I’ve been eating so much skyr recently that my Instagram feed could be sponsored by the Icelandic Skyr Promotion Board, should such a thing exist. I just really love the taste of it: the sharp lactic tang makes it resemble neither yoghurt nor cheese but brings to mind sour cream. However, I discovered that the brand I’ve been buying, Arla, is not actually Icelandic, as I assumed, but Danish. So much for supporting the Icelandic cottage industry (I’m now trying an Icelandic brand, simply called Icelandic Skyr).
I found this out when listening to the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme, more specifically when catching up to its episode ‘Ferment’ (which features, as a guest speaker, the fabulous Olia Hercules, my current cookery crush, if I can say something so gauche). It was mentioned in the programme that authentic Icelandic skyr is hard to find, and I was compelled to look up what I had been eating.
Since then I’ve been greedily catching up on the Food Programme and found myself utterly fascinated by such things as the history of pizza and gulping down an interview with the lovely Bee Wilson about her equally fabulous book First Bite. If you love food and for some reason haven’t yet listened to the Food Programme, I highly recommend you do – the full archive is available which is fantastic.
I treated myself to an issue of delicious. magazine at the
beginning of April and found out about a series of collaborative talks between Foyle’s, publisher Octopus Books and delicious. magazine which will feature a range of food writers, cooks and chefs, who will discuss their recent books or speak to a specific theme. Although I’ve signed up to all but one (only because I’m already busy that night), I’m particularly looking forward to How to Break into the Food Business, featuring aforementioned culinary crush Olia Hercules as a speaker, and An Evening with Diana Henry. The talks are £12 and include a glass of wine and, according to my magazine, a copy of delicious.
Following on from First Bite, I’m now reading Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork, a history of cooking and eating implements and tools. Her writing has an extraordinary power to spark of my imagination; it’s vivid and blends beautifully the academic, analytical and anecdotal/personal.
I’ve also recently discovered Amelia Morris’ blog Bon Appetempt and am ploughing through the archives. The combination of recipes and frank, often funny, but equally often poignant reflections on life, ambition, motherhood, family and writing are irresistible to me.
I thought my cookbook review would get very long indeed if I gave a recap of every recipe I had made from Roast Figs, Sugar Snow, so I’ve separated the round-up into its own post. One of the things about cookbook reviews in magazines that gives me pause is that it’s rarely clear how many of the recipes the reviewer has actually cooked; in the absence of deadlines or space constraints, however, I can show you exactly how many. I hope it’s useful.
The photos aren’t the most beautiful; a lot of the food is quite brown/beige and, if I make something for dinner, I photograph it there and then under artificial overhead light, as quickly as possible so it doesn’t go cold. But hopefully this will help you see if the recipes are up your alley and whether you would want to make the investment of buying this cookbook. Ingredient adaptations and problems encountered along the way are recorded for your interest!
If you want to skip to my favourite and least favourite recipe: my favourite was a dessert, Peasant Girls in a Mist, which combines sharp apple and sweet, soft cream. It was so delicious, it actually sends shivers down my spine to recall it. My least favourite? The Russian smoked fish pie, because the combination of fish and mushrooms (which I don’t really love anyway) is not to much to my taste.
Onion and cider soup [From Chapter One: Ripe and Ready – cheese]
This is a classic recipe, classically rendered. Very good, very warming. I was grateful to have my food processor to slice a kilo and a half of onions, which saved me both time and tears. I admit that I didn’t use the best quality cider, so it was perhaps sweeter and less rounded than it might have been, but also I tend to prefer onion soups made with sherry. Onion soup is quite sweet, between the caramelised onions and alcohol. I might have preferred it a touch thicker but that’s just a personal thing. I personally think harder, more flavourful cheese, like extra mature cheddar, would actually be nicer on the toast, although doubtless this is blasphemy.
Tartiflette [From Chapter One: Ripe and Ready – cheese]
It’s hard to conceive of how a recipe consisting of potatoes, bacon and cheese could go wrong. This is delicious, very rich, very filling, very fatty. The combination of animal fat from the bacon and dairy fats from butter and cheese is perfect against the waxy, plain foil of the potatoes, spiked through with salty bacon. It’s definitely not an everyday meal.
