Simon Hopkinson does not like chestnuts. He avoids honey, and his views on New Zealand’s green-lipped mussels are clear, if harsh: “they are as tasteless as they are unwelcome,” he writes in Week In, Week Out, a collection of his weekly food columns for the Independent, released in paperback this past July. Quirks of the palate aside, this book, replete with the sort of photography that will reduce a foodie to Pavlov’s dog-style salivation, is a blissful read.
I can vouch for this statement, you see, because when I sat down with my copy of Week In, Week Out on a Saturday morning a couple of months ago, I initially predicted spending an hour or two with it until such time as the sun lured me outside, for it was indeed a beautiful day out there with The Normal People. This plan did not work for me, however. In fact, it failed miserably. Had friends not insisted I keep my promise to attend a planned get-together, I may not have made it out into the fresh air at all that day. Week In, Week Out was my anchor to the sofa. I barely moved until it was absolutely required.
Apart from the fact that Week in, Week Out contains luscious photography and sensibly seasonal recipes, Hopkinson’s use of language is nothing less than inspired. He uses words like ‘flobbery’, gently instructs us to ‘worry not,’ in a fatherly fashion, and likens lazy game preparation to ‘intercourse with a blow-up doll: tasteless, bouncy, spineless.’ I have not had the pleasure of meeting Mr Hopkinson, yet his writing allows a very particular personality to shine through, so that by the end of reading this feast of seasonally-grouped columns, an idea of what it’s like to dine with this chap, under both good and intolerable circumstances, is very firmly planted in one’s mind.
References made by Hopkinson to his upbringing, including fondly-related memories of his mum’s Kenwood mixer and tales of his father’s forays into the kitchen, add a nostalgic slant to certain extracts, and his understanding that not everyone has 2.3 kids, dogs and extended family to hand prompt him to create a string of recipes for the childless couple’s quiet night in. This means that, for once, a celebratory meal for a mere two people, couple or otherwise, need not create excess expense or leftovers aplenty for days to come. How considerate.
The tips peppered generously throughout Week In, Week Out, are many and varied – from where to find wild smoked salmon, to how to get your hands on good, peeled shrimps and even how to bone a pair of rabbits. There are recommendations for the gastronome’s bookshelf and some noticeable reverence given to the late Elizabeth David, but just when you think that perhaps Hopkinson’s recipe inspiration is a tad too bygone in era (kidney soup with bone marrow and parsley dumplings, syllabub, poached chicken or rabbit tongue), suddenly out pops something with roots in a completely different hemisphere (chilli crab salad with grapefruit and avocado) or region (squid stuffed with minced chorizo).
Hopkinson’s mentions of meals enjoyed as far afield as Bangkok and Rome do not go astray here, yet may increase excess salivation. Places that rate high on the Hoppy Index include Amsterdam’s Oesterbar for smoked eel and impeccable peeled shrimps, Tre Scalini in Rome for espresso graniti and Cova in Milan for a cornetto or two. In the UK, Hopkinson favours, among others, Riva in Barnes for the sort of tiramisu that sounds as if it might actually make it to 10/10 on Monsieur’s tiramisu scale of perfection, a score as yet unreached.
At the other end of the foodie scale, Hopkinson displays typically passionate tendencies to rant about what does and does not work in the kitchen. He discusses torn versus chopped basil, comments on the apparent extinction of the brown paper supermarket bag and the scarcity of a decent high-street fishmonger. The confusion of metric versus imperial sizes of containers for various ingredients also rate a rant, and who could possibly disagree with this man? He may not be licking his lips or proclaiming his own cooking “dee-lish-usssss” every twenty lines, but that’s what makes this book an even better read: its honesty.
If that wasn’t enough to tweak the Epicurienne tastebuds, then the final section of the book proved to be my favourite. It’s all about eggplants, which I adore in all its forms, from fritters to baba ganoush and parmigiana, but there’s one eggplant dish which is seared into my memory: the one with miso sauce. When I lived in Sydney, my dear friend and colleague, Kayoko, took me for a quiet Japanese dinner in celebration of my birthday. When it came time to order, I deferred to her expertise. She insisted we try the eggplant with miso sauce and I’ll never forget its smooth touch against my tongue, or the subtle blending of tastes. I forget whatever else it was that we ate that evening. For me, it was all about that eggplant.
Now, years later, Simon Hopkinson has endeared himself to me forever by including the recipe for eggplant and miso in Week In, Week Out. In my opinion he saved the best for last. For that I may even forgive the fact that he doesn’t like New Zealand’s green-lipped mussels.