Tag Archives: Middle East

Reading, watching, eating

 

Cookery has been a growth area in publishing for many years. As soon as an amateur cook does well on one of the numerous television competitions or through a website, or as soon as a professional’s restaurant becomes successful, a personal cookery book is rarely far behind.

I admit to being part of that inflating audience. While I have read many fewer books in the past 20 years than in the previous 20, one subject which I have definitely read about more often is food and drink and cooking.

 

Rural France – Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny, photographed in 2005.

 

Urban France – Paris, probably photographed from the Eiffel Tower, in 1995.

 

In the 1970s, the highest status cooking in the UK was influenced by France, although the most commonly eaten food was probably Italian, or even Asian. Around that time my father did a good deal of the weekend cooking in our house, and consulted in particular two books, The Constance Spry Cookery Book and French Provincial Cookery by the more famous Elizabeth David.

My own first cookery book in the mid-1980s was a Delia Smith. One is Fun was on TV and much publicised but I remember it wasn’t that title, so it must have been one of the volumes of Delia Smith’s Cookery Course. It was a valuable source of particular recipes although soon enough I did gain enough basic knowledge not to have to refer to it regularly. I do remember her almost coy description of mackerel which seemed to betray the period in which she had grown up: “it has a strong taste which men like”.

Another TV programme which provided cooking ideas around that time was the first Master Chef – lower budget, less cool than the current version, with its Sunday tea-time scheduling and including some restaurant chefs as judges.

We were entering the era of the Celebrity Chef. Expert and/or professional cooks had been on TV for a while but this was the time when the term was coined and they were now more likely to be male. An episode of the Gary Rhodes series Rhodes Around Britain encouraged my wife and me to visit the wonderful area of St Ives.

 

St Ives, Cornwall, in 1994.

 

Soon after came the very first Jamie Oliver series The Naked Chef, with its pretend bijou city centre apartment, and for a long time after I copied a recipe of his for baked salmon wrapped in parma ham.

My biggest influence over the past twenty years has probably been Nigel Slater through his regular columns in The Observer newspaper. His recipe for a spicy aubergine stew, first suggested as an informal Christmas Eve dish for a large group, is perhaps the single recipe which I have used, adapted and shared the most often.

 

A few Nigel Slater recipes from over the years.

 

(Tangentially, I do miss the passing of the classic design of The Observer newspaper, once so weighty and authoritative, as it has moved significantly in the tabloid direction over many years, with many more and bigger photos and more light-weight stories in the front half of the paper. Its coverage of food and drink has definitely been one part of that “tabloid-isation”, with the Observer Food Monthly magazine and other frequent recipes supplements adding to the regular pages. But a modest periodic coverage of food and drink with accompanying photographs is hard to dislike).

As if there were not enough recipes already in books and newspapers and magazines along came the internet, full of more ideas and pictures from professionals and amateurs. Food and recipes are actually what directly led to the creation of Leaf Collecting: one particular piece of cooking research drew my attention to how many weblogs documented other areas of people’s domestic life and interests alongside the recipes and prompted me to think that I might do no worse!

Middle East food and drink has definitely become my most interesting experiment in recent years. Arto der Haroutunian’s book Middle Eastern Cookery (London: Grub Street 2010) is as informative on the history and culture of the region as on individual dishes.

Belatedly I came across the name of Claudia Roden, the Egyptian writer who was one of the first to introduce the British audience to Middle Eastern food in the 1960s. A recent article by Bee Wilson article opened with Roden’s discussion about how something she ate as a child in Cairo appeared in Australia later as “dukkah”  – which was clearly the same snack I was offered  myself at Ayers Rock last year, with its chunky bread, dry spice mix, olive oil and sparkling wine. That combination of taste and place was something I would count as one my own most memorable food experiences in recent years.

 

Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia, at dusk.

 

 

 

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Culinary/cultural adventures

 

To our grandparents,  eating and drinking would not have been judged as cultural activities in the same sense as was reading books or listening to music, but certainly they are to many of their descendants. A visit to continental Europe or beyond will for most people involve sampling the local cuisine just as much as more familiar historic buildings or museums. Any arts establishment  worth its salt in the UK will have a café or restaurant which is worth at least a look after an exhibition or performance.  Some places even make a particular effort to link the two together. For example, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin has an oriental-themed café to complement its collection of Far East and Middle East arts and artefacts.

When I first discovered the joys of eating in restaurants more than 30 years ago, French and Italian cuisines were definitely the most prominent, and that, then, was fine by me.  Occasionally, depending on your area, Spanish, Eastern European and vegetarian restaurants could be found.

 

4cats

The Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats), a restaurant in Barcelona which boasts artistic history as well as present-day culinary excellence.

 

 

Most recently, for me, Middle Eastern food has been the great discovery.  Perhaps because it uses so many of the same ingredients as other countries do, yet the end result looks and tastes so totally different.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was in the aforementioned Dublin that my wife and I first discovered Middle Eastern cuisine, on a visit there in 1993. Happily, The Cedar Tree, owned by a Lebanese family, is still thriving. There we were also introduced to Lebanese wine, which is more widely available now than then, and was even the subject of a Radio 4 documentary by Jeremy Bowen.

My eagerness to visit Palestine had originated in childhood from my Christianity and increased through my later interest  in the region’s 20th century politics, but, by the time I was able to visit in 2012, another extra attraction was certainly the sampling of its food and drink.

Middle Eastern cooking is a significant feature in the restaurants and cafés of many UK arts and performance venues. Falafel, chickpeas, olives, hummus and pitta bread are regularly seen on their menus.  Although unfortunately not usually the fish couscous dish which is central to the narrative of La Graine et le Mulet, alternatively titled Couscous. Abdellatif Kechiche’s film also contains a great family drama and a powerful scene of dancing.

 

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