I bought my first cookery book in 1960, as part of my trousseau. It was called Plats du Jour, or Foreign Food by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd, a Penguin paperback with a seductive pink jacket depicting a large family at table – evidently not a British family, for its members, shirt-sleeved, aproned, some of them children, were uncorking bottles, slicing bread, eagerly tucking their napkins under their chins, faces aglow with the certain knowledge their dinners would not disappoint, which was, in those days, extremely rare in this country.
My copy of Plats du Jour now gives forth a mellow smell of old paper; the pages are crisp, brown and dry as Melba toast. But it has outlasted the husband for whose pleasure I bought it by some eighteen years, proof positive of the old saw, ‘Kissin’ don’t last, cookin’ do.’ And now it is a historic object, a prototype of the late 20th-century British cookery book, a book to browse in as much as to cook from, its prose as elegant as its plentiful line-drawings. And, oh, that easy, graceful cosmopolitanism! ‘For anyone who has eaten a well-prepared Gulyas in one of the little restaurants on the Buda side of the Danube, overlooking the lantern-threaded bridges and the electric glitter of Pesth on a warm summer night before the war ...’ The nascent genre infected an entire generation with wanderlust.
Patience Gray helped to instigate the concept of the cookery book as literary form – part recipes, part travel book, part self-revelation, part art object. Now, some thirty years on, she has assembled what may be its culmination. Honey from a Weed is less a cookery book than a summing-up of the genre of the late modern British cookery book. It is a book like very few others, although it has some of the style of the 17th-century commonplace book, replete with recondite erudition and assembled on the principle of free association, as when Mrs Gray lists uses for goose fat. In a cassoulet. In soups. On bread. On toast. ‘On your chest, rubbed in in winter. On leather boots, if they squeak. On your hands if they are chapped.’
Above all, it is a book about a particular sensibility – a unique and pungent one – that manifests itself most characteristically in the kitchen. That is what the genre is all about. M.F.K. Fisher had pioneered the culinary autobiographical novel in the US years before the Penguin school of cookery writers found its greatest star in Elizabeth David in the late Fifties and early Sixties. For these writers, and for Patience Gray, cookery is what the open road was to Cobbett or the natural history of Selbourne to Gilbert White. There is, however, a difference: these are women to whom food is not an end in itself but a way of opening up the world. And, indeed, they are all women: this is, at the highest level, a female form.
It is unique to Saxon culture, to my knowledge, that the ability to cook well is a sign of a woman of the world. Black-clad mamas and mamans may deliver the goods in France and Spain and Italy, but in Britain and the US the classic cooks are awesomely sophisticated, aristocratically beautiful and often connected with the arts. Elizabeth David, friend of Norman Douglas, is eternalised in the lovely icon of John Ward’s drawing, the epitome of chic in her companionable kitchen. M.F.K. Fisher is just as beautiful. Her most beloved husband was a painter, and her books are so instinct with upmarket bohemianism that it is no surprise to find her in a cameo role in the autobiography of the painter and photographer Man Ray, in which a starring part is allotted to Lee Miller, the universal muse of the Surrealists, who herself became a famous practitioner of gourmet cookery.
Patience Gray belongs to this nexus of cookery and the arts, although she has an earthy, hands-on approach to the real lives of the predominantly peasant communities in Southern Europe where she has chosen to live, and to the arts: she works in silver and gold, making jewellery, and lives with a stone-carver whom she calls the Sculptor (she is refreshingly free from irony). Her book recounts their wanderings during a shared life dominated by the Sculptor’s quest for suitable stone. Glamorous as this way of life may seem, it is no easy option. Patience Gray’s kitchens have been exceedingly sparsely equipped. The hand-pump over the marble sink of one particular Etruscan kitchen did not work: ‘I got the water in a bucket and lowering it into the outdoor cistern had a marvellous view of the glittering Monte Sagra and the Apulian Alps on one side and on the other a view to the Tyrrhenian.’
This combination of material asceticism and passionate enthusiasm for the sensuality of the everyday is at the core of the tradition from which Mrs Gray springs, with its obvious affinities to the style of Bloomsbury, where it was a moral imperative that the beautiful should always take precedence over the comfortable. Though ‘beautiful’ is not quite the right word – it is a kind of authenticity which is invoked here, as though water is more authentic, more real, wetter, drawn from an open-air cistern than from a city tap.
