Wilder Shores

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I slipped into the world of Lesley Blanch’s swashbuckling cookbook, Round the World in Eighty Dishes (1955), before I’d even heard of it. It was the early ’60s, and I was on my first visit to Paris with friends from university. The city was sizzling in a July heatwave, and our host took us to an Arab quarter near St Michel, where we saw something extraordinary to our English eyes: people not just eating in the street but cooking in it.

The North Africans performing legerdemain on their charcoal braziers seemed more like a troupe of fire-eaters and jugglers than cooks. One was frying green peppers with what looked like small sausages in a large pan, and adding chopped tomatoes. With a flourish, he then tossed half a dozen eggs on to the bubbling surface. The result was green and gold and scarlet and swirling – a Fauvist painting in a pot ‒ and I thought it the cleverest and weirdest food I’d ever seen. I didn’t know its name, and never got to sample it, but I resolved to try and recreate it when we arrived at our holiday destination, a villa on the coast near Barcelona. I made it on our last day, and it worked, much to my astonishment, given I’d never cooked anything like it before. We dined lounging on pine fronds like decadent Berbers, imagining we could see mirages of the African coast from the veranda. A year later, in 1962, Penguin brought out a paperback edition of Round the World in Eighty Dishes and it became my very first cookbook.

It was racy, exotic, more than a bit hippy. And there, in the section on Africa, was the dish I’d seen cooked alfresco in Paris, named as chak-chouka. Lesley Blanch had eaten it in Tunisia, sitting on the red earth in a troglodytes’ cave and watching the women cook in blue robes hung with amulets. Her recipe, simple enough, was exactly what I’d witnessed, but it was preceded by a cameo of Tunisian café society infused by her enthralment with the romance of the Orient and her painterly eye for detail: the Arab tea-drinkers gathering at dusk with their tame songbirds, ‘often with a spray of jasmine held in their hand, or a rose tucked over one ear [and] beside them on the tables . . . small cages made of porcupine quills’. Heady stuff for a would-be bohemian 20-year-old.

Lesley Blanch wrote Eighty Dishes in New York. She was revelling in the success of her just-published tale of four women adventurers in the Middle East, The Wilder Shores of Love (see SF no. 3), and enjoying a brief spell of freedom from her moody husband, the novelist and diplomat Romain Gary, who was recuperating from one of his many spells of nervous debility in Berkshire. She’d originally intended it as a practical cookbook for children – rather mystifyingly, given that she had none of her own – but quickly became bored by the need for uncomplicated explanations and accurate recipes. What emerged instead was a kind of sensuous travelogue presented through the vicarious medium of food, a guide to cooking as an expression of the indigenous imagination.

The very first recipe, for pain perdu, France’s answer to bread-and-butter pudding, sets the tone and pattern for the rest of the book. It begins in the ramshackle property Lesley and Romain owned (and were forever restoring) at Roquebrune in Provence. They have unexpected guests one day and are faced with an empty larder and, what in most households would be an additional disaster, builders in situ. But it’s these resourceful artisans who come to Lesley’s rescue. They go off to procure a chicken, fetch veg from their allotment gardens. The foreman Marcel takes on responsibility for the pudding itself: ‘I shall always remember him,’ Lesley writes, ‘far too large for the kitchen, covered in cement splashes, his huge paws delicately beating eggs and measuring sugar.’

Here are all the ingredients of the food that follows: an intensely evoked and exotic setting (stage-design was one of Lesley’s polymathic skills), a cast of gifted amateurs and a conviction that what gives food its character is not principally terroir, or the quality and provenance of ingredients, or any of the other imperatives of modern foodie-ism, but local temperament. The end products of her extravagant and witty tone poems are often rather humdrum. What is important, she stresses, is not what is cooked but how. Food should be a passionate distillation of the genius loci.

There are more European encounters. ‘Belgian cucumber’ (sliced and poached in yoghurt) is offered to her in a Flanders restaurant where the chef is hurling cleavers through the serving hatch at one of the waitresses. She is invited backstage at a puppet theatre in Sicily, and given almondy sweet frangipani to nibble while the puppets are patched up: ‘Papa Giuseppi . . . mending a tin sword, bent in the violence of battle. His daughter, Tommasina . . . heating some curling irons, to crimp the long golden wig worn by the Queen’, while the whole troupe sing snippets from the local light opera Cavalleria Rusticana. In Portugal she eats lemon shells stuffed with mashed sardines and eggs round a bonfire on a beach, with the usual cast of characterful extras and a score of fados, ‘those beautiful songs that recall the softer sort of Gipsy music, with an almost Oriental or Turkish cadence’.

It’s when she directly taps into that eastern cadence that the book has its best moments. Lesley had been enthralled by Slavic and Middle Eastern culture since she was a child, and had an enviable freedom to follow her enthusiasm, accompanying her husband on diplomatic postings in the Balkans and filing journalistic assignments for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. And it’s in the anecdotes she tells from Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria that you most clearly appreciate that this isn’t a cookbook based, as so many are, on classic restaurant food. Its dishes are streetwise, sassy, intimate.

