Megan Abbott

At Home With: Mina Holland

Megan Abbott
At Home With: Mina Holland

Originally published on food52.com

The first time we met Mina Holland, Guardian’s Cook magazine editor and author of The World on a Plate, we ended up lingering outside the entrance to her favourite pub, waiting for the clock to strike 11.30 and summon the first cider of the day. In order to cement this tradition, it seemed only right to be sipping icy Vermouth at midday in her Hampstead garden on our second meeting.

Mina is an editor and a writer. In her short but vibrant career she has reignited a public interest in food writing and the people behind our favourite dishes. But above all, she is a lover of cooking and eating. With food at the front of her mind, Mina has trailed the globe gathering pearls of culinary wisdom from all corners. This summer saw the release of her first book, The World on a Plate: 40 Cuisines, 100 Recipes, and the Stories Behind Them. Exploring eating traditions of every imaginable culture, Mina has created a book that is “as comfortable in your kitchen as at your bedside.” With recipes, stories and history, The World on a Plate glides through the spice-infused Middle East, fish-centric Japan and the family feasts of Mexico. It dips into Venice’s crumbling bars, lifts the lid on Ethiopia’s most beloved stews, and teaches us the formula for a ‘revelatory’ tomato sauce, which Mina picked up on a trip to Lazio. Her book has been internally acclaimed, with 12 editions now available. Which, for a recipe book with no pictures, is a huge credit to the beauty of Mina’s writing. “I love hearing that people are using the book!” She tells us, “I never believed people would actually cook from it, so it’s wonderful when I hear that they are. It’s a very international concept, I guess.”

As we speak, Mina is working on her new book, Mama: The Food That Makes Us, which explores recipes passed down from mothers to children and how they are altered through time. On her wooden desk sits a little tin box; a gift from her own mother. “Mum gave me this for my 30th birthday, filled with recipes I grew up with.” She tells us, unlatching the box and sifting through the labeled cards, “It also has my grandmother’s marmalade jar with her writing on it. My other grandmother didn’t cook, but she and my grandfather had a drink’s trolley and this cocktail stick was theirs! I love having this box next to me while I write.”

Mina has lived in Hampstead for 3 years with her musician boyfriend. Theirs is a quiet, leafy pocket of West London, where the kitchen is the nucleus of the home. “My whole life, I’ve done my socializing in the kitchen.” She explains, refilling our cups with tea, “I don’t ever want a kitchen that’s separate from the living space. I hate the notion of having to scurry away and busy myself in a tiny kitchen while everyone else is having fun.” And it’s true, in our afternoon with Mina, we barely leave the kitchen. Once, we scurry up to her airy writing room, with its lavender window boxes and views over the garden. We also head outside for a while to pick at her herbs; sage, bay, thyme and mint swaying beside giant Hydrangeas. But for the most part, we stick to the kitchen, where Mina cooks up two of her favorite home recipes. The first is shakshuka. “This is a take on a recipe I picked up in Israel.” She says, “Completely inauthentically, I add cinnamon and lots of butter. One of my favourite things is to put tomatoes, onions and butter on the hob for an hour. It’s just so delicious.” We scoop up the rich, gently spiced shakshuka with hunks of warm crusty bread, the sauce still bubbling away. Cooking for people, she tell us, is always her first choice. “I think I’ve realised as I’ve got older that I like the simple things in life.” Mina says, “And that for me is cooking at home with a nice glass of wine, talking to the people I’m close to. I cook about 4 nights a week at home, and always on Sundays. I’ve also realised recently that I’m quite controlling in the kitchen…so it’s usually just me cooking and everyone else having a drink!”

