My copy of A New Book of Middle Eastern Food was bought for holiday reading. The fat paperback made it home safely - just a little crumpled and ever-so-slightly smeared with suncream - after immeasurably enriching a trip around Morocco. I enjoyed the traditional stories, folklore and songs that punctuate the recipes and ate more adventurously with each chapter that I consumed. Unfortunately there were two problems: 1) it’s important to avoid reading Claudia Roden’s loving descriptions of food when you’re hungry, especially if trapped on a seemingly unending, stinking hot bus journey and 2) it make me long for my own kitchen to try out the spices that I was picking up along the way, guided by her recipes. Hers was the first cookbook to make sense of ingredients like harissa and tahini, pomegranate molasses and preserved lemons so it became – and has remained – a regularly used kitchen bible.
Claudia Roden is a true food hero and getting to see her at the Ballymaloe Litfest was a dream come true for all of us with similarly well-used cookbooks. A delicate, softly spoken lady, she wears her learning lightly. Although she doesn’t call herself a researcher, she spoke about the exhaustive work that she had done for her most recent book, The Food of Spain. Catalan writer Josep Pla wrote that cooking is "the landscape in a saucepan”; for Roden, the ghosts of the past are also in that saucepan. Being a Jew from a Muslim world, having researched the Mediterranean and France, she could see those influences and trace the origins of dishes right from the time of the re-conquest of Spain from the Muslims. “It is like the pieces of a jigsaw,” she told the awe-struck audiences at her demonstration and lecture, “a dish is not just a dish, There’s all this wonderful background to it.”
As she cooked, she gave historical context, wonderful stories about accosting people to ask them their favourite recipes and told us that the kitchen is the place where you learn about people, where they open their hearts. “When you eat together, there is a bond,” she said gently. There wasn’t one single person there who would disagree.