Naughty substitution: I could not find Reblochon and, after much Googling, used Emmental cheese (the internet suggested Gruyere but I always substitute Gruyere with Emmental, which I prefer). Reblochon is soft and Emmenthal is medium-hard soft it’s obviously not a perfect substitute. Brie was also suggested but I really struggle psychologically with Brie so just went for the cheese I like.
I ate my portion of tartiflette with raw Belgian endive. I think it’s cold bitterness makes it the perfect foil for such a rich dish. Belgian endive is an acquired taste, though…Also, it’s more traditional to serve it sliced horizontally into rings, but I find this makes it very difficult to eat.
Galettes soubises [From Chapter One: Ripe and Ready – cheese]
If you love a Croque Monsieur or Croque Madame, you will surely not find it hard to love this, which manages to be both elegant – thanks to the homemade buckwheat pancakes – and rustic, thanks to the pile of bacon and cheese the pancakes are topped with. The fried egg is the final flourish. I’ve never eaten buckwheat crepes apart from these and I love that round, hearty flavour that buckwheat provides. It’s heavier than plain white flour, which makes it a more perfect starchy base for the meat, cheese and egg.
Henry instructs you to cook the onions for 20 minutes without allowing them to colour, which I found impossible. The edges of each piece of onion was decidedly golden to brown, but this didn’t dishearten me as I much prefer the flavour when they have some colour. If you want to avoid the onions colouring, I’d suggest cooking the onions over a small gas ring or for a shorter period.
Incidentally I used a single cast-iron frying pan for the whole thing, from cooking the onions to the bacon to the crepes, and didn’t do more than wipe out any debris between cooking. I think it made the whole thing more flavourful. Henry suggests cooking the crepes in some extra oil but I strained the excess fat from cooking the bacon and used that to cook the pancakes, adding a little extra oil where necessary. The pancakes did tear quite easily so I left them untouched a little longer than I might a traditional plain flour pancake. I made this on a weeknight and there is a point with this recipe (as with many that require last-minute cooking) where everything seems to happen at once and you burn the side of your arm on your cast-iron frying pan. It was really delicious though.
I surely don’t need to tell you this recipe is not a dieter’s friend. I managed to fit it in my diet, just, by having only the one pancake. Fortunately it’s such an over-the-top dish, between the eggs and bacon and cheese, that you can achieve a good deal of satisfaction with it (though I think you could easily have seconds). My boyfriend had three crepes for dinner and I think he experienced some regret after.
Roast squash salad with lentils and goat’s cheese [From Chapter Three: Earthly Pleasures – pumpkin, squash, beans and lentils]
There’s something marvellously zeitgeisty about the combination between earthy, nubbly lentils; sweet squash, roasted to silkiness, and the sharp, lactic tang of goat’s cheese. This recipe is not an earth-shattering or original combination, but things become classics for a reason: it’s a really nice salad, with a good, slightly tangy dressing to cut through the musky, sweet flavours. The recipe is also quite balanced and, while you could add extra goat’s cheese, it’s certainly not essential.
I’ve mentioned that sometimes Henry’s instructions seemed to me slightly perverse and her suggestion to halve the squash, cut it up into 2.5cm wedges and only then peel the butternut seemed to me to be the long way round since you have to peel each chunk of squash separately, whereas if you peel the squash while it’s intact you’re working with a much larger surface area. I did it her way the first time I made it and found it extremely frustrating. The second time, I halved and trimmed the squash and peeled it, using an ordinary, albeit sturdy, Y-shaped peeler, then cut it up, and the whole affair was much quicker.
I think this is the only recipe I didn’t photograph.
Every so often I stumble across a recipe for baked beans and, without reading through the recipe, think: ‘Great! Tomorrow’s dinner sorted’, without realising that they usually take between two to three hours to cook. Henry’s recipe is no exception: boil up soaked haricot beans for an hour; mix in the additional ingredients and slap the lid on; bake for two hours and remove the lid; bake for a further hour. You see where the problem lies when, like me, you start eagerly cooking this up at 7pm after returning from work. The consequence is that I ate this before it had the full cooking treatment. Baked beans really do need the long baking for the flavours to become mellow and meld together; take them out and eat prior to this and, although good eating, it is true that the sweetness of molasses and maple syrup will jar rather too much with the sharpness of mustard and vinegar and saltiness of pork. Time makes these ingredients good bedfellows. Give the dish the slow cooking it needs and you will be rewarded.
