Patience Gray's Honey From a Weed is my favourite book about food.
It isn't really a cookbook (though it teems with recipes), nor is it really a memoir (though it sparkles with absorbing reminiscences and recountings of the author's deliciously adventurous life). And it is not really a travel book, though the mysterious and exciting Ms. Gray does cover a lot of the globe--and generously tells the reader much tantalizing stuff about her journeyings.
Patience Gray (1917-2005) was born in England. After waiting out a repressive childhood and youth, she finally did graduate from, among other institutions, The London School of Economics 1n 1938, whereupon she and her sister Tania began travelling on their own throughout Europe. Back in England she had an affair with--and took the name of--a married man named Thomas Gray, with whom she remained friends for the rest of her life. In 1958, she became the first editor of The women's page of The Observer, a post she held until 1961.
But Honey From a Weed really originates in her having fallen in love with a Belgian sculptor named Norman Mommens--another married man. We never get to know much about Norman in her book (she always refers to him as "the sculptor"), but she stays with him forever--until his death in 2000.
She begins Honey From a Weed by stating that "A vein of marble runs through this book. Marble determined where, how and among whom we lived; always in primitive conditions." A seemingly unlikely base upon which to build the glorious peasant cooking that is the book's primary reason for being.
But the marble was, of course, for Norman's sculpturing needs. The foods Gray discovered and cooked to an almost hallucinatory, transcendent perfection, were a kind of epicurean surround to the trajectory of her lover's ongoing work. "In my experience," Gray writes,"it is the countryman who is the real gourmet and for good reason; it is he who has cultivated, raised, hunted or fished the raw materials and has made the wine himself."
And in the book, Patience Gray eagerly and almost reverently pursues the culinary lives of these very rustic gourmets, and makes of her Mediterranean odyssey something truly epic--a life with food that is both daunting and endlessly seductive. Honey from a Weed is an art book.
In a New York Times review of Adam Federson's 2017 biography of Gray, Laura Shapiro noted "There's something strictly otherworldly about the recipes in Honey From a Weed, despite their simple ingredients and clear directions. Each dish is inextricable from its time and place, those villages and landscapes and rustic kitchens that inspired both the cooking and the writing. 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)?"
Honey From a Weed is continually inspirational and, of course, continually defeating. We can't cook like this. As real and as everyday as it all was for Patience Gray, this is armchair cookery for the rest of us. It's like reading about astronomy.
But how effulgent it is with dcsire!
Here's a recipe chosen more or less at random:
Peperoncini Amari (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 entire 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 and draughts of strong fred Apuliuan wine."
Heady stuff, if always tantalizingly out of reach. But how dearly Gray loves food! And how galvanizing she is to anyone else who does!
Reproduced from Patience Gray's Honey From a Weed, line drawings by Corinna Sargood
The Raw and the Cooked, MYTHOLOGIQUES is a new column on the culture of eating and cooking, with contributions by various authors. The column name is borrowed from the title of a book by Claude Levi-Strauss. It is spontaneous, a little amusing but serious at the same time.