You Had Me at Halloumi by Ginger Jones
An unusual novel set in Cyprus, this is a book that encompases cooking, humour, some trauma and romance in an idyllic place. Freya Butterly is a woman who is struggling with life. Her job is cooking, but she is going nowhere. Her boyfriend barely notices her, and she has no other family. She does have a great love – cooking, and often finds herself mesmerised by the joy of creating food, tasting and blending to ensure perfection. Specialising in the distinctive food of the Mediterranean, she admires a hero of the type of food which typifies the Greek islands, and is desperately keen to enter a cookery competition which takes place in Cyprus. It is not easy to win a place, and it means leaving everything, but this could be her one chance to make her name as the winner of the converted Golden Spoon award.
This is a lively and honest book which shows that surviving the competition is not easy, especially when emotions on the part of several people get in the way. It has moments of real humour and powerful emotion which are well expressed. The author obviously has a great deal of knowledge of the food of which she writes so convincingly, and a real feeling for the place which is vividly described. There is apparently a lot of research behind this novel, a great understanding of how it feels to cook this particular cuisine, and some of the problems of competition. Not that the research is allowed to interrupt Freya’s story, as she discovers the realities of cooking at this level. The style is flowing and natural, focused on Freya’s experiences and thoughts, and the reader makes the discoveries alongside her. The honesty of this book is so enjoyable, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.
As the book opens, Freya is shown suffering in the artificial and unnatural heat of a restaurant kitchen, where not all is as it seems. Some frozen food is thrown into the mix, and the kitchen is a tinderbox of tensions. Freya is dedicated to the art of cooking, but this is a grim place to work in the urban realities of a Midlands city. She appears to have suffered an injury to her hand at some point, and there are hints of a difficult relationship with her mother. Spending her spare time creating an innovative cheesecake, she is proud of her work. Her boyfriend Charlie is unimpressed, indeed barely notices her when she arrives home as he is engrossed in watching sport. After a romantic disaster, they visit the restaurant where she has proudly delivered her best work, only to discover that her glory has been stolen. She decides to go alone to Cyprus and follow her dream, though when she encounters the other seven competitors she realises that winning the competition will not be straightforward, let alone the Golden Spoon. She soon becomes distracted by Xanthos, one of two brothers running the first part of the competition, but he and Dimitri have an interesting reputation in the area. As the competition proceeds, it seems that not everyone is playing quite fairly, and that making mouth watering dishes well may not be enough. When combined with some difficult memories Freya has a lot to cope with, especially when very little seems to go to plan.
This is an engaging book which involves the reader in Freya’s ups and downs in a very vivid way. The many characters in this book are well drawn, especially the competitors who each have very distinctive personalities. The food is so well described that it is almost possible to visualise it, and the setting is a warm, colourful complete picture of a small community, perfect beaches and warm sea. This is a very enjoyable book with plenty of emotion and yet a light feel with a strong message.