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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