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Journal

Getting to know Anja Dunk

Anja Dunk is a polymath – a Renaissance woman. She is a writer, a cook, an artist, a photographer. She has written books on preserving and on German food, her fluid pen and ink drawings of fruit and vegetables and her bold linocuts are sought after, her pop up restaurant events sell out. If you ask her to describe what she does however, she answers ‘I am a Mother’. It somehow feels radical. It doesn’t, however, feel surprising. The books she has written, the art she creates, the cooking that she does for events, the way that she talks about life - all are rooted in the family home, in instinct, in memory and sentiment, in the importance of gathering around a table. In the simple things that matter. She writes in the introduction to Strudel, Noodles & Dumplings:

“There is a wonderful German word, gemütlich, which when translated into English loosely means ‘cosy’, although in actual fact it means much more but is hard to put into words - to me it really means feeling at home. So wherever we are in the world, I try to make it gemütlich”

I first met Anja in the carpark of The Good Life Experience in Wales last September – shuttling back and forward from our tents, packing up bedding and camping equipment, clothes and provisions. We were both on a high after a few days of cooking and eating and being amongst interesting people. We met again in January this year for coffee and delicious cakes at Honey and Co in London. Anja grew up mainly in Wales, her Dad is Welsh, her Mum is German and the family lived a nomadic kind of life. They lived for periods aboard in Cameroon, Indonesia and Malaysia, where her dad worked on agricultural projects, holidays were spent with family in Germany and they always returned to Wales in between. Home and continuity meant the family unit, the kitchen table, her Mum’s cooking, her grandmother’s bottled fruit and preserves. After studying Mandarin, working in art galleries and for a fashion company, Anja fell into making food for people – working at a delicatessen restaurant in Wales, then cooking for weddings at Fforest in West Wales – scaling up her family food style to large events.

Children followed – at one point three children under three – along with books, more events and periods living in the Netherlands and America. Food, cooking, the kitchen table remained the moveable heart of her life. In 2018 she published her book on modern German Cookery, Strudel, Noodles and Dumplings – a book which firmly points out that German cookery is about a lot more than bratwurst and sauerkraut. It is a recipe book rooted in seasonality, full of the flavours of caraway and dill, with a comforting and welcoming atmosphere. The recipes are mainly frugal, simple and adaptable. Perhaps because, although there are many recipes containing meat in the book, Anja and her family eat a vegetarian diet at home there is that feeling that things can be swapped about, added to, ingredients can be left out if not available – that food is not something that has to be a certain way.

“The best way to approach any kind of cooking – whether it is for family or for 200 people – is to be relaxed about it all.”

Strudel, Noodles and Dumplings was written over the course of a year. The recipes are ones cooked for family – the photographs are those taken by Anja (often balanced on a ladder over the table) of the meals that were actually eaten. They are wonderful photos but they are not perfectly styled, they do not have that clinical feel of the studio shot, little hands hover with forks, the food is there to be eaten.

And somehow, in a world where food is so often shown as perfect, glossed up and complicated, this homeliness feels radical. Running alongside all of this is Anja’s art – linocuts and pen and ink drawings of ingredients. She sees art, especially drawing, as an important part of everyday life – in exactly the same way as cooking and eating and gathering around a table.

The process of creating, the making of marks on paper, the creativity, the concentration and flow are as important as what she ends up with. Drawing becomes part of the rhythm of daily life. Anja doesn’t take commissions for her paintings, as she finds they make her tense up and freeze, but sells in various galleries and online.

We talked a lot over our coffees about access to food and art – about how communities could gather together more over nutritious, affordable, seasonal food; about how drawing could be integrated more into schools and the NHS; about how the simple things in life are often the most important to people’s wellbeing. As she left to meet a friend and his new

baby who were waiting outside, she said “I want to use the next half of my life doing what I want to do.” It felt radical.

You can find out more about Anja and her current projects on Instagram @cocoinmykitchen where she shares photos of her daily life, well stocked pantry, delicious food and allotment.

