“You don’t go looking for your passions. They find you.”
This advice was given to me recently by Diana Henry, author of ten cookery books including the brilliantly named ‘Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons’ and equally enchanting ‘Roast Figs Sugar Snow.’
I’ve always been a keen collector of cookery books myself, but since starting my food blog, my cookery book collection has exploded. I’ve long admired Diana’s work, so I was delighted when, in response to my request for an interview, she emailed me back herself and invited me to her house for a cup of tea and a chat.
Stepping into Diana’s vast, open plan kitchen and seeing the light pour in onto her floor-to-ceiling colossal collection of cookery books, I felt like a fifteen-year-old with a backstage pass to see their pop idol. Diana was so welcoming, down-to-earth, straight-talking and funny. It was just like sitting down with a friend you’ve known for years.
Diana is something of a household name in the UK through her brilliantly written columns in The Sunday Telegraph’s Stella Magazine, Red Magazine, House and Garden and Country Living. She pursues unusual ingredients and exotic flavours, with recipes being sewn together with stories from near and far, to create an “otherworldly” food experience.
“I like dishes that have a story behind them, that are called something unusual. Food is not just food; it has a context in our lives. I love the way that it’s not just a plate of things that’s going to taste good or give you energy – it’s a connection. I’m big into connections.”
The other side to Diana is much simpler, with seasonality often taking centre stage. Great puddings, straight-forward suppers and pub classics, as can be seen by her recipes in ‘Food from Plenty’, ‘Cook Simple’ and her popular two ‘gastro-pub’ cook books. Diana’s cookery books have all been published by Octopus Press, an imprint of Mitchell Beazley.
Her next book, ‘Salt, Sugar, Smoke’, due to be published in October 2012, is all about the art of preserving, including fruits and vegetables, jams and chutneys, and as usual, is bang on the money. Diana showed me a sneak peak of her recipes and photographs and if I were the betting kind, I’d say her newest book will be her best.
Her dedication to her work is quite astounding. She works very methodically, usually spending a couple of days writing and then a couple of days cooking, finding that the two disciplines require a different pace.
“I love cooking, but I love writing just as much. I spend ages refining and going over things, tinkering with them and changing things. I love that thing of trying to get a balance in your writing but also it has its internal rhythm. I’m better at it now, but you do have to learn to write to length. It takes a while to establish your own voice. I think now I write with more humour and I suppose over the time I’ve written it’s become a bit more elegant, if you like. I put a lot of myself into my books and I just want them to be warm and human.”
Diana is definitely warm and human and her own cookery books really do reflect her character. She plans her mini-breaks around the best places to eat; seeking out local mills or the best tea shops and has, for as long as she remembers, always taken a notebook with her to record things she’d like to try out at home. She will leave no stone unturned in her quest for good food and will often go more than the extra mile:
“Once, I made my husband drive miles out of our way in America to eat a doughnut! There was this doughnut place in Vermont, we weren’t even in Vermont – we were in Massachusetts – and I made him drive all the way there because I’d read this description in a magazine. They were fab doughnuts though!”
Her earliest food influencers were her mother, grannies and aunts in Ireland, with her earliest food memory being her mum bringing wheaten bread out of the oven as she was sitting up on the counter:
“She’d take it out and as soon as it was cool enough to handle would cut me a slice and put my aunt’s raspberry jam on it. I can remember sitting there and eating it as if it were yesterday.”
She remembers cooking from the age of six, sending her mum out to buy complicated ingredients, allowing to her to experimentally make ‘ice cream terrines’ and ‘guinea fowl in puff pastry’ – “Stuff you’d never make now!”
Diana left Ireland to read English at Oxford, venturing out to Raymond’s ‘Le Petit Blanc’ for a meal she still remembers and reading ‘Le Manoir’s’ menu from outside the walled driveway on misty nights. She went on to be a successful television producer, until she started a family and realised that she just didn’t enjoy leaving her child with a nanny.
Turning to food writing as a second career alongside being a busy mum, Diana has become hugely successful, gaining accolades from The Guild of Food Writers, twice including “Cookery Writer of the Year.” Despite this, she is incredibly laid back about it all:
“You know, you have a hobby that turns into this thing, where you get paid to do something wonderful. That’s not to say that when I’m going through the bins at 2 o’clock in the morning, trying to work out how many eggs I’ve put into something by counting eggs shells, I don’t think, “Oh my goodness, why do I do this?” And the worst thing about my job is the washing up – I do loads of it!”
She has always had a great love of fiction and prose, ‘The Arabian Nights’ and ‘The Little House on the Prairie’ inspiring her first two cookery book titles. At the moment, she is quite taken by the well-constructed writing of New Yorker Adam Gopnik, author of ‘The Table Comes First’.
Of course, Diana is also influenced by other cultures, travelling, “though not massively,” but “sucking it all in” whenever she does. She often collects cookery books from abroad, even though she can’t read them, just for their pictures or design. All the cookery books across all the floors in her house, including all the great classics, (she estimates 4,000!) are categorised by country and subject.
As well as solidly producing best-selling cookery books and writing her columns, Diana also manages a very busy home. In their newly refurbished home with her partner Ben, they are now a family of seven, all with individual needs and demands. There are often mountains of food left over from shoots, but despite this, there is never anything the kids want to eat. Are they fussy eaters, I wondered?
“They are very aware about additives and they wouldn’t eat a ready meal. I cook every day, but there are some days that I will cook something plain. I think cooking for kids is really hard. The dishes that they love are pretty time consuming, like lasagne. When I make a lasagne I feel like a need to go and have a lie-down! I mean, that’s definitely a request dish!”
Although Diana is a solid household name when it comes to food writing for traditional publications, Diana actually has a quite a private existence, shying away from blogging, websites and Twitter:
“I just don’t think I have a big enough ego to do Tweeting, or stuff like that. It might be my age, but I think “Why would anybody care what I’ve done of an afternoon?!”
I asked Diana what she thinks about the explosion of food blogs and whether she reads any:
“I do read some blogs and think, my goodness; they’re even more passionate about food than me! I think it’s great that people care so much about their food that they cook it and photograph it. I mean, I’d probably be doing that now, if the internet had been around when I was in my teens.
I was also interested to know how she felt about bloggers adapting her recipes:
“I see stuff all the time on other people’s blogs that’s mine and I take it as a compliment. I’ve no idea whether they’ve looked for permission or not; I don’t really care as long as they’ve said it’s mine. I think with cooking there’s nothing new under the sun. There’s only one way to make a Victoria Sandwich.”
If she had any advice to food bloggers, it would be to “cut to the chase”:
“People have limited time and most new writers and bloggers could use a good Editor! It’s very important to learn how to write to length, to keep things brief and succinct and to write about only the things that you are really inspired by.”
What struck me most about Diana Henry was that she doesn’t separate herself from food or from her food writing; it is always there, it is part of her life and part of who she is. Perhaps that is what makes her stand out; there is no pretence, just good, honest, food.
Above all, I think Diana made me realise that having a passion, whether it is for food or anything else, is a really rare thing, to be nurtured, followed and embraced!
Diana’s first two cookery books have recently been re-published by Octopus Press, due to a continued demand for them.
Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons – Enchanting Dishes from the Middle East, Mediterranean and North Africa RRP £15.00
Roast Figs, Sugar Snow – Food to Warm the Soul RRP £15.00
Salt, Sugar, Smoke (10 Oct 2012)
All published by Octopus Press/Mitchell Beazley