Diana Henry: ‘If you’re going to San Francisco…’

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Food writer and James Beard award-winning cookbook author Diana Henry has published her new cookbook How to Eat a Peach. Here she recounts a dinner held for her by another acclaimed food author Joyce Goldstein in San Francisco, the culmination of a journey in food that began in a bookshop in north London on a rainy afternoon in 1985.

On a rainy afternoon in 1985, I walked into a bookshop in north London and found a volume that has moved between my bedside table, desk and kitchen ever since. It was the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, by Alice Waters. I knew who Waters was – I’d read a piece about her and her restaurant in Berkeley – but I didn’t know much about her cooking style. British food lovers, at that time, were in thrall to nouvelle cuisine. We were buying hexagonal plates and reducing litres of veal stock (I regularly carried three stone of veal bones home on the Tube). Chefs pushed tiny diamonds of red pepper into position with tweezers. The dishes were complex and the menu descriptions (‘pillows of fish mousse nestling in a nage’) ludicrous.

I stood and leafed through the Chez Panisse menus – baked garlic with goat’s cheese, charcoal-grilled pork with roasted peppers, plum sherbet – and my spine tingled. I felt as if I’d plunged into the sea, such was the freshness of this food. I could immediately taste it and see it. It was bold because it was simple, and it had a kind of magic. For Alice, a bowl of fresh cherries with home-made almond biscuits was a good dessert. I immediately understood this woman. Furthermore, Alice, like me, loved menus.

Chez Panisse served a set dinner every day. This gave the cooking a definite style, a clarity. Alice understood the importance of a well-dressed salad, too, the dish I learned to value more than any other during my own time in France.

People have often said that Alice cooked Californian produce with a Mediterranean sensibility. In fact, her approach was shaped by living in Paris. It wasn’t the sun that was important, but the care with which food was cooked, the importance placed on ingredients, the way producers (farmers, growers, bakers) were valued. I’d already taken this message from home – it was something I grew up with – but as you cook it’s easy to lose your way. For years when I felt this was happening, when I was trying to do tricksy things (like getting two sauces to meet in a line on the plate), or was being seduced by some fad, I went back to the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. I only needed to read a few of the menus and I’d be back on track. It was my lodestar.

I visited Chez Panisse for the first time in 1992, it was the highlight of a meticulously planned American food trip: three weeks, eating in restaurants I’d been dreaming about for years. I sat across the road in the car for half an hour just looking at it before I went in.

Inside it was all candles and glowing wood. The meal – salt cod gratin, grilled lamb with black olives, Marsala-baked pears – was everything I had hoped for: great ingredients, nothing extraneous. I still have the menu. I ate in other places that week, and discovered how many chefs had passed through the Chez Panisse kitchen, taking its philosophy with them. I ate the late Judy Rodger’s roast chicken at Zuni Café and a Mediterranean feast from Joyce Goldstein at Square One. I bought so many books by Californian chefs that I had to purchase an extra suitcase for them. What I saw and ate in that short period – again and again – was an honesty, a kind of plain and simple beauty. Cooks here cared about a perfect goat’s cheese and a good roast chicken, in the same way as the French did, but their food had more energy; there was also more diversity in California – Asian and Mexican food as well as Mediterranean – and the ingredients, the lemons and figs and melons, seemed more intense, saturated with colour.

Back in London I held on to my San Francisco connection via books. I cooked from them, of course, and while in Books for Cooks, the tiny bookshop I visited often, I was always to be found in the American section. When I eventually gave up my job as a television producer and started to write, I sent my first book, Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons, to Joyce Goldstein, the most Mediterranean- and North Africa-loving of the three San Francisco chefs I most admired. I didn’t expect to hear from her, but she loved the book and wrote to me. This started a communication that has gone on ever since. Over the years she has sent me her books and I’ve sent her mine. We met – finally – when I was in the States on a publicity tour. She held a dinner for me in San Francisco; I had to go and have a cry halfway through.

I finally realized only last year, while deep in conversation with Alice about her memoir, what had really got to me thirty years before about the whole Northern Californian Chez Panisse philosophy. It was the care they all took – over the typeface used for the menus, the candles, the flowers, the crockery, the produce – it was about valuing the ordinary, seeing the beauty in the small things. It was about caring that you can buy good cherries – that everyone can – and knowing that serving these cherries to friends is a good thing, just because they’re beautiful and they taste good.

Alice kept using the word ‘love ’, not just about people, but about all sorts of things: early evening light, candles, mulberry ice cream, hats, peaches. She is a sensualist, as are all the Californian chefs I admire. They notice everything that you can see and taste and smell. And their lives are richer for it. I think this is what I immediately picked up on in that book shop. The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook is not just a cookbook, it is a way of seeing things, which is why I keep going back to it.

I know it seems strange – this Northern Irish woman cleaving to a West Coast approach to food and to life – but when Joyce Goldstein gave that dinner, I felt I was absolutely in the right place. And when she stood up and said that my books made me an honorary Californian, a San Franciscan cook, it was the highest compliment she could have paid me.

Diana’s Menu so you can cook from her new book How to Eat a Peach at home. You can buy the book here.

Cooking for Alice and Joyce and Judy

Elderflower Gin and Tonic

Spinach and Ricotta Gnudi

Leg of Lamb stuffed with Lemon and Many Herbs served with Sarassou

Broad Beans with Lettuce, Shallots and Mint

Pink Grapefruit and Basil Ice Cream

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