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
‘ 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