The best food books for thinking, not cooking

The Books I Picked & Why

The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit

By Helena Attlee

Book cover of The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit

Why this book?

This is the book that inspired me to write about food culture and history in the south of France. Helena Attlee takes the reader on a unique journey through the history of Italy and its citrus fruit. Thoroughly researched and lightly written, the narrative blends historical and scholarly material with contemporary anecdotes such as the Mafia’s role in Sicilian lemon farming. Among other stories, we discover the importance of sour oranges in Renaissance cooking, and we learn how a storm led to the creation of Dundee’s marmalade industry. And if the reader has any lingering doubts about the importance of oranges and lemons, there are also a few citrus-centric recipes to whet the appetite.


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Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally

By Isabelle Legeron

Book cover of Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally

Why this book?

If you like wine, you need to read this book. Winemaking goes back at least 8,000 years, but only in recent times has so much of its production been determined by the application of science, and the taste of the wines we drink dictated by wine critics, appellation tasting committees, and global markets. This book celebrates the innovators who are trying to make wines that are more natural, fuller in character, and more exciting. Their approach also has potential benefits for human health and our environment, and reading this book has sent me off on wonderful journeys through the south of France trying to find such oddities as orange wine (no, orange wine is not made from oranges!)


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A Treatise on Adulteration of Food, and Culinary Poisons, Exhibiting the Fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spirituous Liquors, Tea, Oil

By Friedrich Christian Accum

Book cover of A Treatise on Adulteration of Food, and Culinary Poisons, Exhibiting the Fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spirituous Liquors, Tea, Oil

Why this book?

First published in 1820, this book reminds us that nefarious practices have always been used by food producers, and that these practices are generally intended to boost profits with little concern for human health. ‘There is death in the pot!’ the author tells us in his preface, and he goes on to catalogue how products such as beer and bread, cheese and cognac, olive oil and vinegar were all being adulterated or counterfeited. More unusually, he goes on to explain case by case how the layperson can unmask the fraudsters with a little knowledge of home chemistry. Unfortunately for his readers past and present, technological developments since 1820 have allowed unscrupulous purveyors of human sustenance to develop countless new ways of disguising poor-quality or badly-deteriorated food.


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Babette's Feast and Other Stories

By Isak Dinesen

Book cover of Babette's Feast and Other Stories

Why this book?

As an Englishman living in France, this short story resonates with me on so many levels in a topsy-turvy sort of way. Babette is a foreigner (French) living in a foreign land (Norway), and the key part of this foreignness is the contrast between the piety of the two spinsters who employ Babette as their cook, and her supposedly hedonistic French approach to food and life, including a murky past in which she may have been an arsonist during the Commune of Paris. In truth, Babette is an artist who expresses herself through her cooking, and when she wins the lottery, she spends all the money on a single dinner for her hosts instead of buying a ticket home to France.


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Des grognards à Napoléon : Les cuisines de l'Empire suivi de Recettes pour les cérémonies et le bivouac

By Jean-Paul Escalettes

Book cover of Des grognards à Napoléon : Les cuisines de l'Empire suivi de Recettes pour les cérémonies et le bivouac

Why this book?

This book is only available in French, but I include it because it provides such an impressive overview of a period when French cooking began to establish itself as Europe’s pre-eminent cuisine. I referred to it frequently during my own research into French gastronomy. In a few short pages we learn about the emergence of the first celebrity chefs and food critics, the evolution of how food was served in polite society in France and other parts of Europe, and the way in which new ingredients such as maize and potatoes became staples of the peasant diet. There is also a section on Napoleon’s own culinary preferences, which reveals more about the tastes of the common soldier than the general.


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