Sunday Reading: What I tasted

tasted copy.jpg

words: olivia potts

photo: deborah dewbury-langley

When my mother died, I lost a recipe.

Her death was sudden and unexpected. The day before, we talked normally, knowing nothing of what lay ahead. We talked about her library books, my job, Emmerdale

If I’d known she was going to die, I might have asked the important questions: what do I need to know about childbirth? How do you get curry stains out of a white shirt? How do you make your chilli con carne?

But I never asked those questions. I found myself – 25, motherless, heartbroken – not knowing things I never knew I wanted to know. Amongst those were her dishes. Losing her meant losing her food; I had never once asked for a recipe, and now it was too late.

Until it ended, I hadn’t realised how important food was to our relationship. Now, I can see it was her main way of conveying sympathy and care. She was not obsessive about food, like I am; she didn’t derive any joy from standing over a stove, or hosting a dinner party. The food she made was just for her family, for us. But every mouthful was carefully and meticulously prepared.

Whenever I was poorly – I was a sickly child, and an even sicklier teenager – my mother made minestrone soup. She would sit opposite me at the kitchen table, watching quietly as slowly, spoonful by spoonful, I ate it, and then she would walk me slowly, quietly around the garden. All soups are nourishing, but this soup was special. It was made with care in both senses. It was full of love, patience and effort. But it was also careful; everything chopped meticulously, placed in neat piles, and then one by one, dropped in a big pot in a preordained order. I needed to recreate this soup. The entirety of my mother’s cooking and love seemed bound up in minestrone. So I began trying to make it from memory. I knew it involved tiny pasta, and bacon and a lot of vegetables. 

I knew that those vegetables were diced precisely. I bought pasta and bacon, and I diced vegetables precisely. I threw them in a pot and thought good thoughts.

My first attempt was wrong. So was my hundredth. I drowned in soups, unable to replicate the taste. I could get close, but it was never quite right. It was never my mother’s soup. I turned to the internet, and spent nights gazing at search results for soup recipes, eliminating possibilities: no, no, no. Of all dishes, minestrone must be one of the hardest to recreate. There is no such thing as an authentic recipe; it has as many variations as it has cooks. 

Years passed, measured in failed soups. The grief eased, or at least changed: it became quieter. A looming adversary became a stolid, bitter companion. I could see past it, but it was always there.

A few months ago, when my father decided to move out of our old house, he offloaded most of my mother’s books on me. Among them were her cookbooks. In truth, I could never remember her actually using a cookbook. But here they were.

I flicked idly through them. I almost didn’t spot the minestrone soup. But as soon as I began reading, I realised: this was the recipe. This was my mother’s minestrone soup. I studied the method, line by line, and pictured my mum dicing, frying, stirring, the intricate ballet of her perfect soup. I closed the book and looked at the front cover. 

It was Delia’s Complete Cookery Course. My mother’s minestrone soup was Delia’s minestrone soup. I had been searching for this recipe, experimenting, testing this recipe for three years only for it to be in one of the most famous cookery books ever published.

But now I have it. I make this soup in the pot that my mother used – and finally, I make it as she did. And it tastes like home.


This story originally appeared as one of our 'stories of the senses' in issue 33 of Oh Comely. We were delighted to hear that Olivia won the category of Fresh Voices in Food Writing at this year's The YBFs with an edited version of this piece. You can see read more of Olivia's writing on her blog and follow her on Twitter

Sunday Reading: Potion in a tin foil cauldron

words: Emily Ingle

Like many tales, this one starts with a girl setting off from home. I left last Halloween’s broomstick in my parents’ attic, along with most of my belongings, so it was a Boeing 767-300 that flew me across the ocean. Still, a metal box of people floating above the clouds must be nothing less than magic. I watched southern English towns shrink until they were sesame seeds sprinkled on spinach, handed to me by a smiling flight attendant. I stirred this tiny enchanted woodland with my plastic fork. One paper sachet of salt, one of pepper: a potion in a tin foil cauldron.

