Being a trustee of the André Simon Book Awards for food and drink writing gives me a unique opportunity each year – to judge the social changes sweeping across the UK through our preferences for what we eat and drink. I’m often surprised, sometimes amused, and always fascinated.
Though eight out of 10 of us are apparently fed up of being told what we should and shouldn’t eat, this year’s record-breaking number of food entries demonstrated that healthy is hip with noticeable trends towards vegetable-forward cooking and food groups that promote well-being. Championing this movement on our shortlist, you’ll find author Anna Jones, and super food’s most recent (and perhaps best-loved) convert, Jamie Oliver, winner of the John Avery Award.
Now that we’ve all learnt that the live probiotics in pickled foods are great for our gut health, an unexpected strand of health-conscious cooking is epitomised by Charlotte Pike’s Fermented. The unusual book teaches us the principles that lie behind fermented food, and how to indulge in the trendiest pastime of 2015 at home to live better and longer.
These trends follow hard on two others. First – and rather contradictorily – there’s baking, which reached its peak of popularity in 2014 but continues to tempt. Then there’s cooking inspired by the Middle East, championed by Yotam Ottolenghi and, more recently, Honey & Co’s Sarit Parker and Itamar Srulovich, who featured on last year’s shortlist.
But this is far from the only culture in the kitchen spotlight, which has diversified over the last few decades. On our shortlist, this is demonstrated by Olia Hercules’ journey back to the home cooking of the Ukraine, and the personal voyage of understanding Korean food, by Jordan Bourke and Rejina Pyo. Both books are about identity as much as they are about food, much like the very personal discovery of the cooking of Rome undertaken by winner of the food award, Rachel Roddy, in Five Quarters.
These building blocks of culture, memory and discovery are increasingly popular in food and drink writing, and the resulting publications span many genres. Alongside recipe collections, there’s psychology in Bee Wilson’s investigative First Bite, which received a special commendation. This brilliant study of how we form our food preferences, draws on the latest research from food psychologists, neuroscientists and nutritionists.
Meanwhile the winning drink book, Thirsty Dragon, by investigative journalist Suzanne Mustacich explores China’s lust for Bordeaux and its threat to the world’s best wines. The judges described the publication as an exhaustively researched tale of business skulduggery and fierce cultural classes with a dramatic narrative, eloquent style and fascinating cultural analysis.
Nick Lander is acting chair of André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards and author of The Art of the Restaurateur.