Angela Clutton reflects on the latest gathering of the Cookbook Club, which this month focused on Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book
“Few writers can have had as much influence on what we eat today as Margaret Costa. Fewer still can have had such a marked effect on modern cookery writing. That any of us know about the joys of garlic butter, mayonnaise or olives is probably due to Margaret Costa.”
These are the words with which we opened both of our recent Cookbook Club events for Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book. They are not just my opinion, but the opening lines of Nigel Slater’s obituary of Costa following her death in the summer of 1999. That a food writer of his calibre thinks this says much about the respect in which she is held and the influence she has had on modern food, as much as on modern food writing.
A legendary book
Add to that the fact that Delia Smith wrote the foreword to the book’s re-publication, and Nigella Lawson says on its cover, “This is a book no cook should be able to do without” and you get the idea. But the big question was: what would the Cookbook Club members make of this legendary book, published almost 50 years ago?
Well, there’s no denying that in parts it feels very 1970s. Chicken and pineapple salad, anyone? (Actually, the acidity and sweetness of the fruit was a lovely, bright, summery combination with the chicken.) Or how about toast rack tomatoes: large tomatoes cut so that slices of hard-boiled egg could sit in them like, well, a toast rack. A classic flavour combo, but we were less sure about Margaret’s steer on the presentation…
Not that it was all a total retro-fest. So many other recipes felt hugely relevant now. Dishes such as Lebanese cucumber and yoghurt soup, or an aromatic broth of herbs and shallots in which to poach button mushrooms for mushrooms a la Greque. There was a lamb moussaka, which with its lack of spicing had us all worried but was just totally delicious, and a broad bean soup made by using the long pods of the beans—a great recipe for minimising food waste that couldn’t be more 2019 if it tried.
The book is structured by the seasons, as the title suggests, and then by produce. That feels to me very modern. Lots of cookbooks now embrace the very same approach and do away with the conventional idea of dividing chapters into mains or starters or suchlike. I love that Margaret Costa was doing that, too.
One of the reasons Nigel Slater so loves the book—Costa’s only one to be published—is for its tone. She has a hugely evocative style, relaxed and companionable. Words that could, of course, be ascribed as much to Nigel (or Nigella…) as to Margaret. There is a looseness to her approach that’s a joy to read. While a few of our gathering felt this led to a little recipe uncertainty, the overall feeling was very much that this is a joy of book.
It is one to read from as much as cook from. And to share in why this writer, who is sadly little-known now, has had such an impact on many of this generation’s most popular cooks.
Wednesday 18th & Wednesday 25th September: Time by Gill Meller
Tuesday 8th & Saturday 19th October: Appetites by Anthony Bourdain
Saturday 2nd & Tuesday 12th November: Samarkand by Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford