Honey from a Weed

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a review by Susan Harville

Patience Gray wrote Honey from a Weed about a time in the 60s and 70s when she shared an itinerant life with a man she refers to simply as the sculptor. They moved among several places in the Mediterranean world where marble is quarried—Carrara in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Greek isle, Naxos, and Apulia in the heel of the Italian boot. Their living conditions in these places were as primitive and poor as their neighbors’ and Gray, a jewelry artisan, adopted the life of self-sufficiency she found, living close to the arid limestone landscape, learning a true appreciation of the different seasonal foodstuffs available in a yearly cycle of feast and famine.

“Poverty rather than wealth gives the good things of life their true significance. Home-made bread rubbed with garlic and sprinkled with olive oil, shared – with a flask of wine – between working people, can be more convivial than any feast.”

This sensual and evocative book captures a way of life that has largely vanished, yet it serves as an inspiration not only for great food but to aspire to the recognition of what is truly important in a well-lived life. For me, and I imagine many others, this book, wonderfully illustrated with line drawings, has been a guide to the beauty of the Mediterranean world and the pleasures of a diet based on olive oil, garlic, lemon, bitter greens and grapes.

“Living in the wild, it has often seemed that we were living on the margins of literacy. This led to reading the landscape and learning from people, that is, to firsthand experience.”

In many ways this book is a chronicle of folkways with comments on cooking, traditional farming and foraging practices and the social expectations of the usually rustic, isolated communities in which Patience Gray lived. She participated fully and willingly (and never condescendingly) in the way of life, the hardships and satisfactions, as she experienced it, acknowledging that most of her learning came from people who had never read a book.

But Patience Gray was at heart a sophisticated and worldly scholar. Most cookbooks don’t have a bibliography at all but Honey from a Weed lists 185 books, in several languages, in its formidable bibliography. These include works of ancient literature and history, books about cooking, travel, botany, art architecture, philosophy, mycology, biography, archaeology, religion and poetry, plenty of poetry. She relates her recipe for thyme soup to a similar soup in Virgil’s second Eclogue made by Thestylis, a country girl, for weary reapers.

The book is organized into chapters on various foodstuffs but every recipe is set in a narrative that includes stories about village neighbors, bits of information about plant life, wine-making or the olive harvest, memories of special occasions. There are many diverting digressions about anarchism as a way of life among the marble quarry workers of Carrara, perhaps, or the relationship of religious fasting times and the decreased supply of food in a misty winter landscape or the connections between fear and avarice or why it is right to eat the first course of a meal in silence.

Honey from a Weed can be read almost like a storybook—enjoyable whether you cook from it or not. Should you wish to try the recipes, you’ll find much to interest you: rustic bean or pumpkin soups; lovely frittatas; ribbon pasta with fresh peas and cream or orecchiette with wild rocket; “widowed” potatoes cooked with a picada of almond, pine nut, paprika and tomato; a stew of haricot beans, onions, olives tomatoes and herbs; fig jam and grape preserves. There are many wonderful recipes for “edible weeds” that will work even if you do your foraging at the supermarket rather than along twisting goat paths. Try our recipe for Pasta e Fagioli if you’re getting inspired!

There are no time-saving tips here, no ingenious use of convenience products. Many recipes begin with which weather conditions to look for at harvest, the best kinds of wood to put on the cook fire or how to dig up a wild green, leaving enough of the root for next year’s growth. A whole chapter on preserving tomatoes for the winter, with many recipes and different cooking methods, ends with the remark that, of course, all the tomatoes mentioned should come strictly from limestone soil, where there is permanent summer draught and grown without watering because watering will have a disastrous effect on both taste and texture. When drying tomato paste for several extremely hot days up on the parapet of the roof you must have a north wind—“If the scirocco is blowing it is of no use”.

We suspect that not even the most dedicated gardener or forager in this country today could reproduce the conditions or even the basic materials to follow many of these recipes exactly, but never mind. Most of the recipes will work even in a modern, fully equipped kitchen with running water and electricity. Panellets, little Catalan almond cakes with potatoes and brandy, will turn out fine, more than fine, even if you don’t have access to an outdoor domed bread oven made of stone and fired with twigs of olive wood or ilex. And the important and inspiring thing here is the relationship to food—the love of the humble, everyday repast coming as it may from scarcity and frugality but creating something healthful and delicious from a few simple ingredients, and the joyful celebration of the occasional feast of abundance.

Honey from a Weed, being such a startling and brave kind of cookbook, more like the field notes of an anthropologist gone native, didn’t find a publisher until 1987 but has never gone out of print. From 1970 until her death in 2005, at age 87, Patience Gray lived in a remote sheep farm in Apulia, where she would not allow the modern conveniences of electric lights, refrigerators, telephones or flush toilets. She continued to rage against pollution of the earth and the erosion of an older, meaningful way of living, while cultivating her stony ground and her hopeful sense of balance with which “the preparation and sharing of food takes on a sacred aspect”.

 

Honey from a Weed,

Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades, and Apulia, by Patience Gray

Harper & Row Publishers, NY, 1987

Lyons & Burford Pulishers, NY, 1997