If it wasn’t so big, or if I had a stunning 18th-century Chippendale walnut desk with traditional leather top and gadrooned edge, Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food would always be open. Before you roll your eyes at what probably sounds like heavyweight food-writer virtue signalling, I should admit that it is, but not only. My wish to have a 3kg book spreadeagled at all times is because, yes, it is the best food reference ever to appear in the English language – a 900-page A-Z looking at a multiplicity of foodstuffs, also food literature, science, history and food habits from all over the world – but also because it is a delightful book.
It’s a serious work, astonishing in its breadth and detail, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is thanks to Davidson, the mastermind of this companionable matrix and author of a vast number of the entries. He is a brilliant writer – sharp, exacting, graceful – but also a humorous one. In a revised edition of the companion, Tom Jaine describes the impish humour that pervades Davidson’s work: the paradox of pink blancmange, Goan food-ways, why the London stock exchange is like gorgonzola, how oncom is fermented in Indonesia, why Chinese mooncakes caused a revolution – every entry, even the most detailed and dense, seems to wriggle with the delight of it all.
Not having a huge walnut desk, I need to pull the 3kg from its position wedged between my little desk and the kitchen cupboard every time I need it, which is often. Today, it’s for cottage pie, a savoury dish of minced beef (traditionally from leftover roast, but also fresh mince) topped with mashed potato, which, like its twin, shepherd’s pie, “conjures up visions of shepherds long ago eating this simple fare, but the name does not seem to have been used until the 1870s when mincing machines were first used”.
Rachel Roddy's recipe for marmalade cake | A Kitchen in Rome
The entry goes on to quote Jane Grigson and how, with the first mincing machines, “prisons, schools, and seaside boarding-house cooks acquired a new weapon to distress their victims”. Happily, I have never been distressed by cottage pie: I have always enjoyed the delicious, easy and inexpensive versions the entry goes on to describe, even at school, when it was often followed by steamed pudding with pink custard, which I loved without even a spoonful of irony.
So to the recipe – one that belongs to my family life.
While the heavyweight was out, I looked up the ingredients in today’s recipe: the journey of carrots from Afghanistan to Europe in the middle ages; how wild celery from temperate Europe and Asia was tamed and cultivated; the etymology of onion. Another great thing about this book is how it continually reminds us of the evolution of ingredients in the hands of global gardeners, as Massimo Montanari writes: “Ingredients and alimentary traditions change with time, becoming modified as they come into contact with other traditions.”I am British and European, so it feels right that, for this British produce issue (and what brilliant British produce there is), I have made a recipe from my English childhood, with ingredients bought and cooked at home, in Rome.
The most important part of the recipe is roughing up the surface with a fork, which I am now going to refer to as gadrooning.
Prep 30 min
Cook 2 hr
100g rindless streaky bacon
3 tbsp lard, dripping, butter or other suitable fat for frying
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 small leek, trimmed and diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
2 sticks of celery, diced
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
400g minced beef
1 tsp Marmite (optional)
300ml light stock
1kg potatoes, peeled
In a heavy-based pan over a medium low heat, gently fry the bacon in the fat. Add the onion, celery, leek, carrot, bay leaf and a pinch of salt, and continue frying until the vegetables are starting to soften and turn translucent.
Crumble the mince into the pan and stir, breaking it up and moving it around until it has lost any pinkness. Add the Marmite (if using) and pour over the stock. Leave to simmer for an hour, by which point it should be rich and thick with just a little liquid.
Meanwhile, boil the potatoes in well-salted water until tender. Drain, then mash with butter and milk, seasoning to taste.
Put the mince in the bottom of a Pyrex or porcelain oven-proof dish, then spoon over the mash and fork it into place, creating rough peaks on the top.
Bake on the top shelf of an oven heated to 190C (170C fan)/gas 5 for 25 minutes, until the edges are bobbing and the top is golden.