One advantage of keeping holidays closer to home this year is that you may have the potential to fit more summer reads in your luggage. We asked a crack team of Club Oenologique writers and contributors to work their way through this summer’s top food- and drink-related book releases – including weighty wine tomes and reference guides, memoirs and histories from some of the most renowned wine and spirit writers, and recipe books with a bit more to them than 30-minute meals. These 10 reviewed and rated books on food, wine, spirits and the worlds that surround them should have any foodie enthralled over the months ahead.
The Negroni: A Love Affair with a Classic Cocktail
I like to refer to the Negroni as ‘the drinks writers’ drink’ thanks to its combination of three types of alcohol (gin, bitters and sweet vermouth), no mixer, and only slow-melting ice to dilute. Despite or because of its high-octane nature, the Negroni’s popularity has rocketed in the past few years. Matt Hranek, who describes himself as a ‘full-time traveller, explorer, eater, and drinker…part-time photographer, filmmaker, blogger [and] men’s style editor of Condé Nast Traveler’ has written a timely book.
There are few drinks books around that focus so well on a single cocktail. In fact, even the best ones often give only a passing mention to the Negroni (the book by which all others should be measured, Everyday Drinking by Kingsley Amis, refers to it only once). This makes the globe-trotting Hranek’s focus as refreshing as the cocktail itself.
There is little room for error when making a Negroni; the author takes the trio of ingredients on a roller-coaster ride through the ages, looking at each of the individual ingredients, the garnishes, the all-important ice, and the equipment needed to whip up a great example of your own. He then subjects the cocktail to rigorous testing, pulling inspiration from some of the world’s best bars in New York, Paris, London, Rome, Milan and elsewhere. Finally, he has advice on how to pre-batch a Negroni, as well as selecting the right snacks to enjoying it with.
The result is an easy-to-read guide garnished with knowledge and stirred with passion; much like the cocktail itself, it manages to be both simple and complex at the same time. (Joel Harrison)
Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells
£35, John Murray
Best for: Anyone who’s ever been captivated by an aroma. That is, everybody
Not since Patrick Süskind’s bizarre thriller Perfume have I been so captivated by a book about smells. Harold McGee takes us on an olfactory safari from the Big Bang to Sartre, from Proust to poo (a word which comes from the same root as ‘putrid’, a concept so elemental it’s the same word in Latin, Sanskrit, Greek, Lithuanian…) Like a latter-day Ford Prefect he guides us through a universe he calls the Osmocosm, ‘an invisible nimbus of flying molecules, countless specks of matter launched into the air we breathe’.
The central premise is existential: we are what we smell. ‘When we smell something, it’s because particles of that thing…enter us and momentarily become part of us.’ Chapters on the secretions and excretions of the human body explore the reasons why some things we love (smelly cheese) have molecules so similar to things we deplore (smelly feet). Later chapters ask how we got a taste for spices, which have no nutritional value. ‘There’s no mystery about life-sustaining grains and tubers, but who first doctored food with pungency, and why?’
Over the course of 600 pages, McGee delves into the osmocosm of fruits and mushrooms, mosses, grasses and weeds, the land and the sea, cooked and fermented and cured foods, wine and whisky and sherry (‘These wonderfully superfluous pleasures’). He interrogates perfumes, woodsmoke, asphalt and tar. It’s a rich universe, and the author (who, pleasingly, was inspired by the smell of roast grouse in the much-loved London restaurant St John) describes it with verve.
There are tables of molecular formulae enough to satisfy the scientifically-minded, but McGee’s great charm is that he never loses his wide-eyed awe at just how fascinating it all is, and where it all began: ‘Yes, the stars! The sensory spread that’s laid on for us every day of our lives went into the fire about 14 billion years ago and has been simmering around the stars ever since.’ (Adam Lechmere)
The South America Wine Guide
There is no doubting the scope and ambition of this welcome overview of the increasingly diverse and developing South American wine scene. Few commentators are as well qualified to explain the wines of this captivating continent as Amanda Barnes. The English-born writer was based in South America for 10 years in the lead-up to the book’s publication; her immersion in her subject comes across not only in her enthusiasm but in the book’s authority.
