Book Friday: Comfort (Food to Soothe the Soul) by John Whaite

I love entering a new season. Despite the sun shining and a warm day in the office yesterday, there’s a definite hint of pumpkin spice in the air at the moment and leaves are ever so gradually sliding out of the green and into their authentic shades of yellow, red and gold.

Autumn, to me, is very much a season of re-start. The French call it La Rentree, a re-entry into ordinary life after the relaxed summer schedule and that applies to almost everyone, not just children returning to school. September is a good month for a clear out, a tidying and tightening of daily routines and an acceptance that the year is sliding out gracefully. A time to settle back into cosy routines, which we need whatever is happening in the world outside and to establish, or re-establish, the systems of life that support our comfort. For me, that also includes a gradual change from the light and airy dishes of summer to warming, comforting and familiar dishes that make walking into a house scented by thyme and lamb stew slow cooking all day long a real joy. This week’s book is new to me, but actually dates from 2017.

Comfort by John Whaite is filled with food that, he hopes, will reignite our nostalgic memories and recreate the comforts we need. As he writes “Food can be the conduit to people or situations with whom, or in which, we feel, quite simply, safe.” He also says that “Food, and comfort food in particular, is autobiographically relevant.” In other words, the food that takes me back to comfort and the memory of safer times will not be the same as that of my Hindu neighbour (for whom the rich spices of India — turmeric, saffron and cumin — summon up their Mama whom they left behind 40 years ago) nor of my Polish colleague, who sees anything steeped in white vinegar and fermented for weeks as a true sign of home.

I am lucky that John Whaite comes from Wigan, then, and that my own birthplace is a mere 14 miles away, although some days that might as well be the entire continent for the differences between the areas. There are many dishes in this book that I recognise as the same as or adjacent to my own childhood comforts.

The book is arranged around the properties of comfort food: something cheesy, spicy, crunchy, sticky, pillowy, tender or sweet with a chapter on each and an extra chapter on side dishes. This is not a good book for vegetarians, with few recipes not including some form of meat or fish. It’s not particularly good for sweet-toothed people either, since most chapters are almost entirely savoury. That said, if satisfying meat stews, new takes on old favourites like fish pie or a slow baked bagel or bowl of soup are your personal sweet spot, then the book has plenty to keep you occupied.

I certainly intend using it as the inspiration for a few meals a week for the next month or so. Slow cooked ragu, Lancashire sausage and cheesy mash, Bibimap and lamb meatballs have all caught my eye and my tastebuds, and I want to stretch my repertoire, which has settled (as routines tend to do) into the same dishes with the same meats on the same days. The only person who will complain in my house is my second son, who doesn’t like potato skins on anything, dislikes rice and distrusts garlic. Perhaps he is a vampire, and I just never noticed.

The recipes read well, with clear ingredient lists and structured paragraphs, but it’s the personal touches in the introductory paragraphs that make my day. As John says, comfort food is intensely autobiographical and he shares details of his youth and present life in the paragraphs. I love the idea that after changing professional websites he lost the recipe for Sticky Lamb Stew with Lager Flatbreads, only to find out his mother (most probably his biggest fan: we do tend to be) had printed it out and used it often, but only after he had spent years fruitlessly trying to recreate the same spicy, sticky sweetness.

Wigan is infamous as the home of the Pie Eaters, although the name comes not from the meat and potato pies that they promote now, but the fact that they had to break the General Strike first in 1926 and go back to work eating humble pie. John only includes four recipes involving pies in the book, but it does include advice on making the infamous (Wigan is infamous in anybody’s books) Wigan Kebab, which is basically a meat and potato pie sandwiched in a buttered barm, slathered with vinegar and brown sauce. I have no idea where Wigan sits on the health index for the UK regarding heart disease and diabetes. Let’s just say, a Wigan kebab should be a very, very, very occasional treat.

I’m assembling my list of recipes to try from the book for the first time this weekend. Next week will definitely have a couple of stews in it, possibly a Chicken Milanese and I desperately want to bake either the Clementine and Cardamon upside down cake or the Ovaltine Banana Malt loaf. This weekend my food will be much more basic, possibly involving at least one takeaway and cooked for me by my children as I finish off my bathroom renovation.

