Writing is a tiring business requiring energy and sustaining snacks. Chekhov had a weakness for oysters, Proust knocked back espressos, Sartre went nuts for halva and H. P. Lovecraft relished spaghetti bolognese smothered in parmesan cheese.
Lesley Blanch, author of Round the World in Eighty Dishes, describes her daily life in a postcard sent to Cecil Beaton some time during the 1970s as she is writing the biography of Pierre Loti: “I get up at 7, go on all day til dusk − hardly an eye for the birds, yelling to be fed. I’ve disconnected the telephone, such bliss − don’t go out or see anyone, don’t ever get dressed. Some days restful sluttishness prevails. Djellaba over a nightgown is the only way to work, for me − and no hairdressers + all that tra-la-la. But the appearance suffers − so does the figure. I sit, sit, sit, + eat delicious brown bread with tidal waves of butter.”
After a day of editing in front of the computer screen, brain-tired and in no mood to cook, I sometimes like to kick back and indulge in some culinary escapism. Books by Yotam Ottolenghi, Samuel & Samantha Clark, Elizabeth David and Claudia Roden carry me on a magic carpet to beautiful lands of abundant feasts . . . rose-scented, honeyed or spiced delights.
The title of Lesley Blanch’s first, bestselling book, The Wilder Shores of Love, led to her friends using the phrase to describe her cooking, or menus, as being “very wilder shores”. Her life was a great escape from the shadow of the suburbs, and she is at her mischievous best when it comes to food on the road and traveller’s tales, in Round the World in Eighty Dishes.
First published in 1956 when people in England were still enduring post-war restrictions on both travelling and eating, her gastronomic world tour takes in eighty recipes each prefaced by an account of where they were first tasted, or with an anecdote. Richard Mabey writes in his review for Slightly Foxed: “Round the World in Eighty Dishes [was] 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 . . .” It was reprinted a couple of years ago in hardback, about which Julian Barnes* wrote to me in an email, “That’s nice. They’re a classy firm, Grub Street.”
Grub Street Publishing
Anne Dolamore, cookery publisher at Grub Street Publishing, spent four years on the committee of the Guild of Food Writers and two years in the Chair, and was a trustee of Sustain, an organisation that campaigns for farming. To her, food is more than just publishing: it is a way of life. She believes that people should be eating better and be able to cook. She chooses titles which focus on the food rather than glossy celebrity, and her list includes books by well-loved culinary gurus like Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Claudia Roden and Pierre Hermé. A life in publishing kicked off at Faber and then André Deutsch, for whom she was the London sales rep. Back then, she was the only woman in London doing this male-dominated work, which involved picking out and highlighting titles for bookshops and wholesalers to get excited about and sell on to the general public. It was the golden age of the independent bookseller − pre-Waterstones, as the only book chain was W. H. Smiths. She went on to join forces with John Davies who was publishing a military history list focusing on aviation. At the World Cookbook Awards in 2000, Grub Street was voted International Cookbook Publisher of the Year.
BookBlast’s top 5 books for foodies
Here are my top five from their list which takes in chefs, classics, food allergies, international and vegetarian:
Elisabeth Luard’s Seasonal European Dishes is great for ideas about producing healthy, real food, laced with anecdotes and little known facts about local history and folklore.
An Omelette and a Glass of Wine is Elizabeth David’s now classic collection of articles to dip in and out of, written between 1955-84 for a range of upmarket publications.
Arto der Haroutunian’s A Turkish Cookbook is just the kind of thing I would have expected to find in Lesley Blanch’s bookshelf in her little kitchen overlooking the Mediterranean-blue bay of Garavan.
An unlikely find would have been Antoinette Michelle Berriedale-Johnson’s Everyday Wheat-Free & Gluten-Free Cookbook. Lesley travelled to remote, wild places and could eat almost anything and not get ill, (her book From Wilder Shores, The Tables of My Travels is dedicated to her digestion). Despite serving up Russian or Middle Eastern dishes, she never lost of her love of good British food. When I went to stay, I always made sure to pack a Lidgate steak & kidney pie, sausages, suet and a Christmas pudding. A copy of Marguerite Patten’s Century of British Cooking would have gone down well with her.
I have 1950s editions of Constance Spry’s cookery books with illustrations by Lesley Blanch in my shelves, so it is good to see in Grub Street’s catalogue an elegant, newly designed, updated and metricated edition of The Constance Spry Cookery Book with specially commissioned line drawings.
Lesley Blanch believed that, “A wasted meal is a wasted moment in life.” Quite so.
* via email: Fri 09/11/2012 16:07
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