We were a Protes­tant but non-union­ist fam­ily ... mum and dad had Catholic friends and the priest came to our house for whiskey, but my grand­fa­ther was an Orange­man and granny used to open a drawer and let me stroke the Sash!’

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - INTERVIEW -

With her new book, How to Eat a Peach, top North­ern Ir­ish cook Diana Henry has ce­mented her place among the ranks of recipe-writ­ing roy­alty. She tells Katy McGuin­ness about her mem­o­ries of the Trou­bles, her mum’s tray bakes and why she still strug­gles to de­fine her iden­tity

Diana Henry’s books al­ways look beau­ti­ful. She works with the same small cre­ative team (“We share a vis­ual lan­guage”) on each one and shoots the pho­tos over the course of a year so that the au­then­tic­ity of the sea­sons shines from every page. But her lat­est of­fer­ing, How to Eat a Peach (os­ten­si­bly a book of menus, but also so much more), es­tab­lishes its au­thor as proper cook­book-writ­ing roy­alty.

There’s the peach­skin-textured cover, for one thing — so fuzzy and tac­tile that you al­most ex­pect it to smell like a peach — but also the writ­ing, which is more per­sonal than any­thing she’s pro­duced be­fore.

It may come as a sur­prise to learn that Diana, one of the queens of Bri­tish food writ­ing — she’s right up there with Nigella as a suc­ces­sor to grand dames such as El­iz­a­beth David and Jane Grig­son — is ac­tu­ally Ir­ish, and very chuffed to have made the an­nual Mur­phia list of the most in­flu­en­tial Ir­ish peo­ple in food in the UK last month.

She’s also amused at find­ing her­self in a job that’s per­ceived as cool (ev­ery­body wants to be a food writer these days).

“One of the worst things about mid­dle age, from talk­ing to friends, is the ‘Is this it?’ ques­tion. Is this what I do? I mean, I love it, but would you choose to be a food writer, be­cause you thought it was an im­por­tant thing to do? I thought I was go­ing to be a hu­man rights lawyer or make doc­u­men­taries that would change the world, but it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter be­cause, ba­si­cally, I’m a mum, and it (cook­ing) has en­abled me to be a mum and do work at the same time.”

Born in Co Down, and raised in Port­stew­art and Col­eraine, Diana’s recipes are a mil­lion miles away from the wor­thy tray bakes that you might ex­pect from some­one brought up in the North­ern Ir­ish Protes­tant tra­di­tion.

“My mum still makes those,” she says, “and all those ‘Norn Ir­ish’ church char­ity books were stuffed with recipes for them, and for chicken di­van. That’s what the ladies make when they have the girls com­ing around — chicken breasts baked in a kind of cook-in sauce made from Camp­bell’s Con­densed Cream of Mush­room Soup, Hell­man’s mayo, mus­tard and curry pow­der. You cook the breasts, cut them up and steam broc­coli, then bake it all to­gether in a gratin dish and serve with rice. It sounds dis­gust­ing, I know, but I used to love it!”

At home in High­gate, north Lon­don, where she lives with her two sons — one a med­i­cal stu­dent and one still at school —Diana’s up for talk­ing about her child­hood, the com­plex­i­ties of the North­ern Ir­ish psy­che, and her lat­est book — a col­lec­tion of menus in­spired by food mem­o­ries from France, Spain, Is­tan­bul, New York, San Fran­cisco and be­yond.

The ti­tle of the book comes not from TS Eliot (although when its au­thor is an Ox­ford English grad­u­ate, the ref­er­ence is cer­tainly de­lib­er­ate), but from a hol­i­day meal in Italy:

“In an out­door restau­rant on our last night, din­ers at a neigh­bour­ing ta­ble were given a bowl of peaches for dessert. They halved, pit­ted and sliced them, dropped the fruit into glasses and added cold moscato. They left them to mac­er­ate for a while. Then they ate the slices, now flavoured with the wine, and drank the wine, now im­bued with the peaches. I didn’t just think this was a great idea (though it is) — I was bowled over that some­thing this sim­ple was con­sid­ered as de­sir­able as a slaved-over bit of patis­serie.

