The cookbooks which have a special place in my affections are those with a human voice, a sense of the personality behind them – cookbooks by Jane Grigson, Margaret Costa, Simon Hopkinson and Nigel Slater come to mind. Diana Henry’s Salt Sugar Smoke definitely falls into that category. Reading it, I found myself beguiled not only by the delectable recipes – Aubergine, cardamom and pomegranate ‘jam’, Beetroot-cured Gravlax, Maple Vinegar – but by Diana’s vivacious authorial voice, conveying an infectious enthusiasm.
Having visited Diana’s house for a wonderfully hospitable tea party to launch the book and seen the long, living room bookshelves lined with cookbooks, old and new, it was obvious that her love of both books and food runs deep. “All my cookbooks are in my living room,” she explains. “The other books are elsewhere; the place is coming down with them! I just adore them. I don’t think cookbooks in the printed book will go. Recipes are things that intersect our lives. Even if I just look at the spines of my cookbooks, I get a warm feeling from them. My whole life is there – different decades, different times. It’s a bit like smelling a perfume, it evokes a time.”
She grew up in Northern Ireland with a mother who was an excellent cook; “to be honest, she’s more skilled than me,“ says Diana candidly. “Mum started to go to night classes in the 70s where they taught dishes like moussaka, lasagne – exotic then, especially in Northern Ireland. My god, the hunt we had to get Parmesan cheese . . .” Diana began cooking as a girl – “The first grown-up cookbook I bought was Prue Leith’s Cooking For Friends when I was 12” – and cooked through her teens. “I was giving dinner parties when I was sixteen. I really wanted to create – and my friends just laughed at me! I think I’m quite a selfish cook, to be honest. People always think cooking is about sharing and I think it’s only partly that for me. It’s about making stuff and making stuff that is beautiful; there’s no question about that. I’m thrilled by the act of creation and I’m quite a visual cook. That’s why I like Middle Eastern food a lot. I spent three days cooking for my husband’s 50th birthday party. All Middle Eastern and it looked beautiful and I can’t tell you how thrilled I was.”
Diana’s fascination continued through her student years at university at Oxford, though she remembers her interest in food being regarded as odd. “Other women thought you shouldn’t be interested in food. I was kicked out of my consciousness raising group because my conscious wasn’t raised enough!” she laughs. Undaunted by being out of step with what was considered fashionable, Diana continued to cook, drawing much comfort from her beloved cookbooks. “I discovered Elizabeth David at university but I’m not a massive fan. Sacrilege I know. I think she’s a bit cold and bit snobbish. I’m much more into Jane Grigson. She had a big influence early on. I bought her Vegetable and Fruit book. Those are really well-thumbed.” Having moved to London as a post-graduate and while living in a little basement flat in Islington, Diana vividly remembers buying two cookbooks “which both made my spine tingle”. One was Claudia Roden’s Middle Eastern Cookbook and the other was Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Cookbook. “I used to lie on the sofa and read them. Claudia’s was fully contextualised, with the stories and history. The Alice Waters was ‘my god, you can give people fillet of pork with char-grilled peppers for supper, that’s brilliant!’ My goddesses are definitely Jane Grigson, Claudia Roden and Alice Waters. It’s been added to over the years – Stephanie Alexander, Skye Gingell.”
One of the appeals of Diana’s food writing for me is the open-minded way in which it draws inspiration from many cuisines – Scandinavian, Middle Eastern, Indian, Japanese, South East Asian influences all manifest themselves in Salt Sugar Smoke. While growing up, however, she wasn’t well-travelled. “I didn’t leave Northern Ireland until I was sixteen. The first time I went abroad it was by myself on a French exchange. It was very simple but had an amazing effect on me.” At the age of 22 coming to London, where she now lives, was another key experience in terms of opening up new culinary worlds. “You get to London and it’s not just London you find, but the whole world. It blows your mind!” she exclaims. “ At the end of my road in Islington there was a Turkish shop and then I went to Edgware Road . . . I remember going to Ridley Road in search of Turkish peppers but finding a shop that had five different types of feta cheese in tubs, which all tasted different.”
Salt Sugar Smoke was, like all her books, “years in the making”, with Diana suggesting the idea eight years ago to her publisher. “I always have a list of books I’d like to write,” she explains, “and it changes. This was on the list for ages. I didn’t come up with the title for quite a long time. In fact, I’d nearly finished the book before I thought that would be a great title. I wish my books could be VAST; there’s so much I want to put in! But I do think if a book’s too long and overwhelming, people don’t use it as much. Cookbooks shouldn’t feel encyclopaedic. I think they need to be huggable!”
Diana’s enjoyment of the culinary exploring she did while working on Salt Sugar Spice comes through both in the book itself and her affectionate memories of working on it. “I’d been making gravlax before, but I’d never done bacon, never done bresaola. I felt so proud. Indian chutneys are amazing. I’d never realised how important pickles are in Japan. Using pickles is a brilliant way of accessorising dishes. The work’s been done in advance and you can serve them with something quick and simple and they bring dishes to life.” Characteristically, she relished pushing the boundaries of what goes into a preserving book. “So often, jam kind of begins and ends with strawberry,” she observes. Diana’s recipes for jams, which include recipes such as Melon, lime and ginger, white peach and raspberry, summer pudding jam evoke the Mediterranean, the Middle East and summer living. She herself is enjoying cooking from Salt Sugar Smoke. “It’s when you have a cookbook out with all the recipes gathered there, that you can use them too. I love that,” she says with satisfaction. What is her hope for the book? “I hope that it captures people’s imagination. I want people to look at preserving in a fresh way and think this is great. It’s not hard to do. This notion that certain areas of cooking can only be done by people who’ve been doing it for 20 years – it’s nonsense.”