The best food books for Christmas

Whether the food lover in your life wants to be entertained on the sofa or get creative in the kitchen with a new collection of recipes, these are the best books to gift them this Christmas

Words by Fiona Beckett, Adam Lechmere, Anna Masing, William Morris and Tomé Morrissy-Swan

The best food books for Christmas

It’s a time of year for parties and restaurants but there’s always a place for staying in with a good food book, especially over Christmas. The festive period often comes with experimentation in the kitchen – those funny days in between Christmas and New Year in particular. It goes without saying, the ideal gift for a curious foodie this Christmas would be a cookbook.

From single-subject books delving into specific foods like hot sauce and cheese to regional recipe books, a whole host of excellent food-related books have been released this year. In amongst them are some bestsellers, including Chris Van Tulleken’s book on ultra-processed food and Julius Robert’s first cookbook.

If you’re looking for a riveting read for a foodie this Christmas, see below for our curated selection of the year’s best food books.

10 of the best food books for Christmas


Ultra-Processed People by Chris Van Tulleken

£13, Cornerstone Press

I was going to say that this book should come with a trigger warning but the subtitle does that job. Chris Van Tulleken, an amiable and chatty infectious diseases doctor with a PhD in molecular virology, describes in lurid detail the horrors of ultra-processed foods, or UPFs, which make up 60 per cent of what we eat. A UPF is any ingredient that you wouldn’t find in a domestic kitchen. ‘Crops like corn and soy are turned into oil, protein and starch…refined, bleached, deodorised, hydrogenated…’ As Van Tulleken repeats, again and again, these substances are not food but they are present in the majority of the stuff we eat. They give texture to mayonnaise (that would be xanthan gum – ‘revoltingly, a bacterial exudate…think of it when you next scrape the accumulated gunk from the filter on your dishwasher’), they’re in pizza, butter, pancake mix, pastries, gravies, ice-cream, jam. Almost literally, everything. They ravage the planet: thousands of square miles of rainforest are cleared annually to provide land for growing corn and soy for processing.

The author experimented on himself, eating nothing but UPF foods for a month, and he gained weight and lost energy and libido. There have been countless studies – Clara Davis in the US, for example, who in the 1920s worried about the lack of nutrition in modern foods and persuaded a cohort of parents to allow her to experiment on their babies. And that was 100 years ago. What are we like now? Well, just look at what Nestlé is up to, flogging some of its myriad products, including baby milk that the west rejected years ago, to the most remote people they can find in Brazil.

This is a serious, academic book (there are 50 pages of notes and attributions) narrated in the most non-academic style. We get to hear about Van Tulleken’s dandruff and meet his sceptical but now evangelical twin brother Xand. It’s also unflinching, calling out the many charities and NGOs, including the British Nutrition Foundation, Diabetes UK, and Cancer Research UK that have ‘cosy’ links with industry, from Danone to Asda, Tesco, Roadchef, Warburtons… and it’s just as bad in the US.

Solutions are suggested but not with a great degree of hope: ‘Removing industry from the table will require a cultural shift before any shift in legislation’. Personally, Van Tulleken suggests, try to give up UPFs. You’ll notice the difference. It’ll be a hassle, but ‘cooking meals…connects you to a long chain of time-hassled humans that have survived long enough to make you.’ Finally, he gently points out that it’s not only food that is ultra-processed: ‘phones and apps, our clothes, our social media, our games and television…you may find that abstinence from some of these… is helpful too.’
Adam Lechmere


Ester by Mat Lindsay with Pat Nourse

£33.82, Murdoch Books

This book is beautiful! Vibrant in both its writing and imagery, you will want to settle in on a rainy afternoon and take your time poring over it. As with all restaurant cookbooks, key is the chef’s philosophy; Mat Lindsay’s is deeply embedded in an Australian outlook. His approach to food is one that is focused on produce, influenced by the multicultural environment of Sydney – in particular a stint as head chef at Cantonese-led restaurant Billy Kwong – and a relaxed perspective that feels typically antipodean.

Ester is a restaurant based around a wood-fired oven, so fire cooking takes centre stage in the book. It begins with Lindsay’s insight into various elements of cooking – from acidity and sourness to salt and texture – and a detailed look at how to make a fire (or fake one!). Although this book features dishes from the restaurant, the recipes are not intimidating and there’s an emphasis on the fundamentals of flavour and making certain techniques accessible to the home cook.

