Inside Richard's Hughes' incredible cookbook collection

Richard Hughes from the Assembly House cooks from the Mary Berry cook book from the 1980's .
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Richard Hughes from The Assembly House with one of the stranger books from his cookery book collection - Credit: Nick Butcher

The Great Cook Book Challenge on Channel 4 sees chef Jamie Oliver try to find a worthy winner who can pen a brilliant cookery book to whet the nation’s appetite.

Airing on Mondays at 8pm, the show will be judged by the undisputed King of Cook Books, Jamie Oliver, a man with 25 tomes and 15 million sales to his name: he knows his onions, and what to put them in.

It’s a daunting task for competitors to come up with something new: with 5,000 cookery books published last year alone, the chances of coming up with something remotely original is nigh on impossible.

Chef Richard Hughes reading one of Delia Smith's classic cooking books

Chef Richard Hughes reading one of Delia Smith's classic cooking books - Credit: Rob Howarth for The Richard Hughes Cookery School

Over almost 45 years as a chef, I have amassed a vast collection of thousands of cookery books which include a huge range of classic books and numerous tomes about practically every style of cooking and every imaginable ingredient.

Julia Child, Paul Bocuse, Elizabeth David, Marco Pierre White, Thomas Keller, Escoffier, Larousse, Fergus Henderson, Claudia Roden, Raymond Blanc, Jane Grigson, Gordon Ramsay, Alain Ducasse, Marcella Hazan, Robert Carrier – they're all on the shelves.

But alongside the classics are the obscure: Barbara Cartland's The Romance of Food (has any other cookery book involved a recipe where you need to soak wishbones in bleach?), Winning Ways with Cheese or The Pyromaniac's Cookbook.

I have to admit most of my books are garnered from second hand book shops, and like most collectors, the hunt for that rare find becomes something of an obsession. 

Richard Hughes playing 'how much is my cookery book on sale for?' at Blickling Hall book shop

Richard Hughes playing 'how much is my cookery book on sale for?' at Blickling Hall book shop - Credit: Richard Hughes

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On which note, our favourite game is to try and find my first book, Hughes Cooking, which was published in 2004, in the charity shop bargain bin – the best price we’ve found it for is 25p, but we consider it a bargain if we find it for under £1. Do join in.

It was the cookery book, rather than the physical act of cooking, that first grabbed my attention when I was young.

The kitchen was very much my Mum’s domain, not that there was ever much argument:  my Dad, my two brothers and I were willing subjects.

I loved looking at the food she created – the Eccles cakes filled with plump fruit, the coconut Madeleines with their dusting of desiccated coconut, the cakes, the sausage rolls…it’s not hard to see where my love for The Assembly House’s afternoon tea stems from.

But where did my Mum, whose passion was baking, find HER inspiration? From the same cookbooks that I pored over at home and which I still collect today.

The Be-Ro Book, first published in 1923 and now on its 41st edition, was literally the Bible in our kitchen, treated with reverence and respect.

Covered in all manner of food-related debris and scribbled notes, it was a vital cog in our day-to-day life. The excitement when it was upgraded from black and white to the coloured edition was palpable: the Harlequin Tart, a family favourite, came to life.

It was the most exotic thing I’d ever seen, a jam tart, divided into four with each quarter alternately filled with raspberry, apricot and blackcurrant jams and lemon curd to complete the masterpiece.

Mark Mitson, our Swiss-trained pâtissier at work has thus far resisted the call to add the Harlequin Tart to our menu, even when I beg.

A few of the cookery books from chef Richard Hughes' collection

A few of the cookery books from chef Richard Hughes' collection - Credit: Richard Hughes

Over 40 million copies of that little book have found their way into households across the globe, so I think it can justifiably lay claim to being the most influential cookery book of all time.

In 1875, Thomas Bell had a wholesale grocery and tea company in the North of England with top-selling brands that included Bell’s Royal Baking Powder and – something of a novelty at the time – self-raising flour.

After the death of Edward VII, it became illegal to use the Royal name, so Bell took the first letters from each of the two words of the brand name to create ‘Be-Ro’.

In a bid to make self-raising flour more popular, the company staged exhibitions in the early 1920s where freshly-baked scones, pastries and cakes were sold for a shilling to visitors.

