Food for All Seasons

food_for_all_seasons“As we come to the end, so we come back to the beginning, slowly building momentum to reach next year’s harvest with all that comes in between.”

I think Food for All Seasons is a bit of a triumph. I’ll go further: I think it might be a book I refer to again and again, most months. In a very subtle narrative, the book is as good an almanac of British seasonal food recommendations as any I’ve come across. At the start of every month, I can see myself saying, “What’s Oliver Rowe got to say this month, then?”

It’s too simple, of course, to call this book a reference tome for seasonal produce. It is so, so much more. It’s a passionate and quite moving tale of trying to make a living in the restaurant business. It’s a deeply felt treatise on the benefits of eating seasonally. It’s a manifesto for local food. It’s a generous spirited and completely engaging promotion for food producers up and down the country.

And, it has some amazing recipes.

It’s too simple, of course, to call this book a cookbook. That’s because while there are clear recipes as we understand them – what they’re called, what to put in them, how much, how long, etc. – threaded throughout are casual mentions of other things to cook & other ways to cook them. So, for example, while testing recipes in this book, I was also marvelling in the deep yellow, super-crunchy Rapeseed Oil roast potatoes – who knew? – putting together potato salads with mustard, deep frying brussels sprouts. None of these come from the actual recipes themselves – they are gossip in the margins. There are as many exciting tips for great food in the asides in this book as there are in whole cookbooks by others. Really.

One of the recipes I tried that really summed up this book for me – even though I was ironically a wee bit out of season – was the Pea & Bacon Soup. There’s a lot here I wouldn’t try, wouldn’t know – the lettuce in the bowl, for example, the amount of garlic, the blitzing of the bacon. There’s a lot here that seems to symbolise Rowe’s approach to food: the communal process we went through shelling the peas, the bright smell of the mint in the air, the fresh-grass green brilliance of the finished soup. Like many things I cook from Nigel Slater, I fret about it, worry I can’t possibly do it, and then there it is. On the plate. Here, a disc of emerald madness on the table, utterly gorgeous. Ok, it’s pea and ham soup, you say. But that’s the point – it isn’t really – it’s the best pea and ham we can possibly make, right here and right now.

I love the way Scotland comes out of the book – obviously. Iain Spink, the King of the Arbroath Smokie, gets a really strong mention. Haggis gets a good push – and I’m looking forward to making Rowe’s Scotch Egg recipe with local Haggis as a Burns Night alternative. I like when he’s mashing neeps with goat’s butter and salt, the steam whispering up from the pages. In particular, I found intoxicating his description of discovering the glory of cooking fresh mackerel. Here he is, younger, on a beach on Mull:

“By now the fire was hot, so we cooked them with nothing more than salt and pepper. That was the moment, as I ate those flakes of just-cooked, fresh-as-you-like, smoky mackerel, that I finally got it … Afterwards, we all just looked at each other with awed and happy faces – the silent knowing of the just initiated.”

With some small tangential awareness of what it’s like to run a café, I’m always deeply impressed by those who give it a go – especially in opening a restaurant. Curiously, Rowe’s depictions here of the joys and travails of running one reminded me slightly of the high ups and speedy downs Keith Floyd writes about on his early Bristol places in Floyd in the Soup. When Rowe describes the aftermath of both his ventures failing – especially his restaurant – it’s difficult not to feel right there with him, alone as the door closed for the last time. It’s heartbreaking stuff.

And Rowe made life pretty difficult for himself! His stated intention of cooking locally, cooking seasonally is a challenge even now, let alone in the days he describes. It’s a kind of rigour and discipline you have to admire. I was once at a poetry reading by Don Paterson – another Faber writer – and he talked about his drive to write in poetic forms, Sonnets for example, to provide a structure, to avoid a shapeless mess and to focus his mind. I felt almost as if he was talking about shepherding a truth really, using the rigidity of syllable and line to get to the real heart of the thing. Rowe’s purpose in his restaurants, and in a more relaxed way in this book, is somewhat similar.

It’s too simple, of course, to call this just a book about food. It’s a deeper exploration I think of the relationship between food and culture, food and memory, food and nationality even. To this end he takes in folklore, history, music, and in the chapter headings, poetry. I was fond in particular of his Wicker Man introduction to the arrival of May:

“I see May as an in-between month; like April, it’s a lull between seasons. In folklore, it’s associated with a sense of unease – for instance, it’s supposed to be very bad luck to be born or to marry in may, and for some reason washing blankets is frowned upon …”

I’m an average cook, an amateur cook – an “eater” as Nigella would have it. So, parts of Food for All Seasons are a diamond mine of know-how. All the while, you’re learning about produce, about technique (things like onions and garlic are clearly more complicated than we imagine) and we’re also learning with Rowe. I like for example his barley dispute with Darina Allen – a writer whose Ballymaloe Cookery Course is sacred text here in the Scullery. Rowe’s long standing love of food and cooking and his excitement at learning and sharing is evident.

The sharing is important. I think the best cookbooks are enabling and generous. Rowe’s is both. The generosity is particularly alive here as he gives away years of hard-graft earned tips, drops hints on suppliers, shares poetry (imagine being a Faber published poet in this way!) and regularly and repetitively gives thanks to inspiration and supply alike. And then does it all again in the acknowledgements. The book was a long time in the writing, and it shows – it shows as if he thought, I need to get everything down here, everything about food, the absolute essence of the calendar of food.

“Of course there are some things I would change,” he says of his career, “but would I do it again? In a heartbeat.”

And right there is the pull of the seasons, the tide, the moon, because as George Mackay Brown had it:

… the hour of grass is brief
 And the red rose
Is a bare thorn in the east wind …

It’s too simple, of course, to talk about what I like about this book. I need to recommend you buy it. Buy it now, in first edition, and watch the seasons turn as the book becomes a British food classic before your eyes.