Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Patience Gray: Honey From A Weed

     I knew it would be a greater challenge than usual falling asleep last Friday night ahead of my MPRE exam, so I tried to find something appropriate to bring to bed to read that would at least put me in a reasonable state of mind if I found myself sleepless.

      First I printed and gathered the last few days' selections from Tom Clark's Beyond The Pale, which I knew would give me most of the sustenance (lyrical and visual) I needed.  Then a clarifying, revivifying thought seemed to fly into my confused head telling me to pull Patience Gray's Honey From A Weed from the bookshelf.  Finally, I gathered Calvin W. Schwabe's tome, Unmentionable Cuisine (more about this in the future; it's a remarkable book that should be more widely known and read), just in case.

    That evening, Honey From A Weed proved to be the very best remedy.  Subtitled Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia, Patience Gray's work is a rare combination of ethnography, Mediterranean history, recipes, and literature, and one of those books that can be read from beginning to end repeatedly and also in any direction.  It is a long, fully developed thought about healthy living (and how people aspire to it) that resists easy and glib summarization.  Unlike most excellent recipe books (whose company Gray's book shares), its index really should be ignored, at least until the book is digested whole. (For instance, you won't find an answer about the relationship between honey and weeds in the index.)  All that being said, it's fair to mention that the nominal subject of the book is an account of the domestic lives of  Gray and her husband,  stone carver/sculptor Norman Mommens, in the aforementioned areas of Italy, Spain and Greece, existing very simply and in as much harmony with their ancient surroundings as possible.

    For those unfamiliar with the book, I will share several short sections (the first is by far the longest, but incredibly beautiful and interesting), which are both representative and not.  (As I said, this book is not easily excerpted or dissected.)  As with her contemporaries Alan Davidson and Elizabeth David, one feels oneself in the presence of an enormous mind and sensibility and Gray's writing and thinking feels like breathing.  I think that's why I (or my inner angels) chose it to relieve pre-exam jitters.  The best approach to Patience Gray is for the reader is to assume personal responsibility, pay attention and share the fruits of her harvest.    

From Vegetable Heritage chapter:

ESCALIVADA - a vegetable braise
Eating out of doors in Catalonia is a commonplace in the delightful sense of an age-old habit.  Every peasant took a carpet-colored picnic basket with him to the fields, his lunch protected from the heat and dust in the same way as his cart was lined with finely woven straw matting and rich oriental carpeting.

    The country is so wild and so exposed that on any expedition inland one leaves behind the thought of finding an inn and gets into the way of taking along a wire grill, some little fishes, vegetables, oil, salt and a porro of wine and a loaf of bread.

    This is a very pleasant way of spending the heat of the day.  Even in the most deserted landscapes one often finds on sighting the ideally situated oak or cork tree, beside a narrow stream confined by boulders, that the position is already occupied.  In the mountains Llanos de Urgell we suddenly confronted a cassocked priest sitting on a stone beside the ashes of a recently made fire.  On our approach, he rose and with a ceremonious gesture indicated that the shady place which had been his was now freely ours.  It is difficult to forget a courtesy extended in a stony desert punctuated with cistus and sages, the silence broken only by the wing flash of golden orioles, hoopoes, swallows, dragonflies.

3 aubergines                                              olive oil
2 long green (mild) peppers                        garlic
2 long red (moderately hot)                        thyme
   peppers                                                  rosemary
4 large tomatoes                                        winter savory
4 large Spanish onions                               salt

Make a fire of dried maquis and, when it dies down, sprinkle it with the herbs and put the vegetables directly on the glowing embers.  Turn them from time to time until the skins are black.  The tomatoes cook the quickest, the peppers and aubergines take 20 minutes, and the onions take an hour.

    Take them off the fire, remove the charred skins, and wash your hands in the stream.  Cut them up into strips, put them straight onto slabs of bread.  Sprinkle with olive oil, chopped garlic and salt.

Escalivada means a braise in its original sense, that is, cooking on glowing embers.  This is pre-historic cooking, before the invention of earthenware.  It refers to the method, not the vegetables, because the method dates back at least 8000 years (first earthenware pots in Europe) and probably to the beginning of fire; while the vegetables employed here are of recent introduction.  (The onion is said to have been introduced from Egypt by Alexander the Great around 330 BC; the aubergine was a gift from the Arabs in early mediaeval times; the tomato arrived in the 16th century, on the heels of the conquest of Mexico, and so did the peppers, coming from both America and India.)

