Isabel Huggan Answers the Hungry Novelist Questionnaire

Isabel Huggan is a Canadian writer of fiction, essays and poetry. She makes her home in Tornac, France, where she recently established Le Mas Blanc Writer’s Retreat. She wrote about the years she and her husband spent renovating Le Mas Blanc in her best-selling memoir BELONGING: HOME AWAY FROM HOME (Vintage), which won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction (2004).

Website: www.isabelhuggan.com

Blog: http://masblancwritersretreat.blogspot.ca/

What’s going on in your writing life right now?

I’m mainly focusing on poetry – I seem to be going back to where I was when I first started out as a young woman at university many decades ago, believing I would “be” a poet. Wrong – but the urge to write poetry is still strong. There’s a recent poem in the current issue of THE NEW QUARTERLY.

What’s your writing routine?

I have no routine to speak of, as my days tend to have a variable structure, but generally I try to make time to write in the afternoons. I know that morning is “meant to be” the better time for the creative spirit, but I am happier clearing away email correspondence of every kind, household chores and various outdoor duties, and THEN getting down to my own writing life. Bad habit!

What do you usually eat for breakfast?

I almost never eat breakfast unless forced to do so in some social situation – i.e., visiting friends who expect me to eat breakfast with them. I start the day with a large mug of Yorkshire tea with milk, and that does me fine until around 10 or 11 when I have coffee with something to eat… maybe toast, maybe a boiled egg, maybe a handful of nuts, maybe some yoghurt with granola. Whatever. Now, I can get into breakfast on the weekend, if it is served at the end of the morning, and am a devotee of the English breakfast – porridge, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, fried tomatoes and mushrooms along with many slices of cold toast with butter and marmalade – but only on rare occasions.

What good books have you read recently?

I loved THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES by Edmund de Waal, as does everyone else.… it fits into a non-fiction category I like a lot, exemplified by Penelope Lively memoir A HOUSE UNLOCKED… I also loved THE GEOGRAPHY OF ARRIVAL by George Sipos, about growing up in London, Ontario… he’s a fine poet too, and that sensibility really informs his prose. I also fell in love with THREADING LIGHT by Lorri Neilsen Glenn, a marvelous mélange of prose and poetry exploring several aspects of loss and survival. And I am, as always, reading Montaigne, as he is good for the brain and good for the soul… but I just take a little at a time.

What did you eat for dinner last night?

For dinner last night I sautéed some green onions, a small courgette, some baby tomatoes and a few other left-over bits from the back of the fridge … and then I laid a huge handful of fresh spinach leaves on top of the pan, and put a lid on it, after I’d sprinkled loads of black pepper all over with a little lemon juice. I had some goat’s cheese I wanted to use up, and when it seemed to me that the mix was ready – only took a few minutes – I added it on top of the spinach where it melted to make a kind of sauce…. then I dished this over some warmed-up left-over tagliatelli. It was gorgeous, as left-over meals so often are…

Writing rules you live by:

BE IMPECCABLE WITH YOUR WORD

A scene you’ve written that features food:

Strangely, I haven’t written much about food, although it preoccupies me in my actual life. The only scene that comes to mind, really, is in THE ELIZABETH STORIES when Elizabeth is taken to a Mennonite farm for the weekend and sits at the long kitchen table with the family who are eating food that seems quite foreign but utterly appealing – shoofly pie.