I was flying to a world I knew from websites and prospectuses read on the sofa of my university’s study abroad office — a world that put its spell on me from afar. Houses became fairy-sized while the day stretched to an extra seven hours. My journey took a path through a forest of duty-free handbag shops and immigration checkpoints, lined with fire extinguishers that by some strange alchemy weren’t red but silver. It was also a voyage on a sea of stories. Of the books that I squeezed into my suitcase until it was only under the airline’s weight limit by a mouse’s breath, nearly all were fairytales of some kind. While I was packing, a friend gently reminded me that they do have libraries in Colorado, but I still wished I didn’t have to leave some favourites behind.

The versions of fairytales we are fed are often sanitised visions of sparkling castles and royalty charging in on horseback at the perfect moment. But it depends on the telling you choose. Tales have been mocked as superstitious and irrational, but they taught me more than any guidebook or map I could have taken in their place. It is hard to leave the kind of friends who will tell you to bring more socks and fewer books even when it’s not what you want to hear, and grandparents who might not fear wolves but spend a lot of time in hospital these days. But the tales taught me to approach a new land as a dark and mysterious forest; that the charms will be as unexpectedly enchanting as the corners are shadowy. They taught me that the worst monsters would be the ones I conjured up myself.

They also taught me that I could be the storyteller. Long before they were written down and filmed, tales were held in heads not between pages, the narratives and characters more easily shifting into the shape of the teller or the listener. Now I’m sitting at my second-hand but new to me desk. A potassium-rich banana might have been a wise amulet to bring against the dizziness that comes with altitude and I feel like I could sleep for a hundred years. Those books have just been unpacked and are stacked up on the desk’s wooden top. They are the stone gargoyle that will awake to lend me its wisdom or taunt me into action, but it is only my touch that will animate it. There is a misty mountain outside the window and a fantastical range of peanut butter in the cupboard waiting to be tasted.

Fairytales punish ungratefulness with curses and toads; they are a reminder to always be aware of the opportunities I am privileged to have. But while I sat stirring my in-flight potion, my suitcase remained unopened. Instead, I watched the screen in front of me make a charmed map of the start of my own tale. It might be less battling ogres and more googling how on earth zebra crossings work in America, but it’s mine to tell. I’m not looking for a fairytale ending; I’m looking for a fairytale beginning.

Emily Ingle mostly makes pictures for other people's words but sometimes she writes things of her own. You can find her on her website, or pretending she lives in a fairytale.

For more tales of everyday magic, pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 33


More curious things: Magic

Our latest issue is dedicated to all things magic and you can see some of the products that inspired us on pages 14 and 15. There are always many more treats we find than we can fit into our pages, so here we're sharing five more favourites (and you can check out some more enchanting pieces here). 

We've fallen in love with the gorgeous compositions of Kansas-based Grace Chin. She describes her work as a search for "pithy, compelling statements that are meant to occupy primarily domestic spaces and serve as daily reminders".  We'd happily look at this every day (and - for more inspiration - check out our feature on digital covens in the issue). 

Witch Bows to No Man wreath, $75, Grace D. Chin

Its glass dome may make it look a bit like a crystal ball but in fact this is a table lamp, ideally sized for a nightstand or a desk. If it won’t help you see into the future, as least it’ll help you see into those dark corners of your room.

Round cloche table lamp, £140, Urban Outfitters

It's hard to resist the old-fashioned charm of this fortune dispenser, promising 100 tickets of "advice, mysterious quips and daily fortunes". Don't bamboozle yourself by pulling out five at a time. 

Fortune Dispenser, £6.95, Rockett St George  

We're huge fans of the work of the Strange Women Society (you can see another of their designs within the magazine, and they designed our special subscriber print). No surprises then that we'll be wearing these enamel pins with pride.  

Strange Women Society Initiation Pin, $10, Strange Women Society 

This Tisty Tosty bath bomb has a wonderful story to contemplate while you soak - it's based on a medieval love potion. Containing real rosebuds, it's scented with floral orris root powder, rose, and lemon. Geranium, jasmine and rose help create a spellbinding fragrance, while rose oil also gets to work soothing broken hearts - it’s used by aromatherapists to lift the spirits.

Tasty Tosty bath bomb, £3.50, Lush


Order a copy of the Magic-inspired Oh Comely issue 33.

