Tilly Culme-Seymour interview on her new memoir Island Summers

Her new account is a blend of biography, topography and gastronomy. Christian House has a taste

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.

Extract

Island Summers, By Tilly Culme-Seymour

Bloomsbury £16.99

“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.”

 

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible