Last week, Amazon Vine (review programme) sent me a copy of Diana Henry’s new cookery book, ‘How To Eat A Peach.’
I love Diana Henry’s books. If you’ve never come across her before, I think of her rather like the female Nigel Slater. Her writing is beautiful and soothing. Her love for the food she cooks and eats is evident on every page and she makes everything seem possible in terms of the culinary arts.
I have an entire bookshelf of cookery books. I tend to divide them up into self-appointed categories. There are the books which are marvellous but you know you will never cook anything from. They’re rather like exotic travel brochures for far flung places you can’t really afford but you quite like to dream about. There’s the books which are really about the writer themselves, so the recipes are somewhat accidental. I like these books a lot, because they’re readable, but a drawback is that the recipes can be rather vague and therefore difficult to actually cook. There’s the educational recipe books which gallop you through a cuisine other than your own. These are like a Hayne’s Manual for the Ford Cortina, but for Morocco. There’s the show off books, which I like the least, because who the fuck has time to make a pyramid of bouillabaisse with aromatic mist that reminds you of a fisherman’s pipe? Not when you’ve got three hungry children banging their spoons on the table like ersatz Oliver Twists, you don’t.
The ones which get most use in my own house are the practical ones. By this I do not mean those ones you get in the bargain book shops which are full of scary, colour drenched pictures from photo stock, which are entitled: ‘500 Salads.’ (WHY?) I think of these books as the equivalent of going to a foreign country, walking down the main tourist drag and seeing three hundred dubious eateries with sun bleached photos of paella outside. i.e. Terrifying.
The practical books in my house are the ones with foolproof, easy to make recipes which taste fabulous and which I turn to again and again. Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess (the spine is falling off I use it so much), Friends, Food, Family by Sasha Wilkins (Liberty London Girl) anything by Anjum Anand, and then there are my great loves, Nigel Slater and Diana Henry.
If you want somewhere to start with Diana, may I recommend A Bird in the Hand as her most practical book (as long as you are not a vegetarian)? It does exactly what it says on the tin and gives you ‘chicken recipes for every day and every mood.’
‘How to Eat A Peach,’ is a wonderful journey through Henry’s food memories. She talks about her love of putting together satisfying menus, and splendid meals she has eaten. She sets the scene for each menu with an anecdote from her life, and a store of knowledge about the food. Here she is talking about a menu inspired by Istanbul:
‘The food here is at the meeting point of lots of cultures too. On the surface it seems simple; most meals start with vegetables, cucumbers as juicy and taut as apples, firm chilled radishes, lengths of scarlet pepper. The counterpoints to these are tart or salty, the snow-white cheese beyaz peynir, clouds of pale creamy pink tarama, bowls of thick yogurt. The tarama is a dish shared with the Balkans and Greece. But look beyond these; acuka, a puree of red peppers, walnuts, garlic, tomato and chilli, is Syrian in origin; the chicken coated with a creamy walnut and garlic sauce is from Circassian; manti, little dumplings stuffed with spiced lamb and smothered in yogurt, are thought to have come to Turkey along the Silk Road from Central Asia. There are influences from all over the former Ottoman Empire: The Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus and parts of North Africa.’
Each menu is a history, a story, a small world in taste, texture and flavour. In talking about the meals she has shared over the years she emphasises the other important thing about cooking – eating and sharing food with friends and family.
It’s an absolute pleasure to read.
I’ve been dipping into the book every morning as I eat my breakfast. It’s my ten minutes off from the world before it starts incessantly knocking at the front door to be let in. It’s escapism of the best kind.
I wish I could put it into the practical section of my cookery books, but I can’t. Every single thing I’ve read about so far is something I would happily eat, or at least try. She describes even things I don’t think I’d like in such a way that I am persuaded that I might. It’s the kind of writing that seduces you into thinking that this type of cooking, eating, life is possible.
And it absolutely is…
If I lived alone.
I indulged myself today in fantasies of sitting outside at my big wooden table, a white linen cloth draped over over it, eating everything from the book, (with my fingers, in a casual yet not messy way). I pictured myself, slurping white peaches in chilled moscato, a shawl flung artistically over my shoulders as the afternoon dipped into evening.
This reminded me very much of the time when I was obsessed by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage, and decided I would have a small, but beautiful garden full of fruit and veg that I would wander down the garden to pick, in my very expensive sandals, with a trug slung casually in the crook of my arm, while the children gambolled about, looking dirty but artistic.
I attempted this and I learned the glaring yet unavoidable differences between fantasy and reality as I ruined my sandals (it turns out they’re very impractical for gardening in), got bitten, stung and filthy, shrieked at the children who looked dirty but not artistic and were little shits, and spent a great deal of time thinking resentful and bitter thoughts about Hugh. Not only that, but for my pains I ended up with a glut of courgettes that nobody but me even attempted to eat, and my broad beans got decimated by black fly.
With this in mind I think of Diana, and I think of the fact that each recipe will have to be vetted for the finicky and entirely annoying likes and dislikes of my family. It’s not that they all dislike everything, but each one of them dislikes enough things that make this kind of eating rather trying, if not downright impossible. It means that by the time I have worked round all this, all joy will have been sucked out of the things I can cook, and many of the things I would cook for myself would simply have to be abandoned entirely. By the time I might get to sit at my beautiful table, I will be grumpy, resentful, sweat streaked and burned, and peaches and moscato will be abandoned for an industrial strength gin and tonic and an admonishment to self to stay away from sharp knives in the vicinity of the loved ones that have ruined my fantasy.
I have several solutions. One is to send all of my immediate family away for the weekend and invite my mum to dinner, who I know loves all the same foods I do, and rarely gets to make them because she has similar issues with her nearest and dearest. The other is to write a begging letter to Diana Henry to adopt me. It will show a picture of me, rubbing my tummy in a hopeful manner and the words: ‘Look after this bear’ written underneath it. I am sure she will take pity on me.