Tea with Nigel: A Cook Who Writes

Tea with Nigel: A Cook Who Writes

A winter storm approaches and the sea is heaving and restless.

The south cove

Seated in the small dining alcove of my cozy writer’s studio, I gaze out at surging waves of liquid pewter, listening to their dull roar. Some seasonal piano music plays quietly in the background, creating a holiday mood while a large red poinsettia and two stockings hung on the stone fireplace add a certain visual element of festive cheer. I returned late last night to California, and after a morning of errands and gathering provisions for an empty fridge, am contentedly back at home. A bit tired from travel and shifting time zones, but glad to be once again in a cooler, temperate climate where it feels a bit more like Christmas is approaching (speaking from a northern hemisphere point of view). That said, I’m equally happy that I’m not somewhere looking out on five feet (or more) of snow.

Having returned to a locale where I’m inclined to cook more seriously than in tropical Hawaii, and with the year end holidays approaching, I’m engaged in one my favorite rituals for the past seven years or so: tea with Nigel.

Nigel Slater is arguably Britain’s best food writer. Certainly he’s one of the most prolific. As the food columnist for The Observer (the world’s oldest newspaper) for over twenty years, he is the author of eight cookbooks which have won multiple awards. He’s also on BBC1 with an ongoing cooking show.

Both his column and cookbooks share a warm, engaging, kitchen confessional style that I (along with thousands of other readers) find immensely engaging. Mr. Slater and I share a deep appreciation for the small, human moments of cooking, the simple celebrations of ‘making’ something that I so often write about. Similarly, we both adore understated, handcrafted cooking of the homestyle sort. Nigel makes a clear distinction that he is a cook, not a chef, which is the one of the keys to his approachable style of food, accessible for both amateur and more-experienced, alike. Though in recent years he has become a television personality, he describes himself as “a cook who writes.” I can relate to that.

I first discovered one of his classic cookbooks late in 2006 shortly before we relocated to England. Thumbing through the pages of a hardbound copy of The Kitchen Diaries at a local bookshop, I encountered a substantial journal (416 pages) of sorts—a year-long journey through recipes, observations, and seasons, all written in a casual, down-to-earth but distinctly British style—each chapter covering a month in Nigel’s London kitchen.

The book and its approach felt refreshingly real and slightly old-fashioned, nothing precious about it (except perhaps the writing at certain points, but I love his style). The food itself struck me as exactly the sort of cooking I most identify with—fresh, earthy, unfussy, and rich with straightforward flavors—the very best sort of ‘comfort food’. I found the friendly, conversational tone and writing to be brilliant. I would have purchased the book simply for that, but the gorgeously understated photography of the food, often in well-used pans or set upon rustic dishes and torn into or half-eaten, further captured me. This was no ‘celebrity cookbook’—you know the ones with posed photos of a chef on every other page, the type of book that I usually place promptly back upon the bookshop’s shelf. Reading through The Kitchen Diaries and looking at the photos, I felt as if I had stepped into my own kitchen and home (albeit a British version), a feeling that no other cookbook has ever come close to imparting.

Since first discovering it, The Kitchen Diaries has become one of my all-time favorite books, one that I return to over and over. It’s definitely one of my ‘desert island books’—though I suppose that would be a bit like torture, what with not having any decent ingredients to cook with, just recipes and alluring photos of rustic food.

For several years, particularly while living in the UK, near the beginning of each month I would sit down with the book and a cup of good tea. Alone in the quiet of the house, often seated in the kitchen, perhaps a window open to the garden and its twittering little birds, I would read through the month’s entries, considering what was showing up in my own ‘veg box’ delivery (loosely similar to a CSA here in the States) that week and what I might like to cook.

Gathering ideas and inspiration, I delighted as much in his writing as in the recipes. When my partner and I eventually departed the UK for Spain, in living on the Mediterranean and then with our subsequent return to Hawaii, I felt slightly less affinity with his mostly English cooking and ingredients (though Mr. Slater certainly appreciates a good curry and spicy Asian-inspired dishes). My tastes roam further afield these days, and the moods and gifts of the seasons are different around the world.

Living in London, later in Kent and then West Sussex, I used to wish that I could somehow invite Nigel to supper at our house. I would be delighted to cook for him, and brazen as it may sound, I daresay given our similar style of cooking and eating, he’d not be displeased with what I served. (Skye Gyngell, then the chef at Petersham Nurseries Cafe, once my favorite eatery in greater London, would have been my second choice as a dinner guest. The two of them together, maybe? Call me reckless.)

