Thursday, September 22, 2016

Gather - Gill Meller

Over the last couple of weeks I've got 3 new cookbooks, Diana Henry's 'Simple', Gill Meller's 'Gather', and Patience Gray's 'Honey From a Weed'. I've not read much of 'Honey From a Weed' yet, but on the first page Gray (who is a wonderful writer) talks about how "Good cooking is the result of a balance struck between frugality and liberality..." Something which "is born out in communities where the supply of food is conditioned by the seasons." And that "Once we lose touch with the spendthrift aspect of nature's provisions epitomised in the raising of a crop, we are in danger of losing touch with life itself."

She wrote that in 1986 at a time when I guess we were really beginning to take ingredients, and their year round availability on supermarket shelves, for granted. Thirty years later we still seem inclined to lose touch with the realities of crops and seasons - which is not encouraging. Anyway, it was with those few sentences very much at the front of my mind that I opened 'Gather', which only increased its impact.

It's a book I've been anticipating for months (I follow Gill Meller on Instagram where there's been a tantalising stream of pictures suggesting something pretty special was on the way. There was.) Meller is the head chef at River Cottage which was already a pretty good indication of the kind of quality to expect. I'm a River cottage fan for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is the growing number of really inspiring writers and cooks who have been part of that project. Put their books together and there's a real sense of dialogue between them, which is the sort of thing I get excited by, and has added to the anticipation with this book - what would it bring to the conversation?

Well, Diana Henry (who knows what she's talking about) says "Gather is a perfect expression of something food writers have been trying to define for the past three decades - modern British cooking." I think she's right, this is a book rooted specifically in the landscape of Devon and Dorset, it's food that respects where it comes from, which certainly strikes that balance between frugality and liberality, and which just feels right.

Meller starts with a definition of what gather means (To collect from different places; assemble | To cause to come together; convene | To draw (something or someone) closer to oneself | To harvest or pick) - which explains why it's become a philosophy to him in the way he cooks and eats. I can't help but agree with it, it so neatly covers what I enjoy most about cooking.

The chapters cover different parts of the landscape (farm, orchard, moor, seashore, field, harbour, garden, and woodland) which give plenty of opportunity to think more about where our food comes from (I can't tell you how much this makes me miss living by the sea, and having a garden). Looking at a recipe for beef shin with smoked dulse (which is making my mouth water) the links between landscape and food are enough to conjur a vision of cows on the beach back home.

I also love the way that recipes go from fairly traditional - something like fried pheasant with quince and bay, to more unexpected combinations such as trout cured with rhubarb and rose petals (it's the same principle as gravadlax, but sounds somewhat more romantic), or a salad of raw beetroots, curd, and rose. I can already vouch for the chocolate rye brownies and how the crisp sugary nutty topping (and in my case myrtle leaves) transform them from fudgey treat into something both earthy and elegant.

The recipe that's really made me fall in love with this book though is for oat plum breakfast cake - it has something a bit like a flapjack for a base, a layer of cream and cream cheese, and plums fried in honey and butter on top. How could I not fall for that? Or for someone who suggests it for breakfast (there's more liberality than frugality in this particular recipe, and doesn't it sound good).

I hope I've managed to share my enthusiasm for this book, it feels like an important one, a milestone on the way to a better understanding of food and landscape, and something to shout about from the rooftops.


  1. I have had 'Honey from a Weed' for more years than I can recall. I love reading it but think that I have never made anything from it.

  2. I've been dipping in and out of it, I got the prospect books edition and it's beautiful to look at too. My feeling is that food is so important it's quite legitimate to have books with recipes that are more for reading and thinking about than practical companions. I have a glorious book my mother gave me that pairs deserts with wines. It's all very specific and fussy - I'd never cook from it, but I love it - and now feel the need to go and have a look at it!

  3. I had never heard of Patience Gray's Honey From A Weed and will track it down. MFK Fisher can describe a frugal and yet filling meal and make her prose sing a little. There's nothing like macaroni cheese and potatoes in their jackets on a Monday night along with a glass of Chablis.
    As a child I liked nursery rhymes which mentioned food; curds and whey and plum pudding, for example. Oak plum breakfast cake sounds delicious and rather like an old nursery rhyme or a poem by Walter De La Mare who was much admired by Saul Bellow.
    There's a haunting 18th century lyric, written in Welsh and translated by the Opies in one of their seminal books. It is about children in November begging for pennies for their guy; they speak of children who were here this time last year, but have since died.
    Who could have forseen the need for food banks in 21st Century Britain?
    The Welsh lyric appears as a footnote, I think, in The Language and Lore of Childhood.
    Jack Haggerty