Angela Clutton reflects on the latest gathering of the Cookbook Club
Simon Hopkinson and Lindsay Bareham’s The Prawn Cocktail Years proved itself to be a revelation at our most recent event for the Borough Market Cookbook Club. Not because we discovered that it’s a brilliant cookbook—there’s obviously good reason it crops up time and again on the ‘top cookbook’ lists of many chefs and food writers. No, the revelation was just how many of the classic dishes from the book that were cooked and shared by the club’s members are worthy of a place in the repertoire of modern kitchens.
I say ‘classic’. Do I mean retro? Probably. For these are the dishes of Britain in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when the nation’s food is not generally thought to have been at a high point. That somehow made it all the more wonderful to discover (or re-discover) together this selection of wonderful dishes.
There was oxtail soup that had extraordinary depth and richness to it. Salmon mousse with cucumber salad, which was so elegant, beautiful and light. Absolutely delicious Cornish pasties made by a member who used Cookbook Club as the trigger for his first bash at pastry and was so rightly reassured by the results, he ended up giving others advice on crimping.
A work of beauty
We had quite a few dishes that have won themselves a terrible reputation over the years—inevitably almost always just because they have been made poorly. Not here! Ratatouille had been painstakingly made according to the recipe in the book, and by preparing each constituent vegetable separately each retained its distinct identity and flavour, as is too rarely the case. Stuffed vine leaves were tender and deeply flavoured. Black forest gateau was a work of absolute beauty and totally gorgeous.
Many of the dishes sparked memories in that special way food can. The member who made the wonderfully light syllabub remembered having had and enjoyed it years ago, but not at all since. Rice pudding got us all talking about preferences of serving it hot or cold when we were growing up. A thorny subject but Hopkinson and Bareham come down so firmly on the side of cold, that is what we went for too. At least there was consensus on it needing a good skin, and this rice pudding certainly had that.
There were many more dishes we loved, including the prawn cocktail of the book’s title, which we couldn’t possibly have had the event without. It went in a flash—which is surely testament to why that dish was such a smash to start with and just goes to show how dishes that feel old-hat can be fabulous when made well. As one member put it so brilliantly, we should “banish all the memories of watery frozen prawns and iceberg served in a wine glass with salad cream on top and bring it up to date with all the great ingredients we have access to now”.
Respect for heritage
That rather sums up how we felt generally about our experiences with The Prawn Cocktail Years. A lovely book of dishes that are iconic—and sometimes seem ironic—but which are well worth a look at now through our modern awareness of respect for the heritage of dishes, and the quality and provenance of the produce being used in them.
11th November: Brindisa: The True Food of Spain by Monika Linton
5th December: Cookbook Club festive feast