And John Whaite? Well, he’s going to become even more well known after September 11th, when the first programme in this season’s Strictly Come Dancing is broadcast. He is appearing as a celebrity in the second same-sex partnership (after Nicola Adams’ unfortunately short run last year). It will be interesting to see how two men spar off against each other. John Whaite has been training and looks, as my daughter puts it, buff. Strength vs strength. Shades of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, which was fascinating to watch. He’s also on Instagram and has an eponymous website for his own cookery school in Wigan. I’m tempted to ask the Husband for a course as a Christmas present….

I’ll end, as usual on Book Friday, with a flip through the book. John Whaite has three other books, including his most recent one, A Flash In The Pan and older volumes, John Whaite Bakes and Perfect Plates. They’re all on my wish list, and likely to make an appearance either as part of my Advent books (four, bought for and by myself, wrapped and ready to read each Sunday in Advent) or as a genuine Christmas present.

Thanks for this week’s book goes to a kind friend from the Hygge Nook, who sent me some money and told me to treat myself. I spent the money on this book and a bottle of Rose Syrup to make Turkish Delight Hot Chocolate come the cold weather. Thank you, kind friend, so much. I shall think of you as I sip.

The header today is simply the book on my desk as usual. The teabags are Turmeric tea from Pukka. I’ve take to drinking them recently and found that my ankles, usually so creaky and sore when I wake up in the morning, feel much looser and less swollen.

How to Hygge the British Way is my gift to the world. I don’t get paid for writing it, I’m not in it for the kudos, financial rewards, to become an influencer, work with brands or otherwise make any money from the blog. That’s why there are no ads, and any products I mention and recommend have either been gifted to me or bought by me with my everyday wages or donations from supporters. Every book I review has been bought and read by me, unless stated otherwise.

I do get a couple of pennies each time someone buys from the Amazon links on my page, as an Amazon Affiliate, but otherwise if you’d like to support me, I like to give something back in return. That’s why I write books. It always feels good if you get a book back in return for some money. You can find a full list of my books at my Author’s Page on Amazon, but especially recommended for this time of year are:

Cosy Happy Hygge: Setting up a rhythm to life and rituals to enjoy it to make for a more balanced life that handles waves and storms better. August is like a pause before real life begins again in September, so it’s a second chance to set up rituals and rhythms that boost happiness and work for you.

Happier: Probably my most personal book, it’s the story of how I used hygge and the little things in life to help boost my happiness. I still go back and reread to remind myself what I need to do to be a happy human.

On the principle that it’s never too early to start thinking ahead, really, and that Christmas is always on us before we know, how about Have Yourself a Happy Hygge Christmas? Christmas is about the small things in life, much as hygge is, and establishing what you want from Christmas and then being able to say no to the excess is important. The book has hints and tips that hopefully will help you enjoy what is, too often, a frantic season.

Available as just an ebook, and a short, sharp read, is Enjoying a Self-Care Christmas: Easy Ways to keep the Joy of Christmas, and your Sanity, intact. It’s an easy read, with ideas and hints to keep you sane through the season. The self-care advent calendar is one I’ve followed for a few years now, and it really is a small daily dose of calm in a manic month.

And on the basis that we may well find ourselves in Lockdowns or unable to enjoy an absolutely normal Christmas under Covid regulations if numbers spike, why not read and plan alternatives? Celebrating a Contagious Christmas was written in response to the pandemic last year, and will need updating soon, but it is about celebrating whatever the situation, and does have good advice on stocking up an emergency cupboard, celebrating when travelling to relatives is impossible and putting the heart of Christmas back into the heart of the celebrations.

If you’d like to support me, but don’t want to buy a book, I have a Paypal.Me account as Hygge Jem. Every little helps, so even a few pence goes towards the books, goods and courses I use and recommend on the site. I’m grateful for every little bit that brings me closer to my dream of full-time writing, and I know I couldn’t still be writing if it weren’t for the support of many readers and friends out there. Thank you all for every little bit of support, emotional, physical and financial, you give me.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, don’t forget to share it or save it so others can enjoy reading, thinking about and living hygge as well.

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