Honey from a Weed is one of those few cookbooks I could keep by my bedside. I like to open it at random and become absorbed by a recipe or a story, like the one about sharing a dinner with shepherds on Naxos, the differing views of a Milanese and a Salentine diver on what to do with the an octopus, or the “majestic” Catalonian feast that ended with a century old wine that tasted of chocolate syrup.
Published in 1986, it is more than just a cookbook – it is a memoir that follows Patience Gray’s travels to the places she called home in Spain, France, Italy and Greece, it is a foraging handbook (she became an expert on mushrooms and wild weeds) and a guide to a way of life that has vanished. Forever faithful to the place and time and the memories from where she plucked the recipe, Gray’s experiences “living in the wild”, as she says, make this a collection of recipes unlike any other.
Gray, born in Surrey, England in 1917, was no stranger to writing. She wrote her first books in the 1950s; her first cookbook was called Plats du Jour, co-written with Primrose Boyd in 1957. It was a hit, selling 50,000 in its first year and she shortly afterwards became the editor of The Observers’s women’s page. In 1960, when she was 43, she met the love of her life, Belgian artist Norman Mommens, who she refers to simply as “The Sculptor” throughout Honey from a Weed. They embarked on an odyssey following marble for the Sculptor’s work – as Gray says in her introduction, “A vein of marble runs through this book. Marble determined where, how and among whom we lived; always in primitive conditions.”
The marble took them to Provence, Carrara (Tuscany), Veneto, Catalonia, Apollona on the Greek island of Naxos and Puglia, in the deep-south of Italy’s heel. It was in Puglia where the couple finally settled in 1970 at the farmhouse she calls Spigolizzi – and it was here Gray died in 2005, five years after Mommens.
Many of Gray’s recipes are so mesmerising that they make you feel transported to a particular time and place – under Glikó, a Greek specialty of fruit such as grapes, quince or unripe walnuts in syrup, she describes it as a restorative treat, offered to weary travellers: “The glikó is presented on a saucer with a spoon and is consumed under a fig tree in a courtyard. The lady of the house provides you with a rush-seated chair to sit on, and another on which to rest your legs. She sprinkles the courtyard floor with water from a water jar to lay the dust and cool the air, and presents you with a sprig of basil and a glass of spring water while you despatch the glikó.”
Fasting and feasting (part of the book’s subtitle and, incidentally, the name of a recent biography of Patience Gray by Adam Federman) are recurring themes in Honey from a Weed. Gray inserts these concepts in connection with the dependence on the seasons (moments of abundant harvest lead to feasting, while sparse, harsh winters are times of fasting) as well as the traditional culture, such as the Greek orthodox fasting days that were strictly followed on Naxos. She puts this all into perspective over and over again by comparing the modern world of everyday convenience to the primitive one she was living, and observes things like,
“Poverty rather than wealth gives the good things of life their true significance. Home-made bread rubbed with garlic and sprinkled with olive oil, shared – with a flask of wine – between working people, can be more convivial than any feast.”
Having experienced this exact delight many times during the decade or so that I have lived in Tuscany, I can say, I wholeheartedly agree.
Gray begins the cookbook with true basics – fire, pots and pans, the kitchen, olive oil (which, along with the marble, follows her throughout the book) before moving onto other subject, like edible weeds, poultry and “Fungi and Michelangelo”. I particularly love reading about her kitchens and her batterie de cuisine – after all, these things have quite a lot to do with how and what she cooked (the recipe “How to cook birds without an oven” no doubt came about because of the winters Gray spent in the Veneto in a cottage with no oven).
I am fascinated about how a cookbook writer lived in kitchens that often had no running water and no electricity. In the Greek fishing village of Apollona, where there was not a trickle of tap water, one of the main heat sources for cooking was a neolithic stone shed where a large black pot could sit over a fire: “This was ideal for summer, and the sea was at the door, I was able to light a fire, start the pot with its contents cooking, plunge into the sea at mid-day and by the time I had swum across the bay and back, the lunch was ready and the fire a heap of ashes.” Their one luxury was a two-burner gas stove that they brought themselves to the island, where frying was done and green coffee beans could be pan-roasted before being made into coffee.
Gray’s kitchen at La Barozza, in a vineyard high above the Tuscan marble quarries of Carrara, had a wood-fired oven and a traditional Tuscan cooking hearth, where a large pot was suspended from a chimney hook “in which everything from polenta to wood pigeons could be cooked.” Water was collected from an outdoor rain cistern by the bucket-full.
