Author interviews can churn up some sticky moments. However, I’m not quite prepared for the dark matter presented by Tilly Culme-Seymour. “This is Geitost. You say yay-tost,” she tells me handing me a slice of rye bread layered with a thick deep-caramel coloured substance. “It’s brown goat’s cheese. Twice boiled.” This is Norwegian cuisine at its most gum-gluing and glorious.
Culme-Seymour’s memoir, Island Summers, is punctuated with plenty of Scandinavian specialities as it follows three generations’ emotional attachment to Småhølmene, a tiny island off the low belly of Norway that her grandmother, Olga Agatha Laura Olsen, known as Mor-mor, bought in 1947 in exchange, family legend has it, for a mink coat. The book is a lovely blend of biography, topography and gastronomy.
As she sits munching in the sunny oasis of a Notting Hill roof garden, Culme-Seymour has an easy smile and a disarming, confident manner that could best be described as a steely softness. It’s a balance that, reading her book, appears to be drawn both from Mor-mor, the wildcard Småhølmene-settler, and Culme-Seymour’s mother, the delightful nesting-natured Caroline. A triptych emerges of three strong women, separated by their times but unified by an archipelago of rocks in the Skagerrak, the gulf separating Norway and Denmark.
“The protagonist is the island and my hope was to resurrect an island Mor-mor,” says Culme-Seymour. “That being my only existing connection with her, and it being a place I know so well, made the task a lot easier. I also think she was a character who stayed alive in peoples’ minds.” She certainly does. Mor-mor died in 1985, when her granddaughter was four, yet a potent spirit remains. One of the photographs in the plate section features a naked Mor-mor, from behind, prancing over an island boulder. When the local harbour master saw the picture he announced: “That’s the only one that’s truly, truly your grandmother.”
Olga Olsen leaps from the pages: a raven-haired beauty with a willful energy who built a cabin, a boat house and an outside loo on Småhølmene, all painted a deep red. This may have been her wild sanctuary but, as Culme-Seymour discovered, Mor-mor’s character was constant. “Goodness, she seems to have acted that way in Oslo, where she was constantly stripping off and jumping in and shredding her legs on brambles and striding along with her poodle. And in London too.”
In fact, a rich vein of rebellion runs through the author’s family. Her English grandmother was the notoriously fickle socialite, Angela Culme-Seymour (four husbands, including a Churchill and a count): “She ran off with her cousin’s husband. She was a bolter and supposedly derived from the original bolter, Trix Ruthven, Nancy Mitford’s bolter.”
There’s no capricious behaviour today: Culme-Seymour and her fiancé Joe, the head chef at the River Café, are currently preparing for an August wedding.
Were there big differences in how each generation related to Småhølmene? “Very few,” says Culme- Seymour. “Every time I go to the island I’m struck by a changelessness about it that makes me feel that every custodian, every inhabitant, has behaved on it in similar ways. It breeds a very healthy removal of rules.”
However, after Mor-mor’s exhibitionism, her daughter took a more serene position. “She’s very interior, my mother, and lives for the cosy bits of Småhølmene.” And her? Well as she details a trip with college friends a split personality seems to land on their stormy skerry. “At university I was very precise, very hardworking, a real swot really,” she laughs. “And suddenly we were all in Norway together and it was a summer of endless naked Scrabble. We’d go fishing and they’d see me in my hammering-a-mackerel-over-the-head mode.”
Initially, she was set for an academic career at Trinity College, Dublin. “I just got funding for the whole PhD and I bailed. So I came to London and did a lot of food writing.” Island Summers was borne out of a very different book, one set for Bloomsbury’s cookery list. “There’d be island recipes full of sorrel and not enough wild raspberries and dandelions you have to boil to within an inch of their life to make them nice,” she explains. “As I wrote it, what I found was that I hadn’t written about food for 10 pages.”
She’s grateful to have had the chance to write “a more challenging book” in which she navigates difficult family currents. In it she elegantly approaches her mother’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease and her parents’ break up. “Lots of silence,” she says of the latter. “Somehow more alarming.” Coastal fare became a light refrain, lifting a book contrasting joyous summer sojourns with the privations of a long winter stay. “The food started to function in a different way in the narrative. In the tough bits, that I didn’t feel like writing, I would find myself enjoying getting back to the food as it would be the wind in the sail,” she says, adding, “I’ve always had a very greedy memory.” She has created a lip-smacking lexicon of dishes inviting elongated vowels and dead-headed consonants (krumkaker, nougatfromasj) and a cardiac-arrest threatening approach to ingredients. When I tell her how much I enjoyed the sensual foodie prose, she rocks up on her bench and beams. “Did it make you hungry?” she asks and then pulls a slab of melkesjokolade from her bag. “Look at this bar of chocolate. That, for a Norwegian, is daily fodder. It’s like all of their practical maxims, like ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’. It all extends to their attitude to food and eating. It’s very much to do with sustaining and fortifying.” Not a lot unlike the binding agent of meal times on Småhølmene.
Island Summers, By Tilly Culme-Seymour
“Everyday breakfasts, so long as it was not too wet, only ever took place outside, on what Mor-mor was moved to name Kongeveien, or King’s Road, after she had found a discarded street sign in the outskirts of Oslo and taken it home with her. Now it was nailed by the sauna, announcing a flight of stone steps: the breakfast steps.”