25 May 2021 · Behind the Cookbook
The pair of books written by food-savvy novelist Joanne Harris and food writer Fran Warde have been described as, “A brilliant collaboration between a writer who loves food and a former chef who loves writing about food.”
In bringing the books to life, it was Fran’s job to translate a pile of handwritten pages from Joanne’s French family into a series of cookable recipes and, once on the ground in France, to ensure that the photography captured the glory of French gastronomy, as well as the beauty of the French countryside (it’s a job that many a food writer would dream of).
Joanne initially needed to be convinced that a cookbook (two, as it turned out!) would be a good idea – but eventually relented after being inundated with recipe requests from avid readers. It was the right decision: the books continue to win praise.
Fran and Joanna give behind-the-scenes accounts, from their own perspectives, of how the people, places, and dishes all came together in the making of these two books.
I was quite resistant to writing a cookbook at first. My novels used food as a metaphor, which wasn’t really meant to be taken literally. But after the success of Chocolat and the books that followed it, so many people wrote to me begging for recipes that finally I relented, and decided to collect the recipes I associate most closely with my childhood, which are also among the ones that appear in books like Chocolat and Five Quarters of the Orange, into a book. But I’d never written a cookbook before, and my family’s traditional recipes, written down on scraps of paper, some dating back from before the War, needed some rethinking.
My agent introduced me to Fran, whose books I already knew and loved. We clicked straightaway, and agreed that what we really wanted to write was an easy-to-use, no-fuss French cookery book that would challenge the idea that French food is complicated, requires unusual ingredients, or is lengthy and difficult to prepare. For The French Kitchen, I wanted a French cookery book that anyone could use, with recipes that wouldn’t rely on difficult-to-source ingredients.
For The French Market, I wanted to give people the confidence to buy and cook local ingredients from the lovely food markets of the southwest, in the knowledge that they wouldn’t have to spend hours of their precious holiday time in the kitchen. And in both books, I told stories, because stories and cooking so often go together; telling the tales of communities and families all over the world. With that in mind, Fran took my vague measurements and experimental ideas, and tested them to create recipes that would work every time. Then, Debi Treloar took the photographs of every tested and completed dish to give them a visual context. It was terrific fun.
We spent some time in the southwest of France together, the three of us, just collecting stories, visiting markets and farms, cooking and photographing the food, then finding people to help us eat it. Given the speed at which news travels in a small French community, there was no shortage of volunteers!
Working with Joanne Harris on The French Kitchen and The French Market was the happy result of an introduction over lunch. Things moved very quickly and, before I knew it, a contract was signed and the photographer, Debi Treloar, was booked. Debi and I soon ventured across the Channel with Joanne’s little black book of contacts. Sadly Joanne was unable to join us because of the huge success of the film “Chocolate,” based on her novel of the same name.
Before Debi and I set out on the journey, Joanne shared with me a cascade of family recipes that she had enjoyed on her annual holidays in France with her maternal French grandparents who lived in Brittany. Then one day a box of handwritten recipes from Joanne’s family, written in a mix of French and English, were delivered to my front door. I spent months translating, updating, rewriting, testing and adjusting.
When all was in order Debi and I took an overnight boat to Saint-Malo. From there we headed to Vitré in Brittany, where Joanne’s great-grandmother, Mémée, lived, to meet family friends and capture the real food of France. We then travelled west to the coast, to the Île de Noirmoutier in the Bay of Biscay, where many of Joanne’s childhood holiday food memories were made.
Joanne’s food memories were also made in Yorkshire. Joanne’s mother married an Englishman, and spoke virtually no English when she arrived in the UK. To make up for missing her family, she cooked recipes that reminded her of home and friends. Joanne ate a lot of French food while growing up in the north of England.
My job was to weave these recipes into The French Kitchen and to ensure photography that would capture the delicious local dishes and the classic, rich, timeless beauty of the French countryside. We all agreed that preparing food should be a complete pleasure. Some of the recipes share an aunt or friend’s name, or indicate where the dish sits in French culinary history. Some have amusing translations, others offer alternative ingredients for easy shopping.
We wanted this to be a book for everyone to enjoy. The recipes are perfect for families, for special occasions, and for all seasons; some are economical and, of course, a section on chocolate was a must, given the success of Chocolat, both book and film.
When the book was published we received enthusiastic responses from the press and public. Joanne and I were described as, “A brilliant collaboration between a writer who loves food and a former chef who loves writing about food.”
Following the success of The French Kitchen, a second book was commissioned and three years later The French Market was published. This time we travelled to Nérac, a town on the Petite Baïse river in Lot-et-Garonne in southwest France – again on the trail of Joanne’s childhood holiday destinations, this time taking inspiration from the superb and abundant produce in the local food markets.
Joanne was able to join us on this journey and she introduced Debi and me to Floc de Gascogne, a great little apéritif made from barely fermented grape juice blended with Armagnac. Everywhere we went we were offered a small glass. We visited farms, cheesemakers, bakers, chocolatiers and honey producers, and many markets. Everyone introduced us to another friend. People were so welcoming and sharing, and it was a delicious delight.
We still frequently receive kind comments and messages from readers about the recipes. One recent review actually says that these two books helped the writer through the last lockdown, because the recipes took them back to France.
All the recipes are special. I still frequently make Gâteau Lawrence (a flourless rich slice of heaven), Ratatouille, Boulangère Potatoes, Pork with Blackcurrant, Coq au Vin, Jean Sorin’s Fisherman’s Stew, Roast Tomato Tart, Pissaladière, Terrine de Campagne, Cassoulet Toulousain, Chèvre aux Figues, Salade Tiède au Camembert…
Each has a special memory and is always a joy to eat. My list could go on and on.