“If you’re curious about the world, then food is a wonderfully satisfying way of approaching it because all human experience can be investigated through the food that appears on your plate. There’s always a story.” Matthew Fort
I can hardly believe it, but the time has finally come for me to sit down, relax and tell you all about the story of my first cookbook, Wild Honey and Rye: Modern Polish Recipes, published by Pavilion Books. There have been some early copies spotted around bookshops this week (this book is clearly too eager to get out into the big wide world!) but the official publication date is Thursday 7th September 2017.
It would be very nice to simply say that I was sitting here writing about food one day, when a big hand came down from the sky, pointed to me and said: “You have been chosen to write a book!” The reality is that it takes a lot of hard work, perseverance and an unwavering (bordering on stubborn) belief in your idea. Basically, you’re working against the odds. I’ve no doubt, that a little bit of luck comes into it, too. More on that, later.
I probably first started thinking, or daydreaming about writing a cookbook back in 2011 when I first took some Polish food onto Weekend Kitchen at BBC Three Counties Radio and the host said, “This is delicious, you should write a cookbook.” It sounded like a good idea at the time, although a little overwhelming as I was only just starting out as a food writer.
I had grown up eating Polish food because both sides of my family, maternal and paternal came from Poland. My father fought with the Polish Armed Forces in the West and we were brought up speaking Polish, marking Polish traditions and playing an active role within the Polish diaspora of Manchester where lots of Poles settled following the Polish Re-Settlement Act of 1947. Whilst Polish food seemed so obvious to me, to the outside world, Polish food was still classified as a ‘lesser known’ cuisine.
My ideas simmered away, but my blog work and other freelance writing work were also picking up pace. There was just so much to write about and so many ideas buzzing around in my head. A few mainstream magazines featured one or two of my Polish recipes and it took me a couple of years to finish off the Diploma in Food Journalism that I had started alongside my blog, once I had stepped away from the law.
In 2013, I took a really enjoyable course with Xanthe Clay and Vanessa Kimbell, helpfully called: How to Write a Write and Publish a Recipe Book. We all sat around a big table, eating Rachel’s ‘Sugar Moon’ chocolate brownies and talking about our ideas. After the course, I felt I had a better and more structured idea of how to write a proposal at least, if not a whole book. As an avid reader and collector of cookbooks, it was also becoming apparent that there was a lot to consider. It was once thing to have a good idea, but there was also the question of making it different and unique without being too niche, of building a platform and an audience and of finding someone who believed in my idea as much as I did.
In 2014, our third baby was born and by then, whilst I was still keeping the blog going, I had put all my dreams of writing a book to one side. I was regularly writing a features column for JamieOliver.com now, lots of other freelance commissions were coming my way and we were just about to embark on a house remodel/renovation project that had also been in the planning for about five years prior. It didn’t seem sensible, with three young children and no roof, to add anything else into the mix.
Just before our building work began, I was selected to be a Judge for the Guild of Food Writers Awards and suddenly, my living room was filled with over 100 cookbooks – in addition to the hundreds of cookbooks I already owned. We were supposed to be de-cluttering ahead of the build, but instead I became immersed. I cooked from them whilst the windows and doors were being ripped out, I conferred with fellow judges and a winner was selected. I looked forward to escaping the dust to attend the Guild’s annual party. Whilst I loved each and every single book that made it into my top ten list, there was my ever-growing niggle; Polish food hadn’t been represented. It was still undiscovered, there were still misperceptions and there was so much I wanted to say.
The turning point
At the Guild’s party, by chance, I was introduced to Heather Holden-Brown, who, as it turned out, was a literary agent. It was Heather who turned to me and said, “Ren, my love, you have to write this book.” That week, she took me under her wing and I signed with HHB Agency. This was the dose of luck I referred to earlier. Being in the right place, at the right time. Without Heather, there would be no Wild Honey and Rye. I now had an extra level of accountability – I didn’t want to let Heather down.
If truth be told, I would have been quite busy enough at this point with my freelance work and dealing with seeing our house being rebuilt. I remember pushing our youngest in a pushchair through the rubble so that I could advise on whether a wall should come down, or ringing my husband, Ed, who was also juggling too many things, to say the wrong wall had been pulled down.
On another personal note, my father, now in his 90s had passed away that year, so things were a bit foggy. Heather had given me the summer to gather my thoughts. I took a deep breath and started again with my proposal, which became something of a PhD, over 50 pages in length and filled to the brim with as many facts and figures I could find to support my idea. I had it professionally proof-read and sent it to Dianne Jacob, who wrote the first book on food writing I had read called Will Write for Food because I still had the lingering fear my draft wasn’t good enough. I also read ‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert – highly recommended if you’re battling with personal fears or creative blocks. I created visual story-boards to back up my ideas, with pictures of honey and food images that I particularly liked. Things were starting to feel very different and there was increasing interest in my Polish recipes.
