Claudia Roden’s cookbooks often evoke cuisines from sunnier climes – Middle Eastern food, The Food of Italy, Mediterranean Food and, now, The Food of Spain– so bright sunshine and clear blue skies seemed very appropriate weather in which to visit her north London home. Indeed, the spring weather was so lovely that Claudia, I and the other invited writers and bloggers -Catherine Phipps, Niamh Shields and Ginny Light- ended up sitting at a table in her garden, eating dishes which Claudia had cooked for us from her new Spanish cookbook while she conversed with us about Spanish food, with petals falling down onto us and birdsong in the background – a truly pleasurable and memorable experience.
Ever since I first came across them while working in a bookshop, her books have been a source of great pleasure to me. I have used them for research, for recipe ideas and read them for the sheer pleasure of enjoying her ‘voice’. Claudia’s distinctive approach to her cookbooks, in which she elegantly weaves together history, culture and food to form a rich tapestry, stems directly from the experience of writing her first book Middle Eastern Food.
Claudia was already living in London studying art when the Suez crisis broke. The consequent expulsion of Egyptian Jews from Egypt meant that she became caught up in charting this exiled community, collecting recipes from them. “I realised that one of the things that mattered very, very much to people was their food. People were moving all over the world and by keeping their recipes we would have something to remember them by. Because we thought we’d never see them again, never go back to Egypt again, it was a very forever thing. In Egypt people would never give a recipe to another family, but because we all separating we were not going to be competition! I never thought the dishes were important before but suddenly people were asking for recipes, giving me recipes and so that was my reason to start collecting over 50 years ago. I was collecting, doing it for love. For ages I didn’t think I was doing a book. People were glad that I was doing it seriously and they felt that when I was published someone had recorded them.”
Claudia’s links to Spain reach back into her childhood in cosmopolitan Egypt. “Spain was always in my life,” she explains, “because one of my grandmothers, who came from Istanbul, spoke medieval Spanish, Ladino, to her friends.” When writing her book The Food of Spain, Claudia brought her detailed knowledge of Jewish and Middle Eastern food to her research, recognising dishes and their roots. “Because of my personal history, there were words for dishes which I recognised from my childhood.” The contributions of Spain’s historic Jewish and Muslim communities to Spanish cuisine are charted in the book; Claudia is ideally placed to do them justice and this tracing is obviously deeply important to her.
While conventional Spanish history focuses the expulsion of the Jews and the Moorish community, Claudia points out that many of Spain’s Jewish community stayed on as ‘conversos (’ (Jewish converts to Christianity) and Spanish Muslims as Moriscos (Muslims converted to Christianity), with the eating of pork a key part to being seen as Spanish Christian. One of the ‘startling’ dishes from this converso heritage is suckling pig with cumin. “When they converted, they started cooking pigs the way they cooked the lamb, so rubbed it with cumin. I came across a couple of cumin seeds in the suckling pig they serve at Fino – just a few seeds are a clue as to what happened all these years ago. Another dish I came across was an apple stuffed with minced pork, fried onions, pine nuts and raisins. I have the same apple dish in my first book, an Iranian dish, but it was stuffed with minced lamb, instead of pork. The Jewish and Arab influences on the food are all there. I see something and I know from the smell and the way they are doing it where it comes from, which might be from 500 years ago.”
A self-confessed ‘technophobe’ Claudia’s research is far removed from sitting at a desk and Googling. Meeting people, talking to them and learning their recipes, just as she did all those years ago for Middle Eastern Food, is at the heart of how she works. Initially, she found the prospect of researching this book on Spanish food daunting. “At first I thought I can’t do this because I can’t travel easily any more.” Through her considerable network of friends in Spain, however, she was able to explore the country, visiting people, staying with them and meeting their contacts “For me the best thing is the travel, the meeting. I know a lot of people now, have it all done by researchers and go at the last minute, but for me, it’s the discovering of the country, of the people, the whole inter-connecting and communicating. My research is asking people about their lives, their grandparents, which region they come from in Spain, their ideas of history, but then I go and study at the British Library to back it up. Wherever I went, what I learnt fitted together like a puzzle,” she says delightedly.
We’d been invited to tea with Claudia, but, as we sat there in the garden, talking and laughing, a series of dishes, served in generous quantities, were brought out, turning afternoon tea into a feast. First came rich Spanish-style hot chocolate thickened with cornflour, prompting Claudia to muse on the difference between hot chocolate and coffee, the latter ‘always the drink of revolution’, next flavourful slices of coca, ‘a Catalan one’ resembling pizza, topped with red peppers, artichokes and salty anchovies, but ‘never cheese’, salty-sweet, soft deep-fried aubergines drizzled with honey, a flavourful salmorejo – a version of gazpacho – topped with tuna and hard-boiled egg (when we complimented Claudia on finding tasty tomatoes she replied that she’d added ‘oil, vinegar and a touch of sugar – it was good olive oil’), then an elegant, syrup-soaked walnut cake ‘from Asturias, where they do have walnuts’ and a wonderful raisin ice cream flavoured with Pedro Ximenez sherry with more PX poured over to complete the decadence.
Thinking back to the experience of researching the book, Claudia talked affectionately of the hospitality she’d encountered. “The pleasure was not only in talking to people but of eating with them too. The conviviality of eating together, the banquets, the music, the dancing.” Experiencing her hospitality in her north London home, eating this vividly flavourful, colourful food and, above all, hearing Claudia talk, in her distinctive accented English, wittily, knowledgeably and with a deep-rooted passion for history, about Spanish food was an experience that brought The Food of Spain wonderfully, and convivially, to life.