies. Everything I tried in that side of things was really straight forward, which is important because I’m a shockingly impatient, grumpy baker who generally produces dire results.
But, in time, I’ve ventured out. I’ve cooked the really excellent ‘Sausages & Polenta’ with its beautiful mustard sauce, the utterly stand-out delicious Polpettine, and as is the case with these keeper collections, return every now and again to my Nutella battered book to try new stuff across the pages. Good cookbooks just create a sense over time that everything is worth a go, that the writer has such innate taste, you’ll learn always.
Florence Knight writes evocatively of her childhood, of her progress to becoming a chef, and captures vividly those bittersweet memories of our very earliest kitchens, surrounded by people we love & admire, that are warm recollections, but very poignant. Her writing is unshowy, and quietly inspirational and moving. The love of food doesn’t seem contrived, but very genuine, and coming from a place of skill, rather than celebrity.
Speaking of which, I sometimes wonder why this book isn’t even more acclaimed, why Florence Knight isn’t an absolutely massive TV fixture. It came out in 2013, her “first cookbook” as the jacket states, but she hasn’t produced one since. In that time – and this is not meant to be disrespectful to the great lady at all, it’s just illustration – Mary Berry has published, I think, twelve. Twelve.
Maybe this is because One seems on the surface to do some cookbook staples “wrong”.
Florence Knight isn’t on the cover, for example. Flicking through the book in a shop, the first three or four recipes are like to scare off the amateur, and it stands to reason that amateurs like me must be the bulk buyers. There’s also a strong concept and a fair bit of writing with some intense photography – so it isn’t straight into the blocky text & uncomplicated day-glo recipe photos that make your Auntie decide you need it for Christmas. And, some of the ingredients do seem out of reach for lots of us when even getting fresh coriander in the local shop is a win (“Using Mulino Marino ‘OO’ flour or Polenta Valsugane will get a dish of to a good start. They can be found in any well-stocked Italian deli”). Maybe too, the heady sensuality of these dishes just came at a time when the fever-eyed clean scientists were about to take over the book charts.
Maybe, Florence Knight is just far too busy cooking fantastic food to write another one.
But there’s something really unique at work in One, and I think it’s a bit of a masterpiece; over time these amazing recipes seep in, and don’t let go. Even when they go slightly wrong and I make a mistake, they still seem to go right. In a book which has a very attractive, almost sepia soft focus wispiness about it – what Knight herself calls her “broken beauty ways” – the actual dishes turn out to be the very opposite. They are often simple, incredibly alive and viscerally tasty, and not ethereal or cracked at all. They belong in vivid sunlight and a herby bamboozling freshness greets you with each successive attempt at her food.
And that damn fine shortbread. It’s all good.