by Silvana de Soissons•15th November 2011
Looking at Diana Henry’s cookbook collection in the open plan kitchen-dining room of her North London home is a bit like walking into Books for Cooks in Notting Hill or Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross Road. Displayed in front of me is a floor-to-ceiling temple dedicated to the craft of home cooking. In her cheerful Irish brogue she jokes, nods and laughs at the same time:
“I know, I’ve been like this since childhood. I just love cookery books, all books in fact, the whole house is filled with them. And I keep getting more!"
I remember the very first time I came across Diana Henry’s name, in the first “Gastropub Cookbook”, photographed by Jason Lowe and published by Mitchell Beazley in 2003. It became my car glove compartment book, guiding me to the very best places to eat and enabling me to cook restaurant chef recipes at home. I became hooked on the comforting, homely, motherly style that is Diana’s trademark and from that moment on “Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons”, “Roast Figs, Sugar Snow”, “Cook Simple” and “Food from Plenty” have become the quoins of my recipe library pile.
With Diana Henry I travelled to countries I could not afford to visit, on a private aeroplane of greed. I learned all about Georgian cheese pies, Russian curd cheese, Moroccan fish cakes and Asian pork balls. From Vermont to Venice, the Ottoman empire and Scottish lochs, I tasted and dreamed of Seville orange bread and butter puddings, cardamom baked figs, Danish Christmas rice pudding and Austrian poppy seed cakes. If you analyse the length and breadth of her travels and kaleidoscopic curiosity, you begin to understand her thirst for the written word.
Yet in a world where authors jump ship at the flick of the cheque book, Diana Henry has never left her publishers Mitchell Beazley, an imprint owned by Octopus Publishing. She has also been writing recipes for Stella Magazine, Country Living, House and Gardens and Red Magazine for many years. She has found a formula that works, and she has honed it, refined it and made her hers.
“I wouldn’t say it was a formula – I would say I write the kind of interesting stuff about food I would like to read myself, its history, its connection to the world, its place in my life and that of other people too. I really haven’t compromised. I don’t write rubbish and I don’t “write down”. I only do stuff I think is worthwhile.”
When Diana first started working, she had no idea that she would one day become a cookery book author and food writer. After finishing her degree at Wadham College, Oxford, she went firstly into a career in TV production, and she was a television producer for both the BBC and for Channel 4 for 12 years. After her son Ted, who is now 13, was born, she found the travelling and long hours far too difficult.
“I did have a nanny at the time, she was good and Ted was fine, but deep inside I was not alright. I could not cope with being away from home for long periods, and I decided that this career could not be sustained through motherhood, so I resigned. I then had to think about what I could do for a living, and I looked at what I really loved and what inspired me in life. Food, cooking and ingredients were what I had always loved, always been absolutely passionate about, and so I started food writing.”
Her earliest cookbook influences were Alice's Waters "Chez Panisse Cookbook" and the work of Claudia Roden: it was through their eyes that she imagined the sunshine cooking of California, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, territories and ingredients that were to later shape and inspire her own work. Diana initially worked as a“ghost writer” for Antonio Carluccio’s vegetable cook book and also pitched articles to magazines to see whether they might be interested. They immediately took her on, and the rest is history. Twice named “Cookery Writer of the Year” by the Guild of Food Writers, she was a co-presenter in Market Kitchen, the popular food programme on television, and has consistently been in work since her writing career took off.
“I suppose one of the reasons I keep being published is that I am first and foremost a home cook. Wherever I travel I always quiz taxi drivers as to who is the best cook they know, because I am interested in connecting with real people in real kitchens. I am not a chef, and I truly believe that cooking is all about making that connection, within the home. It’s not about trends, fashion or class: food is about the earth, stories and families."
There were many seminal moments in her life that created the inspiration for the career that was to bring her here, all the way from County Derry in Northern Ireland, from a family that had never really travelled.
“We did not travel very much – we went on my first foreign holiday when I was 16 - but we knew when everything was in season. So we knew which were the best potatoes for making champ, and then, when the summer came the potatoes were too waxy for that. We used whatever was the right produce at the right time. It’s like that when you grow up in a farming community, people know much more about the quality of food in that kind of area. I also had a lovely teacher at school called Mrs. Munro. She read aloud to us a lot and that was very formative. I was ten years old but I remember it as if it were yesterday. We were allowed to put our heads on our folded arms on the desks while she read to us. Outside it was dark, and inside the school room lights were on and you could see the reflection of the class room in the big windows. As she read “Little House on the Prairie” by Laura Ingalls Wilder I was transfixed listening to the description of the food. They were making preserves and curing food and baking and I thought this was all just wonderful. At Christmas Laura and the girls in the book got oranges and nuts in their Christmas stockings, and I too wanted those things!”
