Lunch With Food Maven Claudia Roden

At 75, Claudia Roden, high priestess of the kitchen, continues her lifelong journey in search of flavors, recipes and people. Her latest book, ‘The Food of Spain,’ was a good reason to visit her in London to talk about cooking, writing and the Inquisition.

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
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LONDON - Six hundred and nine pages, five years of work, hundreds of recipes and photos: these are the hard facts behind “The Food of Spain,” Claudia Roden’s new book. But impressive as they are, numbers cannot convey the breadth, the scope of knowledge and the sagacity of the gaze that examines Spanish culture through the prism of the kitchen. The veteran cookbook author, world famous for such works as “A Book of Middle Eastern Food” (1968), “The Book of Jewish Food” (1997) and “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food” (2000), puts more into research and writing than almost anyone else these days.

“Writing the books always takes a long time, but that’s part of the pleasure I get,” she says, smiling, in the kitchen of her London home. “Five years isn’t even very long by my standards. It took me 16 years, on and off, to write the book about Jewish cuisine. I make a living from writing the books, otherwise I would not be able to do it, but there is no doubt that what one gets in return is not always proportional to the work and the investment.”

Claudia RodenCredit: Tim Clinch

She gets up to prepare a pot of tea, asks me to remind her to take the baking dish out of the oven on time, and confesses to an incident that happened not long ago: a fire alarm and scorched lamb chops while a team from an English magazine was at her place to do a photo shoot. Even the high priestess of the kitchen can burn a dish, or at least implant in her interlocutor feelings of affection and solidarity.

At conferences she attends, famous chefs and academics heap praise on her and listen avidly to every word she utters. With my own eyes I saw a long line of well-known people waiting to exchange a few words with her at the annual Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Intelligence, a sense of humor and knowledge gleaned over years of research and practice contribute to her magnetism, but Claudia Roden is, simply, one of those extraordinary people with an inborn gift to captivate others. This petite woman with dark hair has large brown eyes that radiate infinite good-heartedness and childlike curiosity, even as they fix their gaze with rapt attention on her interlocutor. She has a quiet voice that casts a spell of tranquillity; and the aristocratic demeanor of an English lady mingled with simplicity and an easygoing manner.

Vegetables with tomato and hard-boiled egg vinaigrette, from Murcia.Credit: Jason Lowe

She lives alone in a typical English cottage, a charming example of the late 19th-century Arts and Crafts style, in an affluent north London suburb. The modest kitchen is that of a woman who does a lot of cooking: simple wooden cupboards more than 40 years old (“Even my children laugh at me and implore me to replace the cupboards, but I cannot conceive of the kitchen without them”); illustrated tiles from Portugal on the walls, photographs of children and grandchildren, and a large rectangular table made of heavy wood at which Arthurian knights would feel at home. The windows of the adjacent room which is also dominated by a big dining table, this one round overlook a bare-branched tree and a lovely garden, tangled with growth.

As Roden was writing her book about Spain, the tables filled up with friends who came to try out the recipes. “I don’t like to cook just for the sake of experimenting,” she says. “I like to feed people and I prefer to cook for friends and family who also contribute important feedback. Each of the book’s recipes has variations from different regions and localities. I saw some of them being prepared in Spain in the kitchens of people who invited me to their home, I found others in old books and documents, and I myself cooked the dishes in my own kitchen two or three times until I arrived at recipes that satisfied me.”

Orange flan, from the Valencia region.Credit: From “The Food of Spain,” photos by Jason Lowe

Direct from the people

Roden’s immersion in the history of Spanish cooking originated with a request from the American poet and phopublisher Daniel Halpern. Initially she turned down the suggestion. Halpern is president of Ecco Press, an imprint of the publishing house of HarperCollins, whereas Roden’s American publisher is Knopf, where she has personal ties with the legendary editor Judith Jones (who published Julia Child and other classic culinary works). “And also because I was afraid,” Roden says. “I was afraid because I didn’t know the language. I speak Italian, French and a little Ladino, which I heard in my parents’ house, but I didn’t speak Spanish. I was apprehensive about making frequent visits to remote regions on my own. I made the journey in quest of the Italian kitchen nearly 30 years ago [“The Food of Italy,” 1989] but it’s different when you are 70.”

