Cooking up a banquet of a book


The last time I met Paul Cocker, co-founder of Meze Publishing and the man behind The Sheffield Cookbook: Second Helpings, he was midway through his souvlaki on a summer’s day at a table outside the Greedy Greek in Sharrowvale Road.

We talked food, we talked cookbooks and he deflected my offer to write for him. So when I got a message that he had ‘something which might interest you,’ after I’d heard on the grapevine that a second edition was planned, I thought he might want a recipe. He didn’t. He wanted a foreword, a sort of amuse bouche before the meal proper.

I was honoured. After all the first edition’s had been penned by the great Mr B, David Baldwin, the grand fromage of the Sheffield food scene, a man who is a legend in so many people’s lunchtimes and evening shindigs.

My foreword is there on page 4 but you’ll be more interested in the book. It’s a belter. It weighs in at just over two pounds avoirdupois, almost the same as a big bag of sugar. Just think of the calories in the 80 or so recipes on its 320 pages featuring almost 70 local enterprises. I’m told that when it came back from the printers Paul was staggered by the size. He must have felt like Monty Python’s Mr Creosote in The Meaning of Life: one more little morsel, one more recipe, and it, too, would have exploded.

This banquet of a book – by contrast the 100 pages smaller first edition was just lunch – is a snapshot of what’s on offer in the city’s eating houses today and who cooks what and why. I commend it to you. He has not paid me. Paul (he is co-director with Exposed Magazine’s Phil Turner) has a wonderful business model which goes something like this.

It is a curious hybrid of the vanity press, where an author pays to have their book published, and that assignment which haunts every local journalist, the advertising feature. This is where he or she interviews the MD of Widgets Ltd and turns in a readable and entertaining account of the widget business for the newspaper.

A book begins when Meze contacts likely producers, chefs and restaurants and gets them to sign up to a chapter. How big that chapter is depends on the payment. Then Meze’s editorial team writes the words and takes the pictures. Copies of the book are then sold to each subscriber, at a discount, who can then resell to their customers (or give them away). How clever is that?

The cookbook idea started on home territory: Sheffield. “At first we printed 6,000. Then when that sold out we printed another 3,000. And then another 3,000,” says Meze’s Anna Tebble. This time, with Second Helpings, Meze has gone for broke and ordered 10,000 copies, pretty good going in the local publishing world.

Flicking through the pages I’ve come across some old friends and acquaintances and others I really must get around to meeting, not always that easy when you no longer have an expense account in your back pocket. There will be some recipes I want to try: Sentinel Brewery’s brown sauce to see which is best, their date or my prune-based sauce; Trippets’ Kalamata biscuits and the Rising Sun’s rolled lamb breast.

Sheffield was the first in a series of over a dozen regional cookery books, from Newcastle to Suffolk. That’s nice for the city to be the first in the food line: usually it’s well down the queue in the food business.

So treat yourself. At £14.95, it’s cheaper than a Baldwin’s Omega plat du jour, not much more than lunch at Sheffield College’s Silver Plate restaurant. Or tell Santa what you want for Christmas. I’ve already got mine.



When did you last have a winkle?


A plate of winkles takes time to eat

I’ve just had a taste of my childhood of over 60 years ago. My plate of winkles lived up to the memories.

When I was a kid my parents would take my brothers and I on holiday in summer to Great Yarmouth, in a caravan within sight of the Pleasure Beach amusement park. One of the highlights, along with the candyfloss, fish and chips, dodge’em rides and making sandcastles, was when my dad came back with a big brown paper bag of freshly boiled winkles.

My mother would spill them into a dish, give us each a pin, and we’d happily spend an hour ‘winkling’ the winkle out of the winkle. You discarded the foot, which we called a scab, and tried to get the rest of the body out without breaking. Naturally, being boys, we competed to see who could winkle the best – and most.

You’d find the dropped scabs all over the caravan for the next few days because even the tidiest youngsters (and we weren’t) couldn’t guarantee not to drop them.

We ate them with vinegar and ground pepper and very probably thin slices of bread and butter because we had bread and butter with everything in those days, even with our tinned cling peaches or pineapple.

They were as I remember a very tasty little morsel even if you sometimes got a bit of sand between your teeth but time passes and fashions change. I’ve been to the seaside many times since and never even glimpsed a winkle, once as much a part of a seafood platter as whelks and mussels. On a rock, yes, but not in a bag or a dish for sale. As the BBC website puts it: “They have a limited following despite being delicious.”

The winkles were on Binghams stall on Sheffield’s Moor Market, between the dressed crabs and the whelks, so I had to have a pound. “In weight or money?” said the lady. In weight. They cost £2.26, pin not included. I said I’d not seen wrinkles for years but I can’t have been looking properly because she said the stall has them most of the time.

I took them home, found a pin (my Remembrance Day poppy pin) and set to. I hadn’t lost my touch. The technique came flooding back. Root inside the shell – these were quite small – and stab the winkle just behind the foot and very, very carefully twist the wee beastie out. They didn’t all come out in one piece. The scab, sorry, foot, was flicked off with my middle finger and the winkle eaten. It was lovely! It tasted briny and the texture was firm, firmer than an escargot but not chewy like a whelk. The winkle, or periwinkle, is the marine version of the land snail.

They were good plain but later I tried them with vinegar and pepper. Sadly we don’t have ready ground and I don’t think the cracked variety went quite as well. The winkles, in their black going on grey shells, were quite sweet. You could also see, if you bothered to look, the green contents of their stomachs. Perhaps not!

This is slow food. If you have the patience you could de-shell a whole lot, then dredge them in flour, eggs and breadcrumbs, deep-fry and serve with a dip. That does seem like very hard work.

But like Proust with his madeleines I was eating far more than a speck of seafood. I was chewing over a few memories.