Jane Grigson is sometimes described as “the food writer’s food writer”, which is probably a euphemism for “the food writer all other food writers would secretly like to be”. I’m sure I’m not alone in the wide-eyed admiration and green-eyed envy with which I read her work.
Yet, on the 25th anniversary of her premature death, Grigson is in danger of becoming the secret pleasure of the food cognoscenti instead, puzzlingly less well known than contemporaries such as her great friend Elizabeth David, who is widely credited with nothing less than a British culinary revolution.
In a recent article celebrating her life, Rachel Cooke mused whether Grigson’s comfortable home life is to blame – rather than having the scandalous glamour of the famously difficult David, she was so happily married to the poet Geoffrey Grigson that when she appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1978 she chose his work as both her book and record.
Listening to her speak across the decades in that cartoonishly clipped accent of the pre-war generation (hardly a trace of her native Sunderland), one gets a sense of the immense geniality that won her the flinty heart of David, a woman who is said to have preferred male company.
A great humanity shines through in her writing, too. An early campaigner for animal welfare, she eloquently cautions readers of her long-standing Observer column not to be fooled by “barn eggs”, a label that conceals “some concentration camp under the nice Cotswold-tiled words”.
David hits the nail on the head with characteristic directness in her introduction to The Best of Jane Grigson: the Enjoyment of Food, a collection of her friend’s work recently reissued by Grub Street. She describes Grigson as “a writer who could combine a delightful quote from Chaucer on the subject of a pike galantine with a careful recipe for a modern chicken and pork version of the same ancient dish, and who could do so without pedantry or a hint of preciousness. Jane was always entertaining as well as informative.”
Though she read English at Cambridge and won awards for her Italian translation, Grigson wore her scholarship lightly, motivated as it was by a curiosity so boundless that her recipes still have the power to surprise – God knows what readers in 1971 made of her scattered sushi with sweet beans – and her enthusiasm for her subject is utterly infectious.
She is best known for her work on English and French food, both of which she saw with the clear sight of someone who moved frequently between the two countries (she spent her summers in what People magazine described as a “three-and-a-half-room primitive grotto” in the Loire Valley). “It’s easy enough to get a thoroughly disappointing meal even in France,” she writes in the introduction to my favourite of her books, English Food. “The food we get publicly in England isn’t so often bad English cooking as a pretentious and inferior imitation of French cooking or Italian cooking.”
Instead of insisting on that nebulous concept, authenticity, her recipes explicitly celebrate the links that bind us all across time and borders. Cookery, for Grigson, was an act of “continual plagiarism”.
Never precious, she is also gloriously practical: a recipe for shepherd’s pie includes instructions for stretching the dish further with extra potato or “cheap but good offal”, and one is reminded of David’s claim that, for many years, the family couldn’t afford a fridge.
Above all, reading Jane Grigson again, I’m struck by the beauty of her writing, as in this lyrical account of an English garden in summer: “Buzzing and warmth and crushing raspberries with your tongue . . . and everyone pleased that the crop should not be finished by the birds.” I came away, as always, feeling culturally, as well as culinarily, richer. Also, extraordinarily hungry.