Deliciously Ella, this year’s ballistic bestseller, is a fairy story disguised as a cookbook – Hansel and Gretel in Notting Hill. Ella was, in her own words, a ‘sugar monster’ and a ‘total addict’. She spent her university days ‘basically’ living on Ben & Jerry’s and pick and mix. Her Damascene conversion came when her modelling career was derailed by Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, leaving her bedbound and in excruciating pain. Respite arrived only when, inspired by a woman who had ‘managed’ her cancer – whatever that means – through her diet, Ella gave up ‘meat, dairy, sugar, gluten, anything processed and all chemicals and additives’. Doubtless something in Ella’s diet was exacerbating her condition, even if the science regarding the demerits of the Four Horsemen at the head of her list is not conclusive (there are, after all, more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in a double-blind trial). Yet there is something perversely anti-rational in not experimentally reintroducing food groups to identify the precise causes of the illness (perhaps it’s no accident that Ella’s favourite intensifier is ‘insanely’).
Instead, Ella has become an apostle for a diet that fixates upon plants for their naturalness and ‘wholeness’, viewing everything else – especially gluten and refined sugar – as alimentary fifth columnists (though certain forms of refinement, such as cooking, appear to be acceptable). The agonised tension of flesh and spirit racks the resultant set of recipes: the rigours of the new dispensation are evangelised as virtues, even pleasures, yet nostalgia remains for that which is denied. Why else would a Key lime pie be re-created through the medium of avocado and coconut milk? Or carrot cake frosted with a date and banana mush, which all the dark arts of food photography cannot prevent from looking like cat vomit? ‘I could honestly live off hummus,’ writes Ella, of more or less the only recipe present in authentic form. British culinary infatuations can be traced through the reinventions of this peasant staple. Once the province of bearded and besandalled armchair insurrectionaries, it was glamorised in the Ottolenghi-inspired Levantine revival. Now it’s mortar for the temples to the new cult of wellness.
The threat to sugar’s dominance over the last fifty years is gestured at by Sidney Mintz in his foreword to the magnificent new The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, edited by Darra Goldstein . Once a luxury, then an essential, it’s now assailed from one side by anti-obesity campaigners, while from the other high-fructose corn syrup encroaches upon its domain. Though richly appreciative, the book also judiciously appraises controversies, such as addiction – lab rats fed on Oreos continue to seek them out even when subjected to electric shocks. We’ve come a long way from Milton S Hershey, inventor of the chocolate that bears his name, who believed that his confections were as nourishing as meat. He called the main streets of the model village he built in Pennsylvania to house his factory workers Chocolate Avenue and Cocoa Avenue. My favourite new fact is that the placenta is so-called because it resembles a Roman pastry of the same name made of goat’s cheese and honey – or, as the Greek playwright Antiphanes put it, ‘the streams of the tawny bee, mixed with the clotted river of the bleating she goat, placed upon a flat receptacle of the virgin daughter of Zeus, delighting in ten thousand delicate veils’. That should provide some inspiration for postpartum baking.
Tingling other papillae are the counterintuitive recipes in Jennifer McLagan’s Bitter, which explores the taste at which we instinctively blench. But choosing bitterness is a crucial stage in the development of adult sensibilities, the moment when you realise you prefer a Campari and soda to a rum and Coke or a Fernet-Branca to a limoncello (the first time I drank Fernet I thought that this was the closest I was likely to get to being punched in the throat by a Viking and dragged face down through a Nordic forest). McLagan finds uses for both these drinks: veal chops are glazed in Campari and chicken livers soused in Fernet. She also resuscitates many common flavours – tea, coffee, toast – that are often asphyxiated in sucrose (there’s even an adult-only panna cotta, laced with Cognac, that calls for a 3cm piece of cigar). Two recipes caught my tongue: beer soup, a northern French dish in which beef stock enriched with Stella is mollified by cream and nutmeg; and roasted pigeon with ganache, the sweetness of the meat set off by the surrounding puddle of chocolate.
Eggs are a tricky subject for a cookbook. To make them straight, you need timing – when to remove them from the heat so the scramble doesn’t dry out or the yolk isn’t poached to dust as you coordinate the other elements of breakfast. In more complex recipes, they are self-effacing, a vital yet invisible ingredient in pasta, cakes and ice cream. Some of the puddings in Blanche Vaughan’s b, like custard tart and zabaglione ice cream, obviously deserve their place; it’s harder to justify the inclusion of chocolate hazelnut biscuits, which require a grand total of one egg (though, as the French say, one egg is un oeuf). There are bistro classics such as oeufs en gelée and îles flottantes, which relish the egg’s naturally glutinous texture and are, therefore, more admired than enjoyed. The rest of the book is a disappointment, as various international cover versions of pancakes, omelettes, quiches and eggy bread are belted out. I made the tagliatelle with asparagus and fonduta, a sauce of crème fraîche, eggs and Parmesan. Vaughan skimps on the cheese, leaving the dish underpowered – but comforting blandness is often the fate of the egg. No wonder you can coddle them.
The most exhilarating volume under review is Nanban: Japanese Soul Food, a foray into southern Japanese food by Masterchef winner Tim Anderson. Nanban means ‘southern barbarian’, the name given by natives to the Europeans who settled in and around Nagasaki from the 16th century onwards. This book riotously overturns any preconceptions you might have about the hieratic nature of Japanese cooking (in Osaka, I was once reprimanded by a sushi chef for allowing a single ball of roe to roll off its shelf of rice). Anderson draws out the affinities and cross-pollination between Western and oriental cuisines. Baked sweet potatoes are eaten at Japanese festivals, as well as by the banks of the Mississippi; Okinawa is famed for its pork scratchings; in the town of Obi, they make Scotch eggs with minced mackerel and tofu. The brutal (sardines stuffed with cured pollock roe are not for the faint-hearted) sits alongside the delicate (eggs soft-boiled for an hour to replicate the Japanese method of cooking them in onsen – natural hot springs). There are a dozen combinations of ramen, from the classic braised pork and tea-pickled eggs to grouse. Taco rice, dreamt up by a cafe-owner in Okinawa to pander to the palates of the local GIs, requires mince to be flavoured with Szechuan pepper, soy and nori, then slathered with kimchi, radishes and Cheddar cheese. It’s the deliriously slovenly apogee of all this interbreeding.