The author of this heady, relentlessly wondrous, deeply exciting book is Patience Gray (1917-2005), a remarkable Engishwoman of Polish-Jewish descent who wrote, with Primrose Boyd, a groundbreaking cookbook in 1957 called Plats du Jour –which was a pioneering attempt to convince English cooks that there was life beyond roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
It was after Plats du Jour that Gray met and fell in love with the artist and sculptor Norman Mommens (to whom she refers always—and rather mysteriously—as The Sculptor). As her obituary puts it, the two then “precipitately” embarked on a Mediterranean odyssey (leaving behind her husband and two children) that would take them to Carrara, Catalonia, the Greek island of Naxos and, finally, to southern Italy, where they settled, in 1970, in Apulia, in a farmhouse named Spigolizzi.
Gray’s eloquent, passionate recounting of this peripatetic adventure in Honey from a Weed--which she infuses everywhere with sensuous descriptions of sybaritic feasts, astringent fasts (yes, fasts in a cookery book!) and culinary procedures, and with her continual glorying in books and manuscripts,* flora and fauna—make the book not only a cookbook, which it outstandingly is, but also a kind of handbook to the pleasures of being (fully) alive.
It looked as if she would never marry but, in the end, she did tie the knot with Norman in 1995. He died in 2000.
One of her obituaries notes that “Patience was a woman of strong emotions and opinions, her prose muscular and full of character. So, too, was her cookery. While Plats Du Jour had been largely derived from books and home experiment, Honey was more in the way of field notes of an anthropologist, but one who had gone native herself. To her last years, she would not have the normal conveniences of refrigerators, gas cookers, electric light, telephones or water closets at Spigolizzi.”
She seems not to have experienced any of this as deprivation. No time for that. Gray is all joy, and, more often than not, ecstasy. Here are the opening lines of her Introduction to the book:
“In the last twenty years I have shared the fortunes of a stone carver…A vein of marble runs through this book. Marble determined where, how and among whom we lived, always in primitive conditions. There was not a trickle of water on tap either in the dilapidated country dwelling in the vineyards above Carrara—reached on foot up a steep muletrack—or in the spacious muleshed which served as habitation in Apollona on Naxos…. The recipes on this book accumulated during this marble odyssey in the 60s, and went on accumulating when in 1970 we settled in the vaulted workspaces of a ruined sheep farm in the Salentine peninsula…Living in the wild, it has often seemed that we were living on the margins of literacy. This led to reading the landscape and learning from people, that is to first hand experience…It is in this situation that I set out to write from personal observation and practice, underpinned by study, over a considerable period of time….”
“Good cooking,” she continues, “is the result of a balance struck between frugality and liberality…it is born out in communities where the supply of food is conditioned by the seasons…Once we lose touch with the spendthrift aspect of nature’s provisions epitomized in the raising of a crop, we are in danger of losing touch with life itself.”
Patience Gray never does that. Each page of Honey from a Weed is a huge, Zorba-like whoop of joy. Here is Gray being transported by delight:
“The secret of cooking is the release of fragrance and the art of imparting it. Fragrance: the bay laurel, Laurus nobilis, a sacred tree, how brightly, how fiercely it burns, Gather the thick-leaved branches in summer if you can. Sweet: the influence of rosemary, its ungainly, shrubby stems bursting with pale lilac flowers. Pungent the mint trodden underfoot on the way to the orchard. Peppery and sweet the scent of wild marjoram, oregano, self-drying in July ion droughty limestone hillsides; lemon-scented the clumps of wild savory, poor man’s pepper, producing its minute snapdragon flowers in August, picked by quarrymen on their way down from the quarry….”
It’s a culinary Song of Songs.
Here is Gray’s suggestion for making Peperoncini Amary (hit green chilli peppers): “When the sun enters the Lion, these fruits are crisp and green. Picked at early morning, they are washed, then thrown into a pan in which some olive oil is heating, almost smoking hot. This produces a hissing sound and the immediate collapse of the hot little peppers. Turn down the heat, add salt, 2 or 3 crushed tomatoes and a leaf or two of mint, and shake to prevent sticking. This is eaten cold with thick hunks of bread a nd draughts of strong red Apulian wine.”
And here are her Patates Vidues (“Widowed potatoes”):
1 kg (2 1/4 lb) firm potatoes
1 large onion
2 big tomatoes
1 tsp sweet paprika pepper
For the picada:
4 grilled almonds
1 soupspoon pine kernels
1 peeled glove of garlic
Peel the potatoes and slice them thinly. Hash the onion minutely, brown in a heavy pan in olive oil, then add the peeled tomatoes. Crush them in the pan, cook them for 5 minutes and put in the paprika pepper and the bay-leaf. Add the potatoes, just cover them with cold water, add salt, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 15 minutes, covered.
Pound the picada to a paste in the mortar, dilute with a little of the potato liquor, and pour it into the pan. Cook for another 15 minutes uncovered, by which time the liquor should have reduced into a sauce, the potatoes remaining unbroken
* In what other bibilography of what other cookery book could you possibly find listed Dante’s La Commedia, the plays of Aristophanes, Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, Charles Dickens’ Pictures from Italy, George Gissing’s By the Ionian Sea, Roger Phillips’ Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe, Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude,Virgil’s Aeneid, and about 800 other must-reads. The brilliant Ms. Gray makes you feel both hungry and ill-read.