Can’t face yet another menu offering charred hispi? This 50-year-old cookbook will help | Food and drink books

Can’t face yet another menu offering charred hispi? This 50-year-old cookbook will help | Food and drink books

Twenty-first century cookbooks are dangerously seductive, their gorgeous, pouting covers and soothingly whispered reassurances inducing an instantaneous culinary swoon. This book, you think, is about to change my life. But alas, only rarely is this so. Confession time (no shame in this column). Last year, I kissed more than a few new cookbooks, each one more devastatingly handsome than the last – and yet only in one case did a serious relationship bloom.

And so it was that I decided to begin January with an old and rather less glamorous lover in my arms in the form of Jane Grigson’s English Food, a book that will be 50 years old this year. My copy of this classic is rather plain looking – a few tiny woodcuts are all it offers in the way of illustration – and its author’s tone, though not unkindly, is of course sometimes rather stern (NB I mean this in a strictly non-kinky way). But to wrestle with it, whether in the kitchen or in the boudoir, is nevertheless a fully satisfying experience. This is a book so good, even when it’s at its most old-fashioned, it still seems modish: exciting, even, if you’re in the right mood.

I’ve often wondered why Grigson, who was the Observer’s cookery writer from 1968 until 1990, is still much less well known than her friend and supporter, Elizabeth David. But never more so than right now. While her influence is, to take just one example, all over Jeremy Lee’s award-winning keeper of a book, Cooking: Simply and Well, for One or Many – among other dishes, they both love the layered flavours of a salmagundi – her own writing somehow remains the province only of middle-aged, slightly nerdy types like me, who favour a little learning with their recipe for potted shrimps (according to Grigson, potted shrimps only became popular outside Lancashire in the 1930s, when a shop called Young’s in Beauchamp Place in Kensington began selling them).

What I would say to those who are chary of her – or who don’t (shock, horror) know her books at all – is that not only do Grigson’s recipes work; she’s also, at this point, the perfect antidote to a certain kind of jadedness. Charred hispi cabbage be damned! English Food is bulging with things that, now half or even entirely forgotten, suddenly seem wonderfully new without being at all faddish or insubstantial. If, say, I was running the kind of good but rather safe gastropub where the only sweet thing on offer is inevitably an almond tart, I would flip through it immediately in search of ideas. For instance: Isle of Wight pudding. Ever since I read the recipe in bed the other night, I’ve been vaguely preoccupied with this fat but inexpensive sausage of loveliness, a dough of flour and butter (or lard) spread with blackberries and honey that is rolled like a roly-poly, covered with single cream, and baked in the oven. “The most delicious juice emerges,” writes Grigson, succinctly. It sounds perfect: a rescue mission par excellence for the sad punnet of blackberries we all have lurking somewhere in the freezer at this time of year.

There is luxury in English Food: an immaculate crab tart; little pots of chocolate flavoured lightly with rosemary. But there’s a plainness in it, too – one that feels just right for now, when things are so hard for so many. It isn’t only that Grigson, who grew up in Sunderland, is necessarily attentive to foods that are filling, tight budgets and leftovers. Her writing reminds us that cooks have always had to make do; that toad in the hole was originally made, not with sausages, but with the remains of the joint.

Reading her, you come to feel, perhaps reassuringly, that the best English food combines the high and the low, in all sorts of different ways. Those who hanker, as I will until the end of my days, for the great Rowley Leigh’s parmesan custards – the London pop-up in which he briefly revived this most famous of his dishes is now sadly closed – might like to try Lady Shaftesbury’s toasted cheese, a bubbling combination of butter, grated cheddar, cream and egg yolk, named for the wife of a Victorian earl who was perennially broke. Serve in small ramekins with toast soldiers, and eat with gratitude – to Jane and to all who still sail in her.