The Gannet Q&A

Diana Henry

2nd February 2017

Interview: Killian Fox
Photograph: Chris Terry

Diana Henry grew up in Northern Ireland and acquired a keen interest in food early on – she recalls “plundering every cookbook I could get my hands on from the age of seven”. Skip forward a few decades and Diana is one of the best-loved food writers in Britain, with a regular column in the Telegraph and 10 books to her name, the latest of which, Simple, was published last September. If you trawl back through the Gannet archives, you’ll find a lot of people recommending her books. No surprise: her research is deep but lightly worn and she has a seemingly endless supply of recipe inspiration. This interview took place at Diana’s house in north London, where some 4,000 cookbooks cover an entire wall of a spacious, light-filled kitchen, overflowing onto chairs and tables and forming great teetering stacks on the floor.

Describe your perfect breakfast.

Oh god, that’s hard. Quite often I like an American one: French toast, maple syrup, smoked bacon and all the rest of it. When I get to New York that’s usually the first thing I have. But I absolutely love Scandinavian breakfasts. So pickled herring, gravadlax, smoked salmon, salami… Actually, never mind the American breakfast. The best breakfasts I’ve had were in Helsinki. I was in a hotel there for a week – a really nice place called Hotel Fabian – and every day they have all those things plus fruit compotes, yoghurts and six different types of rye bread. Not one type of rye bread, six different types. And I think that’s heaven. Honestly, I went to bed every night looking forward to breakfast the next morning.

What’s your most food-splattered cookbook?

The one that’s completely falling apart and keeps losing its cover is Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book. And I wouldn’t replace it. It’s one of the first books that I bought that was my own choice and not because “this is what my mum would buy”. I just love it.

I’ve probably been a dozen or 14 times by now. I am never happier than when I am in that restaurant.

If you could revisit one meal in your life, which would it be?

I’ve thought of two almost immediately. One is old-fashioned but it had a big impact on me, because it was exquisite and I’d not done much restaurant eating at the time: it was at Le Petit Blanc in Oxford (Raymond Blanc’s place before he opened Le Manoir and the string of bistros). I can remember the fish terrine with beurre blanc, and the veal, and the cheese trolley. I was in university at the time and it was a big deal to get the money together to go somewhere like that. It was just an incredibly happy meal.
And then there’s the first meal I ever had at my favourite place to eat: Bistro du Paradou in Provence. If you go now the car park is full of Mercedes and BMWs, but when I first went not many people knew about it. Everybody would exchange glances as if to say, “Aren’t we lucky to be here?” It’s a big roadside farmhouse with blue shutters. Inside there’s a great zinc bar, a tiled floor, classic bistro chairs and marble-topped tables. The guy who started it had been a banker and a domestic cook, not a chef. When I first went, it was vegetables and hard-boiled eggs in a basket with a Provençal version of bagna càuda. And then – this was a rich meal – beef with bone marrow and gratin dauphinoise. The pudding was îles flottantes, which I really don’t like, but then he brought you this huge basket of cheeses – most of which were Provençal goats’ cheeses. Incredible. Whenever I’m in the area I go there, and sometimes I go there just to go there. I’ve probably been a dozen or 14 times by now. I am never happier than when I am in that restaurant.

What’s your favourite food scene in the movies?

It’s probably the scene in Big Night where Stanley Tucci makes timballo [an elaborate baked pasta dish]. It made me go off and check up on that dish, and then I found the bit where [Giuseppe Tomasi di] Lampedusa writes about it in The Leopard. And then of course I had to cook it. I had a recipe for it stashed away somewhere, so I went back and fiddled about with it. It’s quite medieval: a sweet pastry and a savoury filling. Timballo had intrigued me for years and it all came together thanks to Big Night and Lampedusa.

What ingredient are you currently obsessed about?

The thing I would always have – this is really boring – is lemons. They’re a game-changer. As well as being a seasoning they pull things together: they’re the great flavour connector.

What’s the worst supposedly-good thing you ever ate?

I don’t like offal very much. I loathe liver and kidneys – from school days – and I get slightly panicked if people have made something with kidneys in. Oh and grouse. I loathe grouse. I was in a restaurant in Yorkshire and there were six people eating really high grouse at the next table and I had to ask to be moved. Yeah, it’s so girly, you’re not a real gourmet, etc, but I don’t like things that are really, really strong. I think quite a lot of people aren’t honest about the offal thing.

