Food & Drink

How near-death experiences changed writer Diana Henry’s approach to food and life

Food writer Diana Henry has updated her 2005 cookbook Roast Figs, Sugar Snow (Chris Terry/PA)
Food writer Diana Henry has updated her 2005 cookbook Roast Figs, Sugar Snow (Chris Terry/PA)

A string of serious illnesses made writer Diana Henry re-evaluate not only her approach to food, but life in general.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, and had a double mastectomy and chemotherapy before getting the all-clear – then, in 2020, discovered she had a rare autoimmune disease called vasculitis.

“My lungs haemorrhaged basically, and I was in the ICU for six weeks on a ventilator – [it was] the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” Henry, 59, says.

“It’s been hard getting over that… I thought because I’m such an energetic person, with will and determination I could be completely fine within a few weeks – but it has actually taken two years to feel like myself.”

The Northern Irish food writer – who has a weekly column with The Telegraph, and has been writing cookbooks since the early 2000s – says her brushes with death have shifted her thinking.

Diana Henry
Following a spate of serious illnesses, Diana lives more in the present (Chris Terry/PA)

“It’s moved work to the side. It’s always been very central to me, and that doesn’t mean it’s not central anymore – but I’m not willing to work 14-hour days any more to get books done. I just won’t do it.”

Plus, it’s made her live more in the present.

“This sounds very corny and Californian, but it really made me think about being in the moment,” she ponders.

“I realised there was loads of stuff I wasn’t noticing – and that seems odd for a person who writes about food, because I have to notice things all the time. If I’m travelling, if I’m cooking – observing is a really important thing.

“But the first walk I took nearby when I had cancer – [I realised] I hadn’t noticed the trees on this route. I don’t look up, I have tunnel vision.

“I think I saw the world differently.”

While she’s no longer working 14-hour days, the love of food hasn’t left her – and Henry instead dedicated her efforts to working on a new edition of her second cookbook, Roast Figs, Sugar Snow, first published in 2005.

How has she changed in the nearly two decades that have passed?

“I’m a better cook, and I’m a faster one,” she notes, with new recipes joining old favourites, as well as giving classic dishes a tweak – drawing upon all the knowledge she’s gained over the years.

One thing she did notice reading the first cookbook back: “It sounds quite young,” Henry admits.

“It’s funny reading yourself back again, because I think I’m a more serious person now than I was when I wrote that. I almost experienced it as hearing someone else when I read it back myself. It was almost like being engaged with this other person who’s younger than I am now, still enthusiastic.

“I was shocked, because I thought it was quite good. You don’t expect to go back and think that.”

At its core, Roast Figs, Sugar Snow is a book about cold weather and warming recipes. Henry says she’s “always loved” dark, cool climes – now based in London, she even enjoyed the drizzly summer most people found so disappointing.

“I grew up in Northern Ireland, so I was used to that kind of weather in the summer – and I have always absolutely adored snow. When we were little in Northern Ireland, I think there were two falls during my entire childhood.

“I love the way it pads everything, it makes it all softer, it makes it quieter – you can almost hear the quietness when there’s snow on the ground. Everything is white, normal life stops – because it can’t not, people can’t walk on the streets or they can’t drive a car.

“I like the way the place becomes something different under that blanket – so I like snow, and I also like the fact it means you have to look for food that’s robust.”

This is definitely represented in the book, with recipes from colder climes all over the world – Irish stew, Vermont baked beans, Danish roast pork and more.

“Everybody uses the word ‘comforting’ about food these days, I see it all the time,” Henry says, but for her, colder weather dishes have to have the same elements – no matter where around the world they come from.

“I think they have to give you the sense of wellbeing, cosiness… Just imagine if we lived in California, we’d have hot weather stuff all year round. How awful!

“You really want a drop in temperature and you want that thing of being in the kitchen with the windows steamed up, having come back from a long walk which means you’re allowed to eat something slightly calorific.”

Autumn has now begun, and it’s undoubtedly Henry’s “favourite” season.

“With the arrival of autumn, I think cooks retreat to the kitchen – and they’re really glad to be there,” she says.

“The ingredients change… I’m just thrilled pumpkins will be there, it seems right to eat lentils again – and pears, apples. I think some of my favourite ingredients really are autumn ingredients. it’s my favourite time of the year to cook.”

And looking even further ahead, she’s even quite partial to winter.

“People have got this idea that in winter, everything’s brown. Well for a start, brown food is lovely. It’s delicious, but as well as that, there is radicchio, red cabbage, beets, pomegranate – there are loads of ingredients which are really colourful and beautiful that can be used in cold weather as well.”

Roast Figs, Sugar Snow by Diana Henry

Roast Figs, Sugar Snow by Diana Henry is published by Aster, priced £22. Photography by Jason Lowe. Available now.