The metaphysics of authenticity are a dangerous area. When Mrs Gray opines, ‘Poverty rather than wealth gives the good things of life their true significance,’ it is tempting to suggest it is other people’s poverty, always a source of the picturesque, that does that. Even if Mrs Gray and her companion live in exactly the same circumstances as their neighbours in the Greek islands or Southern Italy, and have just as little ready money, their relation to their circumstances is the result of the greatest of all luxuries, aesthetic choice. ‘Poverty’, here, is sloppy language – a rare example of it. Mrs Gray isn’t talking about a pavement dweller in Calcutta, or a member of the long-term unemployed in an advanced, industrialised country: not about poverty as such, but about a way of life which has a dignity imposed upon it by its stoicism in the face of a nature on which it is entirely dependent. The Japanese created an entire aesthetic, and a moral philosophy, out of this stoicism and this intimate relation with natural forces; as soon as they had a bob or two in their pockets, of course, they binged on consumerism, but the hard core is still there.
Then again, Mrs Gray and her companion are not too perturbed about the absence of piped water. Her companion, when pressed, expresses a preference for shitting beneath a fig tree, rather than in a flush toilet. When workers recruited from Southern Italy moved into subsidised housing in Turin, people used to say: ‘No use giving them baths, they’ll only grow basil in them.’ Mrs Gray would think that was an eminently sensible thing to do with a bath. After a couple of days of toting buckets, my own appreciation of any view would have waned, somewhat. But arduous circumstances never diminish Mrs Gray’s rapt sense of wonder, and her book is dedicated to genuine austerity, an austerity reflected in many of the recipes she includes in her text. The section titled ‘Fasting on Naxos’ describes just that: ‘The four weeks of the Advent fast and the six weeks of the Lenten one correspond with moments when on Naxos there was hardly anything to eat.’
She describes the harsh life of these Greek islanders without sentimentality, if with a degree of romantic awe, in a prose that will suddenly, effortlessly, fall into the very cadences of Sir Thomas Browne: ‘In Homer’s time, a King could go out to plough his land and build his bed of giant timbers.’ Her prose is usually ravishing, sometimes breathtaking. The entire section titled ‘Pasticceria and the Apulian Baroque’ is composed according to the principles of the startling architectonics she describes. ‘The city [Lecce] within the walls calls to mind the Bourbon Kings of Naples, who once a year ordered the construction of castle edifices made of stout edible materials – gigantic hams, cheeses, enormous mortadelle, and the fore and hindquarters of deer and Indian buffalo, in order then to gloat at the spectacle of the starving Neapolitans – admitted at the moment of completion – vociferously and violently vying with each other, to the accompaniment of martial music and gunpowder explosions, in their destruction.’
The book moves among its venues at the whim of memory, according to no precise chronology. With Mrs Gray, we eat dried beans cooked a variety of ways in a variety of places. We eat potatoes and green beans boiled together, potatoes with alliums (the common name of the onion family) and olive oil, potatoes cooked in the oven with streaky bacon. Some of her recipes would certainly ease the plight of the long-term unemployed in advanced, industrialised countries because, even here, the ingredients cost so little. Then again, Honey from a Weed is a very expensive book. Such are the ironies of the politics of romantic austerity.
We make, with her, salads of hedgerow greens and boil up delicious weeds to eat hot with lemon juice – dandelions, comfrey, wood sorrel, field sorrel, wild fennel, fat hen, tassel hyacinth, purslane, field poppy. (When gathering your weeds, watch out for pesticides.) A meal may be made – has to be made – from whatever is to hand. M.F.K. Fisher’s wolf (‘How to cook a wolf’, included in The Art of Eating) was metaphorical. Patience Gray ‘met a number of people around Carrara not at all averse to cooking a fox’, and tells you how to make fox alia cacciatore (with garlic, wine and tomatoes). ‘Exactly the same method can be applied to a badger ...’
