Christmas gifts 2012: the best food books

Zoe Williams chooses her culinary favourites

If you are looking for straight cookery – by which I emphatically don't mean simple dishes, but rather cookery with no other narrative thread, no ethnographic twist, no pouting lovelies, no restaurant in-crowd aspirations – the stand-out book of the year is Diana Henry's Salt Sugar Smoke: The Definitive Guide to Conserving, from Jams and Jellies to Smoking and Curing (Mitchell Beazley). It does have a high concept, but it views preserving through such a long lens, and with such a generous spirit (there are absolutely loads of recipes here), that what sounds like a narrow remit becomes encyclopedic. With jams and jellies, through meat, fish, vinegar, fruit and cheese, Henry finds a preserving route into pretty well every food worth eating. It's ambitious but not fiddly – I found myself ordering saltpetre for salt beef off the internet, thinking, "check me out, I'm one step away from cooking my own crystal meth", but I didn't find anything outside the skillset of a pretty average home cook. A careful cook could buy it, make preserves as presents, and then give the book away as well.

I don't want to sound snooty about books coming out of restaurants. I'd love to be in an in-crowd, and there have been some crackers – Russell Norman's Polpo (Bloomsbury) is, like the restaurant, Venetian in intent but never so hung up on authenticity that it forgets to be enjoyable. Norman has the pulse of Soho as if he's holding it by its wilting wrist, and these recipes show you why. There's quite a lot here that you'll be able to find if you have a halfway decent reference shelf. You don't need a young man in a hurry to tell you how to boil an octopus. The strengths of the book are in the ensembles that it creates, that uniquely appetising feeling of being placed before 10 beautiful small dishes: some pork belly and radiccio here, some salt cod there, a dish as simple as spinach with chilli or as complicated as rabbit cacciatore, all colourful and intense and memorable. SPMs, the waiting staff call us – small plate mugs, or people who'll buy 10 of anything as long as they think it's a bit like tapas. It works at home as well, you know. Now I can over-eat and rip myself off in my own kitchen.

J Sheekey: Fish by Tim Hughes, Allan Jenkins and Howard Sooley (Preface) is as different from Polpo as are the two restaurants – outsized, exquisitely classy, trad with a twist. Spiced winkles and scampi provençal are the novel touches, alongside a lot of solid cheffyness. I fell in love with it for its section on savouries, the course that theoretically comes after pudding – herring roes on toast, deep fried St Eadburgha, baked figs and gorgonzola. Gorgeous, audacious ideas that remind me of that bit in The Simpsons where Homer says "I discovered a meal between breakfast and brunch!"

For a more philosophical leap from place to page, Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ebury Press) is a complicated love letter to a city that kept these fabulous chefs apart – Ottolenghi in the Jewish west, Tamimi in the Muslim east – until they met in London. If you're the sort of person who becomes discouraged by the thought of sourcing an ingredient you've never heard of, you probably won't be cooking Christmas dinner from it, but it's a memorable book that has as much to do with friendship as with food.

Until a year ago, Eric Lanlard produced formal-looking books about confections as light as clouds, cakes that if you dreamt of trying to make them, you would wake up screaming. Then he went on telly and some bright spark realised how goodlooking he is – Tart it Up (Mitchell Beazley) is the result of this epiphany, a likeable, accessible baking frenzy that goes large on the master patissier himself. Get 'em while they're hot, as they barely ever say, in patisseries.

I've had a prejudice against books on food history since my mother read Much Depends on Dinner and the rest of my upbringing was blighted by her telling me how many utensils were owned by the average Roman every time I sat down. Bee Wilson's Consider the Fork (Particular Books) has finally broken the spell. Every second sentence has a fact not just collected, as they say, but connected – the history of women in professional kitchens she deals with in the twitch of an over-large skirt; calories, teeth, Clarence Birdseye, weighting scales, the microwave … in what is so much more than a history of these objects, Wilson invests each one with narrative and meaning.

And finally: "The truth is," Steven Poole writes in You Aren't What You Eat (Union Books), "that the intelligence can be directed at anything at all. It is omnivorous. But some things might be more nutritious for it than others." It is the cornerstone of his argument that our obsession with food is a dangerous waste of our energies. I was left thinking that maybe his intelligence wasn't put to that good a use, complaining about the misuse of other people's. But it's a feisty and inflammatory little book, and well worth thinking about in the event that your gift-giving ritual lacks either of those qualities.

• To order titles with free UK p&p visit the Guardian bookshop


Zoe Williams

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