Some of the food might not be possible to make outside of Australia (smoked kangaroo jerky, anyone?) but alternatives are suggested and it still makes for fun reading. Overall, the recipes offer new approaches to familiar ingredients, like chickpea pancakes, roasted cauliflower with almond sauce and mint, and shallot and Sichuan pepper Tarte Tatin. The book is helpfully broken up into produce (bread and dough, seafood, salads and vegetables, meat and birds), themes (the long Sunday lunch, breakfast, eat with your hands), and easy-to-read techniques, such as the essential ‘building blocks’. This is a book to read, experiment with and enjoy using.
Anna Masing

Hot Sauce: The Essential Guide to 101 of the World’s Best by Neil Ridley and Dean Honer

£11.19, Quadrille

Rewind ten years or so and it felt like Huy Fong sriracha and Tabasco were about the only options for those seeking a hot sauce to add a kick to the food in front of them. Today, these fiery condiments are being made all over the world, the smash YouTube celebrity chat show Hot Ones features ten of them per show and sales are up by more than 50%, according to at least one major UK supermarket. A handy guide that sheds light on the best currently available seems timely, and that’s exactly what Neil Ridley and Dean Honer released in autumn.

Ridley has already co-written six books about spirits, cocktails and drinks culture, which may inform the ‘tasting notes’ section for each of the featured sauces that appears along with a short paragraph on origins and ingredients. Before the reviews commence, there is an introductory section that includes a history of hot sauce, a recipe section – including a Margarita and a Bloody Maria that are available here – and even a page dedicated to remedies should you overestimate your tolerance to chilli heat (spoiler: fruit gums achieve the lowest ‘helpful score’ of 1/10).

The book is presented in an attractive, playful way, with cartoonish illustrations, that perfectly matches with the tone of the written content, which is useful, engaging and informative but never takes itself too seriously. For someone who has already caught the hot sauce bug and is keen to discover something new, this would make a great stocking filler, while a relative simply seeking to spice up another year of dry Christmas turkey will also be thankful.
William Morris 

Invitation to a Banquet

Invitation to a Banquet by Fuchsia Dunlop

£20, Particular Books

If you picked this book up casually you’d probably anticipate a collection of recipes, instead of which it’s more a series of essays and stories. Each chapter is a deep dive into an ingredient, dish or technique – there are 15 pages on steamed rice alone.

The achievement is all the more remarkable as Dunlop is obviously not Chinese, although she has travelled the country extensively and speaks, reads and writes the language fluently. Despite the fact that it’s a work of impressive scholarship, she has an engaging lightness of touch. There’s an utterly wonderful chapter called ‘tongue and teeth’ about texture, one of the most enjoyable bits of food writing I’ve read all year. ‘I’ve been stunned by the sensuality even lewdness of Chinese food videos, by the focus of the camera and the microphone on the wet squelchy, smacky, sucky noises made by slices of raw fish or stir-fried prawns being eased apart with chopsticks.’ she writes with considerable relish. ‘Reading descriptions of textures in a book of Chinese gastronomy’, she continues, ‘can be as exhilarating as reading the detailed descriptions of sex in the eighteenth century English novel Fanny Hill.’

She explains aspects of Chinese cooking that we simply don’t understand, such as their love for ‘qingdan’, simple food that westerners would most likely regard as bland or flavourless. If I have a criticism, and it’s hard to find fault with such a comprehensive and masterly book, it would have been good to have a recipe at the end of chapters that so tantalisingly describe a dish like stir-fried ‘jade’ shrimps (a fascinating read about stir-frying and why it is so hard to do well). I’ve tried Dunlop’s recipes before and they’ve been consistently reliable.

But if you’re interested in getting to understand Chinese food better you’ll find this a compulsively absorbing read.
Fiona Beckett

The Cheese Wheel

The Cheese Wheel by Emma Young

£10.19, Ebury Press

At first glance, this book is a very straightforward: it’s all about how to pair your cheese with drinks. Listing 112 cheeses from around the world, Emma Young notes origin, key flavours and some drinks for pairing, before dedicating a few paragraphs to other details and the history of the cheese. It is novel-sized, so can be popped into a bag and whipped out at a dinner party to share some cheese facts (as I have done!). This main section of the book is divided into six sections based on the types of cheeses – Fresh, Bloomy rind, Washed rind, Semi-hard, Hard, Blue.

Once you start to delve a little deeper, you’ll discover the book is much more than a cheese pairing guide. There is a wonderful section on how to build your cheeseboard – listing occasions and situations, and considering regional focus – with Young advising to keep the numbers odd and focus on the season. She emphasises that cheeses are seasonal products and provides recommendations for your cheeseboard that will help give you a better understanding of this dynamic. For the festive season, Young suggests a whopping seven cheeses, including Saint-Nectaire AOP (France), Stichelton (England), and Munster AOP (France).

