Oxford Cultural Collective logo

Jane Grigson – by Geraldene Holt



18th March 2019

On the day that the Jane Grigson Trust is set to announce the winner of its annual Award, presented to a first-time writer of a book about food or drink, we re-publish Geraldene Holt’s exploration of Jane Grigson’s contribution to British culinary and literary culture. 

This article was first published in 2013 as a chapter in ‘Food and Drink: the cultural context’, edited by Don Sloan.


Cookery writing is “almost a form of autobiography,” Jane Grigson  remarked on a BBC radio programme in 1987. “It’s been my way of finding out why I’m on this earth, and adding something to the sum of human happiness.” (1)

However, when Jane left university in 1949, her food writing career lay almost twenty years ahead of her. She first worked in art galleries and publishers’ offices. In 1953 she joined George Rainbird as a picture researcher and met the author and poet Geoffrey Grigson. A decade working as a translator led to the award of the John Florio Prize with Father Kenelm Foster for the translation of Beccaria’s Of Crimes and Punishment.

Jane’s interest in food developed when she and Geoffrey with their daughter, Sophie, began to divide their time between a farmhouse in Broad Town in Wiltshire and a cave house in Trôo in the Loir-et-Cher region of France. Here, in the early sixties, Jane began to research a book on French charcuterie for an English friend, Adey Horton, who later suggested that she also take over the writing. By trawling through French textbooks on the subject in a scholarly exploration of the field and also compiling a comprehensive collection of recipes, Jane demonstrated her skill for research and her talent as a food writer.  Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery was published in 1967, to widespread acclaim. The book is a well organised survey of a specialised field: highly informative yet with accessible recipes, an educational volume which retains its distinction more than four decades later, and described by Elizabeth David as a kitchen classic.

The following year, Elizabeth David recommended Jane as cookery writer for the new colour magazine of the Observer newspaper. In an early issue of the British Guild of Food Writers’ Journal, Jane recalled her dilemma when embarking upon food journalism.(2) She had proposed the topic of strawberries for her initial article. But “….I was plainly terrified. The thing that buoyed me up was the idea of earning more money than I had from translation. The thing that dragged me down was the knowledge that I knew nothing about cookery, beyond pork.” She asked Geoffrey how she should proceed, ” ‘Right,’ he said, ‘we’ll find out what the strawberry has meant to people, what they have done to it, how they have developed it and so on.’ “

Alan Davidson, in his magisterial Oxford Companion to Food, describes Geoffrey Grigson as “so widely read that he constituted a sort of walking encyclopedia of English literature, and his contribution to Jane’s work in the form of general inspiration and particular suggestions was considerable right up to the time of his death, only a few years before hers.”(3)

Jane finished her strawberry article and sent it to the Observer. She retained the carbon copy of her contribution and filed it in a ring-binder (4). Thus began her long and productive association with the newspaper, which continued until she died.

A selection of Jane’s articles from her early years at the Observer was published under the title Good Things (1971):  “This is not a manual of cookery, but a book about enjoying food.” She writes about the delights and solaces of cooking and quotes Careme: “From behind my ovens, I … feel the ugly edifice of routine crumbling beneath my hands.”

The Wine and Food Society then invited Jane to write Fish Cookery (1973). When the book first appeared, serving fish as a main course at a formal dinner was still unusual. By the time that Jane began a major revision of the book, the British attitude to fish had become more European with a far larger choice of species available at fishmongers and in supermarkets. Jane’s expanded and updated edition of the book was published in 1993 under its new title, Jane Grigson’s Fish Book.

With the publication of English Food (1974) it was clear that Jane Grigson had become a crusader for the oft-maligned cooking of the British Isles. Contending with what Jane later described as “the realisation of how puritan the English, in particular, have always been about food” (5) she set about converting the sceptics by demonstrating how many fine foods and dishes had been allowed to disappear from our national menus. After a recipe for Sorrel with Eggs, she writes:  “Latterly we in England have developed a most Athenian characteristic. We are always after some new thing. Which is fine in many ways, but in matters of food often disastrous. We are so busy running after the latest dish, that the good things we’ve known for centuries are forgotten as quickly as the boring ones.”

The success of Jane’s campaign for the restoration of fine English cooking has not been  restricted to cooks in domestic kitchens: restaurant chefs from Joyce Molyneux to Mark Hix often revive long-forgotten recipes highlighted by Jane. English Food was almost entirely revised by Jane shortly before her death and the new edition appeared in 1992.

Her next book was a collection of recipes for cultivated, woodland, field and dried mushrooms. The Mushroom Feast (1975) reflects the Grigsons’  life spent on both sides of the English Channel in its harmonious blend of English and French opinions and differing preparations of edible fungi.

In 1978, Jane published her Vegetable Book, a large and masterly volume of information and recipes for seventy-five different vegetables from artichokes to yams. The book is a remarkable achievement, and Jane received the Glenfiddich Writer of the Year Award and the Andre Simon Memorial Fund Book Award in recognition of its compass and detail.

