At the end of April we (DM, husband, daughter) took a short holiday on the Isle of Mull in the Hebrides. As this trip would involve a flight, a car rental, and a ferry ride, I felt we were going to a place so remote that there couldn’t possibly be any Canadians there, never mind writers. Just in case, before we left, I did some online research. Surprise – there is a Canadian writer holed up there. Ok, not exactly holed up: Carla Lamont (née Jetko) is one busy woman. She’s a poet and a chef at The Ninth Wave, the restaurant she owns with her fisherman husband John in Fionnphort. The sad surprise was that the restaurant was still closed for the season, opening for May 1, so we didn’t get to eat there.
How did a Canadian from the prairies end up here, in this renovated farm building on this wet windy island? Her memoir makes quite clear why she stayed, but not why she came in the first place, so that was the first question I asked, sitting cozily inside her place, out of the sideways rain, with her hand-made chocolate on my tongue and sipping French-press coffee. No, she has no family from Scotland. On the contrary, half of her mother’s family are originally from Normandy. She started cooking at the age of 14 at Noo’s Pizza in Victoria, having grown up in Regina. But she didn’t much like Victoria, where chefs are a dime a dozen and thus cooking is not considered a good job. “I just felt I never belonged there.”
“Then I heard from a friend of a friend of this job at the Argyll Hotel on Iona. I thought, I’m always complaining that nothing good ever happens to me so you’d better do something if something comes along. So I did. I dropped everything, sold everything I had. Ended up in Oban with fifteen pounds to my name. And that was it really. I loved Iona, I loved the small community of people — people say “hi” here like on the prairies. It felt like home when I came here. A month after I got here I decided to stay.”
Lamont’s first book of poetry, The Body Banquet (under the name Jetko) is a sensual blend of the body and food, of mold and trees, of natural spirits and human seers, of mangoes and comets. Lamont on her book of poetry: “It’s about food, the obsession of food, and body image, it’s a lot of food poetry. When I first got here there was a little group that we started over at the Argyll Hotel of poets, we did little shows of travelling poetry and it just went from there. I didn’t write poetry before I moved here. This place got the creativity going on every aspect of my life.”
“Use tea leaves leftover from fortune telling as a mulch for poems.”
–Carla Jetko, “Advice to Virgins,” The Body Banquet (4).
Her second book is a food memoir, describing her journey from Victoria B.C. to the opening of their restaurant: The Ninth Wave: Love and Food on the Isle of Mull. She describes the landscape, the farmhouse before its renovation, and the process of opening their own place with a richness of detail that makes me certain that the food she prepares gets the same attention. Such as: “He lived in the bothy, a squat byre-like farm building with gaping barn doors at either end and a barely habitable section in the middle. It was solid stone, with three-foot thick Caledonian granite walls and a rusted roof of tin that was full of holes.” (16) But it was hard work, and both of them took on extra jobs to raise the funds for the renovation and for the restaurant equipment and furnishings. Of that time, she said, “I’m a tough Canadian. Canadians can do anything, can’t they?”
The landscape creeps into the recipes themselves, which include not only Jonny’s catch of the day but also meadowsweet, whin or gorse blossoms, and zucchini blossoms from their garden stuffed with langoustine. She prepares her own seaweed seasoning (from four kinds of seaweed) and uses some in such dishes as Mull Fish Chowder, Ulva Oysters and even in her signature malt bread.
I asked her how she had time to write while working as a chef.
“I was working double shifts working in the kitchen on Iona but there’s nothing to do there, there’s no movie theatres. Your spare time can be spent in creative pursuits or down at the pub. In winter lots of socializing happens. In summer you see people walking by but you never get to stop and chat or anything.”
On cooking from six in the morning to midnight from May to the end of October, Lamont said: “I wouldn’t trade it for another lifestyle, that’s for sure.”
This is the third writer I’ve interviewed who is interested in local produce and Slow Food. And this week is Slow Food week here in the UK. Anyone who has cooked a lot knows that creativity is involved in putting a good meal on the table, in addition to the labour. Asked about the connection between cooking and writing, Lamont replied: “There’s a lot of food in the poetry. Presentation is one of my favourite things. It’s a bit like art on a plate. The placement of words, the placement of colours. I’m very visual. I usually hear the poem in my head accompanied by pictures, or I get an image first and then I pick the words. I call it the same process. I visualize a dish and I work out all the different elements. It probably uses the same part of my brain.”
The Body Banquet Poems (self-published through AuthorHouse 2006), ISBN: 1-4259-2660-6, 63 pages.
AuthorHouseUK order page.
The Ninth Wave: Love and Food on the Isle of Mull (Edinburgh: Birlinn Books 2014), ISBN: 978-1-78027-244-3, 192 pages.
Birlinn Books order page.
- Slow Food week
- Carla Jetko poetry site
- Isle of Mull Lonely Planet
- Argyll Hotel Iona
- Interesting blog on Isle of Mull