“I didn’t re­ally in­tend How to Eat a Peach to be what it turned out to be. I love menus and al­ways have, but peo­ple think a book based on menus is about ‘en­ter­tain­ing’, which is a word that I hate. Friends are al­ways ask­ing me about menus, call­ing me up from the shops and ask­ing me what to make for pud­ding when they are hav­ing peo­ple over.

“My other books (two of the best known are A Bird in the Hand and Sim­ple) have been more prac­ti­cal — what to make for sup­per on a Mon­day night — but this is a book about putting things to­gether. It’s very much my style of cook­ery — com­pletely in­dul­gent. This is the way that I cook; this is my food.

“When I started to put the menus to­gether for the book and looked back at the ones I have writ­ten since child­hood, I re­alised that they were all or nearly all at­tached to places, and I knew that I had cooked them in or­der to go places (in my imag­i­na­tion) when I was grow­ing up, be­cause we didn’t ac­tu­ally go any­where.

“In North­ern Ire­land, I felt dis­placed from a very young age. I knew from about six that I wasn’t go­ing to be liv­ing there when I grew up. It was partly the Trou­bles. Even though we didn’t live in Belfast, you were aware that the place you lived was at war, that it wasn’t safe or a nice place to be.

“On a day-to-day level, it didn’t im­pinge very much, but every day I’d won­der if there had been bombs or ri­ots, and I re­mem­ber be­ing sent out of the liv­ing room when there were dis­tress­ing scenes on the news af­ter the Aber­corn Restau­rant bomb­ing in Belfast, when they were pick­ing up body part.

“It does get to you. I can re­mem­ber the first bomb in Col­eraine, and be­ing in the play­ground and hear­ing sirens. Af­ter that, the town cen­tre was blocked off to cars, and a place that had been busy and bustling be­came dead. It took the heart out of the town.”

Diana’s fa­ther was in the poul­try busi­ness, and there was a strong work ethic at home. “We were Protes­tant but non-union­ist... Ian Pais­ley was a bad man in our house. My sec­ondary school was mixed, and my mother and fa­ther were open-minded and had a lot of Catholic friends. The priest in Col­eraine used to come to our house for whiskey.

“My mother had been brought up in a very union­ist house­hold — my grand­fa­ther was an Orange­man. My granny used to open the drawer and let me stroke the Sash!

“Be­fore I knew what it sig­ni­fied, I liked the Twelfth, be­cause I liked the bands — it was a real day of cel­e­bra­tion. We’d go to Cully­backey or Bal­ly­mena, and I thought the Lam­beg drums sounded fan­tas­tic, but as soon as I got to un­der­stand what that day was, I did not like it.

“Fun­da­men­tally, I have not known what my iden­tity is be­cause I am not a North­ern Ir­ish union­ist Protes­tant. I would never re­fer to my­self as an Ul­ster­woman, be­cause Ul­ster is what Pais­ley would call it, and I am not that.

“Not only did I feel dis­placed, but we looked very much to­wards the South, and I yearned for it. We went every year to the horse show at the RDS — my un­cle Brian Henry rode for Ire­land, and my fa­ther was a mem­ber of the RDS who used to help de­sign the cour­ses — and as soon as we went over the bor­der, we would all be so happy.

“I re­ally saw the South in a kind of glow. We had a rit­ual that we’d stop at The Wick­low Ho­tel for smoked salmon sand­wiches, and my dad would have a pint of Guin­ness. I’d be al­lowed an Ir­ish cof­fee with­out the whiskey.”

Diana’s in­ter­est in food comes from both par­ents. Her fa­ther has al­ways been an ad­ven­tur­ous eater (there are lovely sto­ries about him in the book), ex­cited by the ex­oti­cism of the food when the fam­ily started to go on for­eign hol­i­days, and her mother is an ex­cel­lent cook.