It is, though, when you come to Jane’s final two books – the ones she says she was happiest writing –  that her preferred style and methods of working are notably apparent.

Food with the Famous (1979) is an expanded version of earlier newspaper articles. “From a selfish point of view this has been the series I have most enjoyed writing, in eleven years at the Observer.” she writes. “The excuse to re-read favourite novels, look again at favourite painters, visit places associated with them, spend hours in collections of letters and in journals, study early cookery books in the Bodleian Library and buy more than I could really afford, gave me a chance of relating cookery to life beyond the kitchen. Which is what, in the end, I think cookery should do.”

Adopting the pattern she had established in some of her earlier books, with an introductory essay to each chapter followed by a well-judged selection of relevant recipes, Jane explores the lives of ten eminent people from the past. In her sympathetic yet succinct biography of Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885) she sets the scene for the cooking of this prosperous English 19th century household.

A year or so earlier, Jane had been given the manuscript recipe book of Lady Shaftesbury. Hand-written in copperplate, this unique volume forms part of Jane’s personal library that Sophie Grigson, herself a food writer, has generously placed on permanent loan to the Jane Grigson Trust (6), whose collection of food and cookery books is held at Oxford Brookes University. Turning the faded pages of the notebook reveals the scope of the task Jane set herself – to select just twenty from one hundred and forty recipes that record some of the cooking of the Shaftesbury kitchen from 1855-1872. She explains their significance in the past, yet is also aware that the dishes chosen – such as  Prince Raziwill’s Potted Salmon, and Lady Granville’s Iced Coffee – should still hold an appeal for her 20th century readers.

The assignment of translating an antique recipe into its modern equivalent is strewn with pitfalls. The original instructions might be bafflingly brief, ingredients and methods are often radically different, and cooking over an open fire or with a capricious cast-iron stove require skills not easily found in the present day. “It’s worth remembering this difference in the size of eggs,” Jane writes in English Food. “Such an old recipe may say, in what seems a grandiose manner, ‘Take sixteen eggs’. The sixteen eggs of 1840 or whatever the year can safely be reduced to about ten or twelve modern eggs…”

While bearing this in mind, one still aims, when resuscitating a period recipe to retain the spirit of the dish, which can be quite a challenge. For both reader and cook, Food with the Famous succeeds as an attractive collection of recipes and as a brilliant way to present culinary history.

Jane introduces her Fruit Book (1982), by describing mankind’s “special feeling towards fruit, its glory and abundance…Such feelings towards fruit have made this book more fun to write than any of the others.” With the same format as in her Vegetable Book, Jane introduces each fruit with a short essay, often with a passage of advice on buying or cooking the fruit, followed by a range of recipes from around the world. Her essay style is forthright yet entertaining, in similar vein to that of her eminent forebears who include Morton Shand, Edward Bunyard, Lady Jekyll and Elizabeth David. Jane Grigson’s essays are, however, memorably enlivened by relevant information and quotations from a remarkably wide range of sources – poets,  novelists, gardeners, earlier food writers and cookery manuals.

Writing about the cherry, Jane prefaces her essay with cultural and historical – even biblical – references, then recalls the cherries of her childhood in England, the cherries she usually buys in France, and finally quotes from two poems by the English poet and priest, Robert Herrick. Then she has a fascinating section on Kirsch, Cherry Brandy and Maraschino.

You could close the book at this moment and still feel enriched by how the author weaves her spell. Few food writers approach Jane Grigson’s aptitude for illuminating a subject with such infectious delight: education at its most persuasive – caught not taught.

Nineteen recipes for cherries follow – no wonder the book stretches to a hefty five hundred pages. Alan Davidson, in his North Atlantic Seafood (1979), remarks on the thoroughness of Jane Grigson in providing not one but three versions of gooseberry sauce to accompany mackerel in her Fish Cookery. Some writers might husband one or two gooseberry sauce recipes for a later book or article but Jane is generous in giving us a chance to compare the different versions on the same page.

Discovering several recipes for gooseberry sauce demands diligent research – the part of the job Jane evidently relished.  In her Fruit Book, Jane’s talent for research comes to the fore: her nose for truffling out the hidden fact, the telling anecdote or long-lost story makes this book one of her most popular. Moreover, in  the years before the invention of the internet, Jane conducted her research by consulting primary sources and actual works – books, journals, letters, memoirs and diaries. It was a lengthy process but for the right person with a forensic talent it could be an engrossing quest.

Jane Grigson was a self-taught cook – as, I assume, are most of her readers: she learnt how to prepare food from consulting books or from friends and from her family. Her sister Mary was a gifted cook, and Jane’s notebooks contain hand-written recipes such as Mary’s Christmas Cake. Perhaps this accounts for Jane’s friendly style of recipe writing which makes her such a sympathetic companion in the kitchen.

