Wednesday, 30 September 2009
review: The Eagle Cookbook
Microsoft, Burger King, MTV, Hewlett Packard, and The Eagle pub aren’t necessarily names you’d expect to hear mentioned in the same breath. And yet they share one thing in common – born out of recessions, they’ve all gone on to huge things. Granted, The Eagle might not have quite the same global reach as Microsoft, but its effect on pub food culture in the UK has been barely less dramatic.
The Eagle first opened its doors in 1991, serving up good food at very reasonable prices, mostly to hungry journos from the Guardian’s offices right nextdoor. If ever there was an exemplary case of ‘location, location’, then this, surely, is it. Where better to put your new business than next to a building full of people whose very job it is to spread the word? And so it proved with The Eagle. Before long, the word was out, and happy punters started packing the place to the rafters.
Clearly, the owners – David Eyre and Mike Belben – were doing something very right. And (even though Eyre has since moved on) still are. Even today, nearly 20 years later, it’s nigh impossible to get a table there at lunchtime if you arrive after 12.30. Happily, for those of us who can’t make the trek to Farringdon, or who aren’t prepared to do battle for a table, there’s a new cookbook. Actually, it’s not quite new – it’s a revamped, expanded version of the original which came out in 2001. Like the pub itself, the book has benefited from an injection of fresh blood and some added inspiration during the intervening years.
So what, exactly, is all the fuss about? Open the pages and you might think, at first glance, that some of the recipes are for dishes that look rather familiar. But that’s just it – they ARE familiar. The Eagle ‘effect’ has been to help make them the standard, the common food currency. So you won’t find cutting edge, sharp-ended recipes here. You’ll get the stuff on which The Eagle’s reputation as ‘the granddaddy of them all’ was founded: plates of hearty, fuss-free, comfort food, big on flavours and great ingredients - the kind of meals alongside which you can just as easily sup on a pint of ale as you can a glass of red.
The real beauty of The Eagle’s food – and of the cookbook’s recipes – is that, down the year, its various chefs have each brought different flavours to the pot. The result is a menu, or list of recipes, full of distinctly Mediterranean riffs. A quick flip through the main sections will give you an idea. ‘Soups’ opens with Portuguese ‘stone’ soup; ‘Meals on Toast’ begins with bruschetta with warm ricotta salad; while ‘Eggs for Dinner’ includes huevos a la Flamenca. Nor does the southern-European feel stop with the more tapa-like parts of the meal, either. For ‘Fish’, you might have grilled squid piri-piri, and for meat, fabada Asturiana (pork and butterbean stew). Not that anyone’s complaining, mind. In fact, this meld of culinary cultures points to the very reason for The Eagle’s success – the London pub acclaimed for revolutionising pub cooking across the country has itself been revolutionised by the changes to the capital’s population mix over recent years. The Eagle’s food succeeds because it reflects this most cosmopolitan of cities and is the food we now demand.
For that reason alone, this is a book that should please a lot of people. But there are plenty of other good reasons, too. None of the recipes is complicated, needs chef-level skills, or requires an overwhelmingly long list of ingredients. The majority are illustrated with fine photographs designed to get your salivary glands working overtime. There are helpful explanations introducing most of the dishes, and some sound advice on ingredient shopping, and on cooking and serving techniques (e.g. for making a risotto, or for grilling meat).
Highlights? Too many to mention. Die-hard Eagle fans will be pleased to see the perennial favourite, the steak sandwich, while other old friends include grilled fennel sausages with lentils and green sauce, lamb shanks with chickpeas, and belly pork stew with peas and saffron. But it’s not all about big, meaty stuff. There are plenty of vegetable soups (e.g. Andalucian garlic soup; cold roast aubergine soup; black mushroom soup; red onion and red wine soup) salads, plenty of pasta and rice, and fish, not to mention some excellent side vegetable dishes (my personal favourites, caponata, and spinach with raisins and pine nuts make an appearance).
Traditional British food isn’t entirely forgotten, either, and it’s good to see the inclusion of some of this nation’s simple pleasures: smoked haddock with horseradish mash and poached egg; mutton chop and potato hotpot (hurrah for mutton!); casseroled beef; pheasant casserole; and celeriac mash.
If you’re a keen cook, it’s quite likely that you’ll have some of these recipes, or at least variations on them, already. But I’d still suggest it’s well worth getting. Not only will you be buying yourself a little piece of gastropub history, but having those 100+ self-styled ‘robust’ recipes bound together in one volume, ready for cooking that comfort-food hit, is frankly just too handy to resist.
So it’s your choice. Prepare yourself for the crowds and the queues, fight for a table, and have a meal and a pint at the Eagle? Yes, I know – all very nice, but.... Or, spend that same £20 on the book, and be able to recreate over a hundred of their very best recipes in the comfort of your own home? If I hadn’t already been sent a copy by the lovely people at Absolute Press, I know exactly which I’d choose.
(With thanks to Absolute Press for the review copy.)
The Eagle Cookbook, by David Eyre and The Eagle Chefs
Hardcover, full colour photographs, 192 pages
Published by Absolute Press, 2009