In November 2015, two of my friends were going to Warsaw and they had found a really cool flat to stay in with a spare third bedroom. I looked at the chaos around me and simply said: “I’m going to Poland.” I don’t even think there was a discussion. Ever-supportive of my crazy plans, Ed took up the reins and off I flew for three days. It was mid-November and they sky was grey, everywhere. I wasn’t expecting much from Warsaw. Some time to myself perhaps. A wander around. A visit to the monument of the 1st Polish Armoured Division that my father had fought with during the Second World War. I was looking forward to cheering for my friend Aggie, who was running in the Independence Day race.
Though I had been to Poland many times before, to family in Wrocław and Kraków and on school trips to Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains, my last visit to Warsaw had been during my 20s whilst at university to write a dissertation on NATO. My memories were hazy and I didn’t even stay for as long as I should have done. I was too eager to get back to my flat and job and friends in London. Polish food cooked by Mama was tastier back in the UK, and at home we didn’t have to queue for bread. All my earlier trips to Poland had been marred with sadness, or post-communism, or lack – although the food had always been good and my family always seemed to have a knack of pulling together something out of nothing.
During my 2015 trip to Poland, everything clicked into place. My heart was happy. Oddly, despite the grief and I had found my direction.
Poland had changed. The people were warm and friendly and welcoming. I reconnected with my family living in Warsaw. We ate at a modern restaurant our friend Marek was working in and I had one of the best meals of my life with my friends Aggie and Boz. I slipped into the Polish way of life a little too comfortably, chatting to taxi drivers, arranging meetings at Polish magazines offering travel pieces, zipping around on the trams, stopping at food markets to eat and take food photos.
On my return, Heather had sent my proposal out and had lined some meetings up and I was absolutely bursting to tell everyone about my experiences in Poland. They listened, they were intrigued. Sometimes I talked a bit too much, but I was beyond excited. Things then unfolded pretty quickly.
The meeting of minds
Pavilion Books, specifically Publishing Director Katie Cowan and Commissioning Editor Emily Preece-Morrison, simply ‘got’ me and my vision. As a publishing house led by Polly Powell, they are independent, forward-thinking and bold. As a team, they are incredibly normal and laid back and for the most part left me to it. I wrote and the words just poured out onto the pages. I was in my zone. There were no tears, or tantrums. I kept in mind that home cooks are time-poor these days and that no one has hours and hours to spend in the kitchen. Nor does anyone really want to eat fat-laden stodgy food and actually, I was very keen to put across the fact that in Poland, my recent experiences of the food there had been based on fresh ingredients, seasonality and simple flavours. The Poles had taken to street-food too, and to eating outdoors whenever they could. There were more new ingredients and flavours on the Polish culinary scene than ever before. I noted that there was a very positive, communal atmosphere in Poland; it was no longer so focused on the Polish table at home, but that the Poles themselves were more curious as to the food trends around them. I went back to visit the breakfast markets and to take more photos, each time feeling more and more inspired.
Alongside lots of new ideas and recipes, I wrote up the recipes that I had learnt from my family and use to regularly feed my own children, time and time again. And then came another trip to Poland, followed by another, and more and more things jumped out at me and suddenly there was too much to include.
I was also very conscious that I didn’t want to look backwards to how Poland used to be. I didn’t want to be nostalgic – perhaps because I had lost my dad, perhaps because I had seen such a huge shift in the culinary scene in Poland. I wanted it to be forward-looking, modern, bright and vibrant – just like Poland is today and I hope, how she will always be.
The Creative Process
My experience has been incredibly positive and all at Pavilion Books have been super supportive of bringing this ‘lesser known cuisine’ to life and of giving me a chance. I didn’t take on the photography, although a few of my travel images do appear, as do a few family photographs. It was a real joy to write and then to watch and observe all the magic happening around me. Everyone loved the food on shoot days and were genuinely surprised by the lightness of it all and the ideas and flavours – the pierogi were always a big hit. The sweet pierogi with strawberries, pistachio nuts and wild honey made the biggest impression so they made the front cover.
The shoot team, who deserve maximum credit are photographer Yuki Sugiura, whose work you may be familiar with from many cookbooks, The Telegraph, The Guardian Cook, John Lewis Edition covers and much, much more. Yuki had such an incredible eye for detail and a manner of working that was calm and organised and full of light. I loved seeing my recipes captured so beautifully and elegantly in her studio.
