Home thoughts He­len James, cre­ative di­rec­tor of home­wares for Dunnes Stores, shares recipes and tips from her new book

The de­signer, cook, mother and cre­ative di­rec­tor of home­wares for Dunnes Stores shares recipes and tips from her new book with Marie Claire Digby

The Irish Times Magazine - - NEWS -

‘ Ihave a mantra that ev­ery room should have a plant, a book and at least one nat­u­ral ob­ject.” He­len James, de­signer, cook, mother of three and now au­thor, has strong feel­ings on what makes a house a home, and food is an in­trin­sic part of the equa­tion.

“Is there any­thing that says ‘ home’ more than food?” she asks in her first book, A Sense of Home: Eat – Make – Sleep – Live, which is a col­lec­tion of recipes – for nat­u­ral beauty and clean­ing prod­ucts as well as de­li­cious things to eat – in ad­di­tion to de­sign in­spi­ra­tion, house­hold man­age­ment tips, and sug­ges­tions on how to make your home a place that gives you plea­sure.

When James was grow­ing up, the taste of home was an ex­otic one. Her fa­ther was the Is­lamic cu­ra­tor at the Chester Beatty Li­brary and her par­ents trav­elled ex­ten­sively in the Mid­dle East, bring­ing home with them an ar­ray of ex­otic in­gre­di­ents that would have puz­zled most 1970s Ir­ish cooks.

“Lamb tagine, pe­shawari chicken and falafel were all reg­u­lar mid­week meals in my house,” James says, while ad­mit­ting that what she craved then was the salad served at the home of her child­hood friend. “Three let­tuce leaves, a hard­boiled egg, a tomato that had been sliced into quar­ters, a slice of ham, pick­led beet­root and my favourite ad­di­tion, salad cream.”

Nowa­days, with three boys rang­ing in age from 18 to eight to cook for, and a de­mand­ing work­ing life as cre­ative di­rec­tor of home­wares for Dunnes Stores, her cook­ing falls some­where be­tween those two goal­posts of her child­hood.

“I try to pre- pre­pare food for the week on Sun­day, or at least have an idea of what each meal will be, but cook­ing for the week is more a task than a joy. For plea­sure I bake and would usu­ally bake at least one thing, but more likely two, ev­ery week­end.”

Her fail­safe fam­ily sup­per dish is fish pie. “It is not nec­es­sar­ily the quick­est thing to make, but it is if you make it on Sun­day and re­frig­er­ate for the fol­low­ing day, and ac­tu­ally it is one of those things that tastes bet­ter for it. Then I can just pop it in the oven when I come home. It’s a recipe of my mother’s and all my boys love it.

“The older boys [ 18 and 16] are great eaters . The small­est, who is eight, def­i­nitely is a prod­uct of third- child syn­drome and got away with be­ing a much pick­ier eater than his brothers, so I have to make a real ef­fort with him to get fruit and veg­eta­bles into him. Re­cently, one of his el­der brothers brought a girl home who he took quite a shine to. ‘ Mummy, I want to make her soup,’ he said to me, like in his mind the way to her heart was to make her some soup. This boy will go far, I thought.”

Bak­ing is James’s pas­sion, and her ther­apy, of sorts.

“Bak­ing re­ally is a kind of med­i­ta­tion for me and a cre­ative pur­suit. I can get lost in it.

A day spent bak­ing is heaven to me.

“A few years ago I did a sour­dough work­shop at Bal­ly­maloe with Chad Robert­son from Tar­tine. As I sat there on the first day lis­ten­ing to him talk about hy­dra­tion of the dough, I ac­tu­ally started cry­ing, tears just started stream­ing down my face, I was just so happy . . . maybe I should give it all up and just bake bread ev­ery day. Maybe one day.”

When she re­turned from her sec­ond stint work­ing with Donna Karan in New York, in 2011, James bought a house in Castle­pol­lard in Co West­meath, pho­to­graphs of which – her sit­tin­groom, bed­room, bath­room and nu­mer­ous taste­ful ar­range­ments of trea­sured ob­jects – pop up through­out the book.

“It was re­ally im­por­tant to me that we shot some of the book in my own home, show­ing my aes­thetic. Re­ally, this book is a very per­sonal project. All of the styling was done by me us­ing my per­sonal items, not props, and all of the food you see was cooked/ baked by me. There wasn’t a team of stylists and chefs be­hind the scenes.

“There are also a lot of my own pho­to­graphs, from daily life and fam­ily pho­tos. When I first showed my mum some of the proofs she looked at a pic­ture and said, ‘ Good­ness, when I bought that wooden bowl in the souk in Su­dan 50 years ago, I didn’t think one day I would be look­ing at it fea­tur­ing in my daugh­ter’s book.’”

She sold the house in West­meath ear­lier this year and is search­ing for a new house in Dublin to turn into a home.

“I am rent­ing at the mo­ment which is a chal­lenge as I find it hard to live some­where that I can’t com­pletely make my own. But I have made it my own as much as is pos­si­ble. I fill my spare mo­ments with the dreams of what I would do if I ac­tu­ally owned it, and what I will do when I have my next home,” says the for­mer co- pre­sen­ter of the pop­u­lar RTÉ tele­vi­sion show, Home of the Year.

“The most in­ter­est­ing in­te­ri­ors are the ones that have been cre­ated over a long pe­riod of time with­out the mark of an out­side de­signer. I re­alise that not ev­ery­one finds that an easy thing to do, and the best in­te­rior de­sign­ers are the ones that lis­ten to their clients and re­flect them, as op­posed to a copy of some­thing they want to do, or have seen.” A Sense of Home: Eat – Make – Sleep – Live, by He­len James, is pub­lished by Ha­chette Books Ire­land, £ 19.99

p‘ r‘ I try to pre- epare food for the week on Sun­day, or at least have an idea of what each meal will be, but cook­ing for the week is more a task than a joy

He­len James: de­signer, cook, mother of three and now au­thor

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