A Very Honest Cook: Recipes and Stories From 35 Years at the Stove by Stephen Markwick and Fiona Beckett (Bristol 2009)
The principal author of A Very Honest Cook operates a small restaurant called Culinaria with his wife Judy in Bristol (www.culinariabristol.co.uk). It is devoid of pretension, and if the French usage describing some of its food is misplaced, that quirk is a remnant of seventies style rather than a reach. A typical handwritten menu will offer four each of ‘starters,’ ‘mains’ and ‘sweets.’ They have takeout. Culinaria is pretty in that austere and pleasantly woody British way, devoid of frippery but graced by a very few composed focal points. There is a hideously beautiful fish etched into the window and a friendly sculpture of one inside. The place is somehow recognizably Bristolian.
The title of this exemplary little book has been chosen with care. The honesty begins with authorship; Markwick has not attempted to hide his ghost. She is a good one; the text is clear and the format is innovative if slightly jarring, but not impractical for that. As Simon Hopkinson notes in his forward to the book, Markwick honors the honest cook’s tradition identified by Gilly Lehmann and exemplified by Hannah Glasse and Eliza Acton:
“I say ‘cook,’ because that, I think, is the description we both might prefer to that of ‘chef;’ the translation from the French is simply ‘chief,’ anyway, and, even though he clearly always runs a fine kitchen, a more benign description of Stephen is that he cooks.”
The prose is straightforward and almost childlike. That is no small compliment: Cookbook editors should take note of such ambitious preparations described with so much charm and clarity. The selection of recipes is both small and uncompromising; you will work at them but they will work for you. While some of them are complex and require a base of cooking skills, they are humane. The sensational and prototypically British fish soup (mislabeled ‘Provencal’) requires none of the sadistic sieving demanded by writer-chefs. It is spiced with coriander, cumin, dill, fennel and fresh chili, flavored with cucumber and uses smoked haddock, according to Markwick of historical necessity; his ‘boss’ during the 1950s improvised the soup with an ingredient that was available in Austerity Britain. The recipe does not divulge all of its detail, so use common sense. What to do with that ‘8 oz smoked haddock fillet?’ Honest Cook does not say, but Markwick does, and of course he cut the haddock to pieces that will break down in the broth. As an aside, Markwick tosses the skin from smoked salmon, if he has some, into the soup to dissolve and deepen its flavor.
There is no table of contents or index; they are unnecessary because the book fits the ethos of the restaurant and contains only 23 recipes. They are appealing and also include a game terrine, fish pie, brill in cider (this is the West), oxtail with grapes, pheasant in port and celery, and an irresistible dish of duck, Madeira, morels and spiced beets; no grilled steaks, cheese boards or other padding here.
We have noted in the practical that Bristol proper has produced few dishes that are distinctive to the city itself, but the West Country where it lies is a different matter and Theodora FitzGibbon, a champion of authenticity, devoted a volume to the region in her “Taste of… ” series. A Very Honest Cook is something different, rooted not in an ancient vernacular but by no means inauthentic.
The pedigree of these dishes is both clear and daunting, for Markham cooked at both the Carved Angel with Joyce Molyneux and the Hole in the Wall with George Perry-Smith, two unabashed disciples of Elizabeth David. This was the vanguard of a food revival that began some forty years ago. Jonathan Meades of The Times was right in 1995 to identify this new “tradition of West Country Franco-English cooking” and to explain that “Stephen Markwick is its most able current exponent which isn’t to say that he’s not his own man: he has raised this idiom to unprecedented heights.”
Markham unfortunately is unknown in the United States. Even in Britain this “absurdly modest man” (Beckett in Honest Cook 5) is no celebrity chef, but he has inspired a following, including Hopkinson, that matches the description. You should honor their judgment and buy this book. As an added bonus you are lending support to a nice man and his lovely wife, who both have displayed patience and courtesy in fielding the Editor’s questions about cooking soup and salmon.
A Very Honest Cook is available only by mail from the restaurant (www.culinariabristol.co.uk ) for a reasonable £10. They will dispatch it to you promptly with a kind note and will not fleece you on postage. You will not regret the modest cost.