La Spigolizzi, her home that she refers to as a cowshed, in Puglia’s Salento, only received electricity in the 1990s. There, much cooking was also done on an ancient hearth – a spot Gray believes was once used for smoking cheese – fired with olive wood. It used for grilling and slow cooking in earthenware pots, while she also had gas stove with a defective oven (her neighbour had a wood-fired oven where they would bake their bread).
As a result of this particular way of life, living off the land in ancient dwellings, and her observations and artist’s point of view, to say Gray’s cookbook is full of interesting things is an understatement. It is full of things you don’t find in other books. In between recipes such as “What to do with a pig’s head”, a “Vineyard salad” of beautiful and delicious weeds collected by a seven year old girl called Eugenia, and a recipe for fox (the recommendations of which are given by “an old anarchist in Carrara”), Gray manages to weave in descriptions of Mantova in the winter, Homer’s Odyssey, Andrea Mantegna’s Renaissance paintings and gives symbolic references to most ingredients – for the humble pig, she notes that the swine of Irish kings were tended to by poets. And she is full of sage advice that you’ll be hard-pressed to find from anyone these days: “Never travel any distance with new oil in glass demijohns; it may still be fermenting and will crack the jar.”
This is not to say that it is full of things that we can’t cook here, today, even though Laura Shapiro in the New York Times recently pointed out that it is not a cookbook that we associate with home cooking. Calling the recipes “otherworldly”, she writes: “How dare we bring home a cauliflower from the supermarket, turn on the air-conditioner and the nightly news, and start preparing cavolfiore colla salsa virgiliana (cauliflower with Virgil’s sauce)?” (It is a delicious recipe for barely-boiled cauliflower dressed in garlic, salt, olive oil, breadcrumbs, wine vinegar and parsley, all pounded in a mortar).
But my copy of Honey from a Weed is full of sticky notes bookmarking the recipes that I cannot wait to try, like the sole in white wine with muscat grapes inspired from her time in the vineyard above Carrara. It couldn’t be simpler. Sole fillets (“Leave on the lateral fins,’ she advises, “Their gelatinous nature contributes to the sauce”) are sprinkled in salt and pepper and cooked in a knob of butter, a splash or more of dry white wine and a handful of peeled grapes. I would maybe serve it with the endive and escarole salad, dressed with chopped anchovy fillets, capers, puntarelle (chicory shoots), finely sliced fennel, mint, olive oil and wine vinegar. It would go rather nicely, too, with the “Potato torta (neither cake, nor flan, nor tart)”, made with a creamy potato mash, to which eggs, nutmeg, parmesan and lightly crisped lardo (you could use pancetta) are added. Breadcrumbs made from crushed taralli are sprinkled over the top with olive oil before being baked.
In the summer during a tomato glut, I always make some version of her uncooked tomato sauce to go on spaghetti and when I have a very good sheep’s milk ricotta, I follow her advice on spaghetti with ricotta to a tee – “Eat half the ricotta fresh for lunch with plenty of black pepper and a dish of weeds or spinach,” then the rest is saved for dinner, when it is stirred with a splash of the hot pasta cooking water, chopped parsley, black pepper and nutmeg to make a sauce to dress piping hot spaghetti. In fact, all of her pasta recipes are so appealing and simple that I think they would easily become favourites in many households – spaghetti with garlic and butter, fettuccine with cream, peas and pancetta, or orecchiette with arugula (rocket), for example.
“It sometimes seems as if I have been rescuing a few strands from a former and more diligent way of life, now being fatally eroded by an entirely new set of values,” Gray writes. This is where I think her book offers something very special, something that has become even more relevant today, not only because I think many people like myself have a yearning to simplify things, to eat sustainably and to understand what it is like to live off the land (and maybe have a small patch to yourself) but also because the sort of recipes she offers are not just fluff and fancy, they have a reason, a purpose, a time and a place. They’re delicious, economical, nutritious, they restore the mind and the soul (just read her chapter on the restoring, antidepressant effects of pounding garlic and herbs in a mortar), feed friends and family, and provide wanderlust, much like reading a good novel can. Through each of her recipes, filled with accounts of her unique stories and experiences, we learn Gray’s secret, that “Good cooking is the result of a balance struck between frugality and liberality.”