You only have to have caught a snippet of Nigella Express on BBC2 lately to know that food is the new porn. The complaint, of course, is that while we enjoy watching the action, we never want to take part in it ourselves.
Modern cooking is just a round of ready meals punctuated only by the ping of the microwave. But that would be to deny the bulging sector of food and recipe monthlies.
Of them, Waitrose Food Illustrated is the one I’ll most likely turn to. It looks clean, sharp and confident, and in William Sitwell has a canny editor who knows not to take food too seriously.
He cunningly exploits his independence by commissioning stories that he knows will have news value to the nationals: the recent ‘exposÃ©’that many of our top chefs couldn’t make a soft-boiled egg started life on his pages, as did the cookbook survey that saw Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories climb to the top of the bestseller list.
WFI has also managed to avoid the fate of becoming simply a mouthpiece for the supermarket that provides the circulation muscle, and the breadth of writing is remarkable: in December’s issue, you’ll find articles by Fay Weldon, Peter Ackroyd and Trevor McDonald.
And it was a masterstroke to employ Marco Pierre White as restaurant reviewer, even if he does write more about himself than the restaurant (well, it’s worked well for Adrian Gill and Giles Coren all these years).
Sainsbury’s Magazine is clearly after the Daily Mail demographic: the style is busier, the celebrity names come thicker and faster – Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater, Gordon Ramsay, Rick Stein – and recipes give way to features such as ‘Party Queens – meet the women who know how to make a party go with a bang”, or ‘Tis the Season to be Trimmer – look fabulous in four weeks”.
All nicely put together, but it’s very ad heavy and there’s nothing like a full-page ad for Cookeen or Mazola corn oil to clobber a picturesque feature about a rustic Italian bakery.
BBC Good Food is the more straight-down-the-line offering for, I suspect, the more hesitant cooks among us. Recipes are more a solution to what to put on the table than something to inspire any creativity, and as all are graded from easy to, well, moderately easy, this looks to be as tough as the going gets.
Olive was launched a couple of years ago to soak up more aspirational readers, the sort who like to show off a bit in the kitchen, but like eating out even more.
The design is cleaner and slicker, the food always looks good, and its Pro versus Punter feature, where Olive’s resident critic and a reader get to review the same restaurant, is a neat way of confirming that a) critics aren’t necessarily the best judges of a restaurant, and b) it’s bloody hard to write interestingly about food.
This being a ‘lifestyle’magazine rather than purely a food one, there’s also a lot of space given to food-related travel.
The foreign city restaurant guides are useful, but like the travel sections in the other magazines, there are too many features commissioned, I suspect, for the benefit of the writer rather than the reader: ‘Press trip to a luxury spa in the Philippines, yeah? Got a food angle to that? The durian, you say? Perfect.”
They’ll know all about the durian [a big, green thorny fruit from South East Asia, said to smell worse than flatulence] over at delicious., which is something of a bible in Australia and helped to launch the international careers of Donna Hay and Bill Granger.
They introduced their can-do attitude to us Brits a couple of years back, but it doesn’t appear to have had the impact they would have hoped for.
I don’t know why. It’s full of great sounding recipes and stylish photography, but at the end of day, I suppose, it’s just food.