Lesley was irresistibly vivacious, oblivious to class, and inquisitive to the point of nosiness. She seemed able to charm her way into any situation where interesting food was happening, from an Arab nomad’s tent to the kitchen at an embassy banquet. She picks up recipes in bazaar kiosks, gipsy encampments, the Shah’s palace and shanty-town cafés. In the Caucasus she is thrilled by Georgian tribesmen who ‘sometimes grill the meat on their swords; then throw a glass of brandy on it, so that it is brought to the table flaming. And sometimes they dance, brandishing the lighted swords, their tall black sheepskin Kolpaks cocked over on the side of their heads, as you can see in my drawing.’ (Her brilliant vignettes are one of the book’s bonuses.) This leads to a modest recipe for shashlik on skewers, since this is ‘not the sort of dance that can be done in the average kitchen’. The settings, always more prominent than the cooking ‘plots’, provide the same kind of contextual mood as background music.

In Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, which looks ‘as if it is made of ivory, with cream-coloured carved and decorated houses’, she penetrate the harem and eventually picks up a recipe for apples stuffed with spiced chicken called foudja djedad, a cream-coloured, carved and decorated dish, its mixing of meat and fruit then unfamiliar to most British cooks. The signature dish of her Balkan chapter is what she calls Bandit’s Joy (she’s addicted to eye-catching noms de cuisine). She learned this from the sister of an Albanian outlaw with whom she confesses she was once ‘rather friendly’. Most of the account is taken up with a lip-licking description of his rakish character and outrageous appearance ‒ ‘a very handsome creature . . . His head was shaved, but he had enormous black moustachios. He wore the white felt cap most Albanians wear, at least three embroidered jackets, a sash stuck with knives, tasselled trousers, and over all a huge shaggy sheepskin coat.’ His ‘joy’ turns out to be nursery food ‒ boiled potatoes with butter and honey: ‘a very odd choice’, Lesley comments, ‘for such a violent man’. But then Lesley liked her men sweet and sour.

At this stage you begin to wonder if some mischievous make-believe has entered the text. Did Lesley really have all these romantic adventures, extract the culinary (and other) secrets of every Sultan and servant girl she met? It isn’t unfair to see her as a kind of Scheherazade, spinning elaborate tales of her gastronomic Arabian nights. This, after all, was her style in life and in her writing. And it was part of the aim of her book to insist that food was an imaginative and at times fantastical art. Her stories of the origins of dishes are full of myths and legends, of Golems and lost children and outrageous discoveries: ‘One classic early-nineteenth century Russian cookbook contains a recipe which opens on this flamboyant note: Take the yolks of five hundred eggs . . . I wonder what happened to the whites.’

In some of the final sections, ‘The Far East’, ‘The Pacific’, ‘South America’ and ‘The North’, she has no choice but to go beyond her personal experience. She hadn’t travelled in these regions when the book was published, so she relied on friends’ experiences and cribs from texts such as Countess Morphy’s Recipes of All Nations. But even when she is out of her depth geographically she makes magic with her food. I wonder whether she ever ventured far into Haiti, and whether there really is a local speciality called ‘The Zombie’s Secret’. After some hokum about voodoo, she describes a dish of mashed avocado, banana and cream cheese, flavoured with strong coffee, dreamed up by a zombie. It’s a very agreeable concoction, but it seems to me closer to a faux-tropicana dessert by Nigella than an invention of the undead.

Still, I think it was this skittishness and spirited sense of making do that made Eighty Dishes such a hit with us aspiring gastro-adventurers in the ’60s, doing our cooking in cramped boat galleys and derelict barns. Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Food preceded Lesley’s book by five years, but by comparison her recipes (they covered many of the same dishes) seemed dull, devoid of intimate detail and any sense of local culture. When I came to write an offbeat cookbook myself years later (The Full English Cassoulet, 2008), it was Lesley’s gleeful delight in improvisation that was my inspiration.

For some of us Eighty Dishes was a first glimpse of the seductive delights of ‘abroad’, and maybe that is a charge that can be made against it, that it’s a throwback to naïve Orientalism, an exotic version of the Pastoral. In it the peasant women are always dark-eyed and the men always sing while they work. The book is set in some of the poorest regions of the globe, but there is no hint of hunger or oppression.

I suspect Lesley’s counter would have been that it was precisely through inventive improvisation that people challenged deprivation and asserted their independence. In a note to a 1992 edition, written when she was 87, she gently parodies her own style with an imaginary postcard home: ‘Muscat. Supper with pearl divers on their boat. Dashing lot. Shark stew and prickly fig jam for pud.’ But then she adds a poignant postscript, reminding her readers that since the book was first written ‘what is described as progress [has] swept away tradition and local colour, replacing them with a remorseless unification or desolation’. She is too pessimistic. Indigenous food survives in new contexts, not least because of her spicy record of it.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 50 © Richard Mabey 2016

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