Sometimes it’s nice to gather together to celebrate. I don’t think we celebrate, or gather together, nearly enough anymore. Time is always too tight and other commitments always seem to take precedence. As Brits, we don’t really go too far into celebrating our successes, either. So, I was delighted to be amongst a group of food writers and bloggers to be invited to tea recently with Diana Henry at her home to celebrate the launch of her latest book, Salt Sugar Smoke, an enchanting guide on preserving meat, fish and vegetables.
When I first met Diana Henry last year, I was instantly struck by both her generosity and her appreciation of good food. I was also fortunate enough to come away with some invaluable advice on the subject of food writing. As a food writer and cookery book author, part of Diana’s job, as she sees it, is to gather and collect recipes and then to share them. It’s really quite a straightforward process; Diana cooks and writes and has made a living out of something that she once considered to be a hobby.
On that occasion, Diana was interested in asking me some questions, too, and was quite intrigued, I think, by the evolution of new media and food bloggers. In particular, by the efforts we make and lengths we go to in documenting and tweeting our everyday experiences of food. The propellant, as we came to understand in both our cases, is a deep-rooted passion for all aspects of food.
High tea – ‘a very British kind of meal’ – was what Diana used to have at her great grandmother’s house on a Sunday. There would always be bread and butter and jam, each preserve with their individual spoon. Our celebratory gathering replicated that in some ways, alongside some of Diana’s favourite recipes from Salt Sugar Smoke.
Homemade preserves were served in vintage china bowls, flavours included greengage and gewürztraminer, apricot and lavender, rhubarb, cardamom and rose and purple fig and pomegranate.
Diana had also made whisky and brown sugar cured salmon with a fennel and apple relish, served alongside artisan cheese with whitecurrant jelly and two types of homemade bread; Irish brown and sourdough.
A little understated sweetness came in the form of hazelnut pavlovas topped with crème fraiche, autumn raspberries and rosehip jelly, and a simple Victoria sandwich filled with mascarpone cream and passion fruit curd.
Since our gathering was celebratory in nature, we were also treated to a glass of champagne with a dash of homemade fruit alcohols, including quince liqeueur and sloe gin – although we were all equally happy with refills of warming tea served in pretty pots and china cups!
For me, the mantra in all of Diana’s books is to find really good simple food, to share it, to enjoy it. In her own personal quest, Diana is always on the lookout for unusual recipes or ‘otherworldly’ recipes from all over the globe. In Salt Sugar Smoke there is a wonderful section on the joy of the ‘zakuski’ table; small plates of delicacies from Russia and Eastern Europe. There are also delightful Indian and Middle Eastern accompaniments, relishes, chutneys and more ideas for things to have with high tea – hand-crafted pickles and various ‘bits that are served on the side.’
Diana explores the many different ways of preserving, with an innate understanding of ingredients and flavours as well as a deep respect for tradition and food history, too. In her view, ‘home cooking – especially the quick kind we do a lot these days – is about accessorizing. We have to think of something good to do with a pork chop or a piece of fish.’
I’ve particularly enjoyed teaching myself some of our lost culinary skills through the book, too. I made purple fig and pomegranate jam on my own for the first time. I also cured a salmon with beetroot, dill and vodka for my sister’s birthday and made a Georgian plum sauce using fresh, seasonal plums to serve alongside our usual Sunday roast. I’ll certainly also look forward to replicating ‘high tea’ and to making some pickles and chutneys to give as gifts for Christmas.
It seems that commercialism, mass production and a need to have things instantly have overtaken our instincts to preserve, sustain and safeguard. Skills that were once considered to be essential to the home have almost become irrelevant to our busy lives. I am hopeful that we are slowly rediscovering the art of making things for ourselves and that in the process; we are sharing and teaching ourselves something new, too.
It was brave of Diana to open up her home and lay out her food to the scrutiny of food bloggers, editors and writers. We ate, we chatted, we tweeted, we peeked into Diana’s cookery book collection and into her pantry and we took photographs of every detail. Diana was warm, welcoming and very unassuming of her success.
Tradition met with modernity in many ways on that bright and memorable afternoon. I was also reminded that really good food isn’t about pomp and grandeur. Tea with Diana Henry illustrated that there can be great elegance in simplicity.
‘It could seem very grandiose to talk about ‘what makes a good life’ in a book that is simply a collection of recipes. But for me, one of the constituents of a good life is the ability to find pleasure in the small things. A good jam for your toast in the morning. A chutney that is made from apples you gathered last autumn. Cutting salt beef that you’ve made yourself and can feed to a dozen friends. These are seemingly unimportant things, and they won’t change the world, but the sum of happiness in one’s life is often made up of such details.’
Diana Henry, Salt Sugar Smoke
With many thanks to Diana Henry and Fiona Smith of Octopus Books for arranging the afternoon.
Salt Sugar Smoke is published by Mitchell Beazley/Octopus Books