“I didn’t re­alise when I was grow­ing up how im­por­tant food was to us,” she says. “My par­ents are not food­ies, but there was al­ways good-qual­ity food in the house. My mother went to cook­ery classes and tried out new recipes. She had all these cor­don bleu part­works; I re­mem­ber go­ing through them un­til my eyes were sore and I re­ally needed to go to bed, but I’d want to look at the next and the next and the next. It seemed to me as if all the world was in these books. It wasn’t just the recipes, I loved the pic­tures of the women with their hair in chignons and the bot­tles of claret and can­dles — it was fan­tas­tic.

“My mum and dad didn’t have din­ner par­ties, but they did have par­ties when they’d cover the mas­sive din­ing ta­ble in dishes. It seemed ter­ri­bly glam­orous. I loved when that hap­pened.”

Diana re­mem­bers host­ing a din­ner for her friends when she was still in school. “I cooked braised steak from the Ham­lyn All Colour Cook­book, and made pineap­ple wa­ter ice, which I served in the hol­lowed-out pineap­ple shells. I thought it was mar­vel­lous. We had Shloer ap­ple juice to drink.”

Af­ter a year in France as an au pair — a time that in­spired some of the menus in the book and a life­long love of France — Diana ar­rived in Ox­ford, but she found it hard to set­tle. “

Grow­ing up in North­ern Ire­land, you’re not quite sure who you are. When you come to Eng­land, ev­ery­one thinks you’re Ir­ish, which is quite nice… only you’re not.

“At Ox­ford, I felt so out of place that I went to mass to try and feel con­nected to home, be­cause at home I used to go to mass with my best friend, Mary Frances, and I loved the

Grow­ing up here, you’re not quite sure who you are

This is my most per­sonal book by a long way

rit­ual and I thought that Pres­by­te­ri­an­ism was very dull.”

Af­ter Ox­ford came a de­gree in jour­nal­ism and a ca­reer in TV pro­duc­tion, with a later segue into food writ­ing. Although she has not lived here for many years, Diana at­tributes the sen­sory qual­ity in her writ­ing to grow­ing up in the coun­try­side, sit­ting at her win­dow at night look­ing out into the dark­ness.

“Na­ture is much big­ger there. Here in Lon­don, the weather never gets to me be­cause it doesn’t im­pinge, but I’ve never stopped miss­ing the sound and smell of the sea. I used to walk for hours in the for­est, just smelling the smells, sur­rounded by car­pets of blue­bells. In sum­mer, we’d be off on bikes all over the coun­try­side un­til af­ter 11 at night... it was mar­vel­lous.”

You’d think that a suc­cess­ful au­thor about to pub­lish their 11th book would be re­laxed about the re­ac­tion to it, but Diana still feels ner­vous.

“I don’t know how peo­ple will re­spond to this book. It’s my most per­sonal by a long way, and it’s not ‘per­sonal cute’ ei­ther. I’m not up a lad­der pick­ing apri­cots in the Ital­ian coun­try­side, and I did not want it to be like that be­cause I don’t think food is like that. Food is a way of get­ting into dif­fi­cult places, of un­der­stand­ing.”

The recipes in How to Eat a Peach are not in­tim­i­dat­ing or com­plex, nor do they ex­tend over sev­eral pages. “I want to give peo­ple ideas, so that they can cook every day. I have al­ways felt that in recipes I need to be re­ally clear be­cause that’s the most help­ful. I have friends who can barely cook fish fin­gers, and I al­ways think about them when I’m writ­ing.”

Although she does not en­joy teach­ing cook­ery — “I hate stand­ing up there in front of peo­ple, sweat­ing onions” — Diana does love teach­ing food writ­ing, help­ing as­pir­ing writ­ers to find their au­then­tic voice.

“You have some­thing to say be­cause you’ve eaten your whole life and you’re full of mem­o­ries; you just have to get it out…

“I love writ­ing and think­ing about flavour. Some­times I can’t go to sleep at night be­cause I’m think­ing about will such and such go with such and such, or ‘If cit­rus is nice with rose­mary, and or­ange is good with rhubarb, will rhubarb go with rose­mary?’”

RECIPE FOR SUC­CESS: Diana Henry is about to pub­lish her 11th cook­ery book

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