If you believe that new years are for fresh starts, kicking bad habits, eating clean and renewing the gym membership, there are plenty of books, manuals and websites out there for you (the trendiest names are probably Kayla Itsines for exercise, Ella Woodward and Madeleine Shaw for food, though lest you think I am in thrall to clean eating please see this in the name of balance). If, however, you believe January to be one of the most depressing months of the year – usually colder than December, unremittingly wet and often icy, darkened by the return to work and no festive break in sight – then it might be appropriate for you to turn to Diana Henry’s cookbook Roast Figs, Sugar Snow for cold weather comfort. This is a cookbook that takes unadulterated pleasure in the colder months, relishing in the opportunities for feasting which they provide.
The range of recipes is impressive, each chapter having a thematic focus on a particular wintry ingredient, such as nuts, cheese, hedgerow fruits and game. In her introduction, Henry briefly mentions what she sees as the ‘Mediterraneanisation’ of cooking, where keen cooks eagerly use Mediterranean vegetables and flavour profiles above their traditional cuisines, and indicates some concern as to what this actually does to native cooking. However, even in Italy, the quintessential heart of the Mediterranean diet, she notes there are plenty of places where cold-weather food flourishes; the Valle d’Aosta, for example, offers food which sounds much more Scandinavian than anything else: rye bread to thicken soup, braised venison. The picture Henry sketches here of winter food is enticing and she infuses it with the same romance (as she herself says) offered by food from far-flung, warmer climes. It’s a lovely way in, albeit deeply disconnected from my urban experience of winter: sludgy streets, steam-fugged Tube carriages, offices alternately ice-cold or swelteringly hot, the restriction of layers and layers of clothing on the body.
Make no mistake: Diana Henry is a strong, bold writer, who not only makes food come to life in a few well-chosen lines of prose, but also paints a vivid picture of the contexts in which different recipes evolve. Her description of something as simple as apples, Cheddar and hazelnuts nibbled after a meal sounds extraordinarily tempting. If you like cookbooks to be readable, there are fairy substantive introductions to each chapter of the book which would reward those who want to read cookbooks like a novel. I must confess I actually rarely do this, but if you like to leaf through cookbooks before bed, you will learn a lot from this one. The cheese chapter provides a list of delicious, winter-appropriate cheeses (i.e., melty), which you may not have heard of before, to add to your shopping list. The wonderful thing about the introductions to each chapter is the really masterful combination of fact, tradition and food history with personal memory and emotion; it’s so evocative.
Like many other British writers, Henry is quick to romanticise the food of Continental Europe, denigrating the food culture of Britain in the process. She is in no way as bad as Rick Stein on this (I find Stein insufferable on the subject of Britain versus the continent), but occasionally a hint of this attitude slips through. This is a common tendency among British food writers and it doesn’t mesh with my experience of eating in Europe. I am Belgian, so when I eat there it is in an urban family setting, and perhaps my view is less romanticised/ more jaundiced (as you will!). The attitudes people have to food are not vastly different to the attitudes of busy Londoners I know. Perhaps the artisanal and rural food producers that journalists, writers and TV chefs meet are intensely protective of their food traditions, but frankly my city-dwelling family in Europe is just as likely to throw on a quick dish of pasta, and I have been served up plenty of packet sauces and frozen soup (well, the soup has been defrosted, but it’s purchased congelé). I also personally am pleased that foods such as smoked salmon are affordable and easy to find in local supermarkets, rather than seeing this as inherently devaluing the product, another area in which I disagree with the author.
A final note on the writing: there are numerous literary and historical quotes from various sources scattered throughout the book. Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose books were clearly a source of inspiration for Henry, is quoted multiple times; there are extracts of poetry by Robert Frost and translated local sayings from Italy. I think, to some, this could smack seriously of pretentiousness; if it does, don’t let it put you off the book. The food – the important thing – isn’t pretentious at all. (I can’t fault the selection, though, which includes one of my favourite poems, This is Just to Say, by William Carlos Williams, though I don’t like that the title of the poem is typeset below the verses, when obviously the title is meant to be read first. See below).
The book’s subtitle is Food to warm the soul and the recipes are almost universally hearty and deeply comforting. Many of them are rich, relying on butter, cheese and cream for their soothing properties. This is not a criticism per se: dairy fat is delicious and I certainly crave it much more in the winter. It feels right. there is a marked preponderance of it throughout the book, though, which can feel a little repetitive.
However, while most of the recipes are heavy and stolid, Henry livens up the offerings with some brighter, sharper flavours, to refresh and waken the winter palate. Sometimes the element of bitterness is included, such as with a Friulian winter salad, which contains radicchio and chicory, but citrus is used to brighten a salad of roast beetroot and goat’s cheese. It’s not really a balance, as such, because the ratio is highly skewed towards the rich, creamy foods, but it is something. Henry has also included a chapter on game and foraged mushrooms; while appropriate to the winter season, it’s not really something that’s part of my life, and I didn’t make anything from that chapter.
There are some really wonderful recipes contained in this collection: in fact I bought the book on the strength of an apple-and-cream dessert (Peasant Girls in a Mist) which I was served up one Bonfire Night. It was so delicious I couldn’t stop thinking about it. There are many gems such as this which I haven’t seen in any other cookbook (and my collection is not inconsiderable). There are also some good people-pleasers, such as pot-roast West Country chicken, and a Dutch dish of apples, potatoes and bacon cooked together, which is called hete bliksem, or hot lightning. Most of the recipes, in fact, are stolid workhorses; they taste very good, but apart from Peasant Girls in a Mist, none sent me into complete raptures of culinary excitement. I think much of the food would go down very well in a family setting.
There are a number of recipes which use ingredients which may be harder to find, ranging from particular types of cheese to particular smoked foods (smoked duck and eel, for example), and, of course, game, as noted above. However, they are not in the majority; if you like this style of cooking you will find plenty of food to love.
Few cookbooks are perfect and unfortunately the instructions in this book are sometimes not as clear as they could be or, alternatively, overcomplicate the recipe. Some steps really confused me: why would you peel a vegetable after chopping it into pieces? At other times, I was able to navigate the recipe by drawing on my experience of cooking: knowing when exactly meat browns, knowing what the sensory cues for done-ness of meat, vegetables and baked goods are, et cetera. I am not the world’s best cook to be sure, but I am an experienced home cook who has cooked a range of cuisines and built up knowledge of them; I have a repository of knowledge to draw on. A less experienced cook would not necessarily have this, which is why Roast Figs, Sugar Snow is most definitely a book for the cooking enthusiast rather than someone starting out.
A word on photographs: there are lots of beautiful images of snowscapes, raw ingredients, animals. There are some equally gorgeous, well-lit and appetising photographs of food, but this is not a cookbook with a photo of every recipe, by far. I can take them or leave them (I know what a stew looks like), but I know this is so important for many cookbook buyers, so be warned.
The index is not the best – it doesn’t always list recipes by the name used, for example – but the book is certainly navigable.