From parlour to table: what makes a great cookbook?

Parlour Café Cookbook spread

What is it which turns a cookbook from being something which we merely reference and use, to something which instead we cherish and revere?

Is it the look and feel of the book itself: how it feels in the hand or lies on the kitchen table? Is it the cadence and character of the author’s writing; the photographer’s eye for detail, or illustrations which bring the writing to life? Or is it perhaps the core attraction of the book: the recipes themselves. How good are they; how easy are they to follow; how confident do they make you in being able to achieve something new and exciting?

I love how we can build up close, loyal and loving relationships with some cookbooks: they draw us in, distracting and tantalising; beckoning and beguiling. They may act as good companions on lazy Sunday afternoons, keep us up reading at bedtime, shape our shopping habits, push us to try new techniques, and open new doors with attitudes and concepts. The relationship one builds up with a good cookbook is so personal, and almost intangible… we can all think of certain books which we really love.

Both Miss South and myself have an ever-growing selection of cookbooks which we consult, covet and collect. We grew up surrounded by cookbooks from luminaries and little-known authors alike, lucky enough to have bookish parents with a penchant for collecting recipes and expanding their repertoires. Both of us have carried that interest through to our adult lives, hence groaning kitchen shelves and well-thumbed tomes which’ve found a place in our hearts. Of course, we also have our own notebooks too; full of cuttings, tearings and recipes passed down from family and friends; but the cookbooks on the shelves are what we both go to first.

Recently I’ve been thinking more than ever about what makes a good cookbook truly great, looking from both a consumer and a producer’s perspective. Keen-eyed readers may recall that, during the summer, I highlighted a couple of great recipes from a cookbook which I’ve been involved with. That book, the Parlour Café Cookbook by Gillian Veal, was launched recently at the Dundee Literary Festival, and it’s been selling like hot cakes (or hot pithiviers) ever since.

Parlour Café Cookbook cover

My involvement started when I was contacted by a prospective client earlier this year, and asked whether I’d be interested in designing and typesetting the inaugural publication from a new publisher, Kitchen Press. The brief was quite loose, but it would involve working with the author and illustrator to convey the atmosphere and ethos of a small café in Dundee. I’d never visited the café or met the protagonists, so everything hung on my initial impressions of the writing itself.

However, after being sent an early draft of the manuscript, alongside some illustrations, I was hooked. I loved the Mediterranean-influenced recipes, the emphasis on homely and local ingredients; the calm, instructive tones; and a quiet confidence in demystifying the art of the kitchen wherever possible. It was fun, personal, down-to-earth… and perhaps most importantly, the recipes sounded truly delicious!

Like any creative, a good cookbook author should excite, educate and entertain their audience. Gillian’s writing is confident and straightforward; informed by her passion and experience, but capturing some of the quirky, personal features of this tiny little café on a steep Dundee hill. Striking a good balance between the wholesome (some super salads and healthy, hearty soups) and the utterly decadent (cake recipes which have been getting even me, the non-baker all hot under the collar).

Just as importantly, the book is visually brought to life by Jen Collins‘ enchanting illustrations. Her quirky line drawings are a delight, and I challenge you to suppress a smile when you see them accompanying the recipes in the book. Despite being a photographer, I was really pleased to work on a book where the decision had been made to focus on ingredients and stories using only illustrations

This, incidentally, is not a book review. Yes, I wholeheartedly admit that I’m biased, having spent time and energy working on this book, so it’s not right for me to attempt to sound neutral and dispassionate. We’re always upfront here on North/South Food about any biases or influences, and my professional involvement in this project is happily admitted. I loved working on this debut book from a passionate, independent new publisher, trying to help make it the kind of cookbook you won’t just like, but will love and cherish.

The best measure of that is how often I’ve dipped into it since getting that initial manuscript… it’s not left the kitchen table in months. My favourite recipes? Well, I’ve not worked my way through the whole book yet, but honourable mentions must go to Parlour Panzanella; Chorizo & Chickpea Stew; Squash, Apple and Ginger Soup; Parma Baked Eggs (above, topped with a tiny homegrown tomato and finished with heavenly ham salt); those aforementioned Rosemary & Anchovy flatbreads and the amazing Puy Lentils and Goats Cheese Salad. I’ve not yet started on the Desserts section, but I’m making the Banana Bread with Coconut and Toasted Nuts soon; and the Parlour Baked Cheesecake is a definite. Along with most of the other recipes in the book…

You can check out a selection of the recipes on their Facebook page, or use Amazon’s Look Inside feature to peek inside the book. As a taster, you can also download a PDF with four of the Café’s most popular recipes on them. Just click on the image below.

Parlour Café postcards

So I hope this post has made you think a little more deeply about what cookbooks you love; and in the meantime, make a suggestion to add another to that favoured list. It might not be possible to go to Dundee for a wickedly good lunch, but now you can enjoy it in the comfort of your own home. Or you could just enjoy curling up in front of a fire on a cold night, feasting on the recipes and supporting more regional food talent…

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3 replies
  1. Rachel K
    Rachel K says:

    What a lovely, thought-provoking post. I shall definitely be checking out the Parlour Cafe cookbook.

    For me, the best cookbooks are the ones that speak with a clear voice (so the recipes work) but that can entertain me with their opinions and experience. So Nigel Slater, Claudia Roden, Jane Grigson and more recently, Sarah Raven and HFW tend to get a bit of a workout!

  2. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Rachel,

    Totally agree on the clear voice. I have Claudia Roden’s Jewish and Middle Eastern books by my bed at the moment. That’s my mark of a really good cookbook. I read the entire Flavour Thesaurus that way. I’m just getting into Elizabeth David too. I like Nigel’s prose, but his recipes never work for me. I must check out Sarah Raven though. I don’t know her at all. I’ve been loving Scandilicious and Niamh Shields’ books this year too. I’m starting not to need a cookbook, but able to wing it, which allows me to enjoy the writing all the more!

    The other way a cookbook can charm its way into my life is to be really really foolproof. I adore Rachel Allen’s Bake as every single recipe I’ve used has been just right first time, even though the writing isn’t that unique. And I will happily transcribe hand me down recipes into a book if I know they work. I lost my first one when I moved house and cried when I realised. Even now I still have a lump in my throat when I think about it. Not only was my favourite cake recipe of all time in there, but it it stayed open on the counter when you were cooking. That’s the ultimate gift a cookbook can give…

  3. thelittleloaf
    thelittleloaf says:

    What a great post. I tend to find it hard to follow recipes to a t, so like books which provide inspiration and a starting point. I also agree with Miss South that a book of foolproof recipes will always win it’s way into my heart. I’ve made two things from The Hummingbird Bakery cookbook, both of which didn’t quite come out right, so now it just sits on the shelf looking pretty. By contrast, some of my best cookery books are devoid of pictures, pretty plain, but 100% foolproof and all the more used because of it. This new cookbook sounds great and it must have been so much fun to be involved in the project :-)

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