Honey From A Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia
by Patience Gray
North Point Press, San Francisco: 1990
My copy of Honey From A Weed is a well-loved, battered paperback, a reprint of the book originally published in 1986. It is a book about an unusual, interesting, and often chaotic life – told around food and feasting – during the 1960s and 1970s, often in remote areas of the Mediterranean. It’s about a woman who followed “the Sculptor” (as she refers throughout to her partner and later husband, Norman Mommens) to places in search of marble. Her journey took her to Carrara in Northern Tuscany, Catalonia in Northeast Spain, to the Greek island of Naxos, and back to Italy, first in the Veneto in the north to finally settling in Apulia in the south.
In one of her obituaries (Patience Gray died in 2005), Honey From A Weed is described as anthropological field notes. Indeed, this is true to an extent, but it is much more than that – part observations, part biography, part cookbook – told in a bold, engaging style, enlivened by drawings by her (then) daughter-in-law, Corinna Sargood. Through her text, Patience Gray truthfully portrays herself as someone who is living the life rather than simply observing it.
Good cooking is the result of a balance struck between frugality and liberality…It is born out in communities where the supply of food is conditioned by the seasons.
This is how Patience Grey sums up her attitude to food and cooking in her introduction. In other words, she is talking about the cycle of fasting and feasting (as indicated by the subtitle), often following a religious calendar; of age old agricultural communities living close to the land, celebrating in times of plenty. But, before she even begins to talk about food and recipes, Patience Gray goes into detail describing her various kitchens and cooking equipment in Italy, Greece and Spain, indicating just how you can create good food using basic facilities and utensils – as people have done for generations.
One of her first chapters, which sets the tone for the sections on food, is called La Merenda, a shared snack among friends. The Italian term is from the Latin, as she explains, meaning “pure”, “unadulterated”, and is meant to convey simple conviviality over simple foods – slices of prosciutto crudo, marinated anchovies, pieces of creamy white sheep’s milk cheese, chunks of toasted rustic bread drizzled with green olive oil. Her chapters on beans, potatoes, eggs, pasta and polenta highlight staples of a rural diet. Following the seasons, fresh and salted fish, vegetables from the garden, wild game, domestic and wild fowl are all provided chapters, each with stories to tell and, of course, recipes. Meat gets three chapters – each devoted to the type of animal – calf, cow, ox, horse and buffalo; sheep and goat; and pig. The pig, as she terms it, is “the winter saviour of mankind” since its preserved products – hams, sausages, bacon – provide food throughout lean months. Indeed, there are still festivities (accompanied with feasting) in parts of the Mediterranean that celebrate the first slaughtering of the pig for winter, such as the Catalan Matança del porc.
My favorite chapter, however, is “Edible Weeds” – listed by Greek, Italian, French, Catalan, Salentine (a regional dialect of Puglia), English and scientific names, often accompanied by a drawing of the plant. I was recently reminded of this when I posted on Hortopites, wild greens pies from Crete. Preserves – both sweet and savoury – are also well used pages where you can find out how to salt caper buds or brine fresh olives. Lastly, she concludes with foraged buds, seeds, pods and fruit that are given the same treatment as edible weeds. Indeed, a book dedicated to living close to the land and understanding its cycles.
In many ways the Mediterranean Patience Gray described has nearly disappeared with the advance of modernity. But, when I first started travelling in the 1980s to places in Southern Europe (Greece, in particular), there were still traces of these old ways of life to be seen in small rural communities – some of which you can see in my old photos below. Since its initial publication in 1986, Honey From a Weed has taken on the status of a “Cult Classic”. However, for me, because it resonated with my own experiences, it is extra special and close to my heart.
“M” and his wife, “T”, standing in the courtyard of their house next to a Thrapsano pithos, filled with pomace (the skins, pips, stalks, leftover from winemaking), fermenting in preparation for raki distilling.
Donkey carrying a load of fodder(?) from field to home. Animals, such as these, were replaced for agricultural use not long after by noisy three-wheeled vehicles with small flat beds, and even later by 4 x 4 trucks.
“D” in the front courtyard of her house making trachana – a cracked wheat and soured milk or yoghurt staple for the winter kitchen, added to soups and stews. The trachana lumps are broken up and left to air-dry before being stored away.