Domestic cooking varies in many ways from that practised in a restaurant. Compared with recipes written by a chef, Jane is specially alert to the unexpected or puzzling elements sometimes encountered when cooking from a published recipe. “If the filling rises alarmingly, do not worry. It will fall when you take it out of the oven.” is a reassuring footnote to a recipe for Old Fashioned Apricot Tart. And how endearing of an author to confess that she always offers up a silent prayer when baking a soufflé.

Jane’s readers were charmed by her newspaper contributions, often cutting them out each week to paste into scrapbooks. And she received a considerable correspondence (7), usually congratulatory, sometimes adding useful information and recipes, and very occasionally scolding her for lavishness in a particular article.

Colour photography became markedly less expensive in the 1970s, which encouraged the Observer and other weekend titles to launch cookery part-works. Three Observer Guides: British Cookery, European Cookery and French Cookery School, partly or wholly written by Jane, proved sufficiently popular to warrant hardback publication in due course.

Through her books and her journalism, Jane became an influential voice in the food culture of Britain. She ran an almost continuous campaign for an improvement in food quality which she rightly argued should be available to everyone irrespective of income. She protested against “the philistine tread of big business, our chefs boiled in the bag, home cooks swaddled and smothered in plastic convenience.” (8)

During the notorious salmonella-in-eggs scandal of 1988, I remember a Guild of Food Writers’ meeting where Jane upbraided a politician from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. She expressed her deep shock and anger that the government oversaw commercial food production that had deteriorated so deplorably that she could no longer safely serve small children or an elderly friend a softly boiled egg. The minister struggled to reply and then, doubtless sensing the animosity among the audience, became speechless. A few weeks later, I met Jane as she returned flushed and breathless but clearly triumphant from a policy meeting at the ministry. I think I detect progress, she whispered.

Jane’s reputation as one of Britain’s greatest food writers is well established. She died at only 62 years of age, but in a 23 year career her prolific writing has left a body of work that is essential reading for any historian of English life. Her books bring three-fold pleasure: as informative directories of food, as a treasure house of recipes, and a joy to read. Indeed, Jane succeeded beyond measure in her desire to add ‘something to the sum of human happiness’.

A cookery book is a social document, a record of the food and cooking of the time. Jane was particularly interested in English food and its past. She lamented that we had lost so much due to modernisation and industrial practices when, for almost all of man’s time on earth, he grew food naturally in a way that we now label as organic. Enlightened gardeners rarely waver from this traditional approach, and an increasing number of of farmers and horticulturists have recently adopted these methods. In her work Jane helped pioneer this campaign for unadulterated food which now has legions of supporters.

Jane was dedicated to placing food in its context, both in the present day and in the past, and was keen to emphasise the commonality of food and its role in our lives. She was disarmingly modest about her own kitchen skills but was entranced by the creative capacity of cooking: “Cooking something delicious is really much more satisfactory than painting pictures or throwing pots. At least for most of us. Food has the tact to disappear, leaving room and opportunity for masterpieces to come.” (9)

While her own handiwork in the kitchen has long disappeared, Jane’s written record continues to enthrall. Her writing enlightens the reader and deepens our understanding of the complicated yet often deliciously simple business of eating. Jane Grigson made an inestimable contribution to English culture and left her distinctive signature upon the art of food writing.


(1) Kaleidoscope 11/8/87  BBC Radio 4

(2) Guild of Food Writers’ Journal, Spring 1989

(3) The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson, p 354, Oxford University Press 1999

(4) Part of Jane Grigson’s personal papers catalogued by Oxford Brookes University

(5) Food with the Famous, Jane Grigson, p 9 , Michael Joseph 1979

(6) The Jane Grigson Trust is an educational charity founded in Jane’s memory: www.janegrigsontrust.org

(7) viz. (4)

(8) Observer, 6 March 1988

(9)  Introduction to Good Things, p10, Michael Joseph 1971

Selected Bibliography:

Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, Michael Joseph, 1967; Penguin 1986; Grub Street 2001

Good Things, Michael Joseph, 1971; Penguin, 1973; Grub Street 2007

The International Wine and Food Society’s Guide to Fish Cookery, The International Wine and Food Publishing Company/David and Charles, 1973; Fish Cookery, Penguin, 1973

English Food: An Anthology, Macmillan, 1974; Penguin, 1977

The Mushroom Feast,: A Celebration of All Edible Fungi, Cultivated, Wild and Dried Varieties, With More Than 100 Recipes to Choose From, Mchael Joseph, 1975; Penguin, 1983

Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, Michael Joseph, 1978; Penguin, 1986

Food with the Famous, Michael Joseph, 1979; Penguin, 1981; Grub Street 1991

Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book, Michael Joseph, 1982; Penguin, 1983

 © Geraldene Holt

Socialise with us