A connoisseur of free food, she waxes lyrical on snails, especially the helix operta, oval in shape, golden brown in colour, ‘with a beautiful logarithmic spiral structure’. Surely, of all the creatures we eat, we are most brutal to snails. Helix operta is dug out of the earth where he has been peacefully enjoying his summer sleep, cracked like an egg and eaten raw, presumably alive. Or boiled in oil. Or roasted in the hot ashes of a wood fire. In Catalonia, vineyard snails are laid out in rows on a bed of straw. ‘The straw is set alight and the snails are retrieved from the ashes by jabbing them with sharply pointed sticks.’ If God is a snail, Bosch’s depictions of Hell are going to look like a vicarage tea-party.
Mrs Gray does not conceal the fact that the traditional communities she describes are now in the process of violent change. Her twenty years of wandering the limestone margins of the Mediterranean have coincided with the breakdown of ancient forms of village life: ‘It sometimes seems as if I have been rescuing a few strands from a former and more diligent way of life, now being eroded by an entirely new set of values. As with students of music who record old songs which are no longer sung, soon some of the things I record will also have vanished.’ This is partly what makes her book so valuable, and gives it an elegiac quality that sometimes recalls the recent work of a writer, John Berger, with whom she might seem to have little else in common except a respect for philosophical anarchism: Berger’s majestic stories of peasant life, Pig Earth, invoke the awesome severities and orgiastic celebrations of a past as recent as yesterday and already as remote as the Flood.
The point is, dammit, that they did have, as Iago griped about Othello, a daily beauty in their lives that makes ours ugly. In one of the stories in Pig Earth, a little old peasant lady goes out and gathers wild things in the mountains – wild cherries, lilies of the valley, mushrooms, mistletoe – and takes her booty into the city, where she sells it in the market for vast sums. She is selling not only delicious wild produce but glimpses of some lost greenness. She is the last remaining vendor of wild things, she is a kind of ghost. Mrs Gray describes Carrara twenty years ago:
The feeling of the mountains was never far away: retired quarrymen sold bunches of herbs they had gathered there. In summer great baskets of bilberries and wild strawberries appeared. In autumn fresh cranberries, fungi and chestnuts were brought down from the Spanish chestnut woods. In this way a dialogue between town and country was maintained ... In those days it was still possible to feel that the Carraresi were definitely in touch with the ‘earthly paradise’.
If transplanted Calabrians do indeed grow basil in their shiny new bathtubs, perhaps there remains, in Italy at least, a sense of the fitness of things.
Mrs Gray has taken the form of the Late Modern English-language cookery book to its extreme in Honey from a Weed, producing a kind of baroque monument of which all the moving parts work (the recipes are very sound). Her book follows the norm of the form by being a gorgeous object in its own right, with a wrap-around cover you could take off and pin right up on the walls, and beautiful line-drawings thick as leaves in Vallambrosa. It is a glorious thing about the cookery book that it is the last genre of books for grown-ups to carry illustrations. This trend can be carried too far. In Leslie Forbes’s A Table in Provence, the recipes, handwritten in dazzling ink, nestle furtively among the coloured drawings as if there only to provide the excuse for the pictures. Whereas Alison Armstrong’s The Joyce of Cooking has elegant little decorations – fruits, nuts, tureens, bottles – and belongs to a bizarre sub-genre of the Late Modern cookery book, the cookery book as literary criticism. Subtitled ‘Food and Drink from Joyce’s Dublin’, the unexceptional recipes (custard, plum cake, poached eyes on ghost) are each preceded by a relevant quote from the Master, as in:
Pigs Trotters (Crubeen)
‘In each hand he holds a parcel, one containing a lukewarm pig’s crubeen, the other a cold sheep’s trotter, sprinkled with wholepepper.’ (U., 434)
Occasionally this leads to manic displays of lateral thinking that Joyce would have loved:
Roast Beef for Old England: or, Mullingar
Beef to the Heels with My Girl’s a Yorkshire Girl pudding
‘Thick feet that woman has in the white stockings ... Country fed chawbacon. All the beef to the heels were in.’(U., 168)
The Joyce of Cooking may be in the vanguard of the Post-Modern, or mannerist, cookery book, a text whose initial inspiration is not food but another text.
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