Wherever I reside as a wandering nomad, reading Nigel’s best book transports me back to England, to butcher shops, cheesemongers, greengrocers, Chinatown in SoHo in the West End, and various ethnic takeaway shops on Edgware Road in north London. Yet beyond a certain influence of place, throughout the pages is woven a non-locale specific appreciation for fine ingredients—produce direct from the garden, a perfectly ripened cheese, a gorgeously fresh fish, an unexpected farmer’s market discovery—prepared in a simple, straightforward manner. It is the right food eaten at the right time and in the right place… a philosophy that applies to good cooks anywhere.

I have come to know the entries in The Kitchen Diaries well, having visited them countless times over the years and used many as a springboard for actual dishes I’ve cooked, slightly modified. In terms of cuisine, I’m not keen on following recipes; I employ them more for general guidance and fresh ideas—a bit of this, a bit of that—rather than a map to be followed exactly. I learned long ago that good cooking is intuitive, that the delicate nuances of taste are impossible to pin down to measurements like ‘1/4 teaspoon of pepper’, especially given all the variables in ingredients… and personal taste. Mr. Slater knows this too, and I appreciate that his guidance is often along the lines of “a good splash of vinegar,” “a hefty pinch of salt,” “a fat wodge of butter,” or something similar.

Admittedly, I’m rather particular about cookbooks, on several levels, what I like and don’t like about them. One my little ticks is that I vastly prefer ones with metric measurements—blame it on my French culinary training, years of living abroad, and the simple fact that metric just makes more sense—which rather limits my book buying options here in America. (Fortunately, my dear friend in England, the Good Witch of Kent, sends me a proper English version of whatever I currently fancy. Bless her rainbow-coloured socks.)

Nigel Slater’s “The Kitchen Diaries II”

So it is that on this blustery December afternoon, tucked into my little cottage by the sea as a winter storm and the holidays bear down, I’ve made a cup of tea and sit with Mr. Slater once more. (His words, anyway.) The house feels cool and I’m wearing a light scarf, a down vest, and some thick wool socks. Actually, the book in hand is his somewhat recent The Kitchen Diaries II, which in all honestly I’m not as fond of as the original, but still quite content to read multiple times.

It’s like sitting with an old friend, really. I sip my steaming ‘cuppa’ and read through the final forty-odd pages of the book’s December entries, experiencing as always a flashback to England at the year-end holidays. The posting for December 17th, ‘Roast Duck with Apples, Clementines, and Prunes,’ catches my eye and interest. Though I have passed it over previously, today it sounds exactly what I’d like to eat this weekend. What could be better than a fresh duck roasting and spattering aromatically in the oven, while my beloved and I listen to the surging, grey-blue sea…?

It is one of my quiet little rituals, one of the touchstones in a life attuned more to ‘making’ rather than simply ‘doing’. A cup of fine tea and a good ‘cookery book’ (as the Brits call it)—one that celebrates the tactile, celebratory spirit of cooking as Nigel Slater is so beautifully adept at doing—is a welcome pleasure in my day. It is a way of savoring the cyclical turn of the seasons and their generous, delicious bounty. When the drama and clamor of the modern world is far away, and I am peacefully at home contemplating what simple, good things I might put together in a nourishing meal, all seems well in body and soul.

Soul Artists know that a nourishing life doesn’t merely happen of its own accord, it is cultivated and tended. Such a life entails deliberate actions in our rushed and harried world. One has to make time for the little rituals that sustain us on a deep level, like cooking a good meal for ourselves and beloved(s), food that consoles and comforts. Or a walk outdoors amid the falling, withered leaves, warmly bundled up with senses cast wide, celebrating the polysensory experience of inhabiting the moment. Or simply sitting with a good book—‘cookery’ or other—and delighting in what it offers.

Gentle reader, here’s hoping that you’ll find yourself tucked into a moment that delights and nourishes you, and in that experience, whatever it is, you realize there are few other places that you’d rather be. Better yet, may you choose to take the time and create that moment in your day, challenging or however unimportant it may initially seem to do so. Quite simply, it matters.

Simple human moments are the essence with which we build a life, and they are the memories we will likely look back on when our time finally draws to a close. Amidst the holiday hustle and bustle, may you feed your soul with simple pleasures (they are generally the best sort)… and savor them fully.