Barnes is a zippy, confident writer, who, despite having graduated in literature via a self-professed love for the works of Borges and García Márquez, doesn’t get carried away in waxing lyrical. Facts, figures and analysis dominate. As a result, this is a book that is likely to be an essential reference tool for members of the wine trade, MW students and hardcore specialists.
More casual wine lovers may feel a little short-changed in some areas, however – we have extensive detail on the terroir of Chile’s Malleco and Cautín, for example, but then a single-sentence generic vintage guide that treats the whole country as a single entity. There are vivid travel guides, including such sections as ‘Toilet Talk’ which advises on the etiquette of public facilities, whereas the ‘Wineries To Look For’ section extends no further than a cursory sentence for each producer (aside from sponsored profiles).
Since the average consumer probably relates more easily to producers and grape varieties than regions and terroirs, this feels like an oversight. Similarly, while the extensive focus on indigenous grape varieties is admirable and interesting, so few of these wines are available outside their country of origin that it has the feel of one of those topics that is fascinating to those on the ground, but of less relevance to those scouring US or UK shelves.
Barnes also has a long-established online version complete with more extensive producer profiles and vintage reports. Digital resources are, of course, easier to update, and one hopes that she takes the chance to further amplify such areas. Given the evident effort, diligence and commitment required to self-publish this expansive work, it would come as no surprise if she did so. (Guy Woodward)
An A-Z of Pasta: Stories, Shapes, Sauces, Recipes
Anyone who cooks will resort to pasta so frequently you might think there was no need for an entire book devoted to the subject. But there is, if it’s written by as good a writer as Rachel Roddy.
Roddy, who divides her time between Sicily and her adopted home town of Rome, is as great a pleasure to read as Elizabeth David, although she’s more helpfully precise in her instructions, presumably recognising that her readers may not have the same knowledge as a generation ago.
As the title suggests, she works through the world of pasta shapes – some household names, others intriguingly unfamiliar. Drawn in by her prose, I long to make cannelloni or try my hand at capelli d’angelo (angels’ hair) with prawns and lemon, which she describes seductively as a ‘bright, swift tangle of a supper’.
Her recipes, for the most part authentically Italian, are deceptively simple in that they rely on great ingredients. Don’t be in too much of a rush to get to the method, as you’ll stumble across invaluable mini-essays on aspects of pasta cooking and making in the introductions and footnotes (a minor quibble: for ease of reading they could do with being printed in a bigger point size).
My only other quibble, and it’s also a minor one, is that the recipes are mostly for four: many will be making them for two. I suspect that’s not Roddy’s decision but the current cookbook convention. But you can always halve them, obviously. (Fiona Beckett)
Sitting in the Shade: A Decade of My Garden Diary
Although Hugh Johnson is one of the world’s best-known wine writers – the World Atlas of Wine, first published in 1971, is now in its 8th edition, and his Pocket Wine Book has sold some 12m copies since it first came out in 1977 – he is also highly respected as a gardener and arboriculturist. Alan Titchmarsh, one of Britain’s most prolific celebrity gardeners, is a fan and writes the foreword to this latest edition of his garden diaries.
Johnson started Trad’s Diary, named in honour of the 17th-century British botanist John Tradescant, as a column in the Royal Horticultural Society Journal. That was in 1975, and he still writes an online version 45 years later. It’s already spawned two anthologies and Sitting in the Shade covers the decade from 2010. It includes the sale of his beloved Saling Hall, the Elizabethan manor house where he lived for 40 years, a trip to the inner sanctum of Beijing’s Forbidden City and the 35th birthday of his goldfish.
Johnson is a brilliant writer and just as his tasting notes are celebrated for their prose, his observations, loosely based on what is happening in his own garden, are eclectic, engaging, whimsical, perceptive and sometimes provocative. As with his wine writing, Johnson makes light work of his extensive knowledge of horticulture, preferring instead to ponder on the wonders of the natural world.
