At midday on New Year’s Day we went to gather wood for the fire. The sky was blue and the sun warm, but a bitterly cold wind was blowing the sea into whitecaps and it would be chilly when darkness fell. Back at home, we put some pieces of goat meat in the oven with garlic and oregano and oil and potatoes.
The goat had been a gift. My landlord has apartments near the sea at Ayios Antonis, but being primarily a goat farmer he doesn’t use a computer and asked me to help him promote them online, which I did through Airbnb. He wanted to pay me for my time but I said he could give me something like olive oil instead. ‘Theleis katsikaki?’ he asked – do you want a baby goat? He said he’d cut it up into portions for me, and when I went to pick it up, he handed it to me in a plastic bag. ‘I put the head in there too,' he said, 'so you can make soup with it.’ The head is still deep in a corner of my freezer. I’m not that adventurous a cook.
While the meat was cooking, Y and I made marmalade from a couple of kilos of mandarins and clementines. We peeled the fruit and quartered it, throwing the skins of five or so into the pot alongside, then covered it with water and boiled it for half an hour. The water poured off, we removed the pips from every segment as the fruit cooled, taking care not to lose any juice. Then we blended it up and, adding sugar and water, boiled it again, hoping it would thicken enough. It seemed very much like mandarin soup so we left it bubbling away, and moved the dining table in front of the fire while we drank and ate and celebrated the new year.
This time last year, I was reading a lot about food. My publisher Summersdale proposed I put together a collection of food excerpts and references from classic and contemporary literature – novels, poems and plays – along with recipes inspired by them. The book, A Literary Feast, was published in summer 2015. A couple of months later, I received a gift in the post from Everyman’s Pocket Classics, who had published a similar book called Storiesfrom the Kitchen edited by Diana Secker Tesdell. I was intrigued to find out how it compared.
The two books complement one another well, as while the main ingredients in A Literary Feast are finely sliced pieces with trivia and recipes, Stories from the Kitchen is made with meaty chunks of literature – a longer meal rather than a collection of mezes. It focuses exclusively on novels from the last few hundred years, and shows how writers use food and meals to explore different themes. Everyman’s budget presumably allowed them to pay for longer excerpts from contemporary (in copyright) works, and among those contemporary excerpts were some of my favourite pieces.
In my book I’d quoted a loveable nugget of Nora Ephron on potatoes and love from her autobiographical novel, Heartburn – ‘Nothing like mashed potatoes when you’re feeling blue’. The effect of the longer excerpt in Stories from the Kitchen is surprisingly different; the way she talks about making complicated potatoes for first dates makes her sound like hard work. But the first piece I really loved was ‘A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf’, which begins with the narrator's husband pulling a forgotten piece of broccoli from the fridge, because Nina, who’s come to America from Russia, is obsessed with shopping for vegetables. I’d never heard of Lara Vapnyar, but her story was a delight and made me want to read more of her work.
Amy Tan’s ‘Best Quality’ was another wonderful and moving story about the narrator’s relationship with her mother, who cooks crabs for Chinese New Year; the character delineations are brilliant and the story twists unpredictably. And I found T.C. Boyle’s piece about a restaurateur and a reviewer, ‘Sorry Fugu’, thoroughly entertaining. Others will undoubtedly have different tastes, but for me it was less the classic pieces from Proust or Zola, Dickens or MFK Fisher, and more the modern pieces that captivated. Some of the very long excerpts made me wonder if I really wanted to read so much of a novel if I wasn’t reading the whole thing, but an exception was the thirty-odd-page dinner party in To The Lighthouse, which worked brilliantly as a stand-alone piece in the Memorable Meals section – not so much about the food but the relationships between those sitting around the table.
If I had to pick a favourite excerpt – well, call me biased but I’d say Gerald Durrell’s very funny ‘Owls and Aristocracy’ from Birds, Beasts and Relatives, set in Corfu, hit all the right notes. He’s invited to dine in winter – when ‘Everything was redolent with the smoke of olive-wood fires’ – at the home of the Countess Mavrodaki for the purposes of collecting a barn owl. His brother, Lawrence Durrell, is very jealous of the invitation. Gerald dresses up for the occasion in a crisp white shirt and new sandals, only to fall off his donkey into a muddy ditch on the way. But it doesn’t matter because the Countess is a surprisingly eccentric character. The feast is gargantuan, starting with a soup and ‘fingernail-sized croutons floating like crisp little rafts on an amber sea’; proceeding through fish and snipe, to the wild boar with ‘piles of the lovely little golden wild mushrooms… tiny marrows stuffed with sour cream and capers’. Every course has so many delicious accompaniments… Durrell surreptitiously undoes the top three buttons of his shorts.