Very small procedural/ingredients gripe: Henry insists that you buy bacon in one piece, but then cut it up into chunks. Given that it’s harder to find bacon in one piece, especially of good quality, but it’s easy to find excellent lardons or normal back bacon, you might be able to substitute them.
Duck breast with aillade [From Chapter Two: Gathering In – chestnuts, hazelnuts, walnuts and pecans]
Duck is a notoriously fatty meat, and I wouldn’t instinctively see the natural accompaniment of fatty meat being an oil-based sauce. But here, duck breasts, seared over high heat and finished in the oven, are paired with a cool aillade, a sauce not unlike pesto in texture, which is based on garlic, walnuts, walnut oil and parsley. The heat of the garlic and creaminess of the walnuts go nicely with the richness of duck, as it turns out.
I found the instructions for cooking the duck breast a little perverse. You slash the breasts and rub a generous amount of brandy, thyme and seasoning into them, but it’s unclear what the brandy actually provides, since most of it runs onto the dish holding the duck breasts (I didn’t detect it in the final flavour of the dish). Then you start the duck off in a pan over high heat until the fat renders and finish in the oven: great. They leave the oven well-cooked and with a perfect ripple of crisp, slightly bubbled duck crackling each where the skin baked crunchy and brittle, providing perfect contrast to the soft meat beneath. Then, Henry instructs you to wrap the cooked breasts in foil for a few minutes. I know the idea behind this kind of insulation is to let the meat cook outside the oven and let the juices run from the surface back into the meat, but the steam of the foil packet made the crackling limp, wilted and fatty – certainly not worth eating.
The aillade I found dangerously, painfully addictive: I could have eaten it with a spoon, with bread, drizzled over salad, anything.
Because of the multiple rich ingredients, a bed of sharp, pungent rocket was the way to serve it.
Russian smoked fish pie with cream cheese pastry [From Chapter Seven: Of Wood and Smoke – smoked food]
An unusual dish, combining a base of pre-cooked white rice with white and smoked fish, mushrooms, and a white sauce jazzed up with lemon juice, sour cream and parsley, and finally topped with a delicate pastry lid. My boyfriend enjoyed this more than I did; I didn’t hate it by any means, but I discovered that I don’t love the combination of mushrooms and fish, which is as much a textural as a taste issue. The slight slipperiness of the mushrooms is perhaps a bit too reminiscent of a live fish in this context.
This is also definitely not one of those recipes you can serve up to fish avoiders: it’s very assertively fishy and smokey, and the smell lingers in the house and in your hair. It’s not a gentle introduction and I doubt it would make converts.
It uses a lot of pans.
Tagliatelle with roast pumpkin, sage, ricotta and smoked cheese [From Chapter Seven: Of Wood and Smoke – smoked food]
I substituted butternut squash for the pumpkin, because squash is easier to find and prepare. Henry suggests a combination of ricotta and smoked cheese as a substitute for the smoked ricotta used in Friuli, where this dish originates, because smoked ricotta is difficult to find in the UK (very true). The only smoked cheese I could find, however, was a round of Bavarian smoked cheese and it just overwhelmed the flavour of the other components, so have a taste of the cheese you’re using and maybe cut down on the amount you use if the smoked flavour is very strong. I imagine some kind of smoke flavouring was used in the cheese I bought so you might also benefit from seeking out a properly smoked cheese.
West Country pot-roast chicken with apples and cider [From Chapter Eight: Apples in the Attic – apples, pears and quinces]
Served with good, plainly cooked root veg
Action shot! The quite pale, thickened pot liquor
When I made this dish and served it up, I understood very clearly why it had not been photographed (it’s instead illustrated with an image of a hen and some apples), because it is really not the most attractive dish of stewed-together meat. It is cooked in the oven, after an initial blast of heat on the stove, which is handy as it keeps the majority of your work surfaces free if you want to cook up side dishes. It is a very classic stew which could easily be served to almost anyone who isn’t a vegetarian: I doubt even the fussiest child could find much to object to. The chicken is pot-roasted whole and at the end is so soft and delicate it comes off the bone and is as tender as anyone could wish. If you can afford a proper free-range chicken I would recommend it; with so few bold flavours in this dish it really is a celebration of chicken, and a properly flavourful bird will make a difference.