But her reservations gradually dissolved in the face of Halpern’s persistence. “I told myself that it would be a new and intriguing challenge, different from what I had done but similar enough not to put me off. People still continue to send me dozens of unknown recipes for the Jewish kitchen and the Middle Eastern kitchen, but I can’t go on occupying myself with that my whole life. I don’t think I would accept an offer now to write a book about Chinese or Indian cuisine, despite my great curiosity about both. They are different cultures, and I believe that one has to acquire linguistic and cultural knowledge in order to write about them. But Spain lies on the Mediterranean, where my ancestors came from, and over the years, even if I did not visit often, I had made many friends: translators and publishers of my books, chefs, food researchers, journalists and historians.”

The language barrier fell first. The Romance languages she speaks, combined with the universal language of those who love to cook, was more than enough. Indeed, she sometimes found herself translating the remarks of the local residents for others. She taught herself written Spanish in order to probe the history and heritage at the British Library and the Cervantes Institute. The network of food lovers located great cooks in every province and district, and they in turn opened their homes, their kitchens and their hearts to Roden.

Baked sea bream with potatoes, Madrid style.Credit: From “The Food of Spain,” photos by Jason Lowe

“People who hear about the research I do are astonished. They say that nowadays you can find all the recipes on the Internet. But I wanted to hear directly from the people about their recipes, their world and their culture. I ask everyone I meet on these journeys what their favorite recipes are, what they eat at home, which foods they remember from childhood, from their parents and grandparents, what their forefathers did for a living. In this way a complete picture of the Spanish world gradually unfolds.”

An 84-year-old Franciscan nun from Seville taught her how to prepare potato croquettes and took her to lively tapas bars. Chefs from the Basque region showed her the modern evolution of dishes that have made Spain one of the world’s leading culinary destinations. The owner of a remote village restaurant cooked rabbit stew and dishes made from game birds. And fishermen, butchers, pork breeders and vintners shared with her secrets of the raw materials of the Iberian Peninsula.

“I discovered a world in which 80 percent of the population lived off the land, mostly in poverty until the 1950s, continued to raise fowl and pigs for their own consumption, and was very much influenced by the powerful Church establishment,” she relates. “The contemporary severance from the soil, especially in the recent past, in which whole villages are being emptied of their inhabitants, has deepened people’s longing for the food and the style of life they knew as children.”

Stories of the people she met along the way are interspersed between the recipes and transform the book into a riveting historical-anthropological text. This is another hallmark of Roden’s writing.

“At one stage of the research, I tried to balance the wealth of information I received from the offspring of farmers and peasants with what I got from aristocratic families. But in Spain there never was a true aristocratic cuisine,” she says. “When Spain was ruled by first Habsburg and then Bourbon kings, the palace adopted French haute cuisine. The royal entourage copied the king and hired French cooks, but the nobles who owned estates simply consumed large amounts of meat mutton and pork which became the symbol of Spanish conquest and power, because the Jews and the Muslims shunned it.

“Pork became a tool of the Inquisition. Its perpetrators broke into homes to check whether the occupants were cooking it. Families of moriscos Muslims who converted to Christianity added a little extra pork to the dish, so they would not be suspected of being Muslims. The conversos the Jewish converts did the same; and even Christians, who were concerned that they might be taken for Jews or Muslims, added a little more pork to each dish, to remove any possible doubt. This is why the taste of pork, in the form of strips of ham or bacon, is identified with so many Spanish dishes. The Inquisition harassed the Jews more than the Muslims, because they had more money to extort and because the Muslims, who brought advanced agricultural techniques to Spain, continued to work the land and were irreplaceable.”

In a number of marvelous passages in the book, Roden elucidates with great clarity the reciprocal relations that existed in Spain among Christians, Jews and Muslims, and how this interaction was reflected in the kitchen. “Some Spaniards prefer to see themselves as descendants of the Romans and the Visigoths,” she laughs. “In a dinner to which I was invited at the home of intellectuals in Madrid, the wife scolded me for the way in which foreigners like me glorify the remnants of the Moorish empire. She explained to me firmly that modern Spaniards are of Roman and Visigoth stock. Immediately afterward, in order to prove to me that there was nothing racist about her approach, she wrapped herself in the costume of a Moroccan belly dancer and tripped into the kitchen to show me a clipping of a hummus recipe stuck on the refrigerator.

“The Romans brought language and religion to Spain, but Spanish academics now talk about the great influence exercised by the Muslims and the Jews on Spanish culture, and consequently on the country’s gastronomy. The rich variety, the sensual character and the complexity of Spanish cuisine are the result of the period when the three religions coexisted in Spain. The cultural influence persisted afterward as well. The Muslims did not disappear from Spain after the Reconquista, and not all the Jews left Spain in the 15th century. Cooking techniques, agricultural methods, raw materials and gastronomical heritage continued to spread through Spain.”

