FOOD, BOOKS, MEMORIES: An Interview with Diana Henry

 

Salt Sugar Smoke by Diana Henry

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.”

Salt Sugar Smoke

 

Salt Sugar Smoke cookbook

A TASTE OF SPAIN WITH CLAUDIA RODEN

Claudia Roden in her garden

Claudia Roden’s cookbooks often evoke cuisines from sunnier climes – Middle Eastern food, The Food of Italy, Mediterranean Food  and, now, The Food of Spain– so bright sunshine and clear blue skies seemed very appropriate weather in which to visit her north London home. Indeed, the spring weather was so lovely that Claudia, I and the other invited writers and bloggers  -Catherine Phipps, Niamh Shields and Ginny Light- ended up sitting at a table in her garden, eating dishes which Claudia had cooked for us from her new Spanish cookbook while she conversed with us about Spanish food, with petals falling down onto us and birdsong in the background –  a truly pleasurable and memorable experience.

Ever since I first came across them while working in a bookshop, her books have been a source of great pleasure to me. I have used them for research, for recipe ideas and read them for the sheer pleasure of enjoying her ‘voice’. Claudia’s distinctive approach to her cookbooks, in which she elegantly weaves together history, culture and food to form a rich tapestry, stems directly from the experience of writing her first book Middle Eastern Food.

Claudia was already living in London studying art when the Suez crisis broke. The consequent expulsion of Egyptian Jews from Egypt meant that she became caught up in charting this exiled community, collecting recipes from them.  “I realised that one of the things that mattered very, very much to people was their food. People were moving all over the world and by keeping their recipes we would have something to remember them by. Because we thought we’d never see them again, never go back to Egypt again, it was a very forever thing. In Egypt people would never give a recipe to another family, but because we all separating we were not going to be competition! I never thought the dishes were important before but suddenly people were asking for recipes, giving me recipes and so that was my reason to start collecting over 50 years ago. I was collecting, doing it for love. For ages I didn’t think I was doing a book. People were glad that I was doing it seriously and they felt that when I was published someone had recorded them.”

Claudia’s links to Spain reach back into her childhood in cosmopolitan Egypt. “Spain was always in my life,” she explains, “because one of my grandmothers, who came from Istanbul, spoke medieval Spanish, Ladino, to her friends.”  When writing her book The Food of Spain, Claudia brought her detailed knowledge of Jewish and Middle Eastern food to her research, recognising dishes and their roots. “Because of my personal history, there were words for dishes which I recognised from my childhood.” The contributions of Spain’s historic Jewish and Muslim communities to Spanish cuisine are charted in the book; Claudia is ideally placed to do them justice and this tracing is obviously deeply important to her.

While conventional Spanish history focuses the expulsion of the Jews and the Moorish community, Claudia points out that many of Spain’s Jewish community stayed on as ‘conversos (’ (Jewish converts to Christianity) and Spanish Muslims as Moriscos  (Muslims converted to Christianity), with the eating of pork a key part to being seen as Spanish Christian. One of the ‘startling’ dishes from this converso heritage is suckling pig with cumin.  “When they converted, they started cooking pigs the way they cooked the lamb, so rubbed it with cumin. I came across a couple of cumin seeds in the suckling pig they serve at Fino –  just a few seeds are a clue as to what happened all these years ago. Another dish I came across was an apple stuffed with minced pork, fried onions, pine nuts and raisins. I have the same apple dish in my first book, an Iranian dish, but it was stuffed with minced lamb, instead of pork. The Jewish and Arab influences on the food are all there. I see something and I know from the smell and the way they are doing it where it comes from, which might be from 500 years  ago.”

A self-confessed ‘technophobe’ Claudia’s research is far removed from sitting at a desk and Googling. Meeting people, talking to them and learning their recipes, just as she did all those years ago for Middle Eastern Food, is at the heart of how she works. Initially, she found the prospect of researching this book on Spanish food daunting. “At first I thought I can’t do this because I can’t travel easily any more.” Through her considerable network of friends in Spain, however, she was able to explore the country, visiting people, staying with them and meeting their contacts “For me the best thing is the travel, the meeting. I know a lot of people now, have it all done by researchers and go at the last minute, but for me, it’s the discovering of the country, of the people, the whole inter-connecting and communicating. My research is asking people about their lives, their grandparents, which region they come from in Spain, their ideas of history, but then I go and study at the British Library to back it up. Wherever I went, what I learnt fitted together like a puzzle,” she says delightedly.

Claudia Roden's coca

Claudia Roden's coca

We’d been invited to tea with Claudia, but, as we sat there in the garden, talking and laughing, a series of dishes, served in generous quantities, were brought out, turning afternoon tea into a feast. First came  rich Spanish-style hot chocolate thickened with cornflour, prompting Claudia to muse on the difference between hot chocolate and coffee, the latter ‘always the drink of revolution’, next flavourful slices of coca, ‘a Catalan one’ resembling pizza, topped with red peppers, artichokes and salty anchovies, but ‘never cheese’, salty-sweet, soft deep-fried aubergines drizzled with honey, a flavourful salmorejo – a version of gazpacho – topped with tuna and hard-boiled egg (when we complimented Claudia on finding tasty tomatoes she replied that she’d added ‘oil, vinegar and a touch of sugar – it was good olive oil’), then an elegant, syrup-soaked walnut cake ‘from Asturias, where they do have walnuts’ and a wonderful raisin ice cream flavoured with Pedro Ximenez sherry with more PX poured over to complete the decadence.

Auberghine fritters with honey

Aubergine fritters with honey

Salmorejo

Salmorejo

Thinking back to the experience of researching the book, Claudia talked affectionately of the hospitality she’d encountered. “The pleasure was not only in talking to people but of eating with them too. The conviviality of eating together, the banquets, the music, the dancing.” Experiencing her hospitality in her north London home, eating this vividly flavourful, colourful food and, above all, hearing Claudia talk, in her distinctive accented English, wittily, knowledgeably and with a deep-rooted passion for history, about Spanish food was an experience that brought The Food of Spain wonderfully, and convivially, to life.

The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden

The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden