This Christmas I received two cookbooks from my aunts. One was the Honey & Co. Baking Book thanks to the babka incident, the other was Kate Young’s ‘The Little Library Cookbook’ complete with the tagline ‘100 recipes from your favourite stories’. If you haven’t come across Kate’s blog go and explore it now; before you know it you are lost down a rabbit hole of stories, plus her food photography is exquisite, fresh and clean, and the concept is so good I’m annoyed I didn’t think of it.
What pleasure it is to reread beloved books and highlight (mentally, I’ll add, no defilement please) the meals the characters share, and to indulgently taste the food with them. Enjoy a picnic in the sun with the Famous Five, slurping ginger beer; bathe in the heat of 1960’s Mississippi before treating yourself to Minny’s chocolate pie – minus her ‘special’ ingredient; or churn creamy milk into butter with Tess at Talbothay’s Dairy while eyeing up dishy Angel Clare.
The literary world of food is so tactile to us readers we are immersed into the pleasure of eating with the characters. Some authors describe their food with more visceral detail than others, particularly those who love to describe a scene intricately. Enid Blyton is famous for her boarding-school midnight feasts and the picnics on Kirrin Island; Charles Dickens describes dark lumpy gruel or medicine of ‘brimstone and treacle’ force-fed to children by cruel guardians, or Roald Dahl’s rich luscious scent of chocolate that virtually wafts from the page.
One author who almost absent-mindedly slips endless meals and delicious treats into her books is, yes you guessed it, J.K Rowling. The Harry Potter books are known to be treasure troves of breakfasts, dinners and feasts in the Great Hall, suppers cooked by Mrs Weasley, sweets and chocolates bought at Honeydukes, and hot tankards of Butterbeer at The Three Broomsticks. Rowling describes these scenes with pleasure, commenting on trivial aspects, such as the weather imitated by the Great Hall’s magical ceiling, the book Hermione in which buries her head, and whatever Ron is currently scoffing. This intimacy is no doubt one of the reasons why I and so many others still feel deep attachment to the books, and will always feel indignant that we never received our Hogwarts’ letters.
Rowling goes back to basics to construct her magical meal-plan. In Harry Potter’s world the food is strictly British with the characters eating traditional dishes including steak and kidney pudding, beef stew, lamb chops, and kippers. You’ll never see Harry, Ron and Hermione twisting tendrils of tagliatelle around their forks, or doling out chicken madras and crunching on poppadoms. This inherent Britishness is comforting and homely; a sturdy staple in the characters’ otherwise turbulent teenage lives.
Many a time I’ve dreamed I’m sitting in the Great Hall alongside Harry (or, as Pottermore begs to differ, at the Hufflepuff table) enjoying the food and company. Out of all the characters in the series I have always considered Ron the most relatable; maybe, deep down, I am the eternal sidekick, or I’m quite lazy, or perhaps I just love eating as much as he does. Ron simply loves food and apparently has a lot of energy to fuel (one question: how do wizards exercise? With three exquisite meals a day how are they not fat? Instead of walking they can Apparate, the only sport they play requires sitting on a broomstick – this is a question open to debate). Fed by the Hogwarts’ house-elves and Mrs Weasley, Ron has his priorities straight.
With such a selection of meals it was difficult to choose which one I wanted to try. Multiple breakfasts and dinners stood out in my mind, but one in particular made me pause. In the summer before his fourth year, Harry arrives at the Burrow. He, Hermione and the Weasleys dine al fresco on a mid-summer’s evening, the wild garden thrumming with warmth and contentment, enjoying chicken and ham pie, boiled potatoes and salad. The image Rowling creates is so clear and potent the reader relaxes, fulfilled by the characters’ chit-chat and delicious food, and excited by the prospect of the Quidditch World Cup the next day. Suffice to say, I don’t have a garden, it is not mid-summer, and, most sadly of all, I don’t have tickets for Quidditch tomorrow, but I love the carefree, British-summer feel of this supper. It is the first meal with salad after all (Rowling loves her meat and two veg). I have adapted the dishes slightly, opting for crispy pancetta instead of ham, poached potatoes with garlic and lemon, and a green spring salad with asparagus, Parmesan and pine nuts. Otherwise, dinner was as relaxed and warm as Harry’s.
“To somebody who had been living on meals of increasingly stale cake all summer, this was paradise, and at first, Harry listened rather than talked as he helped himself to chicken and ham pie, boiled potatoes, and salad.“
Chicken and Ham Pie
Adapted from BBC Good Food Magazine
350g chicken breasts
80g pancetta lardons
1 onion, chopped
4 tarragon sprigs, leaves picked
1 clove garlic, crushed
200g chestnut mushrooms, thickly sliced
150ml double cream
2 tsp Dijon mustard
200ml chicken stock
1 packet of ready-to-roll puff pastry
1 beaten egg
- Heat a little olive oil in a deep heavy-bottomed frying pan. Chop the chicken breasts into bite-sized chunks. Once the oil is hot, throw in the chicken and cook until lightly golden. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 200C.
- Now fry the pancetta until lightly crisped. Add the onion and garlic and gently fry for a couple of minutes, then add the tarragon and mushrooms and occasionally stir as the vegetables colour.
- Chuck in the chicken, then add the cream and mustard. Bring to the boil and gradually add the stock until your desired thickness (the cream will thicken slightly as it boils). Season with salt and pepper. Pour into a baking dish and cover with your pastry. Brush over beaten egg for a golden shine once baked, and slice a couple of slashes to allow steam to escape.
- Bake for 30 minutes until the pastry is flaky and crisp and the creamy contents is bubbling. Serve with new potatoes and salad, prepared in your preferred method.