A Visionary Cook

Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray
by Adam Federman
White River Junction, Vermont, Chelsea Green Publishing: 2017

One of my food heroes is Patience Gray (1917-2005), a woman who wrote about the bounty of Medierranean regional foods and the annual cycle of feasting and fasting. This new biography portrays her outlook on food as a precursor to the Slow Food movement of today. I have already posted on Patience Gray’s iconic book, Honey from a Weed, a book which has impacted not only on mine, but on many people’s perceptions of traditional Mediterranean foodways.

Fasting and Feasting is strictly a biography with no recipes included. It is a densely packed book of over 300 pages, all worth savouring. It covers every aspect of her life, but it is her food writing I focus on. This still makes for a long post!

From the first, Adam Federman treats the book as a personal journey of discovery of a woman that caught his imagination through intriguing descriptions of her in obituaries and, of course, from biographical elements in Honey From a Weed. Federman invites us along on his voyage which proves to be a fascinating depiction of an era, now long gone. It is also detailed, due largely by his access to Patience Gray’s private papers and family photographs.

Her early years are less well known and Federman’s first four chapters take us from her childhood, through WWII and immediately after, listing a multitude of people who influenced her as well as detailing historical events, sometimes flitting from one person or chronological event to another, going into tangents on personal histories of family members, friends and connections (something that happens throughout the book). Simply put, Patience interacted with a number of people prominent in artistic, design, journalism and publishing circles. Of course, her assertive independence and adventurous spirit as well as her unsettled wartime relationship with Thomas Gray and the subsequent stigma as an unwed mother, played a part in shaping her life.

Where we first see Patience as a food writer is in the fifth chapter when Federman leads us to her publication (with Primrose Boyd) in 1957, Plats du Jour or Foreign Food. The book was considered a milestone in history of food writing. The book, written while she lived in Hampstead, introduced a new approach to food – namely a European focus on a single dish accompanied by a salad, cheese, fruit and wine, influenced by meals the authors had experienced abroad. Of course, its publication occurred at a time when wartime rationing finally came to an end in Britain and also when Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food was beginning to make a splash, broadening the British culinary experience. Plats du Jour stressed simple, affordable home cooking and included a chapter on edible wild fungi. It appealed to a general desire in the public conciousness to escape grim post-war Britain. In it we also see seeds of Patience’s own yearning for a simple life epitomised by her fascination with foraging.

Although Patience travelled to various parts of Europe pre- and post-war, her adventurous and food related forays with her friend Irving Davis (antiquarian bookseller and noted gastronome whom she met after the publication of Plats du Jour) were significant events. One of their travels took them to Puglia which would have great relevance for Patience later. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, she was also part of the team that was to produce the fist English translation of Encyclopedia Gastronomique, published in 1961. Gray was, at this time, employed by the Observer, writing a column on “women’s issues” (issues she largely defined as contemporary design, crafts and art). However, by the early 60s, she was becoming increasingly restless with her role in writing about art rather than producing it.

Just before she began writing at the Observer, Patience, who was in a long-term relationship, met and initiated an affair with the married sculptor Norman Mommens. An obvious bond of love and a common philosophy of a simple non-commercial, self-sufficient utopian life eventually led Mommens and Gray to leave their respective partners. In 1962, both now in their 40s, they embarked on their artistic life abroad. This is the beginning of the peripetetic life lasting nearly ten years that Gray describes in Honey From a Weed – from Carrara, to Catalonia, then backtracking briefly to Carrara and England, into the unknown on the remote and primitive island of Naxos, briefly to Venice, back to London and then again to the Carrara region for an extended stay. After exploring various other possibilities (including southern France, northern Italy and even Wales), they eventually settled in Puglia.

Along the way, Patience learned from people she met. Lessons in foraging in the north Tuscan hills – a legacy from the frugality of wartime Italy – was courtesy of their landlady in the village of Castelpoggio near the Cararra marble quarries. Patience also learned to bake traditional breads and cakes in the village’s community oven.

In Catalonia, Patience and Norman stayed with the sculptor Apel les Fenosa, a friend of Irving Davis. It was here that Patience was introduced to Catalan cooking. Davis had acquired a copy of a 14th century Catalan book, one of the oldest known European collections of recipes, for Fenosa. Also, Davis had been smitten with the idea of preserving as many old Catalan recipes as possible, collecting them in notebooks. Patience would, later in 1969, edit Davis’ posthumous book, A Catalan Cookery Book: A Collection of Impossible Recipes, illustrated by Fenosa’s wife, Nicole.

