A Jane Grigson quotation sits on my desk. It’s written on a scrappy Post-it note; the glue on the back has picked up dust and a stray piece of cotton. It wasn’t meant to become a permanent feature, rather a scribble to remind myself to write the line somewhere more lasting, but I can’t quite bring myself to throw it away. It reads: ‘Anyone who likes to eat, can soon learn to cook well.’ It embodies Jane Grigson’s approach to food, pulling the rug from under those who shroud cooking in mystery or snobbery. For someone like me, who came to cooking relatively late in life, it is a mantra to live by. Grigson was a cook who, above all, loved to eat. Eating well is both the starting point and the ultimate end of all her cookery writing – as it surely should be for all cooking.
Jane Grigson was never quite as famous as her contemporary and friend Elizabeth David, but she is the cook’s cook. Her cookery was firmly grounded in her kitchen – whether in her English home in Wiltshire or her French home in the Loire valley. Her recipes weren’t as exotic as David’s, though the ingredients were sometimes unfamiliar. They were less about introducing readers to new cuisines than coaxing them towards a better kind of home cooking. And every recipe was infused with her characteristic wit and knowledge; where David’s writing tends towards the arch, Grigson’s exudes warmth.
She fell into food writing by accident. After a holiday in France, she and her husband, the poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson, along with their young daughter Sophie, bought a house in Troo in the Loire valley. She was immediately smitten with the French approach to food. While there she became interested in charcuterie and the preparation of meat, and suggested to a friend that he write a book about it. But after he bailed out of the project, Grigson was asked to see it through. The result was her first book, Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery (1967), a comprehensive and ground-breaking work, unlike anything that had come before.
Following its success, Elizabeth David recommended Grigson to the Observer as a food columnist. By her own admission, she felt out of her depth, but she approached it as she had the charcuterie book (and would go on to approach all future food writing projects): she took a topic and researched it exhaustively. She continued the column until her death twenty-two years later, and other books followed, all approached with her usual rigour.
Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book, published in 1982, was her last, and is my favourite. The Fruit Book demonstrates what Grigson is best at: down-to-earth treatment of a broad topic, peppered with humour, stories and scholarship. It is, as the title suggests, a comprehensive book of fruit cookery, taking the reader from apples to watermelon via Cornelian cherries and loquats, figs and strawberries. It would be an ambitious book if written today, but for the early 1980s it was unprecedented. Loquats are hard to come by now; back then, they sounded like something you might find on the moon.
Grigson’s style effortlessly mixes the scholarly and the literary with the practical and the personal, and nowhere more enjoyably than in the Fruit Book. Haikus are sprinkled among the pears, Bermudan verse opens the papaya chapter, descriptions of the plum in art and literature are followed by an anecdote about aphrodisiacs, and horticultural details about each fruit’s cultivation are woven in with the recipes.
Another of the joys of Grigson is her humour. Sometimes it tends towards the bawdy and even the scatological, but it is her gentle, wry observations that I love most:
My feeling towards dried figs is ambivalent – they remind me of the syrup of figs I once spat out on the nursery carpet and all over a blue dressing-gown. It must be the smell . . . One member of the family eats a dried fig every night before he goes to bed. This is a ritual I have come to admire, since tackling dried figs for this book.
She can always be relied on for the perfect opening line. Whether she is writing about sorb apples (‘We were sitting in a large garden, our feet in cool grass, watching Russian dancers’), or common-or-garden apples (‘The apple was the first fruit of the world, according to Genesis, but it was no Cox’s orange pippin. God gave the crab apple, and left the rest to Man.’), her chapter openings cannot fail to draw you in. But she is never pretentious. The mulberry chapter begins, simply: ‘Four things I like about the mulberry’.
Her descriptions are enticing. Of gooseberries, she asks: ‘When Constable painted and drew elder bushes in flower, creamy panicles tilted against green, I wonder if he had ever tasted their muscat sweetness with gooseberries? Lyrical painting we have been good at, lyrical cooking has been rare with us.’ Lyrical cooking may still be rare, but this is lyrical cookery writing.
It is impossible simply to flick through the Fruit Book: it is too persuasive. Time and again, as I reread it, I find myself breaking off and padding into the kitchen, abandoning whatever it was I was meant to be doing to follow Grigson’s suggestion that I try stuffing apples with zest and nuts, or wondering how long it would take me to knock up a Spanish fig ice cream.
For the inexperienced cook, she can be intimidating. She often assumes much more of the reader than modern publishers would allow: ‘You do not need instruction in making little sweet shortcrust boats,’ she says confidently, while I – a trained pastry chef – wonder idly how one even begins. Frequently, she gives no quantities beyond something like ‘equal weights of strawberries and raspberries’; many of her recipes use ratios rather than exact quantities.
But perhaps, with the exception of shortcrust boats, this makes perfect sense. So much of cooking relies on sense and senses, on taste and tasting. Grigson trusts her readers to use their judgement. She knows that cookery is not a one-size-fits-all activity; that ripeness and provenance determine the power of any given fruit; that some prefer their raspberry fools thick, and some thin. She’s there by your side, holding your hand for soufflés and mayonnaise. She won’t leave you in the lurch when something might impair a dish. But when it comes to matters of taste or availability, she trusts you.
Oddly, some of my favourite bits of Grigson are about foods she doesn’t like. In the Fruit Book, rhubarb receives the full force of her scorn:
Nanny-food. Governess-food. School-meal-food (cold porridge with rhubarb for breakfast). And I haven’t got over disliking rhubarb, and disliking it still more for being often not so young and a little stringy. Also rhubarb’s country of origin is Siberia. Stewed rhubarb with frozen mammoth?
But luckily for those of us who don’t share her view, she still gives half a dozen recipes for the stuff.
Of course she’s not infallible. I’m ready to give her lemon sandwiches a miss (a brief hope that this was an unassuming title for something delicious was scotched on reading the recipe: it is literally raw lemons, sliced and placed between bread and butter). On other occasions she requires more of the reader than perhaps they are willing to give. I spot a recipe named simply ‘peaches on toast’, but balk at the first nonchalant instruction: ‘the first thing to think about is the bread. If you cannot buy a brioche loaf, or good white milk bread, you must make your own.’ I won’t. I imagine few will. But her brilliance – her clarity of writing, her strikingly straightforward recipes, her naked love for food in all its forms – makes you forgive her excesses.
Jane Grigson died on 12 March 1990. In her obituary, Alan Davidson described her as ‘the most companionable presence in the kitchen’. It is for this and for the generosity of her writing that she is loved. There are a lot of food writers I admire, a whole host I respect, there are some I even feel I know. But it’s Jane who I want as my friend, her kitchen that I want to sit in, her cooking I want to watch.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 62 © Olivia Potts 2019