Unsurprisingly for one of the most rousing food writer’s around, Mina’s kitchen shelves are lined with books. The classic works of Laurie Colwin and M. F. K. Fisher are nuzzled beside the latest cookbooks, from Claire Ptak’s The Violet Bakery Cookbook to Rachel Roddy’s Five Quarters. “I don’t cook from recipes very much. But a good cookbook makes me want to.” Mina explains, pulling down this last one, “I cook a lot like Rachel does. Her recipes just always work. They really are the work of a home cook. She is, like me, a British woman who has learned from the Mama’s in Rome.” A lover of words, Mina collects cookbooks that read like novels. She says, “The sign of a great cookbook for me is something I want to sit down and read, or take to bed. I’m always inspired when there’s a story behind a dish.”

When we weren’t face down in our bowls, we spent most of the time at Mina Holland’s home exploring her well-stocked cupboards. All signs pointed to a comfortable, knowledgeable cook; a turquoise Le Creuset pot, Daisy Cooper ceramic salad servers, a fine I.O Shen Japanese paring knife and a Cuisinart mini food processer she calls “my favorite thing in the kitchen.” There is also a stack of ceramics bought at Madrid’s famous El Rastro market. Not to mention a sturdy Charles and Diana mug that she’s had since university. “I’m not so much in to kitchen gadgets as just good quality, long-lasting stuff.” She explains, “A good sauté pan is important, and I love a big pot to throw everything in to. I like basic kitchenware that’s going to last forever.” Beside all this are shelves stacked with jars and bottles; the building blocks to her cooking. In 2009, Mina moved to her “beloved” Madrid, where she spent 6 months learning kitchen tricks from the locals. “I cooked a lot in Spain. I learned everything there from eating out and then trying to emulate it at home. I ate so many lentils and chickpeas, stewed with root vegetables and this stuff.” She says, producing a small red tin of Pimenton, sweet Castillian paprika, “I use it so much now. It’s one of my kitchen essentials!” So what else can she not cook without? “Marmite is obviously an essential for any self-respecting Brit.’ She say, “I not only love it on toast (morning, afternoon and evening..!), but it has that beautiful salty umami quality that is great with spaghetti, butter, parmesan and pepper.” She takes us over to another bursting cupboard. “I suppose my other essential ingredient would be rapeseed oil. It grows in early summer in Norfolk, where my family’s from. The fields glow this shocking yellow colour. It’s a great carrier for other flavours. I also love using golden syrup. That’s quintessentially British to me.” “And if there’s one flavour that brings memories flooding back for me, it’s smoked haddock.” She adds, “It reminds me of my Granny cooking it in milk before adding to a kedgeree. That’s the closest it comes to edible home for me.”

After a cup of tea and more snooping in the interim, Mina pulls dessert out of the oven. It is cherries, thyme and coconut, wrapped up in piping hot puff pastry and served with a dollop of yogurt, a take on the ‘plum shuttle’ that she grew up eating. The cherries are hot and sweet, made zingy with a little lemon juice. The pastry is dense and honeyed. The thyme gives it an autumnal kick. The whole thing is demolished in minutes, mostly by me. “This is a bit of an experiment. It feeds in to what the new book is about; playing with recipes that have been passed down to you.” Mina says, “vetting” the pastry before we’re allowed to taste it. “I think how I cook is a reflection of the food I’ve tried.” She explains, “I try and encourage people in the first book not to follow recipes word for word. For me, food is about what you can bring to ingredients, not just copying other people. If someone has a really great idea that I can take inspiration from and build on, then that’s a lot more exciting to me. I like the process, I find it very therapeutic.”

After dabbing up the last of the cherry juice, we head outside for our late-morning tipple. She is, of course, as well versed in wine as she is in food. “I learned about wine the same way I learned about food-experience!” She laughs. As easy as it would be to spend the entire day tumbling from garden to kitchen and plate to glass, Mina finally had to turn to the day’s work; setting up a shoot for Cook’s current Residency. “As much as I can, I stay at home.” She tells us, “Being a food journalist, you get all of these amazing offers to eat in lots of different places. But I’ve become quite selective about where I eat out. The more people I meet through what I do, the more I learn, which makes me want to cook more than ever.” “I don’t think you’re born a good cook, it’s definitely something you have to practice your way to. You have to eat a lot and cook a lot. In a sense it comes down to understanding yourself.”