Boris Johnson, Clive Anderson, Freddie Fox, Arsenal FC and a certain Archant editor… Why Islington on a Plate is the must-buy book for foodies this month

Mini violins at the ready: I get a lot of phone calls and emails on a daily basis, but I vividly remember when Penny McCormack got through to me on my mobile back in March. ‘I am planning a cookbook to raise money for Action Medical Research,’ she said, ‘where I invite local Islington celebrities to supply a recipe personal to them.’ Fabulous idea, I said, and then she dropped the bombshell: ‘I’d like you to send in a recipe.’

Now, those who know me know that cooking is not exactly my forte, but Penny batted away those concerns and so I got to work. Some six months later and the two of us are sitting in Pistachio & Pickle’s delightful deli on Liverpool Road just a couple of weeks ahead of publication. ‘I have been chair of the Islington branch of Action Medical Research for the last ten years now. We have been running an annual Christmas lunch fundraiser and people always told us we cooked beautiful food – and said we should write a cookbook,’ Penny tells me about the inspiration for Islington on a Plate. ‘I remember about 20 years ago the NSPCC did a similar thing, inviting the great and the good of Islington to send in recipes. It’s really interesting to look back at that – there was a recipe from Tony Blair, sun-dried tomatoes and pasta, which was of its time in the early 90s. We as a group didn’t have enough recipes to create a book on our own, so we thought we could do something very similar and end up with a document showing who lives here and what they like to cook. It’s really interesting to see that.’

So the group of friends had their concept, with the great idea of raising funds for the children’s medical charity. I don’t exactly see myself as a celebrity, so did they have a good idea of who they wanted to involve in the cookbook? ‘We did, we had a list,’ Penny says. ‘I do recall one of our group seeing that chap from the IT Crowd, Richard Ayoade, on a bus here a few times. We got in touch with his people and them what we were doing, and they said it was something he would really like to do, but does he have to live in Islington as he doesn’t? We said yes he does have to live here… We have been quite keen on keeping it to local people and there’s not a shortage! We wanted around 100 as that was an ideal number to deal with in the time we had. The people who have responded have been really generous, giving something of theirs and going through the trouble to send recipes and stories in.’

Each recipe comes with an anecdote and there are some great ones in there from Clive Anderson (Seville Orange Marmalade), Boris Johnson (Scottish Breakfast Pattie and Cheese on Toast), North London Bees (Honey, of course), Arsenal FC (Matthieu’s Chicken and Mushroom Risotto), Paul Whitehouse (Ham Hock and Peas with Mustard Cream) and Freddie Fox (Sea Bass Fillets with Pancetta, Mash and Greens) amongst others. Did Penny have a particular favourite? ‘Kenneth Cranham was one of the first ones we got in and he’s probably my favourite,’ she says after a moment’s thought. ‘He has written this very carefully crafted piece of writing. He’s currently touring in the West End in The Father – which is brilliant – and in this piece he says he was once a tour de force and now he’s forced to tour. It was a lovely piece of writing and he went through the trouble of putting it together.’ His Smoked Salmon and Spinach wasn’t bad, either.

Islington, more than most places in London, warrants a cookbook like this. ‘When I first moved here in the late 1980s there were restaurants about, but now it seems everything has become a restaurant,’ Penny says of the foodie scene. ‘There’s something of a zeitgeist in this area when it comes to food. There’s such a choice now for all kinds of people. The guys that run this place [Pistachio & Pickle], they are really passionate about what they do. I love Isarn on Upper Street and Roots on Hemingford Road, plus The Albion and Drapers Arms are my locals, too. This area is so interesting and exciting and this is what the book shows.’

The book does highlight how we have become very multi-cultural in our approach to food. ‘Chickpeas are in so many of these recipes,’ Penny says on a real Middle Eastern influence to the recipes. ‘We have a few recipes from Gallipoli, who have created a new way to cook roast chicken. Oliver Bonas himself sent in Hummus with Spiced Lamb. I made that for my kids the other day and they loved it.’ And, drum roll, please, Mark Kebble’s recipe? Fish tagine using, yes, chickpeas. Interested to see it? Buy the book and help raise money for a great charity – what could be a better Christmas present?

WORDS: Mark Kebble

Islington on a Plate is available to buy now from local shops and online at Islington on a Plate, priced at £10 plus £2.80 P&P