The dust jacket is long gone and the title-embossed spine flaps free. Naturally, many of the pages are sauce-stained: honourable marks of our stove-side adventures together. New British Classics by Gary Rhodes may be more than 20 years old, but the marks of battle are clear. It remains one of my most consulted cookbooks. When I need cooking times for a rib of beef it’s where I go. When I want the perfect recipe for Yorkshire puddings or a steak and kidney pie, I know where to look. Rhodes died suddenly in 2019, but here he is still holding my clumsy hand. This is just one of the glories of cookbooks. They enable a nerdy conversation, whether the author happens to be alive or dead.
And so, while restaurants remain closed it is to cookbooks such as New British Classics that I will be turning. Each week in this column, I’ll choose a classic volume from my own collection. I’ll celebrate its recipes. I’ll explore its influence on how we eat in general, and on restaurants in particular, and I’ll have a crack at a few key dishes. What could possibly go wrong?
My cookbook collection is selective. I’m privileged to be sent vast numbers for free on publication. I’m so privileged that I discard many. If I flick through and find over-art-directed colour photography, of a sort my efforts could never match, the local charity shop gets a delivery. Those are less instruction manuals than over-engineered invitations to fail. I keep the ones containing recipes for dishes I want to eat, but I look for other things, too. They must be strong on broader methods. They must have tips that will make me a better cook. They must be well written.
New British Classics, which was gifted to me at first publication in 1999, has all of that. By the time it arrived Rhodes was a decade into his TV chef pomp – a confection of hair gel, baggy trousers and plump flavours. He’d already published Rhodes Around Britain and its sequels, but this would be his biggest seller, shifting more than 300,000 copies. “Gary had done a lot of big hair and silly trousers on TV,” says his then-agent, Borra Garson. “It was time to turn the ship on his brand.” After all, he was running two restaurants with Michelin stars. Rhodes was celebrated for putting unapologetically robust British dishes at the heart of his classy menu. New British Classics would focus more on the food and less on the personality.
Some statement cookbooks document a restaurant chef’s key dishes. Others are aimed at the domestic cook. The BBC TV series was the latter, but the book was both. In among recipes for restaurant food like his outrageously rich lobster omelette thermidor, his pigeon faggot and his killer steak and kidney pudding, is a set of tinted pages providing the basics: key breakfast elements, for example, or the components for a Sunday roast.
Jo Pratt, now an award-winning cookbook author in her own right, was the home economist on New British Classics. “It was one of the biggest books I worked on,” she says now. “Gary was a perfectionist. He threw himself into the research, and at times it felt like it was going on forever.” Part of the mission, she says, was to assert the right of British cooking to stand alongside that from elsewhere. So here were recipes for Lancashire hotpot, for pork pies and lardy cakes. “He insisted on including a recipe for haslet,” she says now, of the classic terrine generally associated with Lincolnshire. “Finding pig’s liver and heart was very hard, but he was determined it would be there.” Rhodes was similarly uncompromising on nutritional guidelines. “Healthy ingredients were not something that ever occurred to Gary,” Pratt says. “Oh, the amount of butter in that book.”
The result is a compendium of huge flavours which remains influential on restaurants to this day. Tom Kerridge was Rhodes’s sous-chef at Westminster’s Rhodes in the Square, and still has his lobster omelette thermidor on the menu at his restaurant at London’s Corinthia Hotel. “I still consult New British Classics,” Kerridge says. “It’s one of the most influential books on my career. I try to keep to Gary’s idea of simplicity on the plate. What can you take away?” Likewise, game chef and restaurateur Mike Robinson, now of The Woodsman in Stratford-upon-Avon and The Elder in Bath, credits the book’s scotch egg recipe for saving it from motorway station ignominy. “I do still have a copy. It’s brilliant on how to give real depth to food. The rarebit recipe is one I still use.”
I decide to try it myself, not least because Rhodes describes his smoked haddock topped with that rarebit as a “signature dish”. The recipe makes 10 portions. Rhodes didn’t do small. His roast beef is for 10 and his baked ham is for “20 to 25 as part of a buffet”. His instructions for this dish get to the heart of the book: its British ingredients and ideas in the service of huge, bashing flavours. Think of it as a fish pie in solid form, all pokey smoked haddock and rowdy cheese. It involves 350g of cheddar melted with a little milk, flour, breadcrumbs, English mustard and Worcestershire sauce to create a fridge-chilled block. Slice, place on the fish and grill. It’s a burnished, low-carb work of genius. I take my family’s applause.
For the main, I choose his braised oxtail, another so-called “signature dish’ that at the time of publication was banned because of the BSE prohibition on beef sold on the bone. It requires braising the oxtails with vegetables that are then discarded as a mush, and replaced with more, freshly chopped. The recipe says it should take no more than two hours. It takes me closer to three, but it’s worth it. Rhodes’s oxtail is a masterclass in both braising meat and reducing sauces. I finish with his baked egg custard tart which, hilariously, demands 500ml of cream and eight – count them – eight egg yolks. Rhodes insists this should be eaten at room temperature and he’s not wrong. It puts the “call my cardiologist” into “lush”.
As one meal, these three platefuls would be all kinds of way too much, so I scatter them through the week. Taken individually, however, they are a study in Rhodes’s attention to detail; in his intensity and instinct to feed. It’s like meeting the man at the table. Now I’m replete, I slip his book back on to my shelf. I know it won’t sit there, unthumbed, for long.
New British Classics by Gary Rhodes (BBC Books) is still available in Kindle e-format, £4.99
Just before the first lockdown Nigerian-born Yvette Ighorue decided to explore her love of all things Malaysian by setting up a street food business selling her take on rendangs around the markets of Peckham, south London. Now she’s gone online, and is delivering across England. She sells the classic beef brisket, one made with chicken thighs and, for non-meat eaters, another made with jackfruit. Each serving costs between £8 and £9, plus a £4.95 delivery charge on every order (rendangmaam.co.uk).
For many years chef Ian Bates, who worked with Simon Hopkinson at London’s Bibendum, had his own very lovely bistro in Wells, Somerset called the Old Spot. That closed a few years back. Now Bates has opened the Old Spot Bakery, in Mark, just off the M5 a dozen miles or so to the west. Looking at the images on their Facebook page – handmade croissants, sourdough, baguettes and more – I’d say it was worth a detour off the motorway.
Meanwhile, Manchester is to get a new craft beer and food space, just as soon as restrictions lift. Society, which will be located on Barbirolli Square, will house two bars, plus five food outlets from the likes of Falafel Guys and Dokes Pizzeria. It’s a sister operation to Assembly Underground in Leeds.
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1