Cookery Book: "Cooking by Hand" by Paul Bertolli

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When did you last come across a cookery book that had been conceived and executed as a work of art? Today, the majority of successful cookery books are works of pure commerce: Nigella, having done Feast, must now deliver Fast, because what else can constitute a framework for the next television series? Jamie, having delivered the Cookery Bible (the big book!) must now do The Good Life, because what else can constitute a framework for the next television series?

It wasn't always like this. The greatest cookery Books - Simple French Food by Richard Olney; A Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden; Honey From a Weed by Patience Gray, to name just three - are self-consciously Works of Art, as well as supremely useful cookery books which grant you recipes for your lifetime.

Books by Marcella Hazan, Jane Grigson, Alice Waters and Elizabeth David are designed not simply to be practical, but also to convey the aesthetic of their subject. They are, very decisively, not books of their moment: they are books of their generation, if not indeed of their century.
So, where might you go looking today for something as fine as these great classics. Well, finding a conduit through Alice Waters and her supreme aesthetic is a good place to start. It was whilst reading an article on Chez Panisse alumni -folk like Steve Sullivan of Acme Bakery, Mary Jo Thorensen of Jojo, and Paul Bertolli, former head chef for a decade who moved on to Oliveto restaurant and who has now set up his own specialist salami company, Fra'Mani - that we looked up Mr Bertolli's site and discovered a 2003 cookery book, "Cooking by Hand", that had never been printed here. Having got our hands on a copy, published by Clarkson Potter, it shows what a shame it is that in this age of commerce a brilliant, exceptional book such as this doesn't cross the Atlantic.

"Cooking By Hand" is the cookery book as art. That's not to say it's a big, glossy tome like The French Laundry Cookbook: it isn't. It's almost exclusively in black and white, with just a few colour photographs. But Bertolli's obsessions - tomatoes, charcuterie; pasta, balsamic vinegar - are treated here as subjects to be teased and explored, executed and considered, and to be written about is stunning aphoristic prose:

The trouble with cooking begins when you decide to take it seriously. This raises the question: 'What does seriously good cooking mean I must do?'. As long as I have been cooking in earnest, this question has led me down trails full of circles and switchbacks, sometimes taking me directly into the brambles. And the learning never ends. The idea of 'mastering' cooking now seems more like an illusion than a goal".

How wise and modest that is, and that is what this book is: wise and modest, and not a "pukka" in sight.

Tell us your favourite cookery-as-art book