Honey From A Weed

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.

thrapsano_pithos“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.

drying_chickpeasChickpea plants harvested and drying on the flat roofs of rural houses.

donkey_creteDonkey 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.

trachana_making“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.

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21 comments

  1. From an American in Patmos.
    We still have glimpses of traditional Greek life in the north of
    the island.

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    • I know pockets of old rural life still exist in Greece, but they are disappearing. You are lucky to have glimpses of them. Although, you have admit, those old ways are not always bucolic and are actually hard on people scraping a living.

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  2. Love your photos of the old ways and it is sad when they are lost. Even though, as you say, they were/are often a hard way of barely making a living.

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    • I had forgotten I had the photos and am glad I found them again as they brought back memories. “M” rode his mule out to his fields every day and his wife still ground her own grain on a small stone hand mill. They lived in a two room, earthen floor house, but their family took care of them – it was simply a way of life. That was years ago and it surprised me recently to discover the kind things they used were now fossilised in local history museums as part of exhibits of the past.

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  3. You were quicker off the mark with your reading than me! I always think when reading accounts of city slickers living a rustic rural life that the harsh realities are trivialised or glossed over. I like hot and cold running water, gas, electricity and the internet!!!

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    • Quick because it was a re-read. I once owned a first edition – sadly lost in one move or another. This paperback is one my husband bought to replace that original. I also like H & C taps, gas not from a bottle, electricity and wireless connections that are reliable. However, from what I’ve read of Patience Gray, she actually revelled in “primitive” conditions and only consented to have indoor plumbing installed in her home in Apulia late in life at the insistence of her son. It’s a hard life to live and too many books out there do gloss over realities. But, you have to admit, Honey from a Weed is a good read!

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    • I had forgotten, but it struck me this time around – she does not include chapters on bread and cheese making – except to talk about outdoor bread ovens. I guess it never occurred to me before, but these are pretty much staples of a Mediterranean diet. Learn something new every time you pick up the book!

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      • You do learn something new each time you reread a book. It’s so long since my first read of Honey from a Weed, the details are very vague, hopefully the long term memory will come good once I pick it up.

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  4. Thanks for letting me know about this book. It is indescribably sad when these ways of life disappear. I guess we can do what we can to preserve at least the recipes. I love your pictures. I have never been to Europe and hope to visit (specially Greece) someday when my daughter is older.

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    • I’ve never been to India, so I guess we both have places new to explore. Yes, these ways are disappearing – or at least changing. A friend of mind just wrote a book on traditional, that is non-mechanised, agriculture of (mainly) Greece. It’s a scholarly book, but still a good read called “Two Oxen Ahead”. There are all sorts of stories in it that he’s collected from older people in the last 20 or so years. I just found these pictures again after all these years and had to scan them. They brought back a lot of memories. I wished now that I had taken more or had been a better photographer!

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  5. Oh boy – yet another book I’ll have to add to my collection. I actually have quite a few books from the late ’60s through the early ’80s that are memoirs of or record life in neglected pockets of rural Europe.

    If you like books like that, you’d probably like Marlena de Blasi’s books (A Thousand Days in Venice is her first) – they are the memoirs of an American chef-Romantic living in first Venice and then rural areas around Italy. They are beautiful books with beautiful characters and even more gorgeous food. With recipes, of course.

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    • When you mentioned de Blasi’s name, it sounded very familiar. Yes, I have her first two books (Venice and then Tuscany) which I devoured years ago! So, when I looked her up, I was so pleased to find more titles. I have to admit I’m a sucker for that type of book – particularly if it revolves around the Mediterranean. Glad to find someone else who shares this passion/obsession/quirk.

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      • I picked up the Tuscany one on a whim at a thrift store for like $1 and was totally hooked. Umbria and Venice are the only other ones I’ve read so far (both $1.99 specials on Kindle). But I noticed my library system has some of her other books! So I’m going to check them out. I’m a sucker for the romance of peasant life and I LOVE peasant food, so the books are a no-brainer.

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  6. I must first declare myself to be very envious of your book collection…it looks amazing! I’m not aware of this book, but it sounds to me like it would be right up my alley. I’ll have to hunt it out and have a read. 🙂

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    • The photo of books at the beginning of the post shows the tip of the iceberg! Honey from a Weed really is a classic and a great read. At the end of the book is a fantastic bibliography – an aid to further those bibliophile tendencies.

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