When Roden began to identify descendants of the conversos by family name and to point out dishes and foods whose preparation or components indicate an earlier conformity to Jewish kashrut laws, she began to become apprehensive that her angle of vision was “too Jewish.” When she shared this feeling with the publisher, he replied happily that he had chosen her precisely because of her Arab background. “I too am a salient product of my history,” she says without qualms.

Citizen of the world

Claudia Roden’s biography makes her a perfect candidate to grapple with the complex mosaic of Spanish cuisine and culture. She was born in 1936 in Cairo, to a Jewish merchant family who arrived in Egypt from Syria and Turkey in the late 19th century. She wrote lovingly and yearningly about the heritage of her forebears the Sasson family from Aleppo, Syria, and the Doueks from Istanbul in the lovely introduction to her book on Jewish cooking.

Claudia and her brothers grew up to the sounds of French, Ladino and Arabic, and were raised by a loving nanny of Slovenian origin who also taught them Italian. At the age of 15 she was sent to finishing school in Paris, which remains one of the cities she loves best, and three years later went to London to study art.
When asked about her identity, she answers without hesitation that she is an “international person,” and adds, “Many people sound worried when I say that and ask, ‘But don’t you feel English?’ No, I don’t feel English. I am very happy to be here, my children were born here and they consider themselves English in every respect, but the fact that I hold a British passport does not make me feel English, nor do I feel Egyptian or French, despite the rich background I absorbed from both those cultures.”

After completing her art studies, she intended to become a painter. In 1956, following the Suez crisis and the Egyptian authorities’ persecution of Jews, her parents and two brothers joined her in London. The world into which they were born had started to crumble.

“Everyone left. The members of the community scattered around the world and we thought we would never meet again. People started to ask one another for recipes.” Claudia herself started to collect recipes from relatives and neighbors, hoping that through them she could evoke the warmth and sense of belonging she had known in her childhood. The cohesive Jewish community a relatively open community that did not always keep strictly kosher when it came to food, but upheld the Jewish-Spanish heritage through language, literature and cuisine included families who came from Salonika, Izmir, Syria, Iraq, North Africa and the Balkans. The blend of languages, cultures and cuisines was augmented by the culture of their Muslim neighbors and other minority groups: Copts, Armenians, Maltese, Syrian Christians and Italians. The reconstruction of the flavors and aromas of that colorful, bustling cosmopolitan world became a means of bringing the past back to life.

“A Book of Middle Eastern Food,” published at the end of the 1960s after 15 years of work, is considered groundbreaking, and not only because of the meticulous compilation of hundreds of unfamiliar recipes from home kitchens and the description of the features that Middle Eastern cuisines have in common. Roden, who lacked formal academic schooling in the field, was a pioneer who integrated in-depth historical research into a book of recipes. Some of what she did intuitively at the start of her career, like using recipes based on medieval Arab cookbooks she had found in dusty archives, became milestones in food scholarship. In fact, the field as such did not even exist when she started out. “To occupy oneself with food was considered marginal and trivial at the time,” she says. “People raised an eyebrow, and I was ashamed to say what I did for a living.”

A series of culinary journeys to Italy for The Daily Telegraph became a book about the regional cuisines in that country. The book about Mediterranean cuisine had its birth parallel to a television series she created with the BBC. Her books have been translated into many languages and have been published worldwide.
“The Food of Spain” is Roden’s 11th book. It was published in England last month, after appearing in the United States last June, in a large, glossy format. “The truth is that I myself was appalled at first when I saw the size of the book,” she laughs. “But then it was explained to me that in the United States, if you don’t appear on television your book doesn’t sell, and that the book must be physically prominent in bookstores and shop windows. The truth is that this is now equally true for the British book market, where books have to be beautiful.”

Digital books have no appeal for her. “I am from the old world. I have a vast library with thousands of cookbooks, and I love to read and browse them. I probably belong to the last generation in which people will talk in this way.”

She also finds the situation with the press very worrying. “Our newspapers are good, and good people write for them, but now journalists are not paid properly, have to travel on freebies and are asked for small articles, because the publishers do not earn enough themselves. Where will the voice be heard in the future of distinguished journalists who wrote major stories and important articles?”

She recalls the days in which she was sent on culinary expeditions around the world, furnished with a generous expense account that allowed her to be her own master and forge an important network of contacts. Last month, she got a call from the editor of the highest-circulation weekly in England, which had prepared a hefty profile of her to mark the publication of the new book. Apologizing from the bottom of his heart, he asked her to send him the proofs of the book, as he had no budget for couriers.
Roden does not know whether she will write another book. At the moment, she is working on an updated edition of the book of Jewish cuisine in French. The doorbell rings. A courier brings proofs of the first German translation of that book her odyssey among the kitchens of Jewish communities and also a handsome gift from the translator: a bottle of egg liqueur.

