Although I feel confident that I will always be a proud and avid carnivore, as a chef and a consumer, I am increasingly aware that we need to eat less meat. When I am planning menus and writing recipes, I sometimes hit a creative roadblock when designing vegetarian or vegan dishes. It can be difficult to avoid the clichés of mushrooms, pasta, and cheese; perhaps some spiced lentils or an aubergine. It can be hard to get excited about celeriac when, let’s face it, scallops are just so much sexier…
I wanted to buy this book because I find that Gill Meller has a knack for creating dishes that you want to eat. I find that the lists of ingredients in his recipes are often perfectly poised. He uses just the right amount of ingredients to create a deeply flavourful and exciting dish that isn’t overly complicated and fussy. His recipes don’t feel “cheffy”. This, translated into vegetarian cookery, seemed to be exactly what I needed to spruce up my veggie repertoire.
There's no denying it: this book is beautiful. It is filled with dishes that jump off the page and make you you want to grab a knife and a frying pan and start cooking so that you can eat them immediately. Blackberry, Plum, Olive Oil and Rosemary Cake, Roasted Tomato and Lentil Soup, Artichokes and New Potatoes with Garlic Mayonnaise and Toast… yes, yes and yes! The food photography is simply stunning, as is always the case in Meller’s books. On publication day, I watched an interview with Gill Meller and the photographer, Andrew Montgomery. They both talked about how every shot in the book was taken outside and that they both made a conscious effort to remove props from the shots in order to allow the food on the plate to shine through. The effect of this is palpable throughout the book. It creates a sense of humility. The dishes feel as though they have tumbled gleefully from the veg plot, to the plate, with just the lightest and most loving of caresses from the chef.
However, the stripped back, raw, almost naked effect of this photography is, to my mind at least, somewhat deceptive. When leafing through the book, the apparent humility of these rustic dishes gives the impression that the dish will also be humble, and that the processes will be simple. For the majority of dishes this is not the case.
Take for example, a recipe for Asparagus Cooked in the Fire with Labneh, Mint, Almonds and Seeds. The photograph of the dish and its title reeks of rustic simplicity. A handful of elegant asparagus spears, slick with olive oil, rest languidly on a pool of velvety yogurt, strewn with a smattering of delicious gubbins. However, further inspection of the recipe reveals, of course, that the labneh needs to be strained for 12 hours, quashing any thoughts I may have had of rustling it up later that same day. What's more, the ingredients list calls for tamari sauce, whole almonds, cumin seeds, sunflower seeds and pumpkins seeds all of which are fairy expensive and not necessarily items which can be found in the average store cupboard. Though I am proud of my relatively well-stocked and varied pantry, I know I don’t have all of those ingredients in my cupboard on a regular basis.
Throughout the book, Meller uses a whole host of ingredients that are not only expensive but also quite difficult to find if you aren't lucky enough to live near enough a thriving farmers market or a massive Waitrose. Fresh broad beans, Jerusalem artichokes, quince, fresh marjoram, blackcurrants, sea kale, gooseberries.... you get the picture. It is possible to track those ingredients down in Newcastle, but I won't be able to find any of them on my usual weekly whip around Lidl. Being the complete nutcase that I am, I will happily spend my Saturday morning traipsing around the city, visiting half a dozen different shops, parting with a small fortune in pursuit of the perfect produce - but only for a special occasion. Consequently, the majority of recipes in this book are not going to be added to my weeknight repertoire any time soon.
In the introduction to the book, Meller talks about how cooking with fruit and vegetables can help a cook to feel more in tune with nature, the seasons, and the world. He says that 'shifting the focus away from meat and fish can be a liberating experience for a cook. The moment you stop relying on them, the more inventive and freer your cooking will become.' In my cooking, I have found this to be true. I began really learning how to cook - and learning that I love to cook - when I was at University. With a limited budget, limited equipment and a limited store cupboard, I had to become more experimental cooking vegetables.
However in my experience, this meant something very different to the sentiment that I think Meller is presenting in this book. For me, this creativity was channelled through broccoli, carrots and peppers - produce which is readily available in the supermarket at a reasonable price. My urban lifestyle and limited budget precluded me from purchasing the decadent organic produce that Meller advocates then as it does now. What’s more, the selection of vinegars, oils, herbs and spices that Meller uses casually in each chapter is staggering. I realised that the recipes in this book – no, the lifestyle that this book signifies and promotes – alienates me.
Whilst I am citing Meller's use of varied and luxurious ingredients in his recipe as a criticism, it is also symptomatic of the exact thing that I enjoy the most about his books. The fusion of labneh, tamari sauce, cumin seeds, almonds and rosemary, all paired with asparagus is undeniably interesting. It's not a collection of flavours that I would immediately be drawn to when thinking of ways to dress asparagus, but when I imagine how those flavours might come together, it makes my mouth water. There are a whole host of enticing flavour parings in the book. Roasted Little Gem Lettuce with Cream and Green Peppercorns; Raspberries, Chicory and fennel seeds; Pears with Cider and Sage; and Plums with Red Onion, Chilli and Mint, to name but a few.
This kind of creative, out of the box fusion of flavours is exactly what I was hoping to find in this book, and indeed is completely in keeping with the recipes in his other two books. So why is it only here and now that I am struck by this tension?
When I think of vegetarian cookery, I think of it as something that is cheaper, quicker, healthier and easier alternative to cooking meat or fish. But where has this perception come from? I type vegetarian cookbooks in to the search bar on Amazon and it's suddenly apparently obvious how that perception has come to be. Veg: Easy & Delicious Meals for Everyone, The Green Roasting Tin: Vegan and Vegetarian One Dish Dinners, The 30-Minute Vegetarian Cookbook: 100 Healthy, Delicious Meals for Busy People, The Hairy Dieters Go Veggie - to name but a few of the best selling titles. In a bid to get more home cooks eating vegetarian food, most of the rhetoric around cooking and eating this way has been centred on the fact that cooking with vegetables can be cheaper, quicker, healthier and easier than ever. It's about making it seem as accessible as possible to help it become part of the mainstream consciousness.
What Meller's book seems to do is the complete opposite of that. The awe-inspiring photography with the natural rawness that it evokes, coupled with Meller's delicate prose and poetry epitomises "the good life". An aspiration, an ideal, but for many people, the recipes in this cookbook are completely unachievable. This book makes it searingly obvious that simply having choice when it comes to what we eat is a massive privilege; one that I know I take for granted far too often.
Nonetheless, I don’t intend for this review to seem scathing. On the contrary, I think this book indicates that an important shift is happening in the world of veg-centric cookery. My Amazon search clearly highlights that there are lots of cookery books out there that will provide you with a plethora of cheap, simple vegetarian recipes that use vegetables for the every day. These titles will continue to exist and improve as we move forward. The recipes and the photographs in Meller’s book seem to scream out – take me seriously.What this book highlights, is that vegetarian cooking can and perhaps should be seen as decadent. Something unobtainable and just out of reach. Something idolised and idealised, not just an after thought on the menu.