Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Herb/ a cook's companion - Mark Diacono

Herb - the second book I bought in an actual bookshop last week when it was finally possible to do so again for the first time in months. I don't really know where I am with the easing of lockdown restrictions. Leicester never properly came out of them last year so it's been a long time. I'm not finding it easy to grasp that it's almost May, don't really know where the time has gone over the last couple of months, and am not sure how ready I am to rejoin the world - not that there's a lot of choice about the latter.

I spent a good portion of last week (or was it the week before?) making a spreadsheet of all the weird, gothic, horror, and ghost stories I have in anthologies (about 600 of them, 'Rappacinni's Daughter' by Nathanial Hawthorne turned out to be inexplicably to me popular, I think it's fairly ordinary but it's made it into 3 different collections). I should probably have started doing this sort of thing a year ago. That I've left it until now makes me wonder if it's an excuse to stay in.

Last week also bought an opportunity to cook for another person, which is almost as good as not having to cook for myself, and as it coincided with buying 'Herb', and I had all the ingredients (bar some sage that I pinched from a nearby garden border, and having tinned rather than fresh pineapple) for a pineapple and sage upside down cake it seemed like a promising place to start. I was not wrong.

It's a great cake that works really well as quite a smart pudding (or at least it would if you don't use chopped tinned pineapple which will not lose it's sad 1970's fruit salad look) as well as something nice to have with coffee. The amazing thing was that a combination of sage and cardamom along with the pineapple somehow suggested a hint of ginger. We drank whisky with it (to keep the cold out) Laphroaig PX cask - which was a splendid match, so much so that even the memory of it a week later is making me smile.

I am basically a sucker for a herb book, even though I no longer have a garden, or even a particularly satisfactory herb growing windowsill. The only thing I've managed to successfully grow is Myrtle, which doesn't mind being blasted by summer heat through the glass. Supermarket herb pots always get either green or white fly, and I can't keep up with watering them. This actually turns out to be a fairly decent book for someone with my lack of growing space. 

This is because it's a by no means exhaustive guide - there's a list of Diacono's favourite kitchen herbs, enough of which are available in supermarkets, or which might be easily foraged from friends gardens. These are treated as a starting point, so there's advice on growing, preparing, cooking. Each featured herb comes with a really decent list of things it goes well with which is perfect for encouraging experimentation, and the recipes are more or less (delicious) places to start from. The beauty of this book is in the way it makes you think about flavour and shows you how to get the most out of the herbs you have. I don't need a garden to be able to make better use of the things I can buy, and when I do have a garden I'll have learnt all sorts of things.

The other great thing about this book, apart from being able to spend time reading Mark's writing - he's exceptionally good company on the page, is that it quietly does go about the business of showing you how to make ordinary ish things extraordinary. The Pineapple and Sage upside down cake is a case in point. I have fond memories of the somewhat kitsch version we used to get served at school with custard, I love this version which is far better suited to my adult palate. All the recipes I've marked are somewhat similar in that they're simple enough things in themselves (it's the salads I'm really taken with at the moment) which read like they're going to be coaxed into being memorable. 

It's a really beautiful book to look at as well, but more than anything it's some decent inspiration for coming out of this strange time into one that we can eat together again in - it's a book that makes me want to share - time, enthusiasm, and food.  


  1. It *is* a beautiful book, the kind of cover that would tempt me to buy it. Rappaccini's Daughter is taught in US schools (or was when I was in them), so it's very well known here.

    1. It's not a bad story, but I do find I'm surprised to find it in 4 different British anthologies. E Nesbit's Man Sized In Marble is equally popular, along with a couple of others. I'm quite pleased with myself for having made the list - it'll certainly tell me if a collection is worth buying in the future, it's great for finding stories by authors I don't associate with the genre, or for a quick check if I like something to see if it's a one off. The Herb book is a delight too!