Turning life into a Peach
with her new book, How to Eat a Peach, Northern Irish cook Diana Henry has cemented her place among the ranks of recipe-writing royalty. She tells us how Ireland's rural beauty shaped her style
Diana Henry's books always look beautiful; she works with the same small creative team ("We share a visual language") on each one and shoots the photos over the course of a year so that the authenticity of the seasons shines from every page. But her latest, How to Eat a Peach (ostensibly a book of menus, but so much more), establishes its author as proper cookbook-writing royalty.
There's the peachskin-textured cover, for one thing - so fuzzy and tactile that you almost expect it to smell like a peach - but also the writing, which is more personal than anything she has produced before.
It may come as a surprise to learn that Diana, one of the queens of British food writing - she's right up there with Nigella as a successor to grand dames such as Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson - is actually Irish, and very chuffed to have made the annual Murphia list of the most influential Irish people in food in the UK last month. She's also amused at finding herself in a job that's perceived as cool. (Everybody wants to be a food writer these days.)
"One of the worst things about middle age, from talking to friends, is the 'Is this it?' question. Is this what I do? I mean, I love it, but would you choose to be a food writer? Because you thought it was an important thing to do? I thought I was going to be a human rights lawyer or make documentaries that would change the world… But it doesn't really matter, because basically I'm a mum, and it's enabled me to be a mum and do work at the same time."
Born in Co Down, and raised in Portstewart and Coleraine, Diana's recipes are a million miles away from the worthy traybakes that you might expect from someone brought up in the Northern Irish Protestant tradition.
"My mum still makes those," she says, "and all those 'Norn Irish' church charity books were stuffed with recipes for them, and for chicken divan. That's what the 'laydees' make when they have the girls coming around… chicken breasts baked in a kind of cook-in sauce made from Campbell's Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup, Hellman's mayo, mustard and curry powder. You cook the breasts, cut them up and steam broccoli, then bake it all together in a gratin dish and serve with rice. It sounds disgusting, I know, but I used to love it!"
At home in Highgate in North London, where she lives with her two sons - one a medical student and one still at school -Diana's up for talking about her childhood, the complexities of the Northern Irish psyche, and her latest book: a collection of menus inspired by food memories from France, Spain, Istanbul, New York, San Francisco and beyond.
The title of the book comes not from T.S. Eliot (although when its author is an Oxford English graduate, the reference is certainly deliberate) but from a holiday meal in Italy:
In an outdoor restaurant on our last night, diners at a neighbouring table were given a bowl of peaches for dessert. They halved, pitted and sliced them, dropped the fruit into glasses and added cold moscato. They left them to macerate for a while. Then they ate the slices, now flavoured with the wine, and drank the wine, now imbued with the peaches. I didn't just think this was a great idea (though it is), I was bowled over that something this simple was considered as desirable as a slaved-over bit of patisserie.
"I didn't really intend How to Eat a Peach to be what it turned out to be," says Diana. "I love menus, I always have … but people think a book based on menus is about 'entertaining', which is a word that I hate. Friends are always asking me about menus, calling me up from the shops and asking me what to make for pudding when they are having people over. My other books [two of the best known are A Bird in the Hand and Simple] have been more practical - what to make for supper on a Monday night - but this is a book about putting things together. It's very much my style of cookery, completely indulgent. This is the way that I cook; this is my food.
"When I started to put the menus together for the book and looked back at the ones I have written since childhood, I realised that they were all or nearly all attached to places, and I knew that I had cooked them in order to go places [in my imagination] when I was growing up, because we didn't actually go anywhere.
"In Northern Ireland, I felt displaced from a very young age. I knew from about six that I wasn't going to be living there when I grew up. It was partly the Troubles. Even though we didn't live in Belfast, you were aware that the place you lived was at war, that it wasn't safe or a nice place to be. On a day-to-day level it didn't impinge very much, but every day I'd wonder if there had been bombs or riots, and I remember being sent out of the living room when there were distressing scenes on the news after the Abercorn Restaurant bombing in Belfast, when they were picking up body parts… It does get to you. I can remember the first bomb in Coleraine, and being in the playground and hearing sirens. After that, the town centre was blocked off to cars, and a place that had been busy and bustling became dead. It took the heart out of the town."