Where Young’s writing and storytelling really shines is when she breaks down and demystifies cheese elements – simple details such as the anatomy of cheese and how to train your palate. Because the book is written in first person, we get to follow Young’s thoughts as they unfold, such as how she comes to the conclusion that Tomme de Savoie is… strawberry laces! The true story of this book is that it is teaching us how to understand flavour through the lens of cheese.
Anna Masing


Brutto by Russell Norman

£24.75, Ebury Press

I spent a couple of weeks this summer gallivanting around Tuscany. It was beautiful – of course it was – but, my God, the food. The wild boar ragus, truffle pastas, endless bowls of beans and ribollita: oh so wintry and just perfect for the 35C heat. It was all delicious. I even learnt to love the saltless bread.

The beauty of Tuscan cooking is in its hearty simplicity. Beans and meat stews, simple vegetable sides, plenty of pasta. It also means that, unlike the food eaten on many holidays, you can recreate it at home fairly easily. Not quite to the level of a hilltop trattoria, perhaps, but a reasonable facsimile at least.

My recently discovered love of Tuscany is one that had already found a home in the heart of restaurateur Russell Norman, who died unexpectedly in November. He recently released this book, Brutto, named after his restaurant in Farringdon, London, that now stands as a tribute to his passion for the region.

Norman was not a professional chef and his writing is all the more accessible for it. Brutto is simple, approachable, easy to follow and, most importantly, delivers great food. Norman implores us to go for the best ingredients possible – often the key to nailing simple cooking – but there isn’t much evangelism, except for his adoration of Tuscany.

Brutto means ugly, with Norman telling us a core theme of Tuscan cooking is ‘ugly but good’. ‘Brutal. Inelegant. Basic. Unrefined. These all appealed to my notions of unfussiness and honesty when it comes to food.’ They appeal to me too, though I’d argue that if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is ugliness. To me, a plate of brown beans is as seductive as any Botticelli.

This book will appeal to any bean lover (Tuscans are often teased as ‘bean eaters’). Pasta e fagioli, ribollita and farinata (polenta with cannellini beans) are some of the more involved legume dishes. Want something less time consuming? A plate of white beans with olive oil or tomato sauce will do just fine. Meat is central too, with classics like tagliatelle al ragù, Bistecca alla Fiorentina and peposo, a beef shin and pepper stew, all mouthwatering. The more daring could recreate the famous lampredotto, a Tuscan street-food of tripe sandwiches.

I didn’t venture that far but can attest to the deliciousness of the peas with pancetta and the wonderful pasta alla vodka, that kitsch classic that Florence has made its own. Accessible, entertaining, unpretentious and aimed squarely at the home cook, Brutto is the ultimate comfort food book and a timely reminder of Norman’s character and how the restaurant scene in the UK has benefited from it.
Tomé Morrissy-Swan

The Cheese Life

The Cheese Life by Mathew Carver and Patrick McGuigan

£21.79, Kyle Books

This is a joyful book that celebrates British cheese and strips back any pretence around the subject. Written by two dynamic cheese experts from different parts of the industry, we get to understand a life in cheese in a myriad of ways. Patrick McGuigan is an author and journalist deep on the cheese beat, while Mathew Carver owns multiple cheese restaurants and shops, having started with a ‘Cheese Truck’ that was on the food market and festival circuits from 2014 selling grilled cheese sandwiches.

The book begins with what makes a quality cheese, how it’s made and how to buy cheese. Throughout the book there are interviews with various people in the supply chain – such as an affineur (the person who ages cheese) and a cheesemonger. There are also little nuggets of practical information and essays with which to deepen your cheese knowledge. It ends with technical details, from ‘tools of the trade’, to how to wrap cheese and suggestions of cheeses to try from around the world. The bright, fun cover belies the serious amount of information packed into this book.

The book’s recipes feel like its highest point. They are broken down into five sections, naturally starting with Grill. The ‘Grill’ and ‘Melt’ section begin with information about the best cheese to use and important tips on the perfect grill cheese sandwich or fondue. Sections ‘Bake’ and ‘Grate’ feature innovative recipes, for a range of skills – the Stichelton & beef bourguignon pie would be a perfect winter warmer, and Caerphilly, carrot dip & vadouvan leeks is a lightly spiced dish that would make a wonderful Christmas Day starter.
Anna Masing

Comfort Eating

Comfort Eating by Grace Dent

£16.99, Faber

‘I can feel my left ventricle slamming shut as I speak,’ the legendary gourmet Frasier Crane once said as he described some epicurean marathon. I felt somewhat the same as Guardian restaurant reviewer, MasterChef critic and recent jungle-evacuee Grace Dent got onto the subject of butter, and the way it behaves with griddle scones and muffins, ‘seeping into their creases, melding with their crispy bottoms and running down your chin…’.

