It’s not everyday that a chance meeting in your local deli and wine shop (Kirkness & Gorie in Kirkwall) leads to a book arriving to be reviewed. But this is Orkney, and that’s what happened. I met Peter Benson in Duncan McLean’s shop discussing his upcoming book launch. I said Yes to a copy and came home thinking that I have a stack of books that I want to read so why have I just agreed to read this?
Peter Benson is the same age as me and was brought up in the south of England as was I. The Stromness Dinner concept worried me. Was this going to be a novel packed with cooking detail written by a wannabe food writer or a dedicated hobby cook that would make me feel that my home cooking was somehow inferior to the restaurant quality food that we are all being encouraged to make by today’s TV programmes? I’ve read enough novels by cooks to be wary of the culinary novel: Prue Leith’s early books of fumbles on banquettes in Fortnum’s and choral endeavours were painful but Elizabeth Luard made the transition with magnificent success. How would this be?
Chapters that are three, four or five pages long are brilliant – they make you want to read just one more before you stop and consequently I gobbled up this book. I was hooked from page 1 – which is actually page 7, but you know what I mean. Ed is based in Bermondsey and is a regular builder bloke who loves his food and his women although he seems more successful with food. In and out of many of my old haunts I could visualise the menus and the crush at the bar, but that was just to set the scene. I have had some of the best meals and attended the most memorable food events in Bermondsey. I was in for the whole mini-chaptered tasting menu of this book, from cover to cover.
Ed came to Stromness to tidy up a house for a London client to sell. Marcus and Claire had been left the house by their Dad who had just died. They loved it but it had to go. Ed thought Claire was gorgeous but out of his reach.
Ed came to Stromness. Claire came a few days later. The attraction was simmering then moving to a rolling boil. I was beginning to get uncomfortable. I had thoroughly enjoyed the bloke-y pace of the writing but I was worried that I was heading for gastro sex and maybe eating oozing Brie off each other’s torsos but it was all ok and I had not even a hint of indigestion as I finished the book.
For an Incomer to Orkney as I am, Benson’s skill in capturing the idiosyncrasies of the Islands was as sharp as a Japanese knife blade. His insights were witty and perceptive. He absolutely nailed the quality of the local food and drink that is available in the local shops. Those who shop in the supermarkets – as Ed did from time to time – so often trade down from the local quality foods. Ed’s description of fish and chips in the Ferry Inn and steaks from Flett’s were spot on – I know those flavours and textures, just I knew the pubs and their menus in Bermondsey.
‘Don’t knock this place and it’s people. They make it what it is.’ I feel that very strongly about Orkney and to integrate into the community you have to be accepting of everyone . But The Stromness Dinner is a novel, and an immensely enjoyable main course of one too. I’ll be recommending it to the Book Club when we can meet again.
The Stromness Dinner by Peter Benson. Published by Seren Books at £9.99. ISBN 9781781725962