I love the combination of chicken and apple, which is a very Belgian flavour profile; fittingly, my grandmother introduced this to me. There’s no better way of eating chicken, in my view, than a breast sauteed in butter until golden and slightly crispy, with a puddle of freshly-made applesauce steaming on the side, and a platter of boiled potatoes to go with. The sauteed apples Henry directs you to make obviously add a bit of sweetness but also lift the flavour of something which might otherwise be very plain and basic. The only slightly tricky part about this recipe was removing the chicken from the pot at the end of cooking in order to bring the juices in the pan to the boil for thickening. The meat was so tender it was coming apart and I think you will need an extra pair of hands for this.
Henry specifies using a chunk of bacon in one piece, but cutting it up into 2cm squares. Again, I’m fairly convinced you could use pre-cut lardons with no real detriment. Since it’s easy to find good-quality lardons where I live, but bacon in a piece tends to be watery and over-salted (and come in enormous chunks far exceeding the requirements of a single recipe) I would prefer to go down the lardon route.
Such a simple, rustic dish needs no real adornment nor fancy accompaniment. I served it with boiled up potatoes and carrots (not cooked to within an inch of their lives).
Hot Lightning [From Chapter Eight: Apples in the Attic – apples, pears and quinces]
Cooking in my casserole
‘Rustic’ means that smears on plates are acceptable, people
Hete bliksem, as this dish is called in Dutch, is something I’ve been aware of most of my life, as versions of it are eaten in Belgium, but it’s never been served up to me in a family setting. In Henry’s recipe it’s new potatoes, apples and pears cooked together with bacon and a touch of fresh thyme. Most Belgian versions seem to combine layers of applesauce, mashed potato and beef mince into a casserole; the Dutch versions seem to mash the potatoes and apples together and add bacon. Apparently the addition of bacon and onion in the Netherlands turns this dish into hemel en aarde (heaven and earth), rather than simply hot lightning. Henry’s recipe is slightly rougher and chunkier because, although the apples and pears are cut quite thinly, and do break down into smaller chunks with the stewing and stirring, the new potatoes she specifies (in opposition to the Low Countries recipes I’ve looked at which specify ‘kruimige’ (floury) potatoes) retain their firmness and texture. In the Low Countries it’s definitely a family dish, served as a casserole without any challenging flavours or textures which young children often find quite objectionable; Henry’s version is a little more zeitgeisty and rustic, fitting in with the aesthetics and preferances of the British (cookbook-buying) public, and is definitely a side dish.
This is very hearty and the combination of pork and apple is tried and tested: nubbly, sweetish new potatoes, salty, slightly crispy bacon (it’s stewed so isn’t crunchy, sadly) and the sweetness and slightly graininess of the pears and sharpness of the green apples, both of which have not entirely cooked down to mush. Henry suggests serving with cabbage and sausages, which is delicious and feels very appropriate.
Peasant Girls in a Mist [From Chapter Eight: Apples in the Attic – apples, pears and quinces]
I was served this astounding dish at a Bonfire Night party a few years ago, and the extraordinary taste of it actually compelled me to go out and buy Roast Figs, Sugar Snow a week later. It’s such a simple, old-fashioned recipe, combining tart cooking apples, rye breadcrumbs and cream, as well as a little sugar and hazelnuts. The dessert has Danish/Norwegian origins and the name, Henry speculates, refers to the blanket of cream veiling the apples.
Considering how simple it is, how few the elements, I just find this extraordinarily delicious and compulsive, and I never thought I’d say that about any dessert whose starchy component was breadcrumbs. I couldn’t stop thinking about it until I’d made it myself, and I was worried, because I wasn’t sure it would live up to my memory, but actually it tasted just as wonderful, which is so rare when expectations are sky-high. The dish just really works: a hint of sourness from the apples, a faintly malty crunch from the fried breadcrumbs (I personally think sourdough rye crumbs work really well here for an additional smokiness and slight tang to cut through the sweetness of the cream), the generous and beautiful layer of cool, sweet, fluffy whipped cream, the nutty crunch of toasted hazelnuts on the very top.
