“Cook, Eat, Smile”: the simplicity of the title of this cookbook is echoed in the ingredients and techniques employed in Bill Collison’s first foray into the ferociously competitive cookery book market.
Bill is a former greengrocer whose original stall was based in Lewes in East Sussex. Just over the hump bridge by Harvey’s Brewery he sold fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables on, from what I remember some twenty years or so ago, a well-merchandised, enticing pitch. I should have known then that the attention-to-detail would stand him in good stead for he is now the proud owner of a chain of restaurants in his own name, with one impressive cookbook under his belt.
What makes it different from all the other seasonal cook books on the market? Well if you’re one of the many fans of his restaurants, you will find all his best-selling dishes from the Menu in the book, from the award-winning vegetarian breakfast, to the beloved fish finger sandwich, the coconut pumpkin curry, the tomato and orange soup and the babaganoush.
He’s the first to admit to me that he’s not a great cook. His wife, Becca, is the star in the kitchen but his skills lie in food pairing and styling. He is responsible for most of the finishing touches in the book, from his home grown nasturtiums sitting on top of cakes to his signature garden roses.
We sit together in the upstairs of his recent opening in Covent Garden, surrounded by a floor-to-ceiling display of bright coloured jars, tins and bottles, all for sale. Place a tick next to a list of items you’d like on a flyer and they are delivered with your bill by the waitress, so you do not even have to move from your chair. Bill tells me he was invited to come to St Martin’s Courtyard as the owners of the lease wanted a Bill’s restaurant here, and as fate would have it, he’s trading right next door to Jamie Oliver. I ask whether it is friendly rivalry or healthy competition. Bill cites Mr Oliver as a national institution, along with David Beckham and Sir Paul McCartney, a well dodged answer to my question and as both Bill’s and Jamie’s are as busy as each other, I’ll assume it’s just healthy competition.
So what is it that makes Bill’s place unique and why do people love the food so much? He says it takes a great deal of belief, pleasing people and attention to detail. If you are passionate about something then it can only become infectious, but he’s not saying it’s easy, as he explains how hard he has worked in his career to get to this point.
This cookery book isn’t for the experienced cook, nor do you need a kitchen full of gadgets to attempt any of the recipes. It is full of food you can create on your own or with your family, in a relaxed and simple way. I ask him who styled the pictures and dressed the set. He replied “No one, it was a live show.”
Flicking through the book, his eyes light up and the memories of cooking and photographing it with Dan Jones come flooding back. I hear various tales of how it just happened to snow on cue when the photographer needed it to and Bill describes the different processes that brought about the range and depth of shots. He recounts a scene for the bonfire night’s brandy snap photograph: his attempts to light sparklers failed and so he found a flame-thrower and a pair of goggles, much to the merriment of the assembled crowd. His methods, whilst unconventional, captured the moment. He may not be a full time cook but he’s a passionate foodie with little airs or graces, he is a hard worker and not a businessman (his words) who wants to spend less time in the kitchen and more time with his guests.
This book is a labour of love, it was two years in the making and the recipes have been tested three times. Bill says he was led by the publishers, Saltyard Books, as to which recipes needed to be included, and what the total cost of ingredients needed to be. He knew how he wanted the book to “feel” and look and he wanted the reader to laugh at the pictures. Above all he hoped it would be a fun coffee table book and not just a cook book that readers picked up and put down, without enjoying its contents.
Cook books, he says, are a lot about inspiration. I asked how many of the recipes were new, and he told me that many are old favourites that “have been given a twist and an edge”. Some of the best pairings came together with the seasons, like mozzarella and tomato and the sprouts and pancetta.
So, which of the recipes are his favourites? Of course he doesn’t have one particular favourite, he likes them all for different reasons but when pushed, Bill thinks that the beetroot, cheese and potato pie is ideal for a simple lunch.
Is there a second book on the way? Most definitely, he says he’s made mistakes in this one but I’m not sure that “mistake” is the right word. I think Bill is a man in search of perfection. As an owner of many cookery books I’d say he’s produced a thing of beauty but he’s convinced he can do better with the next book. He tells me the next book will be shorter and it will be a celebration-themed book, a chance to show off his skills at pulling off brilliant displays of tasty, alluring dishes.
He grabs the book and opens the page to a beautiful picture of plump, ripe figs. We list our favourite pairings: mine are fig and ricotta, Bill enthuses that figs are the Sophia Loren of the food world. I say I can’t get enough of rhubarb right now, and he reminds me he has it growing in his back garden, and loves pairing it with mackerel. I have Waitrose as my back garden and feel more than a bit jealous of his earthy space.
As I get up to leave he’s still offering me recipes from the book, his enthusiasm spilling from every page. I’ll leave you with his Beetroot, Cheese and Potato Pie recipe.
Bill’s Beetroot, Cheese and Potato Pie – courtesy of Bill Collison and Saltyard Books
Serves 8 as a starter, 4 as a main course
375g short crust pastry
1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
200g waxy potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
140ml double cream
175g cheese, grated
2 large raw beetroot (approx. 250g), peeled and coarsely grated
a handful of chives, roughly chopped
100g feta cheese, crumbled
Preheat the oven to 180C/160C fan/350F/gas 4 and leave a baking sheet in the oven to get hot. You will need a muffin tin with 12 holes or a 20-23cm flan tin.
Roll out the pastry to line the flan tin or cut in to 12 circles to line the muffin cups, pressing gently in to the base. Prick the base of the flan tin or muffin cups with a fork, place a piece of baking parchment in to each round of pastry and fill with baking beans or rice. Place on to the hot baking sheet in the oven and bake for 10 minutes (15 minutes for the large tart). Remove the beans and baking parchment, then return the tin to the oven for a further 5 minutes, until the pastry turns golden brown. Remove and set aside.
In a large pan, add the olive oil and cook the onion over a low heat for 5 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for a further minute. Add the potatoes, milk and cream and slowly bring to a simmer. Continue to simmer gently for 15-20 minutes, till the potatoes are cooked through. Keep an eye on the pan to make sure the mixture doesn’t catch and burn.
Remove the pan from the heat and add three-quarters of the grated cheese, the grated beetroot, roughly three-quarters of the chives and a twist or two of black pepper. Fold everything together – it will be bright pink – and check the seasoning. Spoon the mixture in to the pastry cases and sprinkle with the rest of the grated cheese and the crumbled feta. Return the pies to the oven for 10 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbling on top (15 minutes for the larger pie).
Scatter with the remaining chopped chives and serve with a green salad.
“Cook, Eat Smile” by Bill Collison and Sheridan McCoid, published by Saltyard Books, photography by Dan Jones.
Saltyard books: www.saltyardbooks.co.uk
Bill’s Website: http://www.bills-website.co.uk