Book reviews: Shakespeare Cookbook | In My View | Britain Begins

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MICHAEL Kerrigan reviews the latest book releases.

Shakespeare Cookbook

by Andrew And Maureen Dalby

(British Museum, £10.99) * * * *

First the bad news. This book doesn’t quite bear out the authors’ claim that “food was important to Shakespeare”. For all his funereal baked-meats, roast beeves, possets, cakes and ale, they don’t find too many specific descriptions (or even, really, references) in the plays. The good news is that they’ve foraged to impressive effect in the cookery and conduct books and the household manuals of the time, coming up with a wide range of enticing recipes. From quince marmalade to mallard and onions, from cider syllabub to salmon in sorrel sauce, all Elizabethan culinary life is here and the overall presentation is a triumph: it’s lavishly illustrated and beautifully designed.

In My View

Edited by Simon Grant

(Thames and Hudson, £19.95) * * * *

Seventy-odd contemporary artists choose the works of art that have most strongly influenced them: some are unexpected, to say the least. American Pop artist Ed Ruscha’s nominates John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, of all things – though once he’s explained its appeal, it’s easy to see why. Mark Wallinger finds a modern, democratic spirit in Velázquez’s Triumph of Bacchus, while Katharina Fritsch’s nomination of JMW Turner’s War: the Exile and the Rock Limpet isn’t quite as perverse as it may immediately appear; nor Rachel Whiteread’s choice of a Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca. There are as many opinions on offer here as there are artists, but then, as Frank Auerbach puts it: “To miraculously hold together contradictions and incompatibilities is a good definition of art.”

Britain Begins

by Barry Cunliffe

(OUP, £30) * * *

Some 11,000 years ago, as the ice sheet retreated, it uncovered an approximation of the British Isles. That said, the Thames shared an estuary with the Rhine and most of the North Sea wasn’t there, whilst Dogger Bank, now fathoms down, was a row of hills. The demographic picture was just as fluid: village life didn’t begin till the 5th millennium BC brought the Neolithic Age. Even when something like a settled picture started to emerge, it wasn’t one we’d recognise, with Edinburgh in England (well, in Saxon Northumbria) Barry Cunliffe’s account is handsomely produced and impeccable in its scholarship, the nearest thing we have to a definitive account of Britain’s story from the end of the Ice Age to the Norman Conquest. Even so, things swim in and out of focus. This isn’t the easiest book to stay with.