I love Tipsy Baker’s cookbook reviews, and she always notes when she thinks a recipe is ‘worth the price of the book’. This is worth the price of the book to me. So delicious, so memorable.
Hungarian Lecso [From Chapter Ten: Winter on your Tongue – herbs, spices and sour cream]
Lecso is described by Henry as a Hungarian ratatouille in a genuinely charming headnote which captures the energy she experienced in Budapest and the bold flavours of Hungarian cooking – “big, unarguable-with”. I love flavours that pack a powerful punch and so I was expecting to like this dish of stewed-together peppers and tomatoes, punctuated with a mixture of sweet and hot paprika. I did, very much; the colour is gorgeous and the texture agreeably jammy. It’s a good side dish, though I served it on its own with boiled new potatoes. Henry suggests serving with sour cream and the soft, cold, tangy flavour would work very well (I didn’t because, calorie counting).
Swedish meatballs with cranberry sauce [From Hedgerow and Bog – cranberries, blackberries, sloes and rosehips]
If your highlight of a trip to IKEA is a plateful of meatballs, you’re not alone – the promise of meatballs is how I lure my boyfriend into accompanying me, carrying things back and, most importantly, building them – and your eyes would surely be attracted to this recipe. Henry name-checks IKEA in the headnote, and notes that in Sweden, the meatballs would be served with lingonberry jam, but that cranberries are a good substitute. If you want to try it with the authentic lingonberry jam, it can be bought in IKEA or from Scandi Kitchen in Central London.
Any meatball is a good meatball, in my view, but in truth I found Henry’s a little heavy in terms of texture and taste. I think this is down to her using a combination of pork and beef, whereas the usual combination in Europe is pork and veal. I know people in Britain get their knickers in a twist when it comes to consuming veal, which is probably why beef was used instead. For the animal-welfare record, veal crating is now banned in the EU and British veal is produced to the highest animal welfare standards in Europe. Since a lot of people eat lamb without qualm, I’m not entirely sure where the residual squeamishness about consuming veal comes from. And from a culinary perspective, veal is utterly delicious, much more tender and with a delicate flavour which works beautifully with pork. I think using veal instead of beef would be a marked improvement.
I accidentally didn’t make the cranberry sauce as per Henry’s instructions, since almost every recipe I’ve seen combines the cranberries and sugar from the start, and I did that on autopilot. But it worked anyway and I’m sure Henry’s method of cooking cranberries first is also perfectly sound.
Incidentally I think the order of cooking given was slightly odd and unnecessarily lengthened preparation time: make cranberry jam, then saute onions, then soak breadcrumbs in milk for half an hour, and only then mix the ingredients and form the meatballs. Instead I soaked the breadcrumbs, then made up the cranberry sauce and followed this up with frying the meatballs, which I thought was more efficient.
Maple-glazed poussins with cornbread and pancetta stuffing [From Chapter Twelve: Sugar snow – maple syrup]
To make this recipe, you first bake up a cornbread, which is as easy as muffins and ranks among the quickest things you can make. It’s a little bit buttery and with a sweet edge from the hint of honey used, but not overwhelmingly so. Then you add cooked pancetta, celery and onion to the baked cornbread and add egg and seasoning; this goes inside your poussin. Henry says to wash and dry the poussin, but since washing poultry is one of the main ways campylobacter is spread in home kitchens, I skipped this step. I also did not truss up my poussin as instructed because the thought made me feel quite defeated. The resultant teeny chickens looked rather gauche, to be sure, flaunting their spread legs, but no further harm done. I have photographed them in profile to spare their blushes.
I enjoy poussin for their juiciness and their cuteness, and the ability to serve people a whole bird as a portion, and this was a nice way of cooking it. However, I felt it a little undistinguished; although glazed with maple syrup spiked with garlic and Tabasco, I would have preferred a hotter, saltier glaze and, possibly, a crisper skin. Definitely one to tweak around to my personal taste, though.
If you are wont to serve roast chicken with potatoes of some kind, this will be quite a stodgy meal, given the carbohydrate-rich stuffing. But oh well. Sometimes you just need to feel full.
