Do we really need 11,000 recipes?

When the BBC revealed a plan to cull its recipe site, cooks were up in arms — but why, asks Times food editor Tony Turnbull

The news yesterday that the BBC was to take down 11,000 recipes from its website was treated as nothing less than a national catastrophe. By lunchtime, more than 50,000 people had signed an online petition in protest, with John Prescott, a man who clearly likes his cooking, leading the charge on Twitter. “Take one salami and a knife. Keep cutting slices off it until there’s nothing left of a valued British institution,” he fulminated.

Clearly no one likes to see such a treasured institution weakened (the BBC, I mean, not the former member for Hull East) but it does raise the question of just how many recipes we really need. It’s not as if the internet is short of them. Tomato sauce? You’ll find 3,470,000 versions in seconds. Pancakes? Twenty-five million, depending on if you want them “perfect”, “quick”, “easy” or “fluffy”. Bolognese sauce? The BBC website alone has 14 recipes for that — and not one of them is the definitive one by Marcella Hazan, which in my opinion is the only one you’ll need.

It also has ten variations on spaghetti carbonara, and once you’ve confronted the “with cream or without” debate (always without), there’s very little to distinguish them. All I can say is that if you want to know which side the Hairy Bikers, Simon Rimmer (twice), Delia Smith, James Martin, Rick Stein, Allegra McEvedy, Paul Rankin, Rose Gray and Antony Worrall Thompson are on, you’d better get online quick.

Where we get our recipes has changed, and they are not the commodity they once were. Before the internet, recipes were to be valued like the family heirlooms they often were, to be invested in, both financially and emotionally. When a recipe didn’t work, it made headline news — right across the globe in the case of the Chocolate Nemesis from Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’s River Café Cookbook in 1995.

Nigella Lawson, Delia Smith, Antonio Carluccio, Ella Woodward and Jamie Oliver

Now, though, we pick up and discard recipes as carelessly as slips of paper. We are inundated every day, from blogs, from books, from television shows, newspapers and Instagram: they tumble out in their thousands, often as raw or half-baked as the moment they left their creator’s keypad. If they don’t work, who cares, there’s always another one on the next page.

About 3,000 new cookbooks are published every year in this country, and every so often they will be a game changer. Delia Smith did it in the Seventies with her precision-controlled, failsafe classics. Nigella Lawson brought a new sensuality with How to be a Domestic Goddess. Yotam Ottolenghi kickstarted a whole fashion for the pomegranate-jewelled cooking of the Middle East. The vast majority, though, good as they may or may not be, are simply repackaging familiar recipes.

“You’ll often find yourself wondering if there’s really room for another book,” says Clare Lattin, a former cookery book publicist who now runs her own restaurants. “A zillion new recipes appearing every week and you can’t believe the world keeps wanting more. But somehow they do. We’re always hungry for something new.

“Sometimes it does get really boring because when it comes down to it, you see the same stuff regurgitated again and again, especially on social media, where there is far less variety than you think. There’s only so many times you can see a picture of an avocado on toast.”

Antonio Carluccio, author of 24 books on Italian cooking, says that he sees the same things again and again. “They are always a rearrangement, a revisiting. There is nothing new or exciting. How many times do you see someone say they are reinventing a risotto. You can’t reinvent risotto.”

Even in his own books, he admits “only 20 per cent is original. The rest is borrowed. You eat something in a restaurant that you like, you go home and try to recreate it.”

Chefs have always accepted that others will copy their recipes in this way. Pierre Koffmann, one of the greatest chefs of his generation, is used to seeing his most famous creations appear on other restaurants’ menus. It is a form of flattery, he reasons, especially when he is credited, as he was by Marco Pierre White when he put Koffmann’s celebrated pig’s trotters stuffed with sweetbreads and morels on his menu at Harvey’s. “If you do a steak, no one cares,” says Koffmann, “but if you do something no one has done before, you are the king because you are the only one.”

What they are less forgiving of is seeing their own recipes in print under someone else’s name. “I see many of my recipes appear again and again in other people’s books,” Carluccio complains. “They copy without shame. They are not cooks. Their name is a good one, so they say, ‘Let’s make a book’.”

You can’t copyright a list of ingredients, only the words you use to describe the method, so some recipe writers take advantage. Jack Monroe, the author and blogger, says: “People do steal each other’s recipes. Two weeks ago I posted a beetroot chocolate loaf on my blog, cookingonabootstrap, and saw it reappearing in numerous vegan blogs still in my words but with no credit. But I don’t mind because I consider what I do to be a service. If people are running amok with my beetroot chocolate loaf then I am flattered. I don’t have a problem with a vegan forum teaching people how to cook.