A favorite restaurant:

Bergamote in the 6th arrondissement in Paris. Small, cozy, delightful ambiance and serving good food presented in a delicate but not pretentious way. I had steamed fish in a bamboo basket that was as perfectly prepared with seasonings as any fish I’ve ever eaten anywhere, EVER…

Dishes in regular rotation in your cooking repertoire:

When my husband and I were making meals together, we had the same love of soups, salads, pasta dishes and easy stews and ragouts… Now that I am living alone as a widow, my meals have become somewhat more simple, but follow the same general format. For example… Thursday at the Anduze market (my nearest town), I often buy a roasted chicken (fermier, plein air) and pick up my usual supplies of greens (lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, etc), carrots, celery, onions, leeks, garlic, and whatever else is going… broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, etc… I eat chicken for lunch that day, usually with the sauce and baby potatoes that come with it from the roaster, and then also for supper, after which I strip the carcass and use it to make soup stock, for which some of the day’s vegetables will be indispensible… The next day or two there may be chicken sandwiches, chicken curries, chicken this and chicken that, but most importantly there will be chicken stock so that I can make some REALLY good chicken soup.

What’s your idea of comfort food and comfort reading:

My idea of comfort food is always along the lines of egg nog, or some thick, bland, sweet vanilla-based concoction… although I also devour nuts and pretzels when I need my spirits lifted by eating…My comfort reading is most often magazines such as THE NEW YORKER or THE WALRUS… or on occasion, favorite books of poetry, particularly anthologies where I’ll eventually locate JUST the poem I need to give me exactly the degree of comfort I seek.

What do you do when not writing, eating, or reading?

When I am not eating, reading or writing, I may possibly be buying food to eat, buying books to read, or walking while I think about what I am going to write or eat next. Walking is my favorite activity, especially as I get older…. While walking, one can observe the world – in my case (living out in the country among the vineyards) it is the natural world — and the beauty inherent in the changing seasons. Walking can be a time of deep meditation, contemplation or just plain old gentle daydreaming. It makes a good alternative to stressing out and if I feel the need to loosen the grip that the world has on me, I just go for a walk and you know what? It always works. I come back after an hour feeling just grand.

Coming soon: more from Isabel on glorious, fresh local food in France.

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After Sotto: Minty Lemony Lamb Ragu

The food: pasta with minty, lemony lamb ragu

The story:

While in L.A. in February, my husband E and I had lunch at Sotto, a newish spot located just south of Beverly Hills that serves what it calls “an honest, market-driven menu of regionally-inspired Southern Italian dishes.” Though the restaurant’s press had trumpeted its imported brick-by-brick from Italy pizza oven, we had sated our appetites for Neapolitan-style pizza earlier that week at Pizzeria Mozza, so we went for an extra-long hike that morning to pre-emptively burn off some calories, and both ordered from the $22 prix fixe menu offered during dineLA’s Restaurant Week.

To start, we had the shaved beet and mixed lettuce salad (with wheatberries, lemon vinaigrette, and Fiore Sardo) which was fresh-tasting, if a little boring:

and the very delicious and very rich cauliflower almond zuppa with chilies, capers, sultanas and, if I’m not mistaken, heavy cream:

Our mains were a crispy pork belly porcetto sandwich with pickled vegetable giardiniera to which I was indifferent (not being big on pork belly ):

and a small and again very rich serving of casarecce pasta with braised lamb ragu, egg, and pecorino that was lovely and bright despite its richness, due to the addition of lemon, maybe, or fresh mint, or both.

We had desserts too (!): a dense bittersweet chocolate crostata with hazelnuts and salted rosemary caramel, and a cannoli siciliani that was billed as having been filled with ricotta, orange marmalade, pistachios, and chocolate, but tasted overwhelmingly of its deep-fried pastry shell.

I, too, was overwhelmed by this intense, creamy meal. But a few weeks later, at home in Toronto, I had fond memories of Sotto’s pasta with lamb ragu. So, though I rarely eat or cook lamb, I bought some, prepared a Giada de Laurentiis recipe for lamb ragu with mint and ricotta to which I added a lemon’s worth of lemon zest, and mixed it up with some President’s Choice black label Fiorelli pasta. The result didn’t quite measure up to Sotto’s version – next time I may subsititute an egg for the ricotta – but after eating a modest portion of it with a fresh green salad, I didn’t feel the need for a strenuous two or three hour hike afterwards either.

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