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Patience Gray, Doing & Doing Without

Patience Gray: ’Honey from a Weed, Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia’, 2009, London, Prospect Books, 374 pages, ISBN9781903018200

Patience Gray’s ‘Honey from a Weed’ appeared in 1986, bringing admiration and confusion to food writers. They knew at once  that it was about more than cooking and travel. Patience was 69, but her book was a compendium of her whole life. That began in the British upperclass, whose hypocrisy she decried from adolescence, embracing an outsider’s role. A disastrous liaison left her an unmarried mother in her mid-twenties. The Second World War found her hard up living with her two children in a remote Sussex cottage without electricity, running water or any plumbing at all. Food was scarce and she foraged for edible plants, herbs and mushrooms, acquiring perforce a specialist’s knowledge. 


Moving to London she took odd jobs connected with the arts and design. Her writing career began as editor of the first woman’s page on the ‘Observer’, a serious newspaper that appeared on Sundays.

Then at 45 began what Patience thought of as the second half of her life. It was the European half and the part that provides the action and references in ‘Honey from a Weed’. However, Patience had not changed. She was still an outsider by choice, an enemy of commerce and what she called ‘consumerism’. The way of life she preferred was that of the all but vanished peasantry, its frugality, deprivation and closeness to raw nature. With her partner, the sculptor Norman Mommens, she sojourned in  Tuscany, Veneto, Naxos, and Catalonia, finally settling in Salento at the warm end of Italy for her last thirty-five years.

‘Honey from a Weed’ is made up of the couple’s life in these places, arranged mosaic fashion, organised according to food categorises, with recipes and relevant detail. What holds it together, and makes for the book’s peculiar force is the constant felt presence of Patience. To call her the narrator is hardly enough. She is the stern master-cook, noting moments of joy, but enforcing her values of sobriety, hard work and passion for ingredients simple, if possible wild. The charm of her style is in how it caresses these humble products of the earth and the people close to them. Flicks of her chef’s knife cut away easy (and convenient) ways with contempt. She is adamant that there’s no feasting or celebration without fasting and quotes Hesiod, “fools all! who never learned/ how much better than the whole the half is”.

A section will be entitled, say, ‘Beans, Peas and Rustic Soups’ or ‘Fish, Shellfish, Crustaceans’. Recipes will follow viewed in the context of where on the couple’s sojourns they had been encountered. We are always given more than a list of ingredients and advice on how to put them together. Patience doesn't begin with the dish oven-ready or on the table but with the origin of the ingredients and the place where someone cooked them before her eyes. This approach  was what so impressed the first readers of the book. It was a complete picture, neither dry nor clinical and in lapidary English. The added touches were tasty too. Like her model Norman Douglas, she was generous with quotes from the ancients.

In fact, what buoys the 374 pages,( finely illustrated by line drawings), and drives them forward is the wondrous material in which the recipes are embedded. It astonishes by its variety. There are informative mini-essays like that on pasta (p.96) and polenta (p.225). ‘Some Products of the Pig’ (p.230) goes from Patience’s advice—“Garnish the meat with hard-boiled eggs sliced in two and little gherkins” —to a scene from the ‘Odyssey’ where Odysseus in the name of Zeus profits from a swineherd’s hospitality. And pity for anyone who would miss ‘An Apulian Bachelor’ (p.299), a veritable short story that  sets Salento before us on a plate to be devoured.

Patience and Norman’s life in Europe varied in more than place. They began with stays near Carrara where Norman worked on marble. Patience is acute and amusing on the life of the international artists working and relaxing there. She explored the hills above the town to learn what people were eating. The couple’s time in Catalonia was different, more sedate. Patience was directed there by her close friend the antiquarian bookseller and gastronome Irving Davis whose writing on Catalonian food she would edit after his death. Patience summed up the near year spent in rough circumstances on the Greek island of Naxos: “In Apollona we were living among the vestiges of neolithic and bronze age life…”. (p.59) Their residence at the Masseria Spigolizzi by the Ionian Sea would last for the last 35 years of Patience's life.

In Salento, Patience was able to uncover the remnants of an age-old Southern Italian way of life. It was something she delighted to take part in. With the years, however, she would have to bear witness to the end of the peasantry and the life to which she was so attached. It made her sad, at times bitter. She railed against chemical farming and the mindless embrace of the new. She held to a quotation about the Tarahumara: “They know that every step forward, every convenience acquired through the mastery of a purely physical civilisation, also implies a loss, a regression”.  (p.30)

Though haunted by the sentiment that a great era was drawing to a close, ‘Honey from a Weed’ remains a celebration run through with a vein of wry humour. It also represents something of a heroic last stand. The title comes from William Cowper’s 18th-century poem that finishes with a couplet:

“But they whom Truth and Wisdom lead,
Can gather honey from a weed.” 

For Patience’s biographer, Adam Federman, “…the phrase captured Patience’s long love affair with and reverence for wild plants and her desire to find in them some sort of deeper meaning”. (p.245, ‘Fasting and Feasting’)

Peter Byrne

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