Diana Henry interview
Presenter on Good Food Channel's Market Kitchen, and one of Britain's most respected food writers, Diana Henry is renowned for bringing a taste of the exotic to her recipes. We went to meet her at her west London home to find out where she gets her inspiration.
Food for thought
A walk around Diana's house reveals her love of food - from the vast kitchen with walls of glass designed to give the perfect light for food photography, to the shelves of cookbooks in every room. "I never stop thinking about food. There are times, when I've had a deadline, I have been writing all day, start recipe testing at midnight and go on until 3am to get it finished. I can cook all day, but still want to read something about food before I go to sleep."
Having started her career as a television producer, Diana never imagined her life as it is now, however food was a love she just couldn't shake off. Eager to learn, she cooked her way through the great French tomes. "I used to be bloody mad; I'd to come up to butchers in central London and carry back four stone of veal bones on public transport to make veal stock. In the end I went to Leith's cookery school to try and get it out of my system. I had planned to do only a term, but after two weeks that was it. I left my job and stayed for a year."
She turned to writing after realising she didn't have what it took to be a chef. "I have such respect for them as they are very driven, but it is home cooking rather than fine dining that I find inspiring. Michelin stars are wasted on me. I would prefer to have food that is less perfect, but delivered with more gusto, warmth and passion." It is the elevated home cooking you find in gastropubs that gives her the most thrill, along with people who have an enthusiasm for food to match her own.
The poetry of food
"I love reading about other people's adventures with food. Although we have very good food writers in Britain, I don't think we can compare to the Americans. I have a lot of recipe books from America as well - they are marvellous at desserts and baking books. I have three whole shelves of them upstairs." Molly O'Neill, John Thorne and Claudia Roden are writers she admires, but discovering Alice Waters has been her greatest inspiration. "I remember the day I found her book, Chez Panisse; there is something very special and very magical about that food."
It is this magic that Diana likes to capture in her own cooking by drawing on tastes and fragrances from around the world. Surprisingly, travelling wasn't always such a part of her life. Her love of the exotic came partly from the fact she didn't go anywhere. Growing up in Northern Ireland, she used to read about ingredients that didn't seem real. "My neighbour had a big book of the Arabian Nights, with amazing pictures of figs and pomegranates in trunks of jewels." This was the inspiration for her book Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons. It was Little House on the Prairie and Hans Christian Anderson that inspired another of her books, Roast Figs, Sugar Snow. "Images of snowy places, all that goes in the pot. I think food has a lot to do with imagination and what it is connected to. Ingredients are redolent of different things for different people."
Feeding the soul
"I suppose food was one of those things I could see always made people happy, made people cheerful whatever else was going on. You can get quite attached to something if it does that." In her job now, she loves creating new ideas and connecting people with traditional recipes that span the years and cultures. "I really do want people to cook - we all have to eat. The more pleasure you can get from your everyday life, the happier you are going to be."
"Open your larder tonight and think where can I go? What can I do that's really quite unusual?"
By Eleanor Smallwood