A taste of Barber’s best

The Genius of James Barber: His Best Recipes

Harbour Publishing

171 pages, $26.95

I’ll admit it — I love cooking shows. I’m hooked on the food network; am an unabashed fan of Iron Chef; adore food challenge shows where competitors craft outlandish candy tower creations.

But there are just a few food personalities who host these shows that grind my gears (I won’t name names, but a certain female chef with a particular brash voice comes to mind). So when I spied The Genius of James Barber collection, a smile instantly appeared on my face. Ah, the Urban Peasant himself.

Originally from the UK, Barber called British Columbia home for over 50 years. Here, he became a food critic for the Vancouver Sun , which cultivated his love of writing and cooking. Subsequently, Barber went on to write 11 cookbooks and star in his own television show on CBC, The Urban Peasant . The TV show ran for 10 years, capturing the hearts of people across the country who embraced his easy, fun approach to cooking. He eventually retired to live on his farm in Cowichan Valley, on Vancouver Island, and passed away in late 2007 at the age of 84.

On its most basic level, The Genius of James Barber , is a wonderful collection of over 300 best recipes — everything from the simplistic Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Quick Pasta , to the international flavours of Barber’s papaya butter for grilled fish.

But it’s also a loving tribute to a man who gave so much to the culinary world. The pages are riddled with mustard-coloured boxes, a combination of favourite excerpts from Barber’s coveted cookbooks, and fond stories about Barber from former friends and colleagues.

Angela Murrills, a fellow B.C.-based food writer, wrote a glowing preface for the tome, as well.

“Even more than making people laugh, James loved feeding them. At Expo 86, I watched him speedily make a dish of chicken wings and rice large enough to satisfy thirty. You could see the crowd’s thought bubble: ‘If he can do that, we can too.’ And they probably went home and did. For many years, he and his wife, Christina Burridge, hosted a Bastille Day party centred on le grand aioli and a lusty communal singing of ‘La Marseillaise.’ He may have called himself a peasant, but this was a man who lived the richest possible life.”

And Murrills wasn’t Barber’s only friend who wanted to lend two cents to this book. Other well-known contributors include Barbara-Jo McIntosh, a best-selling author, Vikram Vij, the owner and executive chef at Vancouver’s Vij restaurant, and Umberto Menghi, the owner of Whistler’s Il Caminetto di Umberto and Trattoria di Umberto.

Menghi’s recollection of Barber is as follows:

“Most people discovered James through his show, his passion for food inspiring them to take a chance in the kitchen. James was a warrior and a lover — not afraid of showing his creativity through his recipes and always sticking a finger in the soup. He relished the practical challenges as well as the sensuality of cooking. To me, James Barber embodied ‘amichevole e divertente’ — friendly and fun!”

Aside from their personal stories and memories of Barber, many also opted to submit their own recipes that evoke memories or have a connection to their former friend.

After perusing the pages of The Genius of James Barber (finding myself laughing at the stories about a virtual stranger all the while) I finally settled on a simple but satisfying dish to try my hand at — the mushroom, leek and potato soup.

Like almost all of Barber’s recipes, the ingredients are simple: bacon, onion, leek, potato, fresh mushrooms, salt pepper, water and nutmeg. I took a few liberties with the recipe (I had forgotten to buy bacon, and my dinner guest was vegetarian), so I dropped the meat altogether and opted to use a combination of milk and water, rather than just water. But since Barber himself stressed the importance of improvisation — “A lot of recipes are paint-by-numbers. This teaches you how to improvise” — I didn’t feel too bad about my slight tweaks.

And even with my revisions, I was impressed. Served with a generous hunk of fresh, buttered bread, the large, steaming bowl of soup was the perfect après ski meal.

I can’t wait to test out a few more of Barber’s coveted creations — layered tortilla pie may be the next culinary test on the horizon for me.


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