She can still remember sitting in the car with her mother and siblings eating authentic Italian take away pizza near her home, the first pizza to arrive in Northern Ireland! The bread dough very thin and crispy, the tomato just smeared across its bubbly surface.
“And the onions,” she sighs, “I can still remember those onions…”
Her second son, Gillies, was born six years ago. Diana’s first marriage broke down and she has since re-married, Ben, a science researcher with Glaxo, and he has three children from an earlier marriage. The house they have bought and refurbished together puts family meals and cooking first, and her kitchen is laid out at the very centre of a big family room. She confesses that preparing family meals for seven people can be a minefield and she is sympathetic to those mothers who find it really hard to please all of the children all of the time.
There are spacious, white and steel Bulthaup units, and the vintage crockery, textiles and accessories that feature in the food photo shoots for her books are laid out on several tables.
Food photographers Laura Edwards and Yuki Sugiura are shooting the photographs for her new book and her recipes in Stella Magazine respectively, and there can be no doubt that the beautiful food styling has added to Diana’s success and fame. Laura has done seven photo shoots at Diana’s house over the course of one year.
“I don’t think you could just be a recipe writer, and I have never wanted to do just that. When I start thinking about a new book I think about it as a whole – the way I used to think about whatever television programme I was making: what it will feel like, what world it will take you to as well as what recipes will be in it. Cookbooks need a narrative as much as other books and the photography and the design are very much part of that. I really think a book should have its own world and that is what I want to create.”
She shows me wonderful embroidered Hungarian cloths, stripy French tea towels and grain sacks, hand blown glass jugs and flowery china on her props table. I, an avid vintage hoarder, feel huge pangs of envy as I cast my eyes across her stunning collection.
Her new cookbook, to be published in 2012, will feature preserves, pickles, jams, cordials, bottled fruit and cured food, across continents, regions and history. She leads me to her larder where before me are jars and jars of the recipes she has tried and tested for the book. Jewel coloured Mostarda di Cremona, piccalilli, fruit jellies, hedgerow jams and orange marmalades are labelled and stacked in neat rows.
In a second larder, one used for raw ingredients, she shows me how she divides her ingredients by nationality of origin. On surfaces round the kitchen there are olive oil canisters, bowls of fresh fruit, bottles of wine, shopping lists and spices, but Diana tends not to clutter her cupboards with too many gadgets, other than the essentials.
“I do think every cook should have good knives and plenty of chopping boards, measuring jugs and sieves.”
She is quite specific about her focus and her likes:
“Every single cook has an axis on which his or her cooking pivots. Mine is sweet and sour: I love the combination of the two and I also love hot with cold, fatty with sharp. It’s the juxtaposition of flavours and textures that interests me and I have tried to include examples of that in my new book too.”
I ask Diana what advice she would give to aspiring food writers who dream, one day, of writing about food or drink for a living. She is still working on creating a website and does not use social media, nor does she endorse products or earn money from advertising. Her advice is common sense and hard work on a platter:
“The most important thing is to be professional. Because of my BBC training I learned to deliver work on time, every time. I check my work, I make sure I deliver what the editor has asked for and I am always looking for new and different material. I want to inspire and empower people, and I love talking to them as I write. Food is such a very important part of all our lives, from squeezing a lemon, to frying some garlic to handling fish. I am always thinking about food and I truly believe that if you do not cook you are missing out on something so wonderful in life. There is no world quite like it. That is what I try to put across, so that the reader feels they too can share in it. It's all about connecting."
After meeting Diana several other necessary concepts spring to mind: openness, determination and consistency. From her computer on her wooden kitchen table, beside the works of countless writers who have inspired and guided her through time zones, regions and kitchens, that instinctive Irish magic and alchemy is still weaving its captivating journey.
Mitchell Beazley (Octopus Books) website: www.octopusbooks.co.uk
Follow the team on Twitter: @Octopus_Books