Monday, 31 October 2016

Cookbook review: Salt is Essential by Shaun Hill

published by Kyle Books, £25



We are living in gastronomic end times. Culinary Armageddon is upon us. A chef with seven heads, ten horns, and ten crowns on his horns emerged from the sea and turned the air into carrot. Then, a chef emerged from the earth having two horns, a head like a lamb, his body as a sheep, a tail like a wolf and feet like a goat, speaking with the voice of a dragon, directed his peers to make an image in homage to the Beast of the Sea on the plates before them, wrought from the very memories of their childhood.

And behold, a white horse: and he that sat on him had some oysters and some pearls, though never would he taste them, and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer. And there went out another horse that was red: and he that sat upon him carried moss and lichen, and there was given unto him a great sword. And lo, a black horse; and he that sat on him had a citrus based confection that tumbled from his grip. Whoops. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was The Death of Gustatory Ambition, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth to cook over open fire the beasts of the earth. And the sun turned black, the moon to blood. The sky receded like a rolled blind and the stars fell to the earth.

But there was a voice of hope.  And I turned to see the voice that spoke to me, his head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire. And I saw in the right hand of him a book, 'Salt is Essential'.

It's been 12 long years since Shaun Hill's last book, the baldly titled How to Cook Better. In that time we've seen the weird excesses of molecular gastronomy (in Salt is Essential, Hill reveals he gave the keynote speech at a biennial workshop in Sicily organised by Nicolas Kurti, the Oxford physics professor who coined the term. Heston Blumenthal took Hill's spot the next time around and the rest is history) replaced by locavore fundamentalism which in turn has been usurped by a caveman-like obsession with fire and smoke. In the highest echelons of gastronomy, diners feast upon live insects and plankton.
Malfatti, cooked by Andy Lynes from recipe in Salt is Essential
While all this has been going on, Hill has remained aloof, continuing to cook, first at The Merchant House (click the link for my review from 2002) and then at The Walnut Tree Inn, the sort of food that the practical application of his craft for a mind-boggling 50 years has proved to him to be correct. And now he's distilled some of what he has learnt into the all-too-short 190 pages of Salt is Essential.

Thanks to Kit Chapman's excellent book Great British Chefs published in 1989, I discovered Hill (who was then cooking at Gidleigh Park) early on in my own personal gastronomic journey and have subsequently read virtually everything he's published. Over the years, his understated dry wit and pragmatic approach to his subject have wormed their way into my brain and profoundly influenced how I think, and write about food.

For those not familiar with Hill's take on the world of cooking (I would never accuse him of anything so crass as having a 'philosophy' about food), Salt is Essential provides the perfect primer. This is food writing with an iron back bone and as much attitude as Mark E Smith on an amphetamine jag.  Chapter titles such as 'Creative thinking is a bad idea if you know nothing', 'A well done fillet makes no more sense than an undercooked stew' and 'Soya beans are best left for cattle feed' are clear signals that we're not in Kansas anymore Toto.


In a series of essays and elucidating recipe introductions, Hill combines opinion with practical advice, historical fact with personal anecdote and common sense with hard-earned insight to provide a hugely entertaining and edifying read. So you learn that 'larger eggs have thinner shells and absorb air more quickly. This means that although fresh, they are more likely to lose shape when cooked and the yolks are fragile'; Worcestershire sauce is a cousin of both Thai fish sauce and the ancient Roman sauce garum, all three being made with fermented fish; and that Elizabeth David's ancient precursor was a chap called Archestratus from the fourth century BC who knew all about the best cuts of tuna and 'advised against allowing Italians near your sea bass a they had a tendency to cover the fish with cheese and pickle' (a scholar of Latin, Greek and ancient history, Hill has been an honorary research fellow at the University of Exeter and has written several books on ancient food with Professor John Wilkins, including Archestratus: Fragments from the Life of Luxury about the man himself).

As one of the prime movers of the late 80's modern British cooking movement that took inspiration from across the globe, it's no surprise that Hill's recipes cover everything from risotto bianco to  twice baked Lancashire cheese soufflés. Hill is widely travelled with a particular fondness for the Indian subcontinent and his tandoori marinade, made with lots of cumin, black peppercorns, cardamom and cloves is worth the cover price alone.

He also has a particularly good nose for dishes from northern, central and eastern Europe (one of his first jobs was at the Gay Hussar, the famous Hungarian restaurant beloved of politicos in London; his wife Anja is Finnish and has written several books on the food of Finland) such as karjalan piirakka, a rye pastry snack from Eastern Finland, and turos placsinta, sweet cream cheese pancakes from Hungary.

Although a few of the recipes demand a commitment in terms of time, money or concentration (you'll need 3 kilos of veal bones, a kilo of diced beef shin and 12 hours of your life that you'll never get back to make a classic demi glace sauce and just the odd five hours to make Hill's extremely delicious version of baked beans), the vast majority are straightforward yet still likely to expand your culinary repertoire in ways other books might well fail to do. I may not rush to make the Maksalaatikko Finnish pig's liver pudding with lingonberries, but lamb's sweetbread pies; malfatti (ricotta and spinach dumplings) or puntarelle salad with anchovy and garlic dressing? Just try and stop me.

While Salt is Essential is aimed primarily at the home cook, I would implore every young professional cook, dazzled by the glittering parade of over-hyped superstar chefs and their weighty art-wank tomes, to read it. For therein lies your, and the dining public's salvation. Amen.  

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