Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Tale of 12 Kitchens

Sometimes I look at the books about food and cooking that fill my shelves, and, knowing that they represent quite a small percentage of the vast number of volumes that have passed through my hands I ask myself why I chose to keep these few. Some, it is true, are recipe books, in the sense of being a list of recipes, ingredients, methods, divided into chapters on soups, meats, desserts etc. But in many the recipes are almost subservient to wonderful and passionate writing about food and colour and love. The secret inner adventure of planning a meal; the breath-quickening sashay through the aisles, eyes darting, mouth dry with hopeful anticipation; the moment when, cleaver in hand, the first downstroke of the preparation begins, like the start of a symphony. The whir and buzz and sizzle and blast of the cooking process that take me to a happy place of concentration where I only realise how long I have been standing on my feet when they start to protest. It’s lovely that other people enjoy what I have cooked; it’s wonderful to have that warm feeling of friends around a table with clinking glasses. I just hope they have got half as much out it as me, and the books that conjure these feelings are the ones I keep.

Jake Tilson’s book A Tale of 12 Kitchens. Family Cooking in Four Countries stokes the fires of an intense personal cooking experience like nothing I have read for ages. It is a book I didn’t want to reach the end of. Everything that we imagine in our culinary hearts is in this book. Everything that we remember from our youth, from our travels, from the clippings we hoard and the postcards friends send us, from celebrations, mistakes and triumphs, from the untried and the totally familiar.

Tilson is an artist and graphic designer; his wife is a ceramicist; his parents are artists. His life has been teeth-grindingly jealousy inducing – childhood surrounded by the artistic cream of a generation, a rambling country house with home produced beer and later regular trips to Tuscany where his parents settled. Sojourns in New York as a student and with his family, and the wild north of Scotland where his in-laws farm. Trips to the American desert with his wife and young daughter. The bare facts would be enough to fill a book, but everywhere he has been Tilson has collected food experiences and memories, recipes and packaging, memorabilia and produce.

In Italy he gathers the wild herbs of the maquis to cook with a duck, researches his recipes from a library of Italian cookbooks, makes fig conserves and lugs plane loads of local ingredients back to England. (In fact this latter, the importing of lavender from Italy, oatcakes from Aberdeen, chiles from Mexico, is a preoccupation. The two containers of vintage kitchen utensils from a shop in the Californian desert illustrate the obsession.)

In New York he celebrates the city and its amazing breakfasts in an homage that should have Woody Allen slapping his forehead. In Scotland the bakery culture is elevated to great art and the inclement tendency of the weather becomes a natural ingredient. In LA and Palm Springs we learn more about chiles than we are ever likely to need to know, and the Peckham area of London becomes a multicultural Aladdin’s gastrocave .

This book is a feast for the memory and the imagination and also for the eyes. Generously and impeccably illustrated by the author, even the typefaces and fonts are his own. (Some people give their publishers a manuscript; Tilson gave his publishers a Quark file.) And while the memories are undeniably his own, some of mine and some of yours are in there too somehow.

A Tale of 12 Kitchens. Family Cooking in Four Countries by Jake Tilson

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson


Susan in Italy said...

Wow, I have kitchen envy.

lindy said...

What a good book review you write! I know that I want to read this, and I know why. Now, all I have to do is find it. And this is so much easier than it used to be only a few short years ago.

Digression: Much though I regret the demise of so many loveable independent, free standing, brick and mortar book shops, I can't help but revel in the wonders of internet book hunting. In case you or your readers don't know of it, is a superb resource of combined search engines for book hunting-especially good for finding out of print books in English, world-wide- but also for new books, publishers overruns, et al. It is a favorite of mine.

June said...

I know you would really like this book. It has not yet been published in the US, but will be soon. I don't direct people to Amazon - where indeed you will find it - because there still are, after all, other places to buy books! Thank you for the bookfinder reference. Another is, which is similar.

traveller one said...

Great cookbook review!
I am adding it to my must buy list!
And I added your site to my blogroll as well.
I'll come back :)

June said...

Welcome Kim
I think you are writing from Albania - I do hope you can get Jake's book, and look forward to reading your site.

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