Baba a Louis sticky buns [From Chapter Twelve: Sugar snow – maple syrup]
Sticky buns sounded so seductive and it was surprisingly easy to put together, considering it involves rolling and slicing, but I think the small fairy cake tins I used to bake these in were too small – Henry says ‘muffin tins’ and I think you will need ones which are pretty solid and deep. Also, perhaps my oven was running hot, or the cooking time was too long, or a combination of both, because the finish product was disappointingly dry and the sticky melted sugar had hardened to a crisp toffee. Keep an eye on them if you make them.
The things I didn’t cook
It occurred to me, when writing this round-up, that a cookbook is as much the recipes you don’t make as the ones you do choose. Obviously some are down to personal taste, such as the recipes including black pudding, which I don’t really like (and not because it makes me squeamish. I just don’t enjoy it), or opportunity, such as some roast dishes serving a vast quantity of people. But sometimes there’s a pattern of dishes, a chapter or two which entirely miss the mark or don’t fit in with your lifestyle.
Henry writes evocatively about the assertive taste of game and the pride of eating meat you’ve shot yourself, and the pleasures of eating freshly-gathered wild mushrooms, in her chapter ‘Tales from the Hunt: game and wild mushrooms’, but neither the experience of hunting nor gathering mushrooms is available to an urban creature such as myself. It perhaps points up my disconnection with food to admit that the idea of eating mushrooms gathered from the wild makes me fear deathly poisoning more than anything else. Anyway, I’m sure I could hunt down wild mushrooms at Borough Market and game at various central London butchers, but it’s not a part of my life or available to me within easy reach, so I didn’t end up making Roast Pheasant with quince, blackberries and heather honey, or Russian Partridge with beetroot and sour cream, or any of the other dishes from this chapter. If you live somewhere where it may be more difficult to get hold of wild, foraged and hunted ingredients, this chapter might be even less relevant. There are a few more recipes containing foraged ingredients scattered in other parts of the book, too, such as a recipe for sloe gin.
There’s a very charming recipe included for sugar-on-snow, described as a maple toffee, made by cooking together maple syrup and butter and pouring onto compacted snow so that it sets. Again, I live in London: the idea of eating city snow doesn’t appeal! But I appreciate this recipe was included for atmosphere rather than viability.
The recipes I still want to make
Although I spent a great deal of time with this cookbook, I still didn’t make everything I wanted to try. Here is a small selection of recipes I am earmarking for an appropriate occasion. The theme is mostly cheese, which is a struggle to fit in when practising calorie control. I know I bang on about calorie control but it was a genuine factor in not cooking up certain recipes.
Between ‘the recipes I didn’t make’ and the ones I still want to try out, there are a number of recipes which are recipes which didn’t really grab my attention either way at the moment (mostly side dishes) – I may come back to them later – so the book contains much more than what’s listed here.
Alsatian tarte flambee – I make what I consider to be the lushest tarte flambee ever and would like to see how Henry’s compares!
Georgian cheese pies – when I visited Geogia several years to visit my lovely friend Emma (who runs the informative blog Cookies and the Caucasus – and you can read my guest post here!), one of the highlights was definitely buying khachapuri from any street stall and eating it right there, fresh, hot and, undeniably, greasy. I’d love to cook this recipe up. Since the type of Georgian cheese (sulguni) used in khachapuri is unavailable in the UK, most recipes find a way to approximate its sharp, salty flavour and stringiness. Henry uses a typical combination of mozzarella for string factor and feta for salty sharpness.
Mile-high buttermilk pancakes with date and pecan butter and maple syrup – if the recipe isn’t making you quiver in anticipation, then…you probably don’t have a sweet tooth. London restaurant Oklava has been making waves for its Medjool date butter, but here Henry has pre-empted the trend. Frankly, Medjool date anything has me salivating and I hope to try this recipe if I host a brunch in the near future.
Pretty much all the cakes and bakes – from pecan and pear upside-down cake (the photograph exposing a rich, slightly damp, buttery crumb) to Italian Christmas chocolate cake (packed with chestnuts) to toasted gingerbread cake (I always love gingerbread) and Harvest moon cake with maple and pecans, all of Henry’s offerings sound up my street.
Little baked apples with maple and walnut ice cream – I don’t have an ice cream maker or a freezer (well, a little box in the fridge which is completely frosted over 95% of the time), so couldn’t make this, but should the day come when we move somewhere with a freezer, I definitely will.
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.