Canteen: Great British Food might be the most exciting looking book I own. An enigmatically simple brown paper cover, with its title and authors printed in large black capitals. And that’s it for the cover. No enticing, steaming plates of food or enthusiastic chefs captured in the middle of some dynamic kitchen sequence. No gimmicks. This book wants to make it absolutely clear that this is about GREAT BRITISH FOOD, much like the Canteen string of restaurants from which these recipes are taken.
The foreword is written by esteemed food critic Giles Coren about a visit to Canteen where, so enamoured with breakfast he was, he stayed for lunch. OK, I’m convinced. If Giles Coren has given Canteen’s food the thumbs up, I’m reading on. There is also a history of Canteen as a brand, which emphasises its focus on modern, reasonably priced British food, with the truly 21stcentury notion of provenance and locally-sourced produce as a driving force. Actually, the authors are clearly very keen to make sure the reader ‘gets’ Canteen before the recipes begin: it is not until page 33 we reach the title page for the first chapter of recipes.
One of the most important things in a recipe book is the imagery. This is really what sells the list of ingredients and the method. Fortunately, most (but not all) of the recipes are illustrated with shots of the food. Simplicity, for the most part, is the order of the day here: a hotpot atop a steel restaurant serving hatch; a slab of pork belly adorned only with a pronged carving fork; a single flower craning over a mackerel and potato salad. There is a clever use of negative space throughout to stress that this is straightforward, unpretentious food. This is juxtaposed, however, with hints of British whimsy. Nothing too over-the-top or outrageous: a few playing cards scattered around a plate. A dish set inside an incomplete jigsaw. A menagerie of scrawny woodland creatures hovering around a table laden with fresh, wholesome food… in a forest. Why is it there? Who knows – it looks good and I’d like to eat it. Job done.
The recipes themselves don’t really diverge at all from the British theme. No ‘fusions’ or ‘twists’, just traditional British dishes done well. Canteen’s well-loved Eggs Florentine appears in the ‘Breakfast and All Day’ chapter with reassuringly few ingredients, all of which are store-cupboard staples. Even the Coronation Chicken, with over 20 ingredients, only appears to use things you’re very likely to have in the house, or be able to pick up easily without making any journeys to specialist shops.
Making up for a slightly lacklustre Mains chapter, comprising only four recipes, are the following two chapters devoted to the most quintessentially British dishes: pies and stews. Both sections are extensive and inventive without straying from a British feel. It’s also nice to see the appearance of some non-English dishes, such as Welsh Cawl. Also, I can’t help but love the picture of a blackbird perched on the edge of a pie, foreshadowing a closely following double-page photo of a pile of pies adorned with kitsch blackbird pie funnels.
What I really, really like about this book is the fact that it feels very no-nonsense. It really is all about the food – there are no rambling descriptions preceding each recipe – we are given just a short paragraph mentioning if there are any particular brands the Canteen chefs use, or if the dish is particularly popular. This means that this book would be really useful for beginners, as you don’t need to fret about whether you have the right brand of dark chocolate, and you can use those flagged as popular menu items as failsafe crowd-pleasers. The tone isn’t remotely patronising, and every single word of the recipes is either necessary or a helpful sidenote.
In a way, I find Canteen: Great British Food to be quite clinical and cold in its status as a recipe book. You don’t get the same backstory and anecdotes as you’d get from Nigella or Jamie. But what you do get is an easy to understand set of essential recipes centred on quality of ingredients rather than anything showy or elaborate. Of course, this is a book, as we must remember, about GREAT BRITISH FOOD. And if it’s GREAT BRITISH FOOD you want, and you don’t have the inclination to spend lots of time or money on fancy ingredients, I think that this book would be a very safe bet.
And do you know what? In the name of journalism and reviews, I am going to take myself off to one of the restaurants in January and review that too. The things I do for you…