My love of British cookbooks is rooted in nostalgia for the foods I read about in classic English children's literature—the hot currant buns Sara Crewe longed for during her stint as a scullery maid, Enid Blyton's "lashings of boiled eggs"—but the nostalgia is tempered with practicality. British cookbooks tend to give weight measurements for ingredients, which is precisely why I go out of my way to purchase the British versions of British cookbooks rather than waiting for the inaccurate cups-and-teaspoons translations for Americans. My success rate with recipes, especially baked goods, is much higher when I can measure ingredients by pounds or grams on an inexpensive digital kitchen scale. Nonetheless, American cookbook publishers are loath to accept that a growing number of American home cooks actually prefer weight measures to volume measures. Fine. This Yank will buy Brit.
British cookbooks also blend the familiar with the exotic. Newer ones aren't all filled with recipes for steak-and-kidney pie and raunchy-sounding spotted dick, although there are plenty of new releases that celebrate these British classics. (I admit, I'm always game for a fresh twist on sticky toffee pudding ... who isn't?) But I like that modern British cooking feels more adventurous than a lot of American cooking. The British eat more lamb and aren't afraid to forage the hedgerows, while most Americans seem to me to prefer lambs in petting zoos and restrict their foraging to the aisles of Whole Foods. I like that they call their zucchinis "courgettes," that seeds are "pips," and that a cake can be baked in a "slow" oven. (Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York City sells a helpful pamphlet called All You Need to Know About the British Kitchen that deciphers cooking terminology for Americans.) On the familiar side of the equation, of course, British celebrity chefs and their cookbooks are as popular here as they are over there. Even my eight-year-old knows it's time to leave the room when he spots Gordon Ramsay's craggy face on BBC America.
London, with its labyrinthine neighborhoods, can be overwhelming for the uninitiated cookbook fancier, so here are my favorite haunts.
My first stop for cookbook shopping is always Books for Cooks in Notting Hill (4 Blenheim Crescent, Ladbroke Grove tube station), a surprisingly small shop considering it stocks roughly 8,000 books. Every available inch of space is crammed with cookbooks, many of which you'll never have seen stateside. During my last trip to the shop, I snatched up titles like The English Summer Cookbook and Lindsey Bareham's Pasties, with recipes that riff on the traditional Cornish variety. I actually squealed, much to the cashier's amusement, when I spotted the second volume of recipes from Ireland's famed Avoca Café. There's a kitchen/café at the back of the shop where personnel test recipes on customers; the best end up in Books for Cooks's semi-annual self-published recipe collections. To date, the shop has produced eight volumes, all worth purchasing.