“I don’t like having my photograph on my covers, so we always make it that it can be removed, a slip-off band or second cover.”
The notoriously shy British food writer and TV presenter Nigel Slater is explaining the process behind the cover design for his latest cookbook, The Christmas Chronicles.
It’s a thing of beauty – grey linen embossed with shiny copper that makes me instantly want to stroke it, and just the right size to read in bed. There is a sticker attached to the front, explaining that is it a book of “notes, stories and 100 essential recipes for midwinter”, with a small photograph of the author, eyes not meeting the camera.
“It is a really lovely book, a thing to cherish and linger over,” I tell him as we converse electronically, me in Dublin and him in Finland (face-to-face interviews with him are very rare).
“I’m so glad you said the word ‘cherish’,” he says. “It is a word I often use to describe books I read not just once but over and over. I have several of those on my shelf, mostly gardening and novels.
"I wanted The Chronicles to be something that would be read each year, on the approach to winter, and so it was important that the cover felt warm and tactile, something cosy and comforting to hold as you read. Linen binding is expensive, but we thought it was right for this book."
It is written in diary form, as has become his trademark since he wrote The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen, in 2005, followed by volumes two and three in 2012 and 2015. with entries spanning the days and weeks between November 1st and February 2nd.
I imagine him penning his elegant script in a leather-bound volume, ink flowing over parchment, but I am wrong. “I wish my diary was an exquisitely handwritten book, updated religiously each day, but the truth is that my books are written up from messy collection of scribbled notes, bits of paper, pieces tapped out on my phone and written on the back of envelopes.
“The diaries came about because of my appalling short-term memory – I have to write everything down, otherwise I forget – and my notes had naturally formed a diary, so it seemed honest and right to publish it as that.”
We've been asking people about their most treasured food memories during Food Month at The Irish Times, and Slater offers a recollection of Christmas baking with his mother, who died when he was nine.
“My long-term memory is as sharp as a pin and I remember things that happened a long time ago in incredible detail. All those memories are treasured. But the one I hold dearest is of standing in the kitchen on a frosty winter’s day making mince pies with my mum. We made the pastry by hand and I remember our hands touched in the big mixing bowl as we rubbed the butter into the flour.”
Whenever a new Nigel Slater “diary” reaches me, the first thing I do is check out what he was cooking and eating – on my birthday, and on the day I receive the book. It’s a ritual that is denied me this time, in part, because my birthday falls outside the book’s time frame.
But on today’s date, November 25th, he begins a long and entrancing entry on Christmas cake. He has been looking forward to this day for weeks, he says. “It is, and must be, a day when I have little else on my plate.”
The cake will be part of his festive celebrations. “My family live abroad, so I always spend Christmas with friends in London. They are keen cooks, so we will all do some of the cooking. And I do love the quiet days that follow, and make the most of them. I already have a pile of books to sit and read by the fire.”
Slater is an avid reader, as his beautifully crafted prose would suggest. "If I'm not writing, I'm reading. My favourite authors are Robert Macfarlane, whose books about nature and the outdoors are so breathtakingly beautiful – I learn something I didn't know with each and every paragraph – and Katherine Swift, who writes with such sensitivity and warmth about her garden. My bedside table always has a novel, sometimes two. Currently I'm re-reading Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood."
His own books are always bestsellers, but if he were given freedom to write a book without commercial considerations, what would it be? “It wouldn’t be a cookery book. I would dearly love to write a novel, but I fear it would take me forever.”
He describes himself as “a homemaker”, and home, for Slater is a Georgian house in north London. “I have been there for 20 years. It’s a creaky old house that has been, in its time, everything from an art gallery to a slum. It is a busy house, and is where we do all our photography and cooking. There always seems to be something going on here. There are always people about. But it is first and foremost my home, and I am relieved to say it’s big enough that you can always find a quiet room.”
It is here that he does his writing, a process that is part of the fabric of his life. “I suppose writing a book is a challenge, but I don’t think of it as such. Writing is just something I do every day of my life. Usually first thing in the morning, when my head is clear. I just like the sound of pen on paper and the quiet tapping of fingers on a keyboard. I have tried taking a break between books, but I feel guilty if I am not writing. It is just something I feel I must do.”
Recipe for success
Some food writers have teams of people who generate recipes for them and others who test them. Slater does it himself. “The recipes are all things that I have made for dinner at home and then decided they might be fun to share. They are generally a collaboration between myself and my work partner, James Thompson, who has been my producer and business partner for nearly a decade.
“We get together and discuss the things we have made for dinner that week and decide which we would like to develop into recipes to share with others. We test them – a recipe must work – but not so many times that they lose their heart and soul and spontaneity. They are often a little rough round the edges. There are so many variables in cooking that I don’t believe you can be too precise. I like to think of a recipe of something that the reader can either follow to the letter or use for inspiration as they wish.”
Winter is his favourite time of year. “I love the crisp air, the pale grey skies and the peace and quiet. I like food that is comforting and is suited to cold days. I am rarely happier than by the fireside on a winter’s day.”
In an attempt to prolong the joys of his favourite season, Slater takes an annual holiday “in the coldest place I can find”. Next year he is revisiting Japan. “I make the winter last as long as possible. My annual month in Japan starts early in the new year. It is planned already. A mixture of favourite haunts and new places.”
Next year, too, he will be back on TV, but the subject matter is still a tightly kept secret. “I am working on a series for early in the new year. It is something of a departure from my usual cookery programmes and is something I have been filming for a couple of years.”
The Christmas Chronicles, by Nigel Slater, with photographs by Jonathan Lovekin, is published by 4th Estate, £26. You'll find Slater's Christmas cake and mince pie recipes online at irishtimes.com/food