Diana's father was in the poultry business, and there was a strong work ethic at home. "We were Protestant but non-Unionist; Ian Paisley was a bad man in our house. My secondary school was mixed, and my mother and father were open-minded and had a lot of Catholic friends. The priest in Coleraine used to come to our house for whiskey. My mother had been brought up in a very Unionist household; my grandfather was an Orangeman. My granny used to open the drawer and let me stroke the sash! Before I knew what it signified, I liked the Twelfth, because I liked the bands - it was a real day of celebration. We'd go to Cullybackey or Ballymena and I thought the Lambeg drums sounded fantastic, but as soon as I got to understand what that day was, I did not like it.
"Fundamentally, I have not known what my identity is because I am not a Northern Irish Unionist Protestant. I would never refer to myself as an Ulsterwoman because Ulster is what Paisley would call it and I am not that.
"Not only did I feel displaced, but we looked very much towards the south and I yearned for it. We went every year to the horse show at the RDS - my uncle Brian Henry rode for Ireland and my father was a member of the RDS and used to help design the courses - and as soon as we went over the border, we would all be so happy. I really saw the south in a kind of glow. We had a ritual that we'd stop at The Wicklow Hotel for smoked salmon sandwiches and my dad would have a pint of Guinness, and I'd be allowed an Irish coffee without the whiskey."
Diana's interest in food comes from both parents. Her father has always been an adventurous eater (there are lovely stories about him in the book) excited by the exoticism of the food when the family started to go on foreign holidays, and her mother is an excellent cook.
"I didn't realise when I was growing up how important food was to us," she says. "My parents are not 'foodies', but there was always good-quality food in the house. My mother went to cookery classes and tried out new recipes. She had all these Cordon Bleu part-works; I remember going through them until my eyes were sore and I really needed to go to bed, but I'd want to look at the next and the next and the next. It seemed to me as if all the world was in these books. It wasn't just the recipes, I loved the pictures of the women with their hair in chignons and the bottles of claret and candles - it was fantastic. My mum and dad didn't have dinner parties, but they did have parties when they'd cover the massive dining table in dishes and it seemed terribly glamorous. I loved when that happened."
Diana remembers hosting a dinner for her friends when she was still in school. "I cooked braised steak from the Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook, and made pineapple water ice, which I served in the hollowed-out pineapple shells. I thought it was marvellous. We had Shloer apple juice to drink."
After a year in France as an au pair, a time that inspired some of the menus in the book and a lifelong love of France, Diana arrived in Oxford. She found it hard to settle. "Growing up in Northern Ireland, you're not quite sure who you are, and when you come to England everyone thinks you're Irish, which is quite nice… only you're not. At Oxford, I felt so out of place that I went to Mass to try and feel connected to home, because at home I used to go to Mass with my best friend, Mary Frances, and I loved the ritual and I thought that Presbyterianism was very dull."
After Oxford came a degree in journalism and a career in television production, and later a segue into food writing. Although she has not lived in Ireland for many years, she attributes the sensory quality in her writing to growing up in the countryside, noticing everything, sitting at her bedroom window at night looking out into the darkness.
"Nature is much bigger there. Here in London, the weather never gets to me because it doesn't impinge, but I have never stopped missing the sound and the smell of the sea. I used to walk for hours in the forest just smelling the smells, surrounded by carpets of bluebells. In summer, we'd be off on our bikes all over the countryside until after 11 at night; it was marvellous."
You'd think that a successful author about to publish their 11th book would be relaxed about the reaction to it, but Diana says that she's nervous.
"I don't know how people will respond to this book. It's my most personal by a long way, and it's not 'personal cute' either. I'm not up a ladder picking apricots in the Italian countryside, and I did not want it to be like that because I don't think food is like that. Food is a way of getting into difficult places, of understanding."
The recipes in How to Eat a Peach are not intimidating or complex, nor do they extend over several pages. "I want to give people ideas, so that they can cook every day. I have always felt that in recipes I need to be really clear, because that's the most helpful. I have friends who can barely cook fish fingers and I always think about them when I'm writing."
Although she says that she does not enjoy teaching cookery - "I hate standing up there in front of people, sweating onions" - Diana does love teaching food writing, helping aspiring writers to find their authentic voice.
"You have something to say because you've eaten your whole life and you're full of memories; you just have to get it out…
"I love writing - thinking about flavour. Sometimes I can't go to sleep at night because I'm thinking about will such-an-such go with such-and-such, if citrus is nice with rosemary, and orange is good with rhubarb, then will rhubarb go with rosemary?"
Next weekend, April 13-16, Diana and others will be teaching at Literature and Larder, a residential workshop in food writing at Glin Castle, Co Limerick. The cost is €2499pp. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org