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T. M. Delaney on Patience Gray, Honey from a Weed - Slightly Foxed Issue 65

How to Cook a Fox

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During a time when I was unable to work I read a lot, and randomly, picking up whatever took my fancy in the local bookshop. I had recently moved to an old farmstead on Orkney with enough space to grow some vegetables and berry fruit – not exactly living off the land, but an exciting departure for someone who had always lived in a town. One day I chanced upon Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed, took it home and soon found myself fantasizing about planting olive trees – although to tell the truth I always knew that olives would never thrive in a latitude so high that it is impossible to grow wheat here.

Subtitled ‘Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia’, Honey from a Weed (1986) is based on the proposition that what is best in human culture has been created and refined by necessity. In the early 1960s Gray set off for the Mediterranean with the sculptor Norman Mommens to search for marble around the Mediterranean which, she writes, ‘precipitated us out of modern life into the company of marble artisans and wine-growers in Carrara and into an isolated community of “Bronze Age” farmers on Naxos’. There she found food cultures rooted in a cycle of feast and famine conditioned by the seasons, where a multitude of delicious dishes were conjured from sparse ingredients. ‘Good cooking’, Gray says, ‘is the result of a balance struck between frugality and liberality.’

Both Gray and Mommens had abandoned orthodox careers in England to pursue this vagabond life, Gray as women’s page editor of the Observer, and Mommens as an artist and art school teacher. Eventually they settled in a farmhouse in Puglia called Spigolizzi. Here, with neither electricity nor running water, they led a deliberately ‘simple’ life, growing olives and making their own wine.

To call Honey from a Weed a cookbook would be a bit like calling Moby Dick a book about fishing. As a cookbook

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During a time when I was unable to work I read a lot, and randomly, picking up whatever took my fancy in the local bookshop. I had recently moved to an old farmstead on Orkney with enough space to grow some vegetables and berry fruit – not exactly living off the land, but an exciting departure for someone who had always lived in a town. One day I chanced upon Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed, took it home and soon found myself fantasizing about planting olive trees – although to tell the truth I always knew that olives would never thrive in a latitude so high that it is impossible to grow wheat here.

Subtitled ‘Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia’, Honey from a Weed (1986) is based on the proposition that what is best in human culture has been created and refined by necessity. In the early 1960s Gray set off for the Mediterranean with the sculptor Norman Mommens to search for marble around the Mediterranean which, she writes, ‘precipitated us out of modern life into the company of marble artisans and wine-growers in Carrara and into an isolated community of “Bronze Age” farmers on Naxos’. There she found food cultures rooted in a cycle of feast and famine conditioned by the seasons, where a multitude of delicious dishes were conjured from sparse ingredients. ‘Good cooking’, Gray says, ‘is the result of a balance struck between frugality and liberality.’ Both Gray and Mommens had abandoned orthodox careers in England to pursue this vagabond life, Gray as women’s page editor of the Observer, and Mommens as an artist and art school teacher. Eventually they settled in a farmhouse in Puglia called Spigolizzi. Here, with neither electricity nor running water, they led a deliberately ‘simple’ life, growing olives and making their own wine. To call Honey from a Weed a cookbook would be a bit like calling Moby Dick a book about fishing. As a cookbook it serves well enough, full of usable recipes culled from the cuisines of the places where Gray lived. But it is much, much more than that: it is a discourse on Mediterranean culture and the lives of the rural poor, a herbal, a work of social anthropology, a biographical narrative and a paean to a way of life that, if not completely dead, was already fatally wounded. It’s full of stories about the people Gray met, memorable characters shaped by the rigours of peasant life for the most part, but also artist friends, gastronomes and book collectors. It is often very funny. It is also a work of immense erudition: a passage on the origins of marzipan refers back to the fourth-century Greek poet and gastronome Archistratus and to an Italian cookbook of 1570; Horace features in an examination of the origins of pasta; and there is a learned discussion on the tendency of beans to provoke flatulence. It also has the best bibliography of all the books I own, to the extent that I sometimes take it down simply for the pleasure of looking through it. What other book on food has a bibliography that includes Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi? Or Tristram Shandy? Or Malatesta’s L’anarquía? Or Aeschylus or Hesiod or Eric Partridge’s Shakespeare’s Bawdy? It is so diverse that it could really form the basis for a course in European culture. I must confess I was puzzled at first by the extent to which Gray promotes the eating of what she insists on calling ‘weeds’, but it wasn’t long before I began to see the ragged dandelion in a new light. The peasants among whom Gray lived foraged for a large part of their diet and she had to learn, little by little, what local wild plants could be used in everyday dishes. One of her instructors was a child:
At La Barozza I had a profitable weed lesson from a little girl of seven called Eugenia, who had an amazing weed vocabulary culled from the vineyard that her father worked. As she picked each plant, she said ‘This is for cooking’ or ‘This is for salad’ (her plant categories).
Radicchio, dandelions, comfrey, sorrel, wild fennel, wild beets, fat hen, samphire and saltwort, elderflower, broom rape, wild asparagus, tassel hyacinth, purslane, angelica and field poppy are all discussed, and as I write this with the book beside me, it has fallen open at a chapter entitled ‘Fungi and Michelangelo’. Gray also provides recipes for several species of snail. Nowadays foraged food appears on the menus of expensive restaurants, which might have seemed paradoxical to Gray (although she would surely have approved). She would certainly have been in sympathy with the movement to eat less meat. When she wrote, a new prosperity was changing the custom of generations in the communities where she lived: whereas meat had formerly been restricted to Sundays and feast days, buying meat on any day was becoming an ostentatious way of showing the world that one was prospering. ‘I am not alone in my conviction that one should eat less meat,’ she wrote. Yet I can’t imagine that she would ever have been in sympathy with either veganism or vegetarianism. Some of the most memorable passages in Honey from a Weed describe the eating of items from which most of us in this pasteurized and shrink-wrapped age would recoil. In Naxos she is offered and eats (albeit with a certain amount of reluctance) the grilled head of a small bird and the fried spleen of a goat. Among many recipes is one for cooking a fox, ‘given to me by an old anarchist in Carrara’. It employs the alla cacciatora method which, she tells us, can also be used for badger. Gray defines eccentricity as ‘living according to priorities established by one’s own experience’ and she is always alive to what is singular in the people around her. In Honey from a Weed she celebrates their resilience and their independent spirit, epitomized most purely, perhaps, by the marble workers of Carrara, but also encountered in fishermen, peasants, sculptors and booksellers (who she sees as ‘legendary figures’ in their search for authenticity in the written word). One chapter is a homage to a wheeler-dealer she meets in Puglia, ‘an old fox, a dark horse, a crocodile’, an expert in the art of greasing the right hands, a teller of tales of his own cunning, who keeps an excellent table. As for me, the cultivation of olives in the windy north was never anything but a fantasy, but these days I grow a few potatoes and some tomatoes in a greenhouse, and on fine days I venture out to try and improve my plant identification skills. I have no illusions about becoming self-sufficient, but I am working my way through the books in Gray’s bibliography and her writing is still an inspiration.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 65 © T. M. Delaney 2020


About the contributor

T. M. Delaney has been a teacher and a council officer. He now lives in the teeth of a gale in a house overlooking Scapa Flow. His article won the 2019 Slightly Foxed Writers’ Competition.

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