Photograph: Katharine Davies

Photograph: Katharine Davies

THE COOKBOOK CLUB

Jo Denbury, Features Writer  

Time-poor cookbook-heavy is how these five ladies found themselves two years ago. They all shared a passion for cooking but, with young families and busy working lives, there was little time to get together – let alone produce any fare beyond the usual family fodder. The solution was to begin a cookbook club.

Kate Scorer, Lisa Sunderland, Michela Chiappa and Lucy O’Donnell were members of a book club (Michela and Lucy confessing however to never having read the novels). Along with friend Angela Clothier they discovered that they were all guilty of buying cookbooks, but didn’t often actually cook from them. With the start of Sherborne’s first cookbook club, that has all changed. Now they choose one book a month, then each of them selects a recipe from that book – comprising one starter, one main course, two side dishes and a pudding. They then prepare that dish at home and bring to the house of whoever’s turn it is to host. As Michela points out, “It is the perfect way to have a dinner party, without the expense.”

Today the club is being held at Angela’s house, where the five women are congregating in the kitchen putting the finishing touches to each course. This month it is the turn of Yeo Valley Family Farm’s The Great British Farmhouse Cookbook to provide the inspiration. First up is Lucy’s offering – broad bean paté on toast, partaken around the kitchen island alongside delicious malvasia wine. Discussion takes place as to whether it is really necessary to skin broad beans. The cookbook club verdict is a reluctant yes, though it is generally agreed to be a hatefully fiddly job. Meanwhile, Kate is working on her side dish – beetroot salad, with a dressing that absorbs considerable dollops of honey, but tastes gorgeous. Michela is also putting together her pear salad. “I always end up bending our rule of sticking to the recipe,” she laughs, as she tears rather than slices the cheese. Suddenly the air is perfumed with the scent of passion fruit – Lisa is mixing the sauce for her voluminous hazelnut meringues.

The evening is almost set. Everyone is hungry and at last comes the sizzle of the duck. As this month’s host it is Angela’s job to make the main course, which tonight is marinated duck. “I have always loved being in the kitchen – and I come from a cooking background,” she says as we move outside. A beautifully laid table stands beneath billowing trees strung with fairy lights. Peonies and roses spill blowsily from old marmalade jars, incongruous as supermodels in sackcloth, their scent weaving a heady welcome. “My father was a very successful chef in his day and has worked at world-class hotels,” continues Angela. “He is Italian and generally cooks Italian, French and English cuisine, so I have learnt an awful lot from him.” She adds that their club has definitely pushed her out of her comfort zone.

“By cooking things that are completely new to me, like Persian and Israeli food, I have learned new skills. Vegetables, for example – I don’t just boil them anymore. I have also discovered some books that I would have never looked at before.”

Lucy nods. “It’s made me a bolder cook and I have learned a lot from my friends. I had never made curry before, but we did a curry book and I now realise they are super-easy!” They all agree that the club makes them cook new things and they get to try new dishes without the angst of throwing a dinner party. “You’re not running around losing your head, trying to put the kids to bed while making nibbles and a dessert as well as putting a nice dress on,” Lucy adds. “And if all goes wrong, it’s not our fault – it’s the cookbook’s author who’s to blame,” she laughs.

Kate recalls the standout curry moment when they used a recipe from The Hairy Bikers’ Great Curries. “It warned me that it was hot but I ignored that and cracked on, adding five chillies. It was practically inedible!” But for her the best moments are trying out new recipes, especially using ingredients or styles of food she wouldn’t usually cook. “It’s also really fun – lovely people, no pressure.”

The duck has gone down a treat and next up are Lisa’s meringues – hazelnut with lemon curd and passionfruit. They are sublime. The conversation turns from food to family and life. The women discuss the pros and cons of feeding children ‘adult food’ and just how much spice their delicate palettes can take. Then come happy reminisces about the night they invited husbands and partners to the dinner. It is generally agreed that everyone’s ‘other half ’ enjoys cookbook club night, because they get to eat the leftovers as well as nibbling during the cooking while also being able to settle in front of the football undisturbed.

As dinner draws to an end the discussion returns to food. It is time to rate the cookbook they have used and to decide which dishes have worked and which haven’t. It is agreed that Michela’s pear salad could easily work as a main meal and that the duck was delicious. Lucy prefers the book’s lighter options. At her suggestion, it is agreed that the next book will be Deliciously Ella With Friends, which will give the cookbook club some of Ella Mills’s vegan food for thought. Angela still thinks that her favourite cookbooks are Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond by Sabrina Ghayour and Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavours by Diana Henry. “But,” she adds, “that could change as we discover more.”

The dusky sky has become twilight and, as everyone starts to clear the plates away, it reminds me of something the food writer Jane Grigson once said – that “food, its quality, its origins, its preparation, is something to be studied and thought about in the same way as any other aspect of human existence”. What better way than through a cookbook club?

Our thanks to Waitrose and to Adrian Davies at Market Town Garden for providing the food, and to Timber Millers for the oak table centrepiece (timbermillers.co.uk)