Then there is a second, unexpected knock on the door. (“It’s only because you came from Israel. In England, 50 years can go by before you hear an unexpected knock on the door, and no one has ever heard two on the same day.”) It’s Cesar, one of her grandchildren, named for her late father. Two of her children Simon, an architect, and Anna, a financial manager live with their families in London.

Her youngest daughter, Nadia, who lives in New York, seems to have inherited her mother's passion for art and food. On a table in the foyer is a small pile of copies of her book, “Granita Magic: 55 Ices for Every Reason and Every Season Always the Perfect Thing to Serve,” with illustrations by the author.

Vegetables with tomato and hard-boiled egg vinaigrette

4 leeks, trimmed, washed, and cut into 3 pieces each
about 450 gm. new potatoes, peeled and cut in half
3 baby artichoke hearts
225 gm. asparagus, hard bottom ends trimmed
Salt

For the vinaigrette:

7 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. white wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice
salt and pepper
2 tbsp. finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 firm but ripe tomatoes (about 200 gm., chopped)
1 hard-boiled egg, chopped

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Throw in the leeks and potatoes and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the artichokes and cook for 5 minutes, then add the asparagus and cook for 5 to 10 minutes more, until all the vegetables are tender. Drain well and arrange them in a wide serving dish.

While the vegetables are still warm, make the vinaigrette: Beat the oil and vinegar or lemon juice with salt and pepper to taste in a bowl. Stir in the parsley, chopped tomatoes and egg. Pour the vinaigrette over the vegetables, turning them so that they absorb the dressing well. (Serves 4-6)

For a variation, add half a chopped sweet red onion and a few capers and chopped olives to the vinaigrette.

Roasted whole bream with potatoes

1 large sea bream or sea bass (about 2.5 kg.), gutted and scaled
salt
1 onion, cut in half and sliced
6 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
8 to 12 waxy potatoes, peeled
a good pinch of saffron
1 cup Albariño or other fruity dry white wine, such as Riesling
1 lemon, cut into thin slices
2 garlic cloves, crushed to a paste or through a press
2 tbsp. fine bread crumbs
2 tbsp. chopped flat-leaf parsley

Rinse the fish and season inside and out with salt. Line a baking dish large enough to hold the fish with foil.

Saute the onion in 1 tablespoon of the oil in a skillet, over medium heat until soft and golden. Spread in the baking dish.

Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water for 10 minutes; drain and cut into thick slices. Add the potatoes to the onions. Sprinkle on 3 tablespoons of the oil, add the saffron and a little salt, and mix gently, then pour in the wine.

Rub the top of the fish with 1 tablespoon of the oil and place it in the baking dish, with the potatoes around it. Slash it in 2 places at the thickest part. Cut 1 slice of lemon in half and insert one half in each cut. Put 1 lemon slice inside the fish and the rest on top of the potatoes.

Mix the remaining tablespoon of olive oil with the garlic, bred crumbs, and 1 tablespoon of the parsley, and sprinkle this mixture over the fish. Roast the fish in a preheated 245 degrees Celsius oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until cooked (test using the point of a knife in the thickest part the flesh should be opaque right through to the bone) and the potatoes are tender. Serve sprinkled with the remaining tablespoon of parsley. (Serves 4)

Orange flan

2 1/2 cups fresh orange or clementine juice
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. sugar
2 large eggs
10 large egg yolks

Heat the citrus juice with the sugar in a saucepan, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat.

Lightly beat the eggs and egg yolks with a fork in a large bowl. Gradually beat in the citrus juice.

Ladle the egg mixture into eight 6-oz ramekins. Place them in a large shallow baking pan and pour in enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins (this water bath is called a bain-marie). Bake in a preheated 150 degrees Celsius oven for 30 minutes, or until the custard sets (it needs to be cooked at a low temperature to get a perfectly smooth texture without bubbles).