“But I have been very angry in the past when some of the original budget recipes on my blog reappeared uncredited in a more famous chef’s “budget” cookbook.”

It’s not normally as cynical as that, but there is an undeniable recycling of ideas, as everyone clamours to produce the recipe of the moment. The truth is, there’s a limited supply of “mother” recipes to be picked apart. There was a time two years ago when almost every book that landed on my desk would contain a recipe for spicy tomato sauce with poached eggs. Some would call it shakshuka, others menemen, others still Turkish eggs; some called for saffron, others coriander, others sumac, but it was always still fundamentally the same dish. Coincidence? Hardly.

Sometimes, it’s like a culinary game of six degrees of separation, where a single element of a dish has been shuffled around, sugar to pomegranate molasses, to honey, to maple syrup, for example, or cream to crème fraîche, to cream cheese, to avocado. Clean eating fans, who draw thousands of followers to their social media sites, are particularly adept at this. The trouble is, it doesn’t always make for the best results.

Monroe is not a fan. “There is a real trend for being young, thin, beautiful, connected and glowing, and that is not sour grapes from me. It is more that the ‘clean eating’ recipes are generally expensive and technically complex — and they turn out vile. I am a very good cook, I know my way around the kitchen, but recipes for things like avocado mousse and raw cakes have never ever tasted like anything I want to eat.”

You can see why publishers are drawn to them, with their ready-made audience of Instagram followers. Privately, however, they admit that this particular bubble may be about to burst. “Twelve months ago, I knew clean eating would still be the big story this year, but for next year, I’m not so sure,” says one. “It just feels very faddish, and not the sort of thing you’ll turn to long-term. Where we go next, though, I just don’t know.”

As sales begin to fade, they’ll doubtless return to their traditional golden goose, the celebrity chef. The public love them because they deliver not just recipes but whole lifestyles, and the likes of Jamie, Rick and Hugh keep hitting the mark, not least because they have a huge team around them.

It’s best if readers don’t eavesdrop on the banter among food stylists, home economists and recipe book ghost writers when discussing some of the lesser chefs, however. Would you really trust the celebrity who had to be sent on a cookery course halfway through the filming of her TV show or the TV chef who doesn’t know how to chop an onion? Why, you might just as well look up a random recipe on the internet.
Tony Turnbull’s favourite recipes

Marcella Hazan’s bolognese
Serves 4-6

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 3 tbsp butter plus 1 tbsp for tossing the pasta
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 2 chopped celery stalks
  • 1½ chopped carrots
  • ¾ pound ground beef chuck
  • 235ml whole milk
  • Whole nutmeg
  • 235ml dry white wine
  • 3 tinned tomatoes, cut up, with juice
  • 450g pasta

Method
1
Put the oil, butter and chopped onion in the pot on medium heat. Stir the onion until translucent, then add chopped celery and carrot. Cook for 2 min, stirring the vegetables to coat.

2 Add the ground beef, a large pinch of salt and black pepper. Crumble the meat with a fork, stir well and cook until the beef has lost its raw colour.

3 Add the milk and let it simmer, stirring frequently, until it has bubbled away completely. Add a tiny grating of nutmeg and stir.

4 Add the wine, let it simmer until it has evaporated, then add the tomatoes and stir to coat all the ingredients well. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn the heat down so that the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers. Cook, uncovered, for 3 hours or more, stirring from time to time. While the sauce is cooking, you are likely to find that it begins to dry out and the fat separates from the meat. To keep it from sticking, add ½ cup of water whenever necessary. At the end, however, no water at all must be left and the fat must separate from the sauce. Taste and correct for salt.

5 Toss with cooked, drained pasta, adding a tablespoon of butter, and serve with freshly grated parmesan.
Recipe from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan


More of Tony’s favourites

Pancakes Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course

Yorkshire Pudding Meat by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Pesto Made in Italy by Giorgio Locatelli

Fish pie The Return of the Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver

Mushroom risotto Simple Cooking by Antonio Carluccio

Lasagne Gastronomy of Italy by Anna del Conte

Roast chicken Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham

Trifle Nigella Summer by Nigella Lawson

Rice pudding The Ivy Cookbook

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