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André Simon Awards: The Assessor’s View
Rosemary Stark (09/04/2011)



Editor’s note: In the judging system used by the André Simon awards, all entries for both food and drink books are initially evaluated by an expert ‘Assessor’, who then draws up a shortlist and reports on them to the Trustees before a decision is made about the winner. Guild member Rosemary Stark was the Assessor of food books for this year’s awards, presented on 5 April at the Goring Hotel in central London. What follows is an edited version of the speech she gave at the awards ceremony, where Niki Segrit’s The Flavour Thesaurus (Bloomsbury) won the top prize. A Special Award went this year to the Edible series of pocket histories published by Reaktion (which has so far included the following titles by Guild members: Caviar: A Global History by Nichola Fletcher, Cake: A Global History by Nicola Humble, Tea: A Global History by Helen Saberi and Sandwich: A Global History by Bee Wilson).


My overall first impression of the 109 books entered for the 2010 André Simon Award was a rather dizzying mix of assorted typefaces sharing the same spread; of copy fading to illegibility against patterned backgrounds; wobbly upper-case recipe titles, each letter a different colour; ditzy drawings and decoratively boxed snatches of copy; and, perhaps oddest of all, the same picture repeated on the facing pages of a double-page spread. At its daftest, this followed an author’s warning that you wouldn’t look twice at his slow-cooked lamb, only to show it to you twice when you turn the page. (Slow-cooked lamb, incidentally, was the year’s runaway favourite recipe).


What has got into Art Departments? Are they trying to attract back those who search for recipes on websites, where hyperactive animation can seem mandatory? Whatever the motivation, I hope they get over it soon. Such over-wrought design not only distracts and infantilises the reader but surely insults authors too – as though good writing were not enough to hold the reader’s attention.

There was an outbreak of gigantism in chefs’ books from Australia and America – lavish bindings, pages too luxuriously thick and satiny to risk splashes of kitchen juices. And the sheer size of some of them staggered me and – rather more literally – the couriers who delivered them to my house. Our biggest single-volume submission weighed in at just under 3kg, too big for any normal bookshelf, and occupying most of the work surface in your average kitchen. Not so much a coffee-table book as a potential coffee table.

Perhaps overseas publishers are less recession-hit than those in the UK, where such extravagance is no longer affordable. And especially not for would-be authors lacking any track record. We were delighted therefore by Quadrille’s enterprising response to this problem, which was to cut the gung ho presentation and create a new and pleasingly plain imprint for first-time authors like Stevie Parle. His My Kitchen: Real Food from Near and Far is one of the first of their ‘New Voices in Food’ series, and it's on our shortlist. Stevie’s book was right on trend too with its matt card covers, for we had all noticed an increasing usage of matt finishes, currently making a bid to render high gloss and glitz SO last decade.

Some of the real treasures of 2010 came in the simplest livery. A modestly priced volume of interesting but unassuming appearance clutched our attention with its novel approach to combining ingredients: Niki Segnit’s The Flavour Thesaurus (Bloomsbury) packed in more than enough wisdom, wit and sheer scholarship to guarantee its place on our shortlist. And for down-sized luxury on a tight budget, Reaktion Books offered the latest four volumes in their ongoing Edible Series of Global History, also shortlisted. Creamily sensual in appearance and containing more carefully illustrated pages of proper food history than we have any right to expect of a pocket-sized volume costing a tenner. 

Just two British chefs reached our shortlist out of 29 such eligible books (over a quarter of the entire André Simon 2010 entry). One was Stevie Parr’s and the other Mark Hix’s stylishly dignified Hix Oyster and Chop House (Quadrille). A few chefs made thoughtful efforts to adapt their recipes to suit the home cooks at whom their books are surely aimed. Strategies included limiting the number or the cost of ingredients, or restricting the time allocated to produce a dish – most famously to 30 minutes per meal. (Jamie’s reward, however, is in his record-busting sales figures and in heaven.) One enthusiastic new chef actually offered two versions of each of his dishes, one plain to practise on and one fancy for dinner parties. But many of the new boys (and a growing number of new girls in toques too) had foresworn the grandiloquence of much 80s and 90s cheffy cooking to offer dishes that lower the bar between restaurant and domestic cooking. A very welcome shift for us home cooks.

This was in keeping, too, with a general recession-aware trend towards the home stove and, beyond that, to home growing as well as home baking and home preserving. I counted nine books on home baking – and not all of them in the realms of the cupcake (though whoopee cakes and pies are already making their not entirely welcome way across the Atlantic). Another significant dozen volumes covered food-growing, home pickling, bottling and curing, with camping, hunting, fishing and hunter-gathering for those hell-bent on tackling austerity head on. Cured: Salted, Spiced, Dried, Smoked, Potted, Pickled, Raw by Lindy Wildsmith (Jacqui Small) made it to our shortlist, along with Diana Henry’s Food from Plenty (Mitchell Beazley), which plans to face down recession with recipes that stretch high-quality ingredients plus lavish treatments to make the best of cheaper ones. Both these volumes are happy to adopt, adapt and include recipes from the world’s stoves without making boisterous claim to the dreaded ‘fusion’ label.

Books that focus on a single nationality indicate that Italian is still our favourite European cuisine, with Spanish and Scandinavian up-and-coming. A handful of books on Indian cooking deliberately stress the simplicity of their dishes – suggesting that home cooks have never quite lost their fear of long spice lists of which a teaspoon went into the recipe and the rest sat on our shelves – possibly till we moved house. (Or died.) There was a small but observable move towards the Eastern end of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and quite the most sumptuous volume on our shortlist, Saraban by Greg and Lucy Malouf (Hardie Grant Books) explores Iranian food and travel. Although, understandably, they prefer to call it Persian on the cover.

I would like to end this little introductory run-through of recent trends by saying how very much I have enjoyed the task of assessing entries for the 2010 Andre Simon Award. It was a huge privilege to have an overview of a whole year’s food books and I would like to thank the trustees for trusting me to take it on.

 

Author: Rosemary Stark Email: rosie.stark@virgin.net


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