I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
~ from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot
It’s early May, and we are en route to a literary festival in Chiddingstone, Kent. This three year old literary festival is held in the grounds of Chiddingstone Castle, an old Tudor house that was rebuilt in the 19th Century to resemble a medieval castle. Beyond the estate walls is Chiddingstone Village, ‘the most perfect surviving example of a Tudor village in the county,’ now owned by the National Trust.
The setting is gorgeous on this warm spring weekend – thank the lord, says one car park attendant, last weekend the fields were all flooded! The lawns are lush and people have brought deck chairs and picnic rugs. Several mobile food and drink vendors are selling coffees, cakes and prosecco. Two marquees stand to one side of the house, where we will gather with our favourite authors and listen to them talk about their latest books.
Cook books, historical fiction, biography, poetry, crime, children’s books… there was a broad variety of topics on offer this year, and some eminent authors, like Kate Mosse, Lauren Child and popular crime writer Ian Rankine. There were also craft and theatre events for the kids and a life drawing workshop for my One & Only.
One of the writers I was really looking forward to meeting was Northern Irish celebrity cook, Diana Henry. On day one, she talked with British food writer Bee Wilson, about her new cook book and her fascination with menus.
After her first trip to France at sixteen, Henry had an epiphany, she tells us. She discovered that a meal can be an art form that takes both the cook and the guests on a journey. She began to collect menus in a note book, to keep a record of all the meals she would like to cook one day.
‘Menus are like poetry or short stories,’ she says, and ‘meals can create very different moods [and] …can take you places, from an afternoon at the seaside in Brittany to a sultry evening eating mezze in Istanbul. They are a way of visiting places you’ve never seen [and] revisiting places you love.’
Henry’s latest book is called “How to Eat a Peach: menus, stories and places,” and its cover is textured like the soft, furry skin of a ripe peach. Henry introduces each of the twenty-four menus – and in fact each of the one hundred recipes – with a personal memory or note about why she selected it for her book. Henry has written many cook books, but she tells me as she signs my copy that this latest one is her favourite, the most personal, the one closest to her heart. I am glad. I, too, love the combination of travel tales, menus and recipes, and have already tried out a few of her ideas.
‘I invite people round because I love to cook… [where] all the senses are engaged in the preparation,’ she says, adding that she always thinks of a menu first and then wonders who would most like to eat it. ‘It’s all about relishing life at the table,’ she adds, and ‘dinner can provide a whole evening’s entertainment.’
Years later she was thrilled to discover Alice Water’s ‘Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook.’ Now, her own menu cook book provides twenty-four dinner menus from South East Asia, Spain, Southern Italy and San Francisco, just to mention a few. Of course, you can mix them up, but it’s actually fun to follow her suggestions for a full meal, as she has balanced them so beautifully. Long gone are the extravagantly rich dinner parties of our youth, she explains, now it’s about simplicity and having the energy to enjoy our guests after the work is done, and not just want to reach for our pajamas and a good book. And I absolutely get that, even if I still like to spend time making the table look pretty.
The title of the book came about, Henry explained, after watching a group of Italians at an outdoor restaurant end a meal with a bowl of peaches and a bottle of chilled Moscato. The diners halved, pitted and sliced the fruit, dropped the slices into their glasses and added the wine. Leaving it to macerate for a while, they then ate the peach, now flavoured with wine, and sipped the wine, now imbued with peach. So simple. So good.
How to Eat a Peach is a working cook book, but it is also a beautiful one to leave on the coffee table, so I will do my best not to drip cake mix or olive oil on its pristine pages, as happens to most of my favourite cook books. Then I can always sit with a coffee to read her recipes and her little asides, which sound as if she were sharing the sofa with me. In describing her perfect lunch menu, she adds the proviso that ‘the title of this menu is a bit cruel, because a perfect menu is the stuff of dreams.’ And yet, as I read through this menu for early summer, it comes pretty close to perfection. At least in Henry’s capable hands!