Our home economist on set was the brilliant Rebecca Woods, who went the extra mile on every shoot day to source the best looking sea bass or perfectly-sized pickling cucumbers from Borough market and who then made it all look captivating. The results show that Polish food is light, appealing and straightforward to achieve at home.
We were also incredibly lucky to watch and learn from Alexander Breeze who brought imagination and a creative direction to the backgrounds, table and prop settings. I was simply in awe.
Back at Pavilion, Laura Russell worked her magic on the design of the book, along with commissioning editor Emily who continued to steer the modern direction of the book. Whilst external editor Maggie Ramsey and myself went back and forth, though not too much, with edits and improvements. I particularly enjoyed working on The Polish Pantry section which appears at the beginning of the book because I was keen to make sure that no one feels overwhelmed by any new ingredients – there really aren’t too many unfamiliar items, most are widely available in supermarkets and/or your local Polish deli – I’m sure you’ll have one nearby…!
Emily later handed the book over to Stephanie Milner, who guided me through the final few stages and then once the book was complete, Komal Patel and the team took over to start spreading the word about the book and that’s where we are at now. I’m sure there numerous more people behind the scenes who helped bring this book to life, from commercial experts to marketing teams and more. I feel very lucky to have been in such good hands.
Heather, and Cara at HHB Agency have also been on-hand throughout to help me navigate the process.
All in all, from signing to publication, the process has taken close to two years. The house is finished, too. The children and Ed are still being fed lots of Polish food.
So that’s the story of Wild Honey and Rye. I hadn’t intended this post to be so long, but there you have it, almost another book. Really, I wanted to tell you about the food. But I hope Wild Honey and Rye will tell the story of modern Polish food itself, through the pages you’ll see and through the recipes I hope you’ll make.
This has been my blog, my space, my little corner of the world for seven years now. Often, being a mother and writing from home has been lonely and lots of things have changed. This blog has been my constant and without you all, I wouldn’t have had the courage to try and catch my dreams. I’m very proud of my Polish heritage – it has made me who I am and the ultimate privilege is to have been able to write about it and to share Polish food with a wider audience. Having dual-heritage has made me different and unique and often I have struggled with that. But reading blogs and connecting with people all over the world made me feel like I fitted in somewhere. And that’s something I’ll always treasure. Thank you for supporting me with all my recipes writing. Every single thing I’ve written about from Polish food, to family food, to cookbook reviews has been a small part of a much bigger tapestry. I’m looking forward now to hosting some Wild Honey and Rye-themed events – my first one is here and I hope there will be many more Polish food adventures.
This book is for you.
Wild Honey and Rye is for anyone who has cause to cook. I know that cooking can sometimes feel like a chore, but it can be incredibly satisfying to push yourself to try something new.
Polish food isn’t spicy or heavy, it’s light and seasonal. We eat eggs and porridge for breakfast, just like everyone else – though I often have millet porridge and pour wild honey over my rye toast and cream cheese. All the classics are in there – salads (my favourite one is cucumber, sour cream and dill), my Mama’s bigos and cabbage rolls, as well as recipes to make with fresh market produce, soups, light bites, street food, food for family and friends (my favourite chapter), high tea and cakes (lots of my cakes have fruit in them) and there’s a chapter on vodka and how to capture and bottle seasonal gluts and flavour your own limited edition batches.
Feedback and where to buy
As well as being available in the UK, Wild Honey and Rye is available in America, Canada, South Africa, Denmark, Germany, New Zealand and Australia – and more and more countries are starting to list it! I have set up a page here with more information on where to buy it and I’ll also be hosting some events over the coming week, so I’ll keep you posted.
Wild Honey and Rye has also already received some wonderful feedback –
- Early this year, Julia Platt Leonard listed Wild Honey and Rye as one of The best cookbooks to look forward to in 2017.
- delicious. magazine selected it as a September Hot New Cookbook, “Author Ren Behan…shares sweet and savoury recipes that are strongly influenced by her heritage, but cleverly updated and modernised.”
- Sumayya Usmani featured a recipe in her column for The Herald, Scotland
- Sally at My Custard Pie made the millet porridge, a whole batch of pierogi and some of the salads as soon as she received the book and shared her Polish food memories and thoughts on my book here.
Pop back here next week for my virtual book launch, too.
You can connect with me here by leaving a comment or on social media where you’ll find me as @renbehan
Thank you, thank you, thank you to all who have supported, pre-ordered and already cooked from Wild Honey and Rye.
I hope my debut book earns a place in your culinary collection.
Wild Honey and Rye: Modern Polish Recipes is available from all good bookshops and can also be ordered online.
7th September 2017, Pavilion Books.
Recipe images and portrait by Yuki Sugiura.
Tag your creations with #wildhoneyandrye