There was a time, not all that long ago, when quantity and quality were unlikely bedfellows. It would be rare indeed for them to be seen together, even just holding hands, let alone snuggled up together under the duvet where it would seem that they now spend most of their time making the two backed beast…both hard and soft covers. Quantity and quality are now an item. After years in the shadows they have sashayed from their closet screaming that they are remaindered, and proud of it. But above all, they are cheap, which word was once a pejorative and is now the grail. I speak of the tsunami of books that has been created by the seismic upheaval created by the internet which has given us all the chance to be authors, diarists or journalists and by so doing has mightily augmented the creation of books whilst reducing their value to that of flotsam and jetsam. Luckily the internet has not yet encouraged us to be amateur surgeons or airline pilots. The upshot of this may well not be politically correct but because of this surfeit and the consequent reduction in value, I can now buy, and indeed have just bought from that mighty on line river, a very good cookery book by one of my culinary icons for the sum of 1d…that’s one penny, one denarius, one pee or not a lot at all. The icon in question is Alastair Little, who is well worth a pee or two, but probably not directly after eating asparagus, and the book of which I speak is his “Italian Kitchen”, which was published in ’96, some years before Rush replaced Potato after Yukon Gold. In that era, Alastair, together with Rowley Leigh and Simon Hopkinson, formed a trinity of brilliant cooks (I dislike the word chef and have less and less respect for it) who were able to produce masterfully simple and flavour filled food without the need to pair obscure ingredients nor to decorate their dishes with smears, foams or other beastly goo gahs. I knew Alastair a little in the late 80’s when he was going up the mountain and I was beginning my dizzy slide down. At that time he prepared the food at the Zanzibar, an infamous Covent Garden watering hole, where we would talk of food and his plans to open a restaurant until the martinis brought gravity into play and I would fall off the bar stool. I still have a memory of him saying that he was a Bolton supporter, whatever that meant, and at those moments I could certainly have done with Bolton’s support myself.
I used the book to make dinner last night which consisted of an asparagus risotto followed by a raspberry and frangipane tart. That which is impressive with his writing, as with his cooking, is the detail which is neither padding nor decoration. His advice that it would be a waste of time to make his recipe for asparagus risotto if one could not be bothered to make the recommended asparagus stock from vegetables and the asparagus peelings could easily have appeared as overbearing and pedantic but in his safe hands it read as good advice which I happily followed and because of it this butter rich risotto was packed with a sublime asparagus flavour, which simplicity is so often crushed by intemperate seasoning and over generosity with the Parmesan.