River Cottage reference chockfull of recipes, useful info and British charm

Read this cookbook: “River Cottage A to Z: Our Favourite Ingredients & How to Cook Them” By Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the River Cottage team (Bloomsbury, $65)

By Wendell Brock

Haddock, haggis, hake, ham and hare.

Flipping through this delightful, veddy British doorstop of a book, I couldn’t help but think of Henry Higgins’ instructions to Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.” (“In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen.”)

Alphabetically organized by ingredient, the weighty, 708-page tome is the so-called “bible” of the brand founded 20 years ago as a TV series by self-sufficiency guru Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Though I was ready to dismiss the material as arcane and irrelevant to Americans based on the very first entry (Alexanders: a flowering coastal plant common in the south of England), I quickly warmed to the peculiar charms of the reference guide.

And I do say: Some of the recipe titles really crack me up (Hempy Hummus, Pruney Sausage Rolls, Hot Dogfish Dog). It's also funny how some exotic sounding ingredients turn out to be so common. (What's a courgette? I would have guessed a fish, or a ballet movement. But it's nothing more than a damn zucchini!)

Speaking of fish, when stumped by a name (brill, coley, gurnard, plaice), it usually turned out to be just that, a fish.

When I came to the entry on “Squirrel, grey” (no, it’s not a tea!), I had to chortle, at both the recipe (Squirrel and Beans on Toast) and the incisiveness of the entry: “Squirrels may be bright-eyed and charming, but that’s no reason not to eat them – particularly when you consider that they are delicious, very much free-range and that there are far too many of the bushy-tailed little blighters about.” [Writer runs to closet to retrieve rifle.]

But seriously, the essays on ingredients (which are written by a team and not just the boss) are oftentimes as beautiful and evocative as they are smart and practical. As a lover of “tinned” sardines (which I might add are chockfull of healthy omega-3 fats and calcium, if you eat the bones), I was intrigued by Whittingstall’s idea to prepare them Bloody Mary style. Just add catsup, Tabasco, Worcestershire, lemon, celery salt and, if you feel like it, “a shot of vodka to take this superb snack to its logical conclusion.”

Where better to look for information on Dover Sole, Spotted Dick and nigella. (No, not that Nigella! That reference is about the little black seed sometimes known as black sesame.)

Right now, strawberries and rhubarb are in season, and I happened to spy two delicious-sounding treats: strawberries with lavender, and honey and vanilla and rhubarb ice cream.

So just like that, lads and lasses, I’ve gone from hating on this book to lapping it up.

Now back to salt beef and sweet cicely.

Wendell Brock is an Atlanta food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock) .


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