These were so popular that people demanded to have copies of the recipes so they could bake the dishes at home. These free recipes formed the basis of our precious Be-Ro Book.

In 1976, I managed to persuade my parents to subscribe to the Marshall Cavendish Good Cooking magazine.

It was delivered weekly, and was no small commitment: in 84 parts, it featured everything from menu planning to dinner parties, step-by-step guides for butchery to intricate cake decorating: I memorised every page.

The full-page colour plate of a pineapple upside-down cake was a revelation, a seminal step on my career path – the promise of such glamour through the letter box every Wednesday had me rushing home from school.

I still cherish the full set - complete with their wipe-clean PVC blue hardback binders - and they really are one of my most treasured possessions, a towering tribute to my parents’ quiet support of their son’s culinary dreams.

The popularity of cookery books is by no means a new phenomenon: the oldest surviving manuscript was written in 1324 and boasted 220 recipes, while Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was first published in 1868 and remains in print.

At home,  our shelves groan under the weight of cookery books.

Most I cherish, some I love beyond measure, others I question (Cooking with Coolio? Sid Owen’s Life on a Plate? Margi Clarke’s Better Thank Sex Cookbook? Who bought those?!).

I’m now on the chase for the more esoteric.  The day we discovered the Barbara Cartland book was a good day, and recently a great friend with a love of cookery to match my own found the holy grail and gifted to me a first edition of Liberace Cooks, complete with pictures of his dining table, his bar and signed by the man himself.  Lifestyle goals and recipes all in one book!

Five of my favourite culinary books:

My Gastronomy . Nico Ladenis, 1987

This came out when my long-held ambition of running my own restaurant was finally crystallising into an actual possibility. Nico was famous for having no patience with difficult diners and an immovable philosophy when it came to food and service. The anecdotes in this beautiful book were as influential as the recipes. His chocolate marquise, with varying degrees of success, was often on my first menus.

Great British Chefs:  Kit Chapman 1989

A book that changed my life! This book was incredibly influential as I began to look at chefs, their restaurants and their stories as much as their cooking. Bryan Turner, Alistair Little, Richard Shephard were all featured, alongside Norfolk’s very own David Adlard. The excitement of seeing someone who was cooking in Wymondham in a book like this was so incredibly inspirational. Author Kit Chapman was the owner of The Castle at Taunton. I once went for an interview there, I didn’t get the job…it went to the late, great, Gary Rhodes.

Chef Richard Hughes at his cookery school based at The Assembly House in Norwich

Chef Richard Hughes at his cookery school based at The Assembly House in Norwich - Credit: Copyright christaylorphoto.co.uk

Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin, 2008

There comes a time in your life as a chef when you tire of Michelin-style recipes with methods that take longer to read than to cook. Kenny Shopsin was the chef and owner of his eponymous Greenwich Village restaurant. Described as a cross between Elizabeth David and Richard Pryor. Shopsin, who died in 2018, had a menu of literally hundreds of dishes, all cooked from scratch, and his House policy was, if he doesn’t like the look of you, you can’t come in! Outrageous, opinionated, this book contains recipes for things you secretly desire. You’ll belly laugh through a mouthful of pancake!

Ripailles: Stephane Reynaud, 2008

My desert island book. It includes everything I’d like to cook and everything I’d love to eat. Traditional French cooking with beautiful photography and even better illustrations. I love the story of the snail and the frog, the rules of petanque and the guide to how to speak like someone from Marseille! I love it.

What I’m reading at the moment:

Taste: My Life Through Food, Stanley Tucci, 2021

Actor and director Tucci grew up in an Italian-American family and, like most Italians, what you’re going to eat next is at the forefront of his life. The recipes are few, but include a Negroni and meatballs (the essentials) and I’ve discovered there’s such a thing as cheese stock, (made from Parmesan rinds) - who knew! An easy read from a pasta obsessive.

·      Four times a year. Richard runs his Cooking the Books Masterclasses at The Assembly House. An evening of readings, reflections, and recipes taken from his collection of over 1,000 cookery books, for more information and to book, visit www.richardhughescookeryschool.co.uk


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