Take the ramekins out of the pan and let cool, then chill in the refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap. (Serves 8)

Going viral

I am on my way to London to interview Claudia Roden at her home. From the day I came of culinary age, the queen of Jewish and Mediterranean cuisine was a distant object of veneration and yearning. When her new book was published, I dreamed of going to interview her. I mustered the courage to write to her. “It will be an honor,” the generous, sweet woman replied by e-mail, and asked whether I would stay for lunch. She then proceeded to inquire, sensitively, whether I observed kashrut: “Are you kosher – and how kosher?” (Jews, as we know, have always been outstanding at adapting the divine precepts to personal needs. My dear mother, for example, invented a singular religion in which eating shrimps was permissible, pork must be shunned and the Yom Kippur fast means a prohibition on cooking hot food for the husband and the kids, though a slice of bread with cottage cheese on that day does not bring down God’s wrath.) “Not kosher at all!” I replied immediately and added boastfully that I would be happy to eat anything that nature or the mistress of the house would put on my plate.

“You have to take this and show it to Claudia,” my mother-in-law said, pulling out a used, tattered and stained copy of “A Book of Middle Eastern Food” from the shelf of the cookbooks that are in actual use. “Tell her that her recipe for imam baildi changed my life,” said another dedicated cook; and my partner, hearing that Claudia was going to cook me lunch, gave me a resentful look and swore he was not in the least envious. There was no one who heard about the coveted visit who failed to tell me, in detail and with emotion, how Claudia had affected his life through her books.

I scrounged a lightning trip of two and a half days in London: arrival at night, interview the next day and flight back the day after. On the way there, the euphoria waned a little and my stomach growled and hummed. It was nothing exceptional or worrisome. I always hated flying. A combination of technological ignorance there is no way this bizarre cylinder will stay airborne and simple megalomania: my presence in the flying cylinder is a sure sign that it will fall out of the sky. The next morning my tummy kept on turning over. I shrugged off the disturbing palpitations, attributing them to the great occasion.

Claudia opened the door and turned out to be, as expected, one of the planet’s most delightfully charming people. An hour into the riveting conversation, deep into the stories of her Spanish adventures and spectacular feasts, my stomach started to emit distress signals. Two hours into the interview, I was covered in cold sweat and fighting serious waves of nausea, and Claudia’s form seemed to shimmer and wiggle.

“Are you hungry? Maybe we’ll take a break and have a bite to eat?” the dark-haired, blurred figure asked and started to fry small lamb chops and mix orange juice and eggs to make a custard.

The first portion of Claudia’s lunch was salmorejo, a thick, bread-rich version of the famous Andalusian gazpacho. In Cordoba, generous amounts of olive oil, hard-boiled eggs and slices of ham are added to the marvelous cold tomato soup. A passion food for healthy people, it’s a sour hell for anyone fighting surging nausea. Claudia ate and chatted amiably; I took one spoonful of the soup and knew I had to drop the pretense. “I think we have a problem,” I mumbled shamefacedly and rushed to the bathroom.

What can I say? From here the story deteriorates into realms that propriety prevents me from putting to paper. Claudia maternal, warm and somewhat frightened wrapped me in blankets and scarves and hospitalized me on her living room sofa. During the first hour I still insisted on making two forays to the kitchen, green of face and unsteady of gait, only to declare that “things have improved fantastically and we can go on with the interview in a moment.” I then surrendered to the pain and humiliation, heard Claudia reporting apprehensively to a representative of Penguin Books about the dying Israeli journalist who was sprawled on her living room sofa, and sank into a stupor of nightmares and self-laceration. Thus it happened that I came to dine to my heart’s content with the queen of the kitchen, Claudia Roden, and instead, the poor woman had to nurse me for hours on end. It was not until almost 8 P.M. that the noble, generous creature managed to bundle me into a taxi and send me on my way.

Leaning limply on the back seat, I called Haaretz. “I threw up on Claudia Roden. Claudia Roden made me a queenly meal and I threw up on her,” I wept into the phone. Silence on the other end. “Never mind, at least you made an unforgettable impression,” they said, trying to console me and hide waves of laughter. “What other food writer in the world can say that he both ate from her plate and lay in her bed?” My partner, hearing about this, was also struck dumb with astonishment. He then demanded clinical details: Had Claudia been affected directly by the stream of vomit? What color did the stomach juices have, etc. “I think it’s all right,” he said, skepticism slipping into his voice. “If no farts were emitted during the collapse, you may have salvaged your honor.”

I spent the next morning in the hotel bed. Never had London looked gloomier, darker and grimmer. I returned to Israel the next day, exhausted and ashamed, but quite recovered. A 48-hour virus, the doctor said only at the worst time anyone could hope for. Since then, of course, I have become a laughingstock in my family and among my cook friends. The woman for whom Claudia Roden made lunch with her own hands, and in return she threw up. Again, sorry, Claudia. It’s not you, it’s me; please invite me again.