More curious things: Magic

In issue 33 - out on 13 October - we pick out a selection of magic-inspired products, suitable for dressing your home and mortal form. We always find more treats than we can include in the magazine, so - abracadabra! - we've pulled a few extras out of our hats...

Who, with more than a passing interest in magic, could resist a book whose topics include: "Alchemy, Astrology, Chaos Magic, Love Magic, Necromancy, Phantasmagoria, Runes, Shamanism, Talismans, Tarot, Voodoo and Wicca"? Certainly not us. Over 400 pages and with plentiful illustrations, this authoritative book explores all of the above and even more, tracing them from Palaeolithic cages to the digital age. 

The Occult, Witchcraft & Magic: An Illustrated History by Christopher Dell, £24.95, Thames & Hudson 

And should you need something to keep your place in your new book, we think we've found the ideal thing. This bookmark, designed by Barcelona-based Octaveo, is inspired by a nazar, an eye-shaped amulet of Turkish Ottoman origin that’s believed to protect against the evil eye. Made from finely cut metal, with a black finish, you’ll never need to look for the right page again.

Nazar bookmark by Octaevo, £10, Unique & Unity

On the list of things you perhaps don't want to bump into on a dark night - a Belionota Prasina (or Jewel Beetle). That doesn't stop us marvelling at it in this beautiful shot by Goran Liljeberg. There's a whole host of prints to pick from including all kinds of bugs and beasts.

Goran Liljeberg's insect prints, £33, Natural History Direct

Empty Casket specialises in "witchy jewellery, crystals and treasures", meaning that they gave us plentiful inspiration for this Magic-themed issue. We don't really need another tote bag, but we really, really want to be part of their coven. 

Coven tote bag, £6, Empty Casket

We've also been eyeing up this laser cut perspex brooch by Jennifer Loiselle, with the glitter making it extra bewitching (if only we could get our eyeliner to look this good!). The brooch is sold by the British Library, meaning that every purchase helps a wonderful institution. 

Brooch eye blue, £28, British Library  


Ancient alchemists may have been concerned with turning base metals into gold but we'd be pretty pleased simply with keeping our skin soothed and happy over the winter. Hence this kit that harnesses the power of botanicals to leave facial skin, lips and hands feeling hydrated, soft and protected. Magic indeed! 

Grown Alchemist Amenity Kit Gift Set, £19, John Lewis


Order a copy of Oh Comely issue 33 to see more Magic-inspired picks. 

Sunday Reading: Chasing Rainbows

words : Helen Duncan photo : Tom Eagar

It had rained in the night, but the sky showed signs of clearing. Newly arrived on the Isle of Skye we were ready for adventure and set off along the road to Broadford to explore. Colours danced alongside us on the moor above the Black Lochs. And as we drove Beinn NaCaillich began to shrug off the shawl of grey fog she had wrapped around herself in the night for protection from the mizzle.

The colours – a mere smudge of watery pink turning to orange merging into green and then blue – danced on, wavering above the tawny moor. It became a day of chasing rainbows.

Some appeared in much the same way: broad blocks of colour that painted the mountainside in damp hues, barely there. Others took shape as graceful arches, rising high into the sky, as if to defy the very dampness that had helped to create them.

We drove on, transfixed by the alchemy of light and water. Elements transformed into arcs of colour. Magic happening before us, and all around us, in the air.

We counted seven in all as we traversed an enchanted landscape of druid groves and marshes, moorland and reed beds – at times climbing high on winding mountain roads, at times skirting the sea edge where the glowing amber, deep carnelian, and yellow ochre of the seaweed lay bright against a black shoreline.

The rainbows appeared and disappeared, illuminating Viking past and warrior heritage; places steeped in myth and historical fact in equal measure. And all the while the vibrant colours of autumn, of scarlet rowan berries, russet bracken, and turning leaves, paraded against changing skies that moved from charcoal, slate, and dove, to reveal glimpses of the clearest blue.

At Elgol where empty lobster pots were piled high against the sea wall, we breathed in the view of the Cuillin, its distinctive ridges and peaks still shrouded in cloud.

Weather improving, we took the road back and made our way over to Ord. Stunted birch, warped ash, and gnarled oak cast shadows that belied their stature, stretching out across the green grass as the road made its way down to the sea.

