Book review: Bitter by Jennifer McLagan

01 May 2015 by
Book review: Bitter by Jennifer McLagan

By Jennifer McLagan
Ten Speed Press, £20.50

I am a fan of the books of Jennifer McLagan, an Australian by birth who worked at Prue Leith's restaurant and for the USA ambassador at Winfield House in London before turning her attention to food writing. This book, like her previous titles, Fat, Bones and Odd Bits, has intriguing and well-written insights into a little-discussed aspect of eating and cooking.

The titles challenge the sugary norm, but quite deliberately. They are aimed at those who want to know why certain tastes appeal and how to handle specific, often unusual, ingredients, rather than those happy to fill up their shelves with yet more cake and bun recipes.

Intuition tells us that bitterness is an indicator of poison, but it's also a counterpoint to sweetness - a grown-up and sophisticated taste that lets us enjoy a range of ingredients, like the hops that make beer bitter or even chocolate - almost uneatable without sugar.

First up is a section on preparing and serving winter leaves, such as Belgian chicory, radicchio, dandelion and the Italian puntarella. The latter figures fairly regularly on winter menus at the Walnut Tree, but rarely appears in cookery manuals.

Bitter tastes you may expect, such as horseradish, are included, alongside a few that may surprise, like turnips and sprouts. The author is immensely fond of turnips and cannot abide swedes; I am the reverse, enjoying the sweet and bitter mix of bashed 'neeps' far more than the tasteless baby turnip or its ghastly larger cousins. So it's no thanks to turnip ice-cream, but yes please to horseradish and bone marrow
toasts, and to cardoon gratin.

The recipes are thought-provoking and useable, as are those that have appeared in previous books by McLagan - I use the black pudding recipe from Odd Bits in preference to my own. The essay on wormwood, the principle ingredient in absinthe, is completely absorbing.

On the subject of tipple, there is one recipe I intend to use: an evidently authentic tonic water flavoured with lemongrass, citrus and allspice, as well as the cinchona bark that combats fever.

I have gin ready for the testing.

By Shaun Hill, chef-proprietor, the Walnut Tree, Llanddewi Skirrid, Monmouthshire

If you like this, you may enjoy these

Odd Bits, Jennifer McLagan
Bones, Jennifer McLagan
Fat, Jennifer McLagan

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