Ready steady click . . .

 

As long as you don't spill olive oil on the keyboard, your laptop will double as a giant recipe book. But can the foodie websites truly make you a better cook, asks Marie-Claire Digby 

THERE'S A PLUMP turkey sitting in the fridge that you queued up to order, paid handsomely for, and hauled home with difficulty. Now it's time to cook it, but you haven't got a clue where to start. What do you do? Call a friend or relative (most likely your mother, who has been on turkey duty for as long as you can remember)? Drag the weightiest and worthiest volume in your cookery-book collection down from its shelf? Or power up the laptop sitting on the kitchen table and type "how to roast turkey" into a search engine?

Keen cooks are increasingly opting for the latter choice, sourcing recipes and technical information online. Google offers more than five million answers to that roast turkey question. So before you purchase the latest Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver blockbuster for the cook on your Christmas list, it might be wise to ask if they still use recipe books, or if they are now getting their culinary inspiration from the internet.

Most celebrity chefs and food writers have their own websites, where they make their recipes available free of charge. Delia Smith has more than 1,000 recipes posted on hers. Cooking shows on TV are often supported by websites where you can access the recipes you've watched being created on the screen (uktvfood.co.uk being one of the best). Recipe websites and online "communities of cooks" are proliferating, and traffic on food-related websites is increasing dramatically.

CLOTILDE DESOULIER, a former software engineer living in Paris, established one of the first food blogs to gain a global audience. She began writing chocolateandzucchini.com in September 2003, and its success brought her to the attention of publishers and commissioning editors, with the result that she changed careers and is now a full-time food writer and author of two published books.

Anne Kennedy, who previously headed up publishing, marketing and PR companies, established greatfood.ie three years ago. It has become one of Ireland's most successful food websites, where you can browse recipes, shop online, ask for advice and get involved in debates on food issues.

"By the end of this year, we'll have had more than 150,000 individual Irish people coming on to greatfood.ie. They come for one recipe and stay for four," she says. "You would be amazed at what people are looking for: one of our top searches is 'How to toast pine nuts'."

Irish chef Niall Harbison, who began his culinary career working under Conrad Gallagher at Dublin restaurant Peacock Alley, is one of the founders of iFoods.tv, an online video recipe website and networking forum for cooks, where you can access recipes and watch them being cooked. "We currently get 250,000 visits per month, with more than 50 per cent of them coming from the US," he says. "We have been filming a series of recipes for Christmas for the past month and these will be going live shortly. I think a lot of people struggle with the coordination of bringing such a big meal together for a large number of people, and we aim to make everybody's life a lot easier with step-by-step videos."

Last August, Harbison and his business partner, Sean Fee, appeared on the BBC television programme, Dragons' Den, narrowly missing out on securing investment from the Dragons when they admitted that they didn't have exclusive rights to the name iFoods.tv, an issue they subsequently resolved. But the exposure did earn them investment from other sources.

In addition, Harbison was approached by several TV producers and agents, and is now represented by Fresh, the agency that also works with Jamie Oliver, and is in negotiations to finalise a TV series.

With so much culinary information - recipes, videos and blogs - available online, does the internet pose a serious threat to cookery book publishing? Harbison believes so.

"I have always used online resources as there are great tools out there (if you know where to look, as there is also a lot of rubbish), and the best thing is that they are 90 per cent free," he says. "I think there is a huge culture shift with the younger generation of chefs and home cooks embracing the internet to find their food-related information."

Anne Kennedy doesn't agree. "I have well over 1,000 cookery books - I'm an addict," she says. "They are what we use at greatfood.ie to research new recipes. We distil thousands of recipes into a simple one that works at home. But we don't want to replace cookery books.

"Cookery and recipe websites support cookery books. Many people decide what to cook for dinner in their lunch break, or before they go home. A website like greatfood.ie allows them to print off a recipe, work out a shopping list and see if they need to pick up anything on their way home. In addition, most people read cookery books while they're lying on the couch or in bed, for enjoyment. They aren't always used to cook from."

THIS SENTIMENT is echoed by John Fitzpatrick, Irish sales and marketing agent for Quadrille and Murdoch, which publish some of the most lavish and beautifully produced cookery books on the market.

"Television has given people confidence in their ability to cook and a practical knowledge of cooking techniques, and they use back-up from internet resources," he says. "Beautifully produced and visually interesting books inspire people to challenge themselves."

Ian West, sales director of Quadrille UK, acknowledges the threat posed by online sources, but believes that traditional publishing is holding its own.

"The increase of free information on the internet does make the book trade anxious about the future of publishing, but so far books in certain areas are holding up very well," he says. "The past seven years have shown growth in non-fiction titles, and cookery in particular has been very strong. Cookery book purchases have helped to expand sales of titles grouped in BookScan's food and drink product class by 17 per cent, from £66 million (€77 million) in 2006 to £77.3 million (€89.9 million) in 2007."

If you prefer the feel of a book in the hand over words on a screen, but want to harness the vast amount of information on the internet, there are websites such as lulu.com and desktopcookbook.com that can be used to create personalised cookbooks. The social bookmarking site, del.icio.us.com, can also be used to organise the recipes you find online and want to keep track of.

Navigating the thousands, if not millions, of recipes created and posted by food bloggers to make the selection for your personal cookbook can be made simpler by using a tool such as foodblogsearch.com, which trawls more than 2,000 selected food blogs. Or you could just go into a bookshop, browse the hundreds of recipe collections on offer, and take home a beautiful volume that you'll treasure and use for years.

The online recipe: finding the goodies

There are plenty of recipe websites, usually given star ratings by the site's users, and often including their comments too, so that you can decide if that gingerbread cake is really going to turn out as delicious as it looks. For written recipes, try www.greatfood.ie, http://allreicipes.co.uk or www.epicurious.com.

If you like to see how it's done, then some recipe websites also feature short demonstration videos. For instruction from a professional chef, see http://iFoods.tv. For recipes as well as TV cookery show clips, see http://uktvfood.co.uk, or www.rte.ie/food.

There is a growing army of Irish food bloggers who deliver personality along with their food. The desserts on http://icecreamireland.com will make you drool; there's great colour at http://englishmum.com; fantastic family recipes can be found at http://quirkykitchen.blogspot.com; and it's foodie heaven at http://bibliocook.com.