Ladies of the Pen and the Cookpot: Patience Gray

HONEY FROM A WEED: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia, by Patience Gary (Harper & Row, 1987)

Although Elizabeth David published the first truly popular English book on Mediterranean Food (1950), another author, the lesser- known English food writer and free-spirit, Patience Gray, wrote the more poetic works. Her Plats du Jour (1957), despite its French title, netted recipes from all the lands of the Mediterranean, mostly gleaned from books and such. Years later, she followed up that enticing work with Honey from a Weed, in many ways one of the most engaging and tantalizing cookbooks I have ever read. Because Honey reflects her lived experienced, it will become a classic. And probably already has.

I’ve owned Gray’s lovely book for years – my copy is a first-edition hardcover of the American edition – I’d certainly love to own the very first one printed by Prospect Books! (As well as her other works, Ring Doves and Snakes, Work Adventures Childhood Dreams, and The Centaur’s Kitchen: A Book of French, Italian, Greek, and Catalan Dishes for the Blue Funnel Ships.)

Gray would be a blogger today, I am sure, for Honey reads both like a diary and a series of letters to intimate, food-loving friends.

Like M. F. K. Fisher’s ambrosial texts, Gray’s words transport us, modern readers and technology addicts, back to a time when ring-tones and instant messaging did not exist. Away from even the distractions of what passed for modern life, she sank into the daily rituals of cooking from scratch, for there simply was no other way in the places where she lived, near the marble quarries that her sculptor lover, Belgian artist Norman Mommens, required for his art. Her sketches of her life with Mommens read totally unlike the British travel writers she no doubt read and maybe even interacted with during her time as the women’s-page writer for the English newspaper, The Observer. As Tom Jaine, of Prospect Books, said of her work at The Observer in her obituary:

There was little consensus among the tweed-jacketed editorial staff as to what sort of thing might appeal to women: advice on household gadgets perhaps, but little else by way of inspiration. Handed carte blanche, Patience filled it to good effect. Women, she felt, did not want to acquire, but to learn. And she set about instructing them in European art, design, thought and habits.

Once she met Mommens,  though, she blossomed into the woman we hear speaking from the wild and sensual pages of Honey:

The Sculptor’s appetite for marble precipitated us out of modern life into the company of marble artisans and wine-growers in Carrara and into an isolated community of ‘Bronze-Age’ farmers on Naxos.  … Living in the wild, it has often seemed that were living on the margins of literacy. This led to reading the landscape and learning from people, that is to first hand experience. This experience is both real and necessarily limited.

And on and on, the experiences come. Recipes float in and out of the narrative, Gray’s keen observer’s eye connecting with her writer’s hand, serving forth delectable and daunting descriptions of life as a vagabond. Take her description of one of her many kitchens:

In the kitchen at La Barozza above Carrara, that ‘somber old beautiful house’ as the painter Edith Schloss described it, marooned on the saddle of an Etruscan hill, there was still the built-in tiled charcoal installation which had to be lit with little sticks of charcoal and paper. It required a lot of fanning with feather fans to set the charcoal on top alight. On this fish and meat were grilled and glazed earthenware bean pots and casseroles were set to stew, the heat being reduced when need by sprinkling ash on the live coals.

Jared Vincent)

But Gray doesn’t just relate the trials of cooking – she weaves in stories about the places, terroir as it were. Living a rather anarchic life herself, she spends a few moments in a digression as she calls it, about the meaning of anarchy in Carrara:

A book about food can be as fatiguing [a bit of humility here that is not really warranted – her book mesmerizes] as sitting through a six course dinner, so I propose to intrude a digression – offered like a glass of marc or eau de vie to brace the protagonists.

Many people think of anarchism as a symptom of social breakdown, they confuse it with anarchy. The distinction becomes apparent in Kropotkin’s memoirs. Anarchism – which admits both individualism and human brotherhood – is a positive force. And anyone who has spent time in Carrara recognizes it as way of life. …

The strong anarchic spirit of the Carraresi has to do not just with danger but with their origins – as they admit without rancour – as forced labour working the quarries in Roman times.

So the culture and the food both formed from the environment, the politics, the all, as it were.

There’s no better ending to a book like this than what Gray says, “The recipes in this book belong to an era of food grown for its own sake, not for profit. This era has vanished. If cooking and eating were all I had had in mind when writing them down, the pleasure they might afford would be largely nostalgic. … It seemed to me appropriate to show something of the life that generates this indispensable element at a time when undernourishment bedevils even the highest income groups.”

Bella Baita B & B, Italy)

FUNGHI SOTT’OLIO (fungi conserved in oil)

This way of preserving very young porcini (Boletus edulis) comes from Fivizzano in the Lunigiana behind La Spezia, a famous fungi region. It can be successfully applied to the very young field agarics (gills still pink), to baby chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) and to orange milk mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus, L. sanguifluus, etc.).

So, using fungi freshly gathered in an immature state, remove the base of the stems but otherwise leave them whole. Clean them well, put them in an earthenware or enamel pan and just cover, half and half, with white wine vinegar and water, adding 2 peeled garlic cloves. Bring to the boil and cook for 8 minutes, at most, then drain them. Dry on a cloth, then leave them overnight in a warm place on another dry cloth.

Next day: put them into clean glass jars with 2 bayleaves (sic), some fragments of cinnamon bark and the heads of 2 cloves.

Cover with olive oil and close with an airtight lid.

Leave for at least six weeks to allow the oil to time to overcome their impregnation with vinegar. Serve as an hors d’oeuvre.

(For more on mushrooms, see my post, “The Fungus Among Us.”)

© 2008, 2010 C. Bertelsen

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4 comments

  • Hi Cynthia
    So glad to have just found your blog. I love Honey F A W it just smells of all those thyme covered Mediterranean hillsides. She was an extraordinary woman. I have an ancient edition of Plats du Jour as well – its one of my staple reference books. Heretically I think she’s a much better writer than Elizabeth David and it’s interesting that they both lead such bohemian lifestyles. Don’t you just love the bit in HFAW where the sculptors are all drunk and she’s pursued by the Cuban and takes refuge with Senora Gina…what a life. Thanks for making me re-open my edition – and for the photos too.

    Like

  • Hello Mae, Anne, and Sue,

    Thanks for the positive comments — I wish we knew more about so many other cookery writers from the past.

    Mae, I’ll read your posy on Honey ASAP.

    Sue, I know what you mean about Amazon!

    Anne, wouldn’t it be fun to meet with all these people we still read?

    Like

  • thank you for your write up of this book. I’ve been meaning to get my hands on a copy for some time and now I know I must just do it! And what a great recipe! It sounds like a wonderful explosion of flavours.

    Like

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