“Cooking is the landscape in a saucepan” is the epigraph that begins Claudia Roden’s wonderful new book, Med; it’s hard to think of a better attestation to her evocative writing, built on faithful and active recipe-collecting, over the decades. I was lucky enough to see a proof copy of the book some months ago, and I have been beside myself with impatience as I’ve waited to bring it to you here. It is undeniably embarrassing to quote oneself, but my words, printed on the back of the book, do absolutely sum up my thoughts about it: “I could not love this book more. A palpable instant classic, infused with wisdom, generosity and achievable deliciousness. Every page feels like a blessing.”
Before I move on to actual examples of all this achievable deliciousness, I just want to talk about Roden’s pitch-perfect writing here: she is, seamlessly, as she has always been, cultural historian, keeper and curator of culinary customs, memoirist, and a food writer who respects and animates the context of the recipes she brings us as much as the ingredients. But in Med, there is a particularly distilled quality. There is a stillness to her prose that somehow enhances the vibrancy of her spirit and the flavours she brings to our tables. In short, it is just exquisite.
It’s a cliché of cookbook reviewing, I know, to say “I want to cook every recipe in this book”, but once you get your hands on it - which I urge you to, in the strongest possible terms - I feel you will be of like mind. And having been cooking from it already, I am further convinced of the joy to be gained by accomplishing this project! Of course, it makes it hard to select only a few to tell you about, but that’s a lovely problem to have. I bring eagerly to your attention, then, the Green Olive, Walnut and Pomegranate Salad, a speciality from Gaziantep, a Turkish city on the border with Syria; the Pumpkin Soup with Orzo and Amaretti, inspired by the signature tortelli filling of Mantua, in Northern Italy; Rocket with Pancetta and Grapes; the Sweet and Sour Minty Courgettes, which bears the stamp of the Arab influence of Sicilian food; the Aubergines with Pomegranate Dressing and Yogurt Sauce Roden ate when her family lived in Aleppo; the Lentils and Rice with Dates and Caramelised Onions that Roden’s mother cooked for her father when they moved to London, a comforting reminder of the Egyptian dishes of his childhood; the Haricot Beans with Clams, remembered from a dinner in Barcelona; the Chicken with Apricots and Pistachios, Roden’s interpretation of a recipe found in a 13th century Arab culinary manual; Roast Duck Legs with Peaches; Meatballs with Sour Cherries, a family dish originating in Aleppo, but eaten by them in Egypt; Slow-Roasted Shoulder of Lamb with Couscous, Dates and Almonds; and from the Desserts chapter, the Chestnuts in Syrup, flavoured with cognac or rum, and served with whipped cream; Roast Peaches with Sweet Wine, Clotted Cream and Caramelised Pistachios; a Yogurt Cake, with its taste of cheesecake; and the Chocolate Cake made yearly for Passover (even if there is a mention of using flour to dust the tin!). But the recipe I bring you now is the Bulgur Pilaf with Chickpeas, Aubergines and Tomatoes, which makes for a glorious (and, incidentally vegan) meal in itself, though is also wonderful with the optional addition of halloumi, which is cut into cubes, and cooked quickly in a pan till golden brown on the outside before being tossed in at the end. I made this in half-quantities since it was just me eating it, and after one taste of it, how I wished I’d made the full amount!
Extracted from Med by Claudia Roden (Ebury Press, £28).
Photography by Susan Bell.
The book will be published as Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean in the US on 26 October by Ten Speed Press ($40.00).