Why preserving is back in fashion according to Diana Henry
Salt, sugar, smoke; all ephemeral things used by cooks for centuries to preserve foodstuffs that would otherwise mould, rot or decay to nothingness. Simone de Beauvoir compared making jam to capturing time, ‘the housewife has caught duration in the snare of sugar, she has enclosed life in jars.’
My wheelie bag felt like a boulder having trailed it through London streets, lugged it on and off kerbs and ricocheted off the regimented rows of commuters’ legs on the tube. One last hurdle was a precipitous flight of steps leading up to the home of author and TV presenter Diana Henry. A last heave-ho, with the welcome assistance of Botanical Baker, and I was there at the front door which was flung open giving a glimpse of an expansive room shining with sunlight. Diana herself seemed to radiate warmth and light, talking in her sing-song Irish voice nineteen to the dozen.
She says that lifelong loves take hold early on and she remembers sitting on the countertop in the kitchen eating freshly made wheaten bread spread with raspberry jam made by Aunt Sissy (who wasn’t really an aunt). My own memories are playing in our garden during the long summer holidays while the currants ripened on the bushes. My mother would bottle them and made the most beautiful jewelled tarts in the depth of winter. Little blackcurrant pies with sweet soft shortbread-like pastry or a deep wheel of redcurrant tart with a lattice top.
Some homemade quince ratafia enhanced some excellent English sparkling wine giving us an excuse to drink in the afternoon. Slanting rays of Autumn sunshine lit a snowy cloth on a wooden table dotted with mis-matching delicate cups and saucers. Still life arrangements of an array of food, many recipes taken from Diana’s book Salt, Sugar Smoke; gravaad lax, salad, cheeses, French butter, wheaten bread and a jumble of jams and jellies.
Long book shelves formed a backdrop to the table, drawing the eye compulsively. The most comprehensive lexicon of cookery books I’ve ever seen; a tempting tea and the company of some of my favourite food writers and photographers aside, I could have curled up on the sofa with a stack of them for many hours. These were not decorative books, but well-thumbed editions collected over many years forming the backbone of meticulous research. Diana’s manner is expansive and charming, her house elegant but casual (a pile of books was dumped on a chair, a blue j-cloth jostled with a decorative tin and a vase of flowers from the garden). She describes herself as a home cook, but her interest in food sees her reaching back into history for inspiration and testing recipes fastidiously. Little wonder this new book took three years to write.
To be an eaves-dropping fly on the wall, listen here (I challenge you not to feel hungry after this):
Diana Henry is an award-winning food writer with forays into TV. I realised that I have cooked from her recipes many times through her writing for House and Gardens magazine and she has a regular column in the Sunday Telegraph. Her instructions are precise – she covers all the important background information about preserving in meticulous detail for instance. However, it is never laboured and her words dance lightly on the page conjuring up the smells and tastes from the kitchen.
In answer to my questioning why she decided to write a book about preserving Diana said she tries to write books on subjects that have not been covered and on new topics. Although there were a lot of books on preserving most of them were quite old-fashioned and rooted in one culture. There is a return to making things in the home and not wasting ingredients so this is a timely book. It is in line with thinking about food in a more caring way; as she says, it is about using gluts and not squandering abundance. She also takes pleasure in small things; a good jam on 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.
Returning to Dubai (after Food Blogger Connect 12) I unpacked Diana’s book and sat down to read. Her style of writing is warm, evocative and down-to-earth (somewhere between Nigella and Delia -in the nicest possibly way). Jam-making is just a small part of preserving and this book covers curds and fruit cheeses, salted and smoked meats and fish, cordials, relishes and pickles, with influences from around the world, from Russian zakuski to sharbats from the Middle East.
I am not likely to have a glut of home-grown strawberries from the garden here in Dubai so I was on the look out for recipes appropriate to the ingredients available here in abundance. Masses of cucumbers in my veg box went into apple, cucumber and mint pickle, which was simple to make and fantastic with lamb. The quince season is fleeting so I preserved a prized pair in brandy to make quince ratafia (to match with Prosecco at Christmas). I the bookmarked the mango, passionfruit and lime jam recipe for when I can buy perfumed Alphonso mangoes by the boxful; the recipe holds extra spice for me as in the preface Diana mentions a childhood book which held a special magic for me too, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden. Hot date (not that kind) and preserved lemon relish uses bountiful ingredients, as does coconut and coriander chutney and Middle Eastern pickled aubergines.
Having had a long conversation with Peter from a Head in a Hat beers about them and plucking up the courage to taste them for the first time as made by Bel from The Bell and Brisket (her salt beef was also divine) at Food Blogger Connect, I knew there was one recipe I had to make. Purple pickled eggs start off vividly purple and fade over time to a subtler hue. They made a show-stopping birthday present for KP; peeling 14 eggs meant they were made with love.
Saying goodbye to Diana was like leaving an old friend, picking up this book is like making a new one.
Purple pickled eggs
(recipe reproduced with permission from Octopus Books from Salt sugar smoke by Diana Henry)
Fills 1 x 1 litre (1 1/4 pint jar)
1 litre (1 3/4 pints) white wine vinegar (I used white vinegar)
1 beetroot, sliced
100g (3 1/2 oz) granulated sugar
2 tbsp coriander seeds
1/2 cinnamon stick
3 dried chillies
1. Boil the eggs for 10 minutes, then drain, run cold water over them and peel. Make a few punctures in each egg with a slim skewer or a cocktail stick. Set aside.
2. Mix all the rest of the ingredients together in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and lave to simmer for about 15 minutes. Put the eggs into a sterilized jar and pour the hot vinegar over them. Seal with a vinegar-proof lid and keep in the refrigerator once cold. The eggs will taste better after a couple of days. They’ll keep – covered with the vinegar – for about a month.
So are you inspired to get out the jam pan?
- Tea with Diana Henry to celebrate the launch of Salt Sugar Smoke (Fabulicious Food)
- Tea with Diana Henry (Eggs on the Roof)
- Tea with Diana Henry (Desperate Reader)
- Tea with Diana Henry (Saffron Strands)
- An afternoon tea from Diana Henry’s salt sugar smoke (Come con Ella)
- Food to warm the soul (luffymoogan.wordpress.com)
- Diana Henry’s crowd-pleasing puff-pastry tarts (telegraph.co.uk)