    Before these vegetables appeared on the scene, there were bulbs and roots that may have served.  Learning from the Elder Pliny (Book XXI under Bulbs) that the bulbs of the sea squill, Urginea maritima and the tuber-like root clusters of asphodel were cooked in this way in Roman times, I made an experiment with a bulb of sea squill, which outwardly resembles a giant onion in form.  The taste was extraordinarily bitter and explains why the roasted bulb was pounded with figs in Pliny's time.

From the Edible Weeds chapter: 

CIPOLLOTO COL FIOCCO     tassel hyacinth

Cousin of the grape hyacinth, this delightful plant has a 'mad' flower with purple 'tassel' and a delicious edible bulb; it grows wild on limestone, but is so much appreciated in early spring that it is also cultivated.  The wild bulbs are smaller and more excellent.  They are dug out of the earth when three straggly leaves first appear.

RECIPE.  Wash the bulbs, then boil them.  When tender, say after 20 minutes, drain and remove the rough outer skins while warm.  The peeled object slightly resembles a very small peeled onion, only it is tinged with faintest green and purple.  Cut them in half (or not), sprinkle with salt, pour over them a little olive oil and wine vinegar.  Serve cold as an antipasto; they are delicious.

From the A Few Conserves chapter: 

dried tomatoes stuffed with anchovies and capers

I mention this Apulian preserve for interest's sake; I doubt that anyone could dry the tomatoes in a less ardent sun.  In this case, ripe round 'salad' tomatoes, of the cultivar San Marzano, are gathered at the summer solstice; they form low bushes planted in open ground along with the Leccesi and Pelati varieties.

    Taking a split bamboo rack (canizzu), a sharp knife and some sea salt and the tomatoes onto the roof, one sits down to split the fruit across, so that they open in two without coming apart.  They are put on the rack, the surfaces sprinkled with sea salt.  Attending on them every day and adding a little sea salt if necessary, when the tomatoes begin to shrivel, you turn them over.  After a week they will have lost all water content, are light as air (sometimes blow away) and shriveled; they can be considered 'dried'.  

    Prepare a small quantity of salt anchovies (soaked, boned, cleaned, rinsed, dried) and divide them into little pieces.  Rinse and dry some conserved capers, and find the jar of dried fennel seeds.

    Place a piece of anchovy in each dried tomato with 3 or 4 fennel seeds and 2 capers, then press the two sides firmly together.  Have ready some little lidded jars and pack in the tomatoes, pressing them again, one by one until the jar is filled.  Put in a bayleaf, fill up with olive oil and cover with a cork or stopper.  Eat them with a glass of wine in winter.

The last recipe, in particular, really appeals to me, and obviously can easily be made with sun-dried tomatoes (either purchased loose and desiccated or already marinated in olive oil), which we can so easily acquire in the US these days.  I would really like to be in the mood to eat these with a glass of wine indoors on a cold winter day.


  1. The silence broken by the wing flash of the golden orioles (etc.)... wonderful.

    I'll have a bit of Patience any time.

  2. In the eighteenth century squills were used as a mild narcotic, a pain reliever and sedative, much as codeine today.

    Samuel Johnson's Diary, especially in the later years, when he experienced a fair amount of pain, is full of precise notations (in Latin) of his self-administered dose levels of squills, opium, etc.

  3. I'm going to present a little more of Honey From A Weed shortly. It really is sensational and I'm very glad you liked it. The Dr. Johnson information is interesting to learn. I didn't know a lot about him until I began reading the selections you posted (including the one concerning the Black Dog), although a few years ago I purchased a book of his prayers, which I found intense and very moving. Curtis

  4. Very much enjoyed this post.I admire Patience Gray and love Honey from a Weed.

  5. Angela: Thank you. It's kind of you to write. I feel the same way about Patience Gray and find it surprising that she is not better known. I think Honey From A Weed is astonishing, actually. I hope you visit here again soon. I cover all sorts of things and try to keep things interesting and moving along (sort of). Curtis