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People read cookbooks in bed and crave comfort food

Rosa Jackson

Cookbooks might be the biggest-selling form of non-fiction ahead of health and gardening, but the well-thumbed and tomato-spattered favourite remains a rarity.

Cookbooks might be the biggest-selling form of non-fiction ahead of health and gardening, but the well-thumbed and tomato-spattered favourite remains a rarity.

“Eighty per cent of cookbooks are never used,” laughs Edouard Cointreau, international coordinator of the three-day Perigueux World Cookbook Fair, which ends Sunday. “Most people read them in bed.”

In the United States alone cookbook sales reached 45,8-million in 2000, while Delia Smith—the television diva who taught Britain “How to Cook”—has sold 17-million books.

“From 1996 to 2001, US cookbook sales increased by nine per cent each year, compared to one to two percent for all categories of books combined,” says Cointreau.

“In the rest of the world cookbook sales go up by about five per cent each year.”

Sales of children’s cookbooks reflect a general trend: the farther north you go, the more people are willing to consult a published recipe.

“People in France, Italy and Spain take cooking

for granted,” Cointreau says. The United States leads the world with thousands of new food and wine titles each year, while Britain and Germany are both cookbook-crazy with more than 1 000 new releases annually.

France has published 750 new cookbooks this year compared to 500 last year, while Sweden has 300 fresh titles for a population of 8,8 million.

With so many whisk-wielding authors on the shelves, it’s not easy to stand out.

“The United Kingdom is way ahead because of the celebrity issue,” says Stephen Bateman, director of Hachette Pratique in Paris which has translated books by “Naked Chef” Jamie Oliver and fish fiend Rick Stein.

“Not many people have seen these television shows in France but the books sell well through word of mouth.”

In Japan—a guest country at the cookbook fair along with Britain—the book Bistrot smap, based on the cooking show by the Japanese pop group smap, has sold two million copies.

A less sexy but just as significant category is how-to books that sell well for decades, such as “The Joy of Cooking” and “Fanny Farmer” in the United States, Francoise Bernard’s back-to-basics classics in France and British author Claudia Roden’s Middle Eastern cookery books.

“Claudia Roden is not a television personality but she has sold nine or ten million books over many years,” says Cointreau. “Though she is Jewish, her books are used to teach cooking in Palestinian cooking schools and in Egypt. Claudia is simply a very good author.”

Since September 11, comfort food has emerged as a major trend. “People are staying at home and they want easy, quick comfort food,” Cointreau says.

In the United States one vegetarian book is called “Food From Paradise” and another is “Food Jesus Christ Would Eat.”

In keeping with this, Bateman says that Michelin-starred chefs’ books with easy recipes and an element of nostalgia are doing well in France. Sometimes a best-selling cookbook seems to come out of nowhere.

A big success for Hachette’s Marabout imprint is “Crumbles”, with variations on that most English of desserts. Bateman is also proud of “La cuisine coloniale”, a lavishly photographed book by New Zealand author David Burton which was originally published by Faber Faber in modest black and white.

Australia has set the standard for design, Cointreau says, with books by style-conscious authors such as Donna Hay. If relatively few cookbooks will see the inside of a kitchen, it doesn’t mean that authors can get away with fudging the recipes.

Cointreau points to a 120-euro book by Ferran Adria, chef of the celebrated restaurant El Bulli in Spain. “People might think it’s all photos, yet it contains 250 000 words. Photos are very important in selling the book but it has to have serious content.

Once people have tried the recipes and they don’t work, word spreads very quickly and it kills the book.” - Sapa-AFP

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