There, the warm light of the late afternoon picked out mussel shells on the beach and fronds of green-grey lichen on the rocks. And as it shifted, past and present merged and parted, like the tide gently lapping at the shore.

Standing alone on the ground-down fragments of sea-life as the sun claimed at last what was left of the day, it felt possible to understand why our ancestors believed the veil between our world and the realm of spirits is at its most diaphanous at this time of year.

I wondered how many others have stood looking out across the water in that very same spot. The retreating waves, like lives that have been lived, returned to the ocean, as more came forth to make their imprint on the sand.

That night, as we stood gazing into the ever-expanding depths of a sky unspoilt by light pollution, we remembered how insignificant we are, how transient our lives. And then – right there! A shooting star struck across the blackness. It was so close.

So close.

To this day I am sure I heard it fizz.


Helen spent the last 12 years as a grantseeker for Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum: her words brought in over £14 million for projects including a major redevelopment. As a writer, she covers the natural world, folkore and fairytale, and special places. She is currently investigating the Welsh concept “Hiraeth” - a longing for one’s homeland.

Discover more stories of everyday magic in issue 33 of Oh Comely, on sale 13 October. 

Sunday Reading: Min and Twinkle

words: Alys Key image: Liz Seabrook

It has been more than ten years since I last heard from the fairies.

I’m not sure whether I stopped writing to them, or whether they stopped responding. Things fall behind during childhood and the next thing you know they’re shut up in the attic, difficult to find and covered with dust. Somewhere in the eaves of our house there is a box which holds all of my letters from the fairies, but it’s been years since I last looked through them.

I was maybe seven or eight the first time I left a carefully-sealed note for them.

Dear Fairies, do any of you live in this garden? Please write to me if you do. I would like a fairy pen pal.

Anticipating their response was the innocent version of waiting for a text from a potential lover. Even after their first letter arrived, introducing themselves as two sisters called Min and Twinkle, my excitement was unabated, driven by the childish energy that makes little girls skip all the way home from school. Every day I went outside to see if my last note had gone, or if theirs had arrived. Sometimes I had to rescue our letters from the rain, and every now and then I would find a slug had taken a bite out of one. The garden became a wild enchanted habitat to me; the plants and insects were all part of Min and Twinkle’s world.

The letters themselves were so beautiful that I felt a compulsion to protect them, as though the paper itself was a living thing. They were written in small, elegant script on bright pink or purple paper, always smudged with fairy dust. I tried to make my responses look the same, using bright gel pens to do my best handwriting and fastening the letters inside little pink envelopes from Paperchase.

Over time, the part of the garden which served as our mailing point became known as ‘Fairy Corner’. We still call it that now, even though the fairy shelter my daddy made from spare wood has long disintegrated, and the Magnolia tree – planted so they could enjoy sitting in the soft flowers – is overshadowed by shrubbery.

I was the first of my friends to have fairy pen pals, but I was not the last. The back gardens of Winchester were, it seems, practically infested with them. The fact that it was particularly my friends making contact with magical beings was in no way strange to me. Girls who talked to fairies had a little bit more stardust in them than everyone else, I reasoned, and we would naturally all band together.

But it was through this community of fairy enthusiasts that I first sensed something amiss. The other letters I saw looked different to mine. Some had the same crisp whiteness as the printing paper we used at school. Once, a friend’s fairies gave her a picture of a woman bending down to look at a crowd of glowing lights dancing around her feet. “Here is a picture of us at one of our fairy dances!” they wrote. When I saw it, I recognised the image as a well-known painting; it was on the front a notebook I had been given the previous Christmas. I acknowledged, silently, that this letter was the work of my friend’s parents, and from that point the subsequent realisations followed.

Even now, at the age of 21, I have still never discussed the truth about the fairy letters with my parents. I know where they came from. But there is a difference, I think, between what we know and what we believe, and I can still believe in Min and Twinkle. At least, it is hard not to feel that something special belongs to that portion of the garden. When you visit a site for a religion you no longer subscribe to, there’s that scent of belief in the air, and the silent urge to pray. Magic works the same way.


Alys Key is a student and writer on a quest to spend her life writing and listening to Radio 4. Take a look at her website to read more of her work. 


Find more stories about letters in Oh Comely issue 32