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I am a bit of a womble.  My Studio is a layering of things that have been found, things that have been saved, things that have been given to me - I like to be surrounded by a bit of history. ⁠⠀
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I am known as an avid skip diver so people kindly keep me things.  This weekend I am off to pick up 13 sash windows rescued from a skip.⁠⠀
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This is my dye cupboard - the mordants and other powders, the piles of fabrics and yarns, my newly started record book and the glue to paste the swatches in.⁠⠀
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It has had a hard life - the back is patched with hinges as plates, there are many, many layers of paint and a door has gone missing along the way.  It is perfect.⁠⠀
Back when I grew flowers commercially the area that is now ‘the orchardy bit’ was rows and rows of spring bulbs.⁠ In the years where the deer didn’t eat the tulips they looked magnificent, stripe upon stripe of pure pigment. ⠀
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When I turned my back on growing for money, we simply took out the beds and levelled it, turning it back to grass.⁠⠀
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The tulips quickly gave up - never brilliantly perennial here anyway, they took the opportunity to fade out fast.⁠ Well if you don’t want us . . . ⠀
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The narcissi loved it though and every year appeared back in their serried rows through the grass. ⁠There was something disturbingly grave like about them.
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My planting  ever since has all been an attempt to disguise that - feathering the edges, making little islands, trying to make it all look haphazard.⁠⠀
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Gradually it is working - this is the edge of what would have been a bed of Narcissi geranium (best vase life, along with best scent) - now happily interspersed with a pheasants eye and a little lemon coloured one I have lost the name of.
Abundance.⁠⠀
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And the hedges beginning to vibrate with that gloriously specific spring green.
This week has been about experimenting.⁠⠀
Experimenting with all the ways to dye with daffodils, experimenting with the new e-course part of my website, experimenting with shooting and editing videos on my phone.⁠⠀
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My business hero is @sethgodin and his mantra is 'ship it' - a way of saying that the best way to learn is to make things and get them out in front of people before they are polished and 'perfect'.⁠⠀
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So I took his advice and combined all three experiments. Today's newsletters will have links to a free e-course all about dyeing wool with daffodils.⁠⠀
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I have been absolutely amazed by the colour you get from faded daffodil flowers (see the second photo). It is a bright, yet somehow soft, golden yellow which is now adding an amazing zing to my pile of plant dyed fabrics.⁠⠀
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I am prone to obsessions.  My brain hones in on topics and rabbit holes away, a constant background chatter to my life.⁠⠀
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It annoys the people I live with as my world shrinks to one topic. ⠀
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My camera roll shows me it is three years ago this week that I returned to natural dyeing with plants, concentrating on using only the plants growing within a couple of miles.⁠⠀
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Three years of experimenting with plant after plant, three years of googling and reading obscure articles and piling up samples. ⁠three years of conversation about mordants and modifiers. ⠀
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Three years is a short time in such a slow craft. A blink of an eye. ⁠⠀
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But already I can see a difference in my skill.⁠⠀
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This is a corner of the cupboard where I stash my fabrics and yarns building up enough for a project.  These have all been dyed this year - with barks and cones. ⁠⠀
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This week I am dyeing with bright deadheaded daffodils and the golden yellows will join these soft terracottas and pinks while I dream up something to make.
I grow very few white flowers. ⁠⠀
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White summer flowers tend to mark in the rain - white roses look like discarded tissues, white dahlias spot brown.  Even cosmos purity - which I do grow - goes droopy and grey in a way that the coloured versions don't.⁠⠀
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The petals of spring bulbs however seem rain resistant - so I can indulge my love of white flowers and enjoy them backlit by the morning sun on the Studio window shelf.
Bright and light and pretty.
I am spending a lot of time in the greenhouse at the moment - playing an endless game of jenga with my seed trays.⁠⠀
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Many of the seedlings are for the community gardens - being planted out gradually under fleece. We are biding time, taking the cautious route so that we minimise the risk of everything being wiped out by a very cold night.⁠⠀
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We still have a full month of frosts to go here - little ones of -2 or 3 are manageable, an extra covering of fleece, some bricks to act like a storage heater.  Most hardy seedlings will recover from getting their tips nipped a bit.⁠⠀
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Last year though we had a really cold night in mid May, when growth was going well and sappily. It blasted the blossom and killed many of my hardy veg too. Slightly too late to resow.⁠⠀
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Speak to the older generation of gardeners and they all sowed and planted out much later than is the fashion today.  They perhaps had a point.
I wrote in my Friday letter this week about the sudden lifting of the uncertainty and inertia that had been dogging me for a few months.⁠⠀
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It's always easier to write about these things once they are resolved - do you find that?  Once I am unstuck and lolloping along happily again, I can look at it all and not get sucked down.⁠⠀
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Of course all this talk of getting going again, of new plans and exciting things . . . . it all actually means hard work. ⁠⠀
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Head down, working through an actual written plan kind of hard work.  Not always my natural strength.⁠⠀
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So yesterday I rearranged the studio window shelves and cleared the working table, ready for an uninterrupted start today. ⁠⠀
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An attempt to keep momentum.
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About Snapdragon Life

At Snapdragon Life I gently guide you through bringing the changing seasons into your daily life, helping you slow down, so that you can experience increased well being, calm and creativity.

 

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