I used to go on holiday with cookery books in my suitcase. Nigel Slater has been everywhere with me! I love to visit local markets and cook in the place I’m staying. I find it takes you by the hand and introduces you to the country, the people, the history and the culture. I also try and go on a cookery course in whatever country I’m visiting. It’s a way to discover the food, find out about the area where it grows, meet new people, learn the language and make lifelong friends around the table as you eat the food you’ve cooked together.  

My Lemon Grove Summer

My Lemon Grove Summer

When I start writing a book, it’s a bit like walking into my pantry and deciding what I’m going to cook that evening. What flavours and setting I’m going to have. Once I’ve decided on a country and the food they produce there, I can start to add the story.  

I wrote my first book, The Oyster Catcher, whilst sitting in my car. I had moved to the West coast of Ireland with my husband and three children. I dropped my children off at school every day, and worried about them in a new school and in a new language. I drove down the coast, too miserable to go home on my own. So I pulled up beside the sea and thought, I can either stare at the sea and be miserable for the next few hours, or I can write! So I did!  

I’ve always written in the car. I had three small children under the age of three. When I was driving the first to school, the second to nursery, the baby would drop off to sleep as soon as I dropped off the second. I would pull up the car, wherever I was, and write. An hour later, when the baby woke, my writing time was over. But I had had that hour to me, and my writing. Years later, when The Oyster Catcher sold in Germany, I upgraded to a camper van so I could go to the beach and make a cup of tea while I worked!  

I love going on my research trips, and most of all I love it when my really good friend Katie Fforde comes with me! We just have fun! We started going on research trips together when I first started writing and wanted to learn about  husky racing. We went to Scotland. It was a terrifying experience. And at the end of the day, we would return to our hotel, cold and exhausted. We’d take off our boots and clutch them to our chests, greet the reception staff and get half way up the stairs and collapse into heaps of nervous, exhausted laughter and couldn’t move. Proper, fun, feel the fear and do it anyway, laughter. The receptionist sent gins to our rooms to have with our hot baths. And that is why I have always loved travelling with Katie. We just feel the fear and do it anyway! That research later came in handy when I wrote A Winter Beneath the Stars, set in Swedish Lapland, about the reindeer herders I met there. That was another Katie and Jo trip and full of fear, laughter and lovely memories.  

Another trip we did was oyster farming, again in Scotland, and again we were freezing and wet. I have never seen so much rain as when we waded into the water and helped pull out the bags of oysters. By lunch time we were so wet and cold, the landlady of the local pub dried our clothes out in front of the open fire while we ate lunch. But that evening, we sat in our hotel, by a roaring fire and drank champagne and ate oysters we had gathered and the aching joints and wet clothes were totally worth it! 

I always like to try and visit the country I’m writing about. I think it’s important to not only know how somewhere looks, but how it smells and how it makes you feel. In Spain, I remember the early morning birds chattered and argued loudly, like flamenco dancers arguing about who their next dancing partner would be. In Portugal, the smell of the place when you leave the plane reminds me of the beautiful green olive oil there and the delicious pork and clams…oh and the sardines too! And in Swedish Lapland, well, it was like stepping out the back of the wardrobe into Narnia and the hairs up your nose tickling as they froze!  

I love buying cookbooks. Not that I’m going to cook everything from them, but to me, they are like armchair travel. I sit down and am transported to the places I want to visit through the food in the pages there.  

To me, love and life are all about the kitchen table. It’s where the family, the ones I love, gather to eat, share news, argue, fall out and make up. All of life happens at the kitchen table. I was once in Puglia and a restaurant owner brought out glasses and limoncello at the end of our meal and asked me what kind of books I wrote about. He didn’t speak English and I spoke very little Italian but he told me – to him, life was all about the food that they grow on the land, and he held out an arm to the olive grove we were sat in. To cook in the kitchen, and he pointed to the lit forno. To put on the table, and he banged the wooden table. For the ones we love, and he put his fist to his heart. We were talking a common language. And that is what I write about, food, from the land, to cook, for the ones we love. It’s all about the table, no matter what country we’re in!