He doesn’t give gardening tips and appears much more interested in weeding and watching the weather. Humour features throughout, from ‘the excesses of horticulture’ committed on the Avenue de Champagne in Épernay to his aversion to leaf blowers, or his disastrous attempt to replicate an interlinked series of sculptural ponds featured in a favourite painting. Like the greatest of gardeners, Johnson’s work appears effortless and in tune with its surroundings. This latest collection is a joy. (David Kermode)
Drunk: How We Supped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization
Why do we drink alcohol? More to the point, why do we like to get drunk, or intoxicated if you prefer? It’s the question that sits at the heart of Edward Slingerland’s fascinating, engagingly written new book about our favourite drug. Alcohol has been with us for at least 9,000 years and is consumed by a third of the world’s population. Wine geeks may obsess over the finer points of adjacent Burgundian Grands Crus, but a sizeable percentage of those people drink to relax, get merry and, on occasion, wasted. It was ever thus. For all its historic ‘uses’ as a source of calories, a way of killing bacteria or a means of disinfecting wounds, we invented or discovered alcohol for one main reason: pleasure.
Slingerland doesn’t shy away from what he calls the ‘dark side of Dionysus’, but his aim is to rescue alcohol from ‘cheesy New Age ascetics and dour neo-Prohibitionists’, specifically by arguing (I think convincingly, if controversially) that civilisation would not have developed as it has without it. By supressing the control of our rational prefrontal cortex, booze has freed our thinking, enhanced our creativity, alleviated stress and, crucially, enabled the ‘miracle of getting fiercely tribal primates to cooperate with strangers’. Evolution has sanctioned the use of alcohol because, at a vital level, it has made us and continues to make us what we are. As Lord Byron put it: ‘Man, being reasonable, must get drunk.’ (Tim Atkin MW)
Wayward Tendrils of the Vine
Ian Maxwell Campbell was that particular type of late-Victorian gentleman-polymath who left his mark on a handful of different professions. Born in 1870, he rose to the top of the wine trade, twice chairing the Wine & Spirit Association; he was a soldier and a cricketer (he played with WG Grace) and a bon-viveur; he saw Sarah Bernhardt on stage, advised Winston Churchill and dined with TS Eliot.
The first sentence of his 1945 memoirs sets the tone. ‘I have been pressed, even by people who call themselves my friends, to commit to writing…’ Dry and self-effacing, like all good books it doesn’t date because it deals with universal truths. Thus we share the author’s thoughts not only on the importance of the right kind of wine glass or ‘the desirability of harmonizing what you eat with what you drink’, but (vis-à-vis kissing as a greeting) how ‘Frenchmen do come at you so unexpectedly.’
He can be charmingly Pooterish – one ‘hardly noticed’ James Yates’ missing right arm ‘except when shaking hands with him’ – but his deep knowledge of and love of wine informs every page. He has a fine turn of phrase, describing the Médoc as ‘the Belgravia of Bordeaux’, or wondering how many of the 1923s have been overcome by the ‘bleak weariness of senescence’. He has an elephantine memory for vintages and a nice line in anecdote, mostly from gargantuan dinners at one club or another, from Pall Mall to Oporto (‘Turtle soup, Dublin Bay prawns, broiled beef fillets, roast pheasant, chocolate soufflé, Portuguese tongue on toast’). It’s a near-vanished world but in Maxwell Campbell’s company it comes vividly to life. (Adam Lechmere)
Wine Science: The Application of Science in Wine from Vine to Glass
Now in its 3rd edition, Jamie Goode’s primer on the science of wine continues to be an essential reference to everything from phylloxera to spontaneous fermentation. The wine world is bedevilled by academics who know their subject backwards but can’t express it in readable prose. Goode has the common touch: his style is chatty without being patronising, his science accessible but seldom over-simplified. He has a nice way with analogy (‘winemakers are like studio engineers recording music… they can get a little obsessed by the components’), and his arguments are backed by quotes from experts – winemakers, soil biologists, viticulturalists.
