Megan Abbott

At Home With: Diana Henry

Megan Abbott
At Home With: Diana Henry

It says a lot about Diana Henry, who has been described as “the quiet star of British food writing”, that she forgets to put lunch on until 3pm. Just like the rest of us. 

We have been sitting in her airy North London kitchen for two hours talking about food, family, and the cookbooks that fill up her house. She has a collection of over 4000, some lining the staircase, some by her bed, most staring down at us from the shelf that stretches across the kitchen. The sun that pours through the floor-to-ceiling doors from the garden has left many of them faded into various shades of pastel. It’s hard to tell the new from the old; each one looks as worn and loved as the last. 

Yet there is order in their chaos – Diana runs her hands over each shelf, taking us on a tour of the sections: Italian, Scandinavian, French, Middle Eastern, British, Preserving, Baking. There are a couple dedicated to American food writing – a genre that she says influenced her hugely. The latest in her collection is Renee Erikson’s A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus, which she adores. “Americans are less inhibited when it comes to food.” She says, topping up our glasses with a sweet, potent elixir of Prosecco and Cointreau with raspberry coulis and vodka. “They are happy to make it personal and poetic. That doesn’t happen as much here.” She glances at her watch. “Oh no!” She yelps, jumping up from her seat, “I forgot to put the chicken on! I’ve been talking too much!” She returns to the other side of the island, where a bowl of bead-like lentils stand beside a sticky apricot cake garnished with a sprig of lavender. 

When Diana Henry was in her late twenties, she quit her job in television to enrol at Leith’s cookery school. After her youngest son was born, she began writing about food full time. She published her first cookbook, the iconic Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, in 2002. The title alone captured people’s imaginations – it spoke of a poetic, enchanting world of food that had for so long remained unreachable. It explored cuisines uncharted in Britain; the jewelled, heated flavours of North Africa and the Middle East and the bright, sun-drenched dishes of the Mediterranean. Diana’s loose, sentimental writing was unique, too. Stories about her life were bound up in the recipes. She wrote about food not just as fuel or flavour, but as an emotional, sensual experience. And this is what she looks for in the books that fill her house. “For me, a good cookbook has to be connected to the person.” She tells us.

All eight of Diana’s celebrated cookbooks are dotted around her kitchen, wedged in beside her favourite writers. The most recent, A Bird in the Hand – which she refers to as “the chicken book” – explores the endless possibilities of a meat we often shun as too simple, too plain. Diana weaves magic into simple, earthly dishes. And makes everyone feel like they can cook. “I admire chefs greatly. But I like home food.” She tells us. “Often, chefs like technique, and they like to do complicated food. And I neither want to cook nor eat that stuff. More than anything, I like a cookbook to be honest; to be a real portrayal of the author. I think they can often be quite flat and not show the personality of the person. They shouldn’t be separated.” She says. “I’m a big believer in the beauty of the ordinary. We have to look for that in life.” 

This month sees the release of Diana’s tenth book, Simple. Revisiting Cook Simple, which she released in 2007, it showcases bold, colourful flavours and effortless cooking. It is a book for the home cook, infusing magic into midweek meals. Each dish is washed with the romantic possibilities of the everyday – dishes that are inextricably linked to Diana’s personal world. 

Growing up in Northern Ireland, Diana watched from the stairs as her parents entertained guests at dinner parties. “My earliest memory is of sitting on the kitchen countertop while the mixer was whirring.” She says, pouring olive oil over a plate of glossy burrata, “My parents had a big party once. All of us kids were upstairs peeping through the spokes of the staircase, listening to Frank Sinatra playing and people laughing. It was 1972 and my mum had stuffed olives and flavoured butters, and she’d made all this wonderful food. I was amazed by the scene.” Diana used to pinch her mother’s Le Cordon Bleu books and stay up reading late into the night until her eyes were sore. “I could see that with food you created a world. You entertained, you created atmosphere.” Since then, Diana has never been far from her favourite cookbooks. They have accompanied her through life, informed her own writing and inspired her recipes. 

At 15, Diana made her first trip out of Northern Ireland, travelling to France to stay in a “rickety house in the Champagne area.” She lodged with a family who had few resources, yet weaved magic into every day food. “It was this tiny house up a dirt track. It was really basic. But the meals we produced from this kitchen were exquisite.” she remembers. There, Diana learned the ways of “proper” vinaigrette, olive oil, the simple beauty of beginning a meal with a bowl of herby lentils or a tomato salad with lemon. “They really thought about flavour and the small details. These were not ‘foodies’, they just loved food. Because food is part of life. I can’t tell you how unbelievably affecting this was.”

Moving to London after graduating from Oxford, Diana found herself submerged in world food: markets selling yams, exotic fruits and spices; Turkish shops selling pails of olives; Italian delis stocked with Parma ham and ricotta. “I nearly lost my mind!” She laughs. “I couldn’t believe this stuff was on my doorstep. You could have been in Palestine or Rome! I’d go to Ridley Road market and Edgware Road and lug bags of food back to my flat. I just thought, “The whole world is here.””

It was during those first flourishes of life in London that Diana picked up two cookbooks that would reiterate something she already knew; that simple food can be the most decadent. The first was Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food – “It was a whole world of exoticness.” She says – and Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. The recipes in these books didn’t just appeal to Diana, they moved her. “In London at the time, it was all about nouvelle cuisine.” She recalls. “And then here was Alice Waters talking about goat’s cheese with roasted garlic and toasted sourdough. Or grilled pork with red peppers. Or fresh cherries with almond cookies. That food sent shivers down my spine. It was so different. It was simple in a very beautiful way. Both Claudia’s and her food seemed to have a similar enchantment. I remember taking them back to my basement flat. It was really rainy outside and I lay on the sofa reading them both.” Both of these books still lie at the top of the pile of Diana’s beloved collection. Beside them are a few other books that have shaped her life and work. “The best thing you can do is be immersed in other people’s good work.” She tells us as she walks us through her favourites. She picks up a copy of Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book. “Jane Grigson was the first food writer I properly read.” She tells us. “Her books are a mixture of biography, travel, poetry, history. And the food has to with everything.” This interlocking of food and life appealed to Diana. “I’ve never thought it was just about the cooking.” She says. “It was about everything else that surrounded the food.” She reaches for A Well Seasoned Appetite by Molly O’Neil, the former food editor of the New York Times, who she admits is “probably my favourite food writer.”

We have lunch late in the afternoon. The long wooden table, where Diana writes most of her articles and books, heaves with food; a cold, nutty lentil salad; sweet, soft harissa roasted tomatoes; silky spheres of burrata sharpened with anchovies, capers, flat leaf parsley, peels of fennel from the garden and a glug of excellent olive oil. Beside it, there is soft sourdough bread; a pot of salt, butter and of course, chicken – spatchcocked with chilli and breadcrumbs. “I thought, this is a Monday, we can’t be having anything too fancy.” She says. Her two sons come downstairs and join us, regaling us with stories of family holidays. We drink cold white wine, finishing the meal with the cake and a splash of cream. We talk more about Simple, which is set for release in the next few days. “It’s very much a book about where I am now.” She says. “Food writing should be about where you are positioned, about your childhood and your memories. For me, writing a cookbook is exciting but very centring. It’s a sort of quiet joy. That’s what I get from food – a kind of peaceful excitement. It’s what we can all get from it.”