As a food writer Patience Gray (1917–2005) merits shelf-space with M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. Fleeing from the dreary predictability of her Home Counties upbringing, Gray became, among other things, the first women’s page editor of the Observer; co-author of a bestselling cookery book (the 1957 Plats du Jour with Primrose Boyd); and, nearly 30 years later, sole author of a classic, the 1986 Honey from a Weed. She was also a jewellery maker; textile designer; student at the LSE, where one of her tutors was Hugh Gaitskell; an intrepid traveller; research assistant to H.F.K. Henrion, one of the designers of the Festival of Britain; something or other in the Foreign Office; a struggling single mother; and the partner (from 1963 until she finally married him in 1994) of the Belgian sculptor Norman Mommens (1922–2000), who worked in marble.
Honey from a Weed, though it contains plenty of recipes (such as one that tells you precisely how to butcher a young lamb to cook its pluck and gut on a spit), is also a trove of botanical lore, and of superlative travel writing and autobiography. Gray’s introduction says, ‘A vein of marble runs through this book. Marble determined where, how and among whom we lived; always in primitive conditions.’ In 1987, like subsequent foodie visitors, I somehow managed (in the dark) to find the masseria — the tumbledown sheep farm — Spigolizzi, in Puglia, where she and Norman lived without electricity, telephone or any other accoutrements of contemporary life, save running water. Next morning saw Patience in a parched-looking field opposite her house, harvesting chickpeas for lunch. In working clothes like her peasant women neighbours, she was engaged in their same labours, which she called ‘agriculture’. Though supple and lithe as a young girl, she was 70, and agriculture involved bending down from the waist to hoe, weed and gather the crops.
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In Fasting and Feasting her adept American biographer, Adam Federman, has a firm grasp of the British background of this splendidly original woman, and is good, too, on her wanderings in Germany (though he skimps on her gap year in Bonn, aged 16, when she switched from studying economics to art history) and Greece. He is sensitive to the nuances of politics during Patience’s travels in Germany and Romania. In the summer of 1938 she set off with her elder sister (the photographer Tania Midgley) on a cultural mission for the Quakers. In July Queen Marie of Romania died, and Patience said she was so moved by her subjects’ mourning rites that she wrote her first piece of journalism. The Bucharest paper’s editor laid siege to her, filling her hotel room with tuberoses, the scent of which always made Patience shudder with remembered horror. She and Tania eluded his attentions by fleeing to the Black Sea in a monoplane piloted by a Romanian prince.
Née Stanham, Patience had an affair with a married man, Thomas Gray, the father of her children, a Spanish civil war veteran who ran a clandestine counter-insurgency course for the Home Guard at Hurlingham, London. Patience claimed she’d been secretary of this school for teaching civilians new skills, ‘such as how to make Molotov cocktails’. Gray was conscripted, and left her to cope with a son and a daughter in a rural cottage. She had taken the name Gray by public announcement in the London Gazette of 17 January 1941, ten days before the birth of her son.
Federman doesn’t tell the Romanian or Hurlingham adventure stories. Perhaps he thinks they aren’t true, that Patience was a bit of a fabulist — which is entirely possible, though you wonder why he doesn’t say so explicitly.
He does tell us of her family’s suppression of their Jewish ancestry. Patience’s paternal great-grandfather was a Polish rabbi named Warshawski, whose son, Federman writes, had ‘emigrated from Warsaw and converted to Christianity in 1865’.Her conventional upper-middle-class mother, Olive, concealed the Jewish heritage of her father, Hermann Stanham. Patience was delighted to learn she had Jewish blood, although it didn’t make up for her father’s coldness to his daughters, which she interpreted as misogyny.
Patience’s mentor-in-chief was her epicurean bookseller friend, Irving Davis (1889–1967), whose slim Catalan cookery book she edited (and who she believed had been reincarnated both as a white female cat and as a bluebottle). He was equivocal about his Jewish origins. There is something worth exploring here, as Davis wrote that he had
been exempted from dining in hall by some wangle which I cannot recollect. I never varied my menu, cold mutton and mint sauce, which I ate alternately in my rooms and that of my friend Woolf in Trinity.
His Cambridge messmate was Leonard Woolf, later Virginia’s husband and a key patron of Norman Mommens. Is it possible that this pair of ambivalent Jews had avoided college battels by pretending to be kosher?
Patience’s good fortune was being introduced to Alan Davidson, her publisher, friend and mentor, responsible for her late-in-life fame. By that time her appetite had diminished. The frugal — but delicious — dinners of pulses flavoured with weeds, washed down with Norman’s own acidic red wine, were all they required. Her biographer has been a touch misled by her asceticism. He credits (or blames) me on page 2 for describing her as ‘a modern-day witch’, because she became the local repository of medicinal as well as culinary lore. Federman — sadly — never met his subject, so didn’t see her eyes glint and sparkle as she greeted this portrayal with glee, or as she told the quirky tales that don’t appear in his otherwise superb life of her. He’s missed a small, but vital aspect of her personality: much though she valued simplicity, style and good taste, even in her seventies, Patience Gray was a tease and a flirt.
Paul Levy, who coined the word ‘foodie’, is a former food and wine editor of the Observer.