23 June 2023
Romantic novelist Emma Cowell looks at writing sensual culinary pleasures in her escapist summer fiction
Feta cheese drizzled with golden olive oil, juicy tomatoes sprinkled with flecks of earthy oregano or creamy tzatziki with crispy courgette fritters… the firmest of foodie friends!
When I was a child, I was invited to a Greek-Cypriot family’s ‘small’ Easter party. It gave me my first taste of the famed Grecian hospitality. Scores of people crowded on a lawn surrounded by a snaking trail of trestle tables, groaning beneath the weight of treat-laden platters. It was love at first bite! Having spent so many years since holidaying in Greece, I can wholeheartedly say that those I’ve met there speak the same love language as me: food.
The Greek cuisine is not to be underestimated and my novels are peppered with dishes, inspired by the many cooks I’ve met in the country. The unparalleled authenticity of time-honoured cooking is marked by the recipes passed along generations; scraps of paper with illegible scribbles or so well practiced it can be executed with no weighing of ingredients. I set my second novel, The House in the Olive Grove, at a fictional Greek cooking school- the perfect backdrop to facilitate drama and friendship but most of all, to evoke healing through food, creating a sensory bond to transcend all difficulties.
The innate nurturer within us all awakens at the breaking bread with loved ones or strangers across a table, almost a communion of sorts.
I will confess, I’ve found it a challenge to be chums with food, having struggled with eating disorders in my early teens, which is a storyline in my second novel. I saw it as my nemesis, but now, we are finally friends. It has been a thirty plus year work in progress, and I suspect will endure forever. But I am a feeder, an enthusiastic cook, keen baker and committed sampler of many a meze! Now, as I find myself further down the line of life, it is something I’ve come to cherish and celebrate. I’ve unearthed a healing through food when it used to masquerade as my enemy. To craft something from scratch and hear appreciative noises of enjoyment amidst the scraping of cutlery on an empty plate yields a thrill like no other. I used to control what I consumed meticulously, but nowadays I indulge in the sheer joy of flavour and bask within perfect ingredient pairings. That’s not to say I’m cured, despite my healthy weight and size, as I’m not sure anyone ever truly recovers from such a thing. Yet food has evolved into something pleasurable rather than a begrudging fuel to wrestle with and despise.
The old adage of write what you know is correct, but writing what you feel and taste can depict a complete sensual experience, especially when attempting to capture a culture between the pages. Setting my novels in Greece became an exploration of the country’s glorious assault on every sense with cuisine presenting the perfect vehicle to burrow beneath its skin. The Greek cooks I’ve met are fiercely enthusiastic about their food: protective and proud, and deservedly so. It is a window into their heritage and history, a demonstration of unbridled love for their place of birth.
When I think about the precious friendships I’ve formed around the world, my prominent memories that nudge forward often relate to a meal; a traditional Sunday roast, a childhood birthday cake, a sumptuously decadent pudding or a languid lunch spanning an afternoon at a beach-side taverna. I feel a special connection with the person I’m thinking of via a meal we’ve shared.
My first novel, One Last Letter From Greece, was based on my experience of losing my mother far too early. Many of my cherished recollections are linked to the food we shared – at our houses, in a restaurant or on holiday together. One scrumptious vignette which will always live with me is a simple supper during a family trip to France. We were staying in a villa beside a golden sandy beach and had visited a food market to buy a kilo of fresh prawns. My mother served up a giant platter of pink crustaceans glistening in garlic butter accompanied by a generous basket bulging with crunchy slices of baguette. The messy finger-licking fun as we deconstructed buttery prawns still exists in my sensory memory decades later. I only wish my mother and I had experienced Greece together. Yet, the country gave me healing through its food and fuelled me to find out what life looked like without her, and I will be eternally grateful to it. My novels are a love letter to the people, the place and the exquisite cuisine.
Music is supposedly the food of love but for me love is the love of food.
The House in the Olive Grove by Emma Cowell is published by Avon (£8.99)
Are you interested in writing about food in your fiction? Read how working in the food industry fed the way novelist Lizzy Barber writes about cooking.