Comfort Eating does what it says on the tin (or on the side of the Le Creuset butter dish, if you will). It’s about ‘the foods we turn to behind closed doors’ and it’s down-to-earth in an arch sort of way, with the added frisson that our author is perfectly au fait with the hautest of haute cuisine, one for whom name-checking ‘haunch of venison with celeriac three ways with a malbec jus’ or ‘kumquat soufflé with freshly churned Madagascan vanilla ice cream’ is second nature. So when she sets down her Golden Rules for Comfort Eating (like, you may give only three commands to the microwave: high, six and start), we listen.

The chapters cover the staples: butter, cheese, pasta, bread and potatoes, and come with recipes from celebs like Supergrass’s Gaz Combes (who Dent naturally is ‘nervous as hell’ to be hobnobbing with), reality TV star Scarlett Moffatt and comedian Jo Brand. The fact that their confections sound revolting as well as ventricle-bothering (Combes’ pasta with cream of mushroom soup, tuna and crisps, anyone?) is all part of the fun.
Adam Lechmere

The Farm Table

The Farm Table by Julius Roberts

£15, Ebury Press

Everything about The Farm Table is ludicrously photogenic – the farm, the recipes and, not least, the author, who has over half a million followers on Instagram. A former chef who used to work for Noble Rot, Julius yearned for a life more like the producers who were supplying the restaurant. He thought to himself, ‘They’re outside all day, tanned and healthy whereas I’m here, skin a shade somewhere between yellow and grey, living off coffee and spending my day stressed to the core in a windowless kitchen.’

So without any experience or family history of farming, he moved to the country and set up a smallholding in Suffolk and subsequently in Dorset. Although bucolic rather than gritty, it’s a evocative account of his experience – he describes movingly what it means to take his animals to slaughter and how it’s important to him to respect the life they’ve lived. The recipes are imaginative but wholesome and seasonal rather than cheffy – sardine puttanesca, cabbage, bacon and potato soup, smoked haddock and leek rarebit. Potato, pancetta and taleggio galette. There’s an immensely useful couple of pages about how to follow and deviate from a recipe that other cookbooks would do well to follow. A book of great charm that could easily seduce someone into the kitchen and would make a good gift for a young and aspiring cook.
Fiona Beckett

50 Pies 50 States

50 Pies, 50 States by Stacey Mei Yan Fong

£26.79, Little Brown US

Stacey Mei Yan Fong was born in Singapore and grew up in Indonesia and Hong Kong before moving to the US for college, eventually applying to become a permanent resident while living in New York. This, her first book, is both cookbook and memoir, as she reflects on her travels and the central role food has played in creating connections and a sense of belonging along the way.

The self-explanatory concept of 50 States, 50 Pies includes the author’s notes on each state and its influence on her, plus a dedication to an important friend in her life. The format means the book feels more personal than the average recipe book and leaves with you with a sense of knowing someone new, thanks to the picture of the author’s character gradually painted throughout.

‘As American an apple pie’ the saying goes, yet to me, it’s the cherry pie in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks that’s most synonymous with the States. Not to worry, as the book contains a recipe for both, and there is a mix of sweet and savoury, the inventive and traditional. The Scallion Bagel Pie, for example, strays perilously into quiche territory, whereas the Peach Custard Pie looks exactly how you’d picture pudding in a stereotypical American diner.

Ingredients are often given in cups (when can we all just move to grams instead of cups, spoonfuls, pinches, handfuls etc?) and this cynical Englishman found some of the writing – ‘she fills every room she enters with warmth and love’ – sweeter than any of the recipes, but perhaps that ought to be overlooked in the name of the book’s colourful, happy Americana.

With the prospect of a Trump-contested US election next year and an increasingly desperate incumbent government in the UK seeking another term in 2025 (if not sooner), it seems inevitable that the subject of immigration will dominate political discourse in both countries for significant periods of the next two years. While a recipe book about pies isn’t the most direct repudiation of the negative rhetoric on the subject, 50 States, 50 Pies is a case study in the potential beauty of a life lived in different cultures. And who doesn’t love pie?
William Morris