One of the best ways to spend a Saturday afternoon in London is to crowd into bookstore/café Books for Cooks, a Notting Hill institution where you can browse thousands of international cookbooks and grab one of a handful of café tables to sample daily changing light meals cooked up in the open test kitchen in the back. By the time we got there at 2 pm on a recent Saturday, they were down to their last slice of coconut cake. But French owner Eric Treuillé, who runs the place with his English wife Rosie Kindersley, poured us a glass of biodynamic wine from his small vineyard in the Southwest of France, and talked about this irresistible oasis for the cookbook lover that it seems to us every city should have.
With some 8,000 titles, Books for Cooks is a mecca for the home cook and the professional alike. It doesn't sell discounted versions of the latest Jamie Oliver or Nigella cookbook, Eric says, which can be picked up on sale at Tesco. Instead, they promote books they love, hosting regular authors lunches and book signings as well as cooking workshops in an airy upstairs kitchen. They can also track down and send books anywhere in the world. "There's no money in cookbooks," Eric says. "It's really difficult to make a living out of a single subject." But they own the building, which they bought from Heidi Lascelles, who opened Books for Cooks in 1983. And the home cooking boom of the last decade has kept them in business. "All those TV chefs have done a fantastic job for us," Eric says. "Jaime is my hero!"
Each day, Eric and the rest of the staff are in the kitchen at 8 am to cook up dishes from the books they sell, offering a three-course meal as well as cakes for only £7 Tuesdays to Fridays, two courses for £5 on Saturdays. Glasses of Eric's wine are £3. At the end of each year, Books for Cooks publishes a compilation of the most popular recipes tested throughout the year. Eric says he orders vegetables from an organic delivery service and shops at the Portobello food market on Fridays ("the good food day for the market"), not Saturdays when the tourists come and the stands focus more on ready-to-eat fare. Their organic meat comes from Sheepdrove Organic Farm, a Berkshire farm owned by his in-laws with a shop in Maida Vale.
Eric spends about a week a month in France, tending to his vines. "I've really fallen in love with the process of growing and looking after the plants," Eric says, pouring another glass of organic and biodynamic wine from a vineyard that came with the second home he bought from an old woman a few years ago in his native Cahors in the South West of France. "It's the most beautiful job." He takes an appreciative sip of the lovely Cahors Malbec Merlot that has a fruitier and lighter taste than many wines from the region. "I believe I'm making a ladies wine," Eric says, sounding ever so much the French man even after 25 years in London. In France, wine is routinely described as féminin or masculin depending on its taste and characteristics and who it is likely to please. "It's delicate and fruity and it doesn't leave you with an aftertaste," he continues. "It's very round. In a man's world it's often too sharp and finishes too early!"
Books for Cooks is at 4 Blenheim Crescent, Notting Hill, London W11 1NN.
- Kristin Hohenadel blogging from rue Vieille du Temple, Paris, France. She can be reached at kristinh @ apartmenttherapy . com