The theme of Book Week Scotland this year is ‘Nourish’, so why not merge nourishment for the body with that of the spirit? Acclaimed Scottish poet Tom Pow and chef Neil Forbes of Edinburgh’s Café St Honore did just that at The Chef and The Poet, an evening of food and poetry which took place in the beautiful Scottish Poetry Library.
Beginning with a recital of Neruda’s ‘The Great Tablecloth’, poems read aloud by Pow were interspersed with live cooking demonstrations by Forbes. The switch between poetry recital and cookery display was at first a little strange, but proved to be a surprisingly pleasant combination. Care had clearly been taken when pairing the two; for each of Forbes’ dishes, the ‘main ingredient’ (pigeon, squid, barley) was also a major theme in the accompanying poem chosen by Pow.
Tom Pow’s poems are rooted in seemingly quotidian events, with themes of food, family and love repeatedly recurring. His wife’s comment about a cooked pigeon, shot down and gifted to him by a friend, makes him “contemplate words… the silence they’re pulled from, and how they end up on the plate”. In his closing poem ‘Jenny in July’, his six-month-old daughter rolls off the carpet and, he envisages, precipitously into adulthood – “the world of flowers and foxes”. Heartwarming and earthy, like the peasemeal and ham hock soup served at the start of the evening, these themes feel grounded; human.
Scottish pride ran strongly through both the poetry read and the food served, which felt in keeping with the event’s role as part of Book Week Scotland. Putting a French twist on quintessentially Scottish ingredients, Forbes created canapé after delicious canapé: Stornoway black pudding, crowdie cheese and pinhead oats; traditional oatcakes topped with cold smoked salmon from Belhaven Smokehouse. This theme continued through to dessert, which was shortbread made with bere barley, a traditionally Scottish grain now only cultivated in Shetland and Orkney. Burns’ “Bannocks o’ bear meal, bannocks of barley!” seemed to echo from the distant past. For this, Pow read one of his own poems: on a trip to Orkney with his children, looking out at the barley fields, he felt the weight of history. “Seed after seed… All the way back to the Vikings and beyond”.
One small detraction from the conviviality of the evening was the lecture-style seating arrangement: the event was rather less engaging for those seated at the back, who were unable to see any of the cooking going on at the front.
Nonetheless, The Chef and The Poet was, in many ways, a celebration of Scottish tradition and history, evident both through the written word and the food on one’s plate. We left with warm bellies – and warmer hearts.
The Chef and The Poet took place on 27th November 2017 at The Scottish Poetry Library, as part of Book Week Scotland.
Book Week Scotland Runs from 27th November-3rd December. Browse events here