On Naxos, they lived on the north of the island near Apollonas where marble quarries were located and where the ancient collosus of a carved and discarded kouros can still be found. Despite their lack of Greek, the villagers managed to convey the stark seasonal way of life on this Cycladic island – the true feasting and fasting of bountiful followed by lean times in the agricultural calendar. The women of the village also taught Patience traditional food preparation and vastly expanded her knowledge of wild edible plants. Much of their stay on Naxos is detailed in Patience’s book Ring Doves and Snakes published much later in 1989. Also, it was here that Patience consulted her notes she assembled while on a brief sojourn in London for a manual on European food for the Chinese cooks of the Blue Funnel shipping line, The Centaur’s Kitchen, published soon after they left the island. This cookbook’s ethos mirrored Plats du Jour despite Patience’s altered approach to food and cooking after the years of frugal living in Italy, Spain and Greece.

Continuing to scramble to support themselves, they once again settled in the Cararra area. It was here that Patience began jewellery making while Norman continued to sculpt. Food writing was put on a back burner. Yet, Patience continued to augment her knowledge of wild plants (including her passion, fungi), noting the significance of micro environments on what was available. She also explored local food markets, often learning about produce that was entirely new to her, and continued to collect recipes and ways of food preparation and preservation. It was here in Cararra that the kerrnel of the idea of a publication began to take shape and where she would begin writing Fasting and Feasting. The title would later be changed to Honey From a Weed.

In 1966 Patience’s mentor, Irving Davis, died, leaving Patience his Catalan notebooks. In her introduction to the book she edited from these notebooks, she called it “a distilled essence of a fast vanishing way of life.” This, of course, is also the guiding theme throughout Honey From a Weed. At that time, Patience and Norman were feeling that modernity and mechanisation were encroaching on their lives in Cararra and they began yearning for a rustic life like they had had on Naxos. A period of exploring various places began – including staying with friends in Provence and the area around Verona. It was at Lake Garda (near Verona) that Patience was spurred on to complete the first draft of Fasting and Feasting. She indicates that this was an attempt to stultify the manicured life at Lake Garda by conjuring up a little of their primitive life elsewhere. Around this time they also visited what Patience described as the remote, fin du monde land of Puglia before they eventually settled there.

In 1970 they moved to the place where the maps mark the toponym Spigolizzi, 11 acres of land covered in maquis shrubland (macchia) that looks down towards the Ionian Sea. The house, like many communal farm establishments (masserie), part of it had originally been used for agricultural purposes – most recently as a cowshed. A cheesemaking and smoking/curing pantry was tacked onto the kitchen and a huge communal bread oven graced the garden. Their Puglian neighbours helped them reconstruct the house, clear and then cultivate the land. From them, Patience also learned traditional Puglian farm cooking and preserving – recipes and techniques that was fast disappearing with modernity. It was the ideal place, a place she described in Honey From a Weed with affection.

It was here at Spigolizzi that she finished the book. Much to her surprise, after its publication, she became somewhat of a foodie celebrity. This was partly due to the dedication of her publisher and later friend, Alan Davidson. Afterwards, chefs, food writers, journalists and devoted admirers of the book would make the pilgramage to Spigolizzi. She and Norman continued to live here for the next thirty some years, tending the land as best they could and leading an artistic life until old age and illnesses could not be overcome. Norman died at Spigolizzi in 2000 followed by Patience five years later.

Federman’s biography portrays Patience as someone who was not always a comfortable person to be around: she held grudges, she was difficult to work with, often thought in terms of black and white and could be shortsighted at times in her dealings with others. But, for those of whom she approved and those that broached her outer shell, she was a generous and loyal friend. As far as her food writing goes, we see how her life informed what she wrote. It was her quest for a simple life close to the land and her celebration of traditional food production tied to enduring seasonal rhythms that Patience infused into her greatest work, Honey From a Weed.

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Postscript: A forthcomming post is another biography of a brilliant cook and food writer that appeared in 2017: Unforgettable: The Bold Flavours of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life.

12 comments

  1. Great review! It sent me scurrying to the bookshelf to extract Gray’s volumes, to reread and savour, and perhaps to even cook from. I think pecuniary shaped her philosophy to a large extent but she found within herself a passion too difficult to let go

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    • I really do agree with you. I had mixed feelings about Gray after reading this book. Part of me still was inthralled by what she achieved with Honey From a Weed and some of her earlier works (particularly Plats du Jour and the edited Catalan book), but I really don’t think I would have liked her as a person. I also don’t think I could live “off the grid” as she did. I like my comforts too much! But I do respect the idea of locality and seasonality with regard to food and food production.

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  2. When off grid travelling in the outback I always love the elemental experience of cooking in a fire although we never hunted or gathered. I think in the end the hard labour of such a life takes it’s toll both mentally and physically. Not for me either…

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