This new edition (Wine Science was first published in 2005) has about 50% new material, the author says. There are 10 entirely new chapters covering Phenolics (‘We’re about to embark on a difficult journey. I thought I should warn you’), Climate, Vine Immunity and Breeding for Resistance, and half-a-dozen other topics that are currently being debated in lab and tasting room. Smoke taint is given a paragraph, for example, and climate change (Goode prefers the hipper term ‘climate chaos’) is covered in detail. The author spends his life in vineyard and winery and knows what’s going on; he also likes to take a longer view. The chapter ‘The Evolution of Elevage’ for example notes how the fashion for new ways with oak, concrete and clay in the winery is a return to the skills of 100 years ago: ‘it is a recovery of a lost art’.
Like all seminal works, Wine Science can be read in different ways. If you want a textbook, the detail is there; if you want the story of wine from prehistory to rotary vacuum drums, ditto. Along the way you’ll learn more about tannins and trellising, pruning, sulphur and yeast; bacteria, amphorae, Brettanomyces and barrels. For a reference work, the index is hopelessly difficult to navigate, but that’s a cavil: this is an indispensable book for oenophiles and wine amateurs alike. (Adam Lechmere)
Cook this Book
At first sight this looks like your standard beginner’s cookery book, but it’s a lot cleverer than that. Molly Baz is an immensely talented (and mouthy) young American food writer. She has 670K followers on Instagram, and she gives her recipes smart-ass names such as ‘Cae Sal and Big Shells with Chicory’ and “’Chovies and Mozz’. The latter she says was ‘originally destined to be a cheesy baked pasta/casserole kind of sitch’ until she decided that baked pasta was ‘SO. MUCH. WORK.’ This easy alternative made her resolve never to bake pasta again.
Baz writes as she speaks but don’t assume she doesn’t take care. The recipe method is spelt out in detail and accompanied by QR codes which take you to videos that explain basic techniques like cutting an onion or separating an egg. Her flavours are as big and boisterous as she is. I can’t quite bring myself to use the 375g of salt she recommends for cooking beans (‘YES! THAT IS SO MUCH SALT! But the beans are spending only a couple of minutes in the boiling water’, she explains in a footnote) but I find myself wanting to eat everything she makes. ‘Trust’, as Baz would – and does – say. If this doesn’t spawn a whole generation of copycat cookbooks, I’ll be amazed. (Fiona Beckett)
Everything You Need to Know About Whisky (But Are Too Afraid to Ask)
Everything You Need To Know About Whisky (But Are Too Afraid To Ask) is a collaboration between former Diageo executive Nicholas Morgan, and spirits retailer The Whisky Exchange.
This is Morgan’s second book. His first, 2020’s A Long Stride, a history of the Johnnie Walker brand, was reviewed here last Christmas.
Morgan is an activist writer with a deep understanding of the history of whisky, particularly in Scotland. In his journalism he shines a light into areas of the business rarely spoken about – in a recent column on the Master of Malt website he discussed the blending of Scotch into Japanese whisky.
Everything You Need to Know about Whisky is a book for the many, not the few. It uses Scotch as the jumping-off point for a discussion of how whisky is made, marketed and consumed around the world.
Unsurprisingly, given Morgan’s background at Diageo, the world’s largest Scotch producer, it’s skewed towards whisky from Scotland. This could disappoint those interested in the myriad whiskies from the rest of the world – particularly the final page, which lists ‘the most important people in the industry’, almost all of whom are Scotch-related.
The book is brought to life with both excellent visual and verbal illustrations, which bring a lightness of touch to what is a complex, historical subject. It is one of the few books on whisky that has a substantial focus on the people behind the drink, acknowledging that whisky is as much about personalities as it is about product.
This is a well-written, weighty and robustly honest romp through the past, present and future of an engaging and entertaining business. (Joel Harrison)