Roast Chicken and Other Stories
by Simon Hopkinson, Lindsey Bareham
Publisher: Hyperion, Country: US
ISBN: 9781401308629, Edition: first US Edition, Year: 2006
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

In 2005 Waitrose Food Illustrated magazine published a list of the most useful cookery books as determined by a panel of leading chefs, food writers and consumers. The book they put at the top of the list was Roast Chicken and Other Stories by British chef and writer Simon Hopkinson. When first published Roast Chicken and Other Stories won both the 1984 André Simon and 1995 Glenfiddich awards and most recently (August 2010) Hopkinson’s book has been rated at number 5 on the Observer Food Monthly list of the 50 Best Ever Cookbooks. So what is it that makes this book – now 15 years old – so popular, and is it really the most useful recipe book of all time?

Review

Simon Hopkinson has spent most of his life cooking, opening his own restaurant when he was only 21 and eventually and finally working as head chef at Sir Terence Conran’s Bibendum in London from 1987 to 1994. He is not only well schooled in how to cook but he obviously also enjoys cooking and perhaps more importantly he enjoys eating. The guiding principle behind the recipes he includes here is that good food requires care and attention in the kitchen but does not need to be fussy or over-complicated. Hopkinson believes that with ‘a little knowledge and expertise’ a good cook, someone with sympathy and enthusiasm for what they are doing, can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse or at least something edible.

The recipes are grouped into forty chapters dealing in alphabetical order with some of Hopkinson’s favourite ingredients ranging from anchovy to veal via a diverse path involving basics (chocolate, cream, eggs, garlic, olive oil, saffron; meat, seafood and offal (brains, chicken, grouse, hake,lamb,’pork pieces and bacon bits) and vegetables (asparagus, eggplant, onions, tomatoes). This is a highly personal collection of recipes which makes no attempt to be comprehensive – for example there is no chapter on beef and whilst there are no chapters which deal with fruit there is a whole chapter devoted to custard.

Each chapter begins with a brief essay (the stories of the title), a mix of a bit of history and a bit of cheffy know-how with autobiographical anecdotes and personal opinions. Hopkinson is certainly opinionated – he doesn’t like white asparagus, finds fillet steak ‘boring’ and thinks Lobster Thermidor ‘disgusting’ – but not to the extent of being pompous or pretentious. He is after all a fan of Mars Bars, Toblerone, cans of baked beans, and Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies. Throughout the book he generously acknowledges the influences on his style and approach to food and cooking which include the grounding he received at home with his parents; Yves Champeau to whom the book is dedicated, to whom he was first apprenticed and who taught him the disciplines of French cuisine; internationally known chefs and cooks (Alice Waters, Elizabeth David, Richard Olney) and local heroes such as Joyce Molyneux, George Perry-Smith and Margaret Costa. Hopkinson is reputedly something of a recluse, shy and unassuming, so it is fitting that this book is a small one free of fancy photographs. The only illustrations are delightful naïve drawings by Flo Bayley which add a sense of playfulness and complement the humour in much of Hopkinson’s narrative.

Given that this is a highly personal compilation what makes it so useful? To begin with, if you are not an offal eater the chapters on brains, kidneys, liver, sweetbreads and tripe will be of no interest and since squab, rabbit and grouse are not necessarily on everyone’s shopping list either some readers will not find the book particularly useful at all. On the other hand if you are after a definitive recipe for the roast chicken of the title or aïoli or rice pudding or custard sauce, or poached salmon or slow braised pork belly or Saltimbocca alla Romana you will be well rewarded. This is not, however, a simple compilation of classic recipes and some of the useful basics are a bit hard to find. For example, whilst there is a separate listing in the index for ‘vinaigrette’ (included in the Olive Oil chapter) ‘béarnaise’ is listed under ‘Sauces’ and is in the chapter on ‘Eggs’ in the recipe for ‘Lacy’s oeufs en cocotte’ and mayonnaise doesn’t rate a mention in the index at all although there is a recipe for ‘Warm hake with thinned mayonnaise and capers’. Written with the help of Lindsey Bareham, a food columnist and author, all the recipes are easy to follow, in nearly all cases requiring little more store cupboard staples and basic kitchen equipment, and the instructions are clear with appropriate cautions and explanations where necessary. My copy is the American version so measures are in pounds and ounces and cups but I have had no problems converting the recipes I have tried to metric measures and there is a UK paperback metric version available.

Hopkinson is an engaging personality and I found his prose entertaining and informative. This a satisfying book to read, to dip in to a chapter here and there, which would please anyone with a curiosity about food. I think the recipes would appeal most to cooks interested, like the author, in technique rather than fashion. On that basis, if I had to limit myself to only ten recipe books this would probably be one of them. However I remain puzzled as to why the Waitrose Illustrated panel would rate this book more useful than Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course (which was number 2 on the list) or Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion (which only just made it onto the list at number 10) since both these books are written to be both instructive and comprehensive. Whilst I have found Roast Chicken and other stories a good reference book, because the range of ingredients covered is very limited it would not rate for me as the most useful book in my collection.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 4. Recommended – good
Visual appeal: Attractive
Suitability as a gift: Likely to be strongly appreciated
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