What do you give a man for his birthday? As the years go by, that seems to get harder and harder.

However, I make it easy for friends and family because as I grow older they know they can always buy me a gift that makes me happy and no, it’s not a year’s supply of hair dye. Right now, I’m looking at a bookshelf in the kitchen groaning under the weight of cookery books. Who am I kidding? It’s now a couple of shelves and a third might soon be needed as last week another birthday added to the collection.

Every so often my wife will object and call for a clearout but I just move them around on the shelves so she doesn’t see the same title for a while. It’s a strange obsession because very few of them will ever end up leading to an actual plate of food on the table. Jamie, Delia and Nigella are there for that and the sticky pages, flecked with butter stains, flour and sugar are testament to the good service they have provided down the years.

However, none of them would make the list of my favourite cookbooks. Most of us tend to cook the same things week in, week out and adapt them to suit our tastes, and the simple fact is no one has even half the ingredients required for most Ottolenghi recipes. With the passage of time, my favourite kitchen books have become the ones that really tell a story, like AA Gill’s brilliant Breakfast at The Wolseley about the early shift at one of the late critic’s favourite restaurants or The Hive Beach Café book which celebrates a little fish shack on the Dorset coast.

Although these are restaurant books, they feature recipes and that qualifies them to be part of the cookbook pile but it is the link to a location that makes them special. When you read Carina Contini’s Kitchen Garden Cookbook, you get a real sense of the commitment to ingredients and quality which permeates through to everything served in her restaurants.

The same goes for any Tom Kitchin books, while the Dishoom and Hawksmoor ones offer insight into the ethos behind businesses that have grown from small operations to be major UK brands. For me, the best cookbooks are those that seem as at home on the bedside table as on a kitchen shelf. My two current favourites come from completely different ends of the cooking spectrum.

Core by Clare Smyth is the most beautiful cookbook I’ve ever seen. You could rip out every image, frame them and put them straight on the wall. Recipes range from Isle of Harris scallop tartare to her own version of beans on toast, involving 34 ingredients. That is three-star Michelin food and while I will never cook any of it, I will also never tire of looking at it.

At the other end of the scale, Jeremy Lee’s Quo Vadis cookbook has just won a top award and no wonder. It tells the story of his life growing up in Dundee with the food memories we all share. Beautifully illustrated, the recipes range from sardines on toast to an apple tart that looks so good, there is even the vague possibility I might cook it.

2023-03-16T18:43:51Z dg43tfdfdgfd