You know when you get a book so good that you just want to stop life and read it? When you find yourself taking it everywhere with you and reading it every chance you get? A big giveaway that a book is that good for me is when I have it in physical form, Kindle and as an audio book.
Well, Nigel Slater’s book this year is one of those.
I was predisposed to like it anyway, for several reasons. I find Nigel’s cooking programmes always induce a relaxed state in me: they don’t fill me with a sense of awe and “I Could Never Do That” panic, but a smug sense that, were I child-free and living in London, I could actually shop and cook that way. I love his kitchen and garden, as well, which looks lived in and I will be dreadfully disappointed to know for certain that it’s a set and not his kitchen.
And I love the way Nigel approaches food, like it’s something to be enjoyed, and not a chemical experiment or a thing to impress others with. It’s simply a vital ingredient in a good life.
On his own website, Nigel describes himself as a cook who writes. His recipe books are always bestsellers, and range from Real Fast Food to Appetite and three volumes of The Kitchen Diaries, all written in a style that is as much conversation about life as about food. Put your hand up if you have a copy of one of his books by your bed for reading on the nights when even the simplest story is too much? See. His books suit slow reading as much as slow cooking, with his prose waxing both literally and metaphorically about the pleasures of the garden, the table and life.
The Christmas Chronicles is very much on my bedside table at the moment. I think it might be my favourite of his books, and it’s definitely my favourite book about Christmas published this year. It’s a beautifully produced hardback book of 455 pages, exquisite quality paper and beautiful aesthetic throughout. from the grey fabric cover embossed with copper birch trees (you can tell by the bark) to the elegantly lit photographs of food and the many snapshots of Nigel’s trips abroad.
It’s very much not a recipe book, if by recipe book you mean a collection of recipes linked by introductory paragraphs. In this book, the introductory paragraphs take centre stage and, indeed, you could enjoy reading the book without even looking at the recipes (the audio book is set out that way: occasionally Nigel, who narrates it himself, interrupts the prose to say the recipe can be found in the accompanying pdf on the Audible webpage) and still have fun.
The subtitle of the book is “Notes, Stories and 100 essential recipes for midwinter”. There is no page of contents, but there is a comprehensive index of recipes and topics discussed, such as Candlemas, Advent Calendars, frankincense and mistletoe. The first 25 pages are short chapters on aspects of winter, with titles like Fire, The Scent of Winter, Coming in from the Cold and A Walk Through the Snow. Nigel Slater loves the winter, and this comes through in every word. His descriptions are effective and brief, which is a good thing, and the small details of his life that he puts in are full of moments that deserve the name hygge.
‘Come in’. Two short words, heavy with meaning. Step out of the big, bad, wet world and into my home. You’ll be safe here, toasty and well fed. ‘Come in.’ They are two of the loveliest words to say and to hear.
The rest of the book is arranged chronologically, starting at November 1st and working through to Candlemas day on February 2nd. A true, whole Christmas season, then. Each entry is like a peep into a private diary, some days longer than others because busier, other days missing altogether. There are episodes from his life that I’ve seen on TV… the trip to choose the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree that featured on his 12 Tastes of Christmas programme, for one. And everywhere his thoughts and feelings and emotions tied up with the season. “Ghosts are much easier to imagine in winter”, Christmas Day is “above all, a day of interruptions” and “The aftermath of Christmas dinner is a beautiful sight…. a scene of jubilant devastation”.
The recipes are just the ones I need for winter. A lamb roast, desserts and biscuits using all the flavours of the season, stollen, salad and stuffing. The pages on Christmas Eve, Day and Boxing Day are full of advice and recipes for pretty much anything you could imagine… and seven pages of glorious details on how to cook the turkey itself. There are trifles, pies, mince pies, lebkuchen…. it’s like he takes Dicken’s description of the Ghost of Christmas Present and makes it come to life in recipe form. Is it wrong to say I’d love to be a fly on their wall at Christmas, just to see what he comes up with?
You will learn so much from this book, each page full of facts and information about the history and the traditions… Nigel is big on traditions…. connected to Christmas, both in the UK and abroad. I have loved reading about his visits to Germany and Austria (I really am desperate to visit a German Christmas Market… would anybody sponsor me to go?) and his desire for snow, proper snow. I’m reading the book now, flipping through the pages I have already read or listened to, and finding nuggets of joy. I think that’s what I get most from this book: a real sense of joy, and love and longing and respect for winter. I will reread the book, pencil in hand, and underline the wisdoms there. Call this a recipe book? No, it’s far, far more than that. It really is a secret door to a fantastical Christmas land.
*** I was not given a copy of The Christmas Chronicles to review, but bought it myself. All opinions are my own. Pictures are mine, but you can use them if you really want to. Just link back to me in the end and I’ll be happy***
And my books are all available from Amazon in paperback and ebook version. I keep rereading the Christmas book and thinking of things I should have put in. Either there will have to be a second edition, or this time next year I’ll have another Christmas book out. If you’d like to read the reviews on them, or to buy them as a gift for everybody in your immediate family as I intend to do this year, I’d be ever so grateful. Just click through the links below.