What I play does depend on the tempo of the cooking. It drives the kids mad but I will play 70s disco stuff if I have to work fast

What do you listen to when you’re cooking?

I listen to Radio 4 all day long and sometimes end up hearing the same episode of The Archers three times (though I do turn it off when Moneybox Live comes on). I also listen to music very loudly and the children get really pissed off. All sorts of music, but recently lots of things from the 70s: Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, Patti Smith, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen.
What I play does depend on the tempo of the cooking. It drives the kids mad but I will play 70s disco stuff if I have to work fast. Christmas cooking can take choral music, of course. Baking can be slower tempo. I find that music does make a huge difference to my mood and my speed.

What do you value most in a restaurant?

If I had my own restaurant I’d want to do what good restaurants do for me, which is making you feel cared for. Nothing gives me such a sense of wellbeing. I’m not bothered about eating in all of the top 50 restaurants in the world. A great restaurant isn’t just about technique, or expensive furnishings, it’s about creating this other world: a place that somebody can enter into and leave feeling totally uplifted. And some people do it very well, even when the food is not exceptional. When I go to Fischer’s in Marylebone, for example, it really cheers me up. You can turn up feeling dreadful and then leave five hours later having decided to stay for a four-course meal and a bottle of wine. I went in there once two Christmases ago with my eldest son and we had been on bloody Oxford Street doing all that last-minute shopping, and I was laden with bags, not in a state to go into anywhere decent. And I got there – it was only the third time I’d been – and the waitress said “Oh, Miss Henry, you look tired. Let me take your coat, let me take your bags.” And of course I sit down and I’m so happy, sitting at a white tablecloth with all my cutlery. I love all that stuff – at home as well. I don’t always entertain like that, but I do like glassware, beautiful cutlery, lovely linen. There’s no other area of domesticity I make such an effort in.

A great restaurant isn’t just about technique, or expensive furnishings, it’s about creating this other world: a place that somebody can enter into and leave feeling totally uplifted

If your kitchen was burning and you could only grab one object, what would you take?

The sort of thing I’d take are the bits of pottery my youngest made when he was really little. Everything else is replaceable really. Although there’s a little Japanese drinking cup which the chef from Umu [a top Japanese restaurant in Mayfair] made for me after I wrote about his restaurant. That is pretty precious.

If you had to limit yourself to the cuisine of just one country, which would it be and why?

It would be Italian. I love it, love it. One of the things that’s brilliant is how varied it is. So you’ve got Sicily with its Arab influence, and Piedmont for truffles and the best hazelnuts I’ve tried anywhere in my life. I also like Friuli up in the north-east corner – it’s got the Austrian thing going on: smoked goose, goulash and strudel. I don’t think there’s a bit of Italy I’ve not been to, though I haven’t been to Tuscany for a very long time. The first time I visited Italy, it was like “oh my god.” We got down over the border and quite soon saw a terracotta villa and cypress trees, and I was beside myself. I still feel like that now when I go to Italy.

Fish shopping, Sicily

A photo posted by Diana Henry (@dianahenryfood) on

Follow Diana: Twitter | Instagram | Journal

Posted 2nd February 2017

In The Gannet Q&A


Interview: Killian Fox
Photograph: Chris Terry

More from The Gannet Q&A

The Gannet Q&A: Ben Reade – The co-founder of Edinburgh Food Studio on his cravings for fruit, memorable Christmas dinners at his granny's house and his most blissful meal

The Gannet Q&A: Will Goldfarb – The Bali-based dessert specialist on his favourite ever restaurant meal (which he had three times), a fascination with chickpeas and his ongoing struggle to avoid a particular fruit

The Gannet Q&A: Laura Freeman – The author of The Reading Cure on her greatest hits recipe compilation, the secret ingredient for the perfect breakfast and her restaurant pet hate

The Gannet Q&A: Stephen Toman – The chef at Ox in Belfast on "mindblowing" meals in Copenhagen, his grandmother's vegetable broth and the tune that gets things going in the kitchen