Diana Henry’s Little Black Book

Where does Diana Henry go to buy her groceries? What does she eat for breakfast? We devoted fans flock to the master for the answers:

From the Oven to the Table feels so autumnal. Do you have a favourite season for food?

I like autumn best. So many of my favourite ingredients are in season now – pumpkins, truffles, apples, hazelnuts and walnuts – and I love the way that the cooler weather sends you back to the kitchen. I am a kitchen hibernator and I love turning towards the home again after all the cavorting and lack of structure that is so much part of the summer.

Who are your favourite people to cook for?

I really like cooking for old friends more than anything else. You don’t have to stand on ceremony, you barely have to make an effort with the conversation, you can put a roasting tin on the table and ask someone else to serve. If you want to be very casual it’s fine; conversely, if you’ve felt like using table linen and silver cutlery they don’t question that either. I love big talkers and a range of ages too. It’s a good lunch or dinner, in my opinion, if there’s been a bit of arguing! We have some old friends – they used to be neighbours – who are the noisiest, most opinionated, least reserved people I know. They visit as a family. I love having them over.  Casual gatherings with old friends are definitely my favourite.

These recipes draw on flavours from all over the world – a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Is this how you like to cook?

I’ve always cooked like that. I grew up in Northern Ireland where exotic ingredients just weren’t available so I have always loved the foods that were used in other parts of the world. I think it’s just the mark of someone who grew up in a very ‘small town’ place. Cooking was my way to get beyond the limits of where I was born.

Could you share some of your London haunts for food shopping?

I actually buy an awful lot from the internet and am always getting deliveries, but I have a good fishmonger – Purkis in Muswell Hill – a bus ride away from where I live. In East Finchley, which is also nearby, there’s a great shop called Tony’s Continental. It has wonderful fruit and veg, sesame bread, spices, pulses and different kinds of feta. The display outside the shop is always beautiful – a big spread of fruit and veg really cheers me up. I get my meat in Turner and George when I can, and I go into Chinatown for Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese ingredients.

An autumnal pile at Tony’s Continental

Where’s home, and what do you love about your area?

I live in Highgate in North London. The best thing is the architecture – beautiful Georgian houses – the fact that it’s high up (I love the feeling of looking out over London) and – the very best thing – how much green space is round me. I am right near Highgate Woods and Hampstead Heath. It’s a great place for walking. It’s also leafy and quiet but just 15 minutes away from King’s Cross on the tube.

What do you eat for breakfast?

It depends on the day. If I have a lot to do and need to get on then it’s black coffee – lots of it – and toast with home made jam. At the weekend I love French toast and bacon with maple syrup (so do my kids). If I am feeling really hungry and have time I have eggs on toast (sometimes with avocado as well – shoot me now!) I love boiled and poached eggs. I also keep pickled herring in the fridge at all times in case I fancy them. (I’ll have them with rye bread, cheese, slices of cucumber). I do adore a Scandinavian breakfast. Fruit is important too. I am now moving onto frozen raspberries as the summer is nearly over, and stewed apples. I have these with Greek yoghurt and brown sugar.

Where do you like to eat out in London?

People are always asking me this! My favourite places are Rochelle Canteen, Brawn, Quality Chop House and Noble Rot. I also like the Provencal cooking at Sardine. All these places are very casual and have an ‘honest’ voice, both in the cooking and in the decor.

Rochelle Canteen

Margot Henderson, at Rochelle Canteen, just has the most perfect taste, I think – nothing is fussy or fancy or pretentious, she just does elevated home cooking with the very best ingredients. She is also a very generous cook. I love her food. Brawn – which is just across the road from Rochelle – is similarly unpretentious and I love the rickety furniture. The food is a mixture of French and Italian. QCH is British, but not rigorously so, and the service is wonderful.

Noble Rot, which is in Lamb’s Conduit Street, is like my canteen, the place I will go if I have to have a meeting or see someone. The wine list is great – always something new, always something interesting – the food is mostly French but there are also Italian and Spanish dishes on the menu. The staff are delightful. I rarely sit in the restaurant at the back, I’m usually in the bar. If I’m going out for a special occasion I often go to Chez Bruce – I’ve been going there for decades.  I make myself go to new places all the time – because I want to see what’s going on – but I love going to places where I KNOW I will have a great meal.

When you get a menu are you decisive or dithery? 

A bit dithery – I usually want everything.

Best meal you’ve eaten recently?

I went up to Newcastle to eat at Hjem, a restaurant with a Swedish chef in the countryside (about 40 minutes from the city). I absolutely loved it. It was New Nordic in spirit but using, obviously, British ingredients. It really made me think and sometimes, especially if you write about food, you both want and need that, to come across a mixture of ingredients you hadn’t thought of, or to be startled by something really simple. The best dish was heritage potatoes (grown nearby) with pickled blackcurrant leaves and thin slices of frozen cultured butter. I probably think about that dish every day right now.

Heritage potatoes at Hjem

What do you listen to when you cook?

Often Radio 4 though it annoys me much more than it used to (perhaps it’s age!) I also love music. If I need to cook quickly I will deliberately put on Motown and disco – it speeds me up. If I can just cook in an ambling kind of way it will be Joni Mitchell or Carole King. I also listen to Van Morrison an awful lot when I’m cooking.

3 things in your kitchen you couldn’t live without?

Ingredients-wise it’s salt, lemon and either olive oil or butter (don’t make me choose between the fats). For equipment it’s good knives (I love Opinel), all my old bashed roasting tins and my shallow 30 cm cast iron casserole.

What are you reading at the moment? 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. It isn’t uplifting but I didn’t expect it to be. Also Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing. I usually have several books going at the same time so I have a choice of what to read depending on my mood.

What are you looking forward to this autumn in London?

Walks on those lovely misty autumnal afternoons (even though I have lots of green space near me sometimes I go into town specifically to go to one of the big London parks – I like urban parks); making a special meal at home for friends over Halloween; seeing pumpkins appear outside greengrocers and also carved, outside homes; eating white truffles somewhere as soon as they come into season; the weather getting cold enough to light the wood burning stove in the kitchen.

Find recipes from Diana Henry’s new book, From the Oven to the Table: Simple dishes that look after themselves and enter our competition to win a copy here.

Diana Henry's Little Black Book
— Daisy Allsup
19th September 2019