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
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

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

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game