The Piglet

Can Hartwood’s Tropical Food Be Cooked in Wintry Britain?

February 29, 2016

To accompany our very competitive, NCAA-style tournament of cookbooks, we asked you—our readers!—to get in on the fun and test and review 15 cookbooks dubbed Piglet Community Picks. Read on for some of our community's reactions to Hartwood by Eric Werner and Mya Henry—and keep up with all the reviews here.

If I'd borrowed Hartwood from the library, I would have appreciated its style, pictures, and production. Then I'd have said “not my lifestyle” and taken the book back. But because I offered to review the book, and bought it, this wasn’t what happened.

A designer friend called the book a poem: No dust jacket, heavy paper, full of pictures of food and landscapes, all the details present a simplified and sustainable lifestyle. Hartwood doesn't have a fixed menu and instead depends on the produce they get that particular day. The restaurant uses minimal electricity, ice that’s delivered daily for refrigeration, and wood fires, so hardly anything is boiled or poached or stewed—just roasted or grilled. These limitations focus the cuisine. Creativity within these limits is outstanding.

The kitchen at Hartwood Photo by Gentl & Hyers, Gentl & Hyers

While the recipes are adapted for a hot, humid, sunny climate and the produce used is intensely specific to the Yucatan, I am in Sheffield, England, living in dark, dank, chilly winter. Can these recipes, carefully interpreted, produce something of the tropical effect?

Indeed, I learned, they can. The options of recipes I could make were limited: lentil and papaya salad with lime and honey vinaigrette, roast beets with avocado crema, rib-eye with pepita-lime butter. While the ingredients were not the same as what they’d get at Hartwood—they were less fresh—I cooked these three dishes and they were thorough successes. With a little effort of the imagination, and a glass or two of wine, I could imagine myself somewhere warm and sunny, feeling happy and relaxed as if on holiday.

There are many more that I now want to cook: Mayan shrimp, chicken in recado rojo, costillas, some of the many forms of ceviche, lots of cocktails, recipes using watermelon and sweet potatoes. In the summer, when I have grown my own tomatillos, I'll use them in some of these recipes.

But this confidence in the recipes is founded on my ability to consider the ingredients and find working substitutes. For example, the lentil-papaya salad should have a little raw summer squash in it. Rather than simply skipping that component, I chunked a small eggplant and microwaved it for a minute—I think it had the right properties and effect.

I make a lot of recipes from many books in my daily life, but mostly the cooking process is pretty automatic—there isn't much to figure out. But with Hartwood, I actually have to think hard about what I'm doing, what ingredients I'm using, and how I'm cooking, and this has been one of the most pleasurable aspects of using the book.

Cactus on the grill at Hartwood Photo by Gentl & Hyers

One possible way the inspiration can go is to look at one's local raw materials in season and work out how best to deal with them. I certainly intend to concentrate on local rhubarb in the next few weeks; on damsons, greengages, bullace plums in autumn; on foraged fungi and greens in season.

But I also want to experiment with whole different suites of produce that are classic of the Yucatan, which is where Hartwood excels: It gives a picture of a way of life and how the food and restaurant both fit into and derive from the landscape. The whole system breathes integrity. So even if you never cook from the book, there is a lot to take in.

That said, this isn't a book I'd recommend to a teenager starting out to cook for themselves—unless they live somewhere hot, humid, and tropical. Maybe Queensland? Florida? For mature cooks, though, I think there a lot of pleasure and learning this book can bring you.

What Other Testers Had to Say:

"As it’s written that ‘[t]he DNA of the restaurant is in this recipe,’ the Costillas on page 184 seemed like something to try. The recipe is for slow roasted pork ribs—with no scavenger hunt for ingredients necessary—that was easy enough to set up (a base of celery, carrots, and pineapple with the ribs placed on top). Next, a bottle of medium-dark beer, honey, and water is added, then the ribs are covered and slow cooked for seven hours. You next reduce the pan sauces, skim the fat, and make a nice glaze.

"Okay, I flunked this part. I checked the pan at hour five (fine!), at hour six (fine!), and at hour seven (complete and total disaster!). The ribs sat on a bed of briquettes, which used to be the celery, carrots, and pineapple. All I can say is that I have exceedingly kind friends who kept insisting ‘the ribs are really good, anyway! And a glaze is really overrated!’ Good friends are the best.”


Photo by Gentl & Hyers
Photo by Gentl & Hyers

“There’s an easy-to-miss footnote on page 193 that sums up the recipes: ‘The fact is, there are easier ways to feed yourself and your friends. That’s true of many of the recipes in this book. You spend hours cooking… because it connects you to what you love.’

I can’t argue with that; these are far from quick meals to prepare. But they are so worth it. Not only that, but the book gently encourages you to slow down and enjoy the process of cooking and eating. The laidback spirit of Tulum is evident in the notes, the recipes, and the photos—it’s contagious. These aren’t technical recipes to fuss over with tweezers and fancy equipment. In fact, the rustic sensibility and unpredictable nature of the conditions at Hartwood make for wonderfully adaptable food.

Kenan Crawford Hill


The Piglet—inspired by The Morning News' Tournament of Books—is where the 16 most notable cookbooks of the year face off in a NCAA-style bracketed tournament. Watch the action and weigh in on the results!


See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Linda Evans

Written by: Linda Evans