Sunday, 19 February 2012

A reprint of a great book with a mad name

Rich spices of cumin and cinnamon, sharp notes of lemons, muted aromas of cardamom and rose, these are some of the smells that should come from your store cupboard after reading the reprint of Diana Henry’s book “Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons” (2011, Octopus Books); a mosaic of wonderful recipes that take you from Marrakesh to Istanbul and Catalonia to Sicily in the space of a chapter, only to get the mental jet lag all over again in the following ones.

Although I thought I was going to have difficulty with the style and layout of the book, I barely realised how far into it I had gone before putting pen to paper, how much I really was enjoying it; nor, having put it down mid read to go shopping, had I consciously realised that I had ingredients for Moroccan style chicken in my basket. And that is what makes this book so good. It grows on you, envelopes the senses, and makes you see your larder in a different light.

Each of its chapters have wonderfully beguiling names, like “Fruits of Longing” and “Fragrances of the Earth” that immediately draw the reader in; each of the chapters dedicated to a set of flavours rather than the usual meat, eggs, poultry etc. Although that in itself could be a bit discomforting to the reader (see my earlier comment about the worry of getting into the flow) the joy is that given the cuisines that are written about, it is a sensible if not original way of doing it.

Familiar to me were the chutney recipe from Adam’s Cafe (which I ate on a visit there recently) and the Persian restaurant in a Portakabin in a car park in Kensington (a real blast from the past. I wonder what happened to that?) Unfamiliar were the exotic names: Ladies’ Navels; Pearl Diver’s Rice; Ottoman Lamb with Sultan’s Pleasure; Muhamara, and Crazy Water of the title, which intrigue as well as amuse.

Whilst Diana Henry provides a lot of Persian, Turkish and North African recipes these are balanced well with a collection of Spanish, Italian and French ones that remind the reader that the exotic, the delightful and mouth-wateringly flavoursome isn’t that far from our own shores: Lemon and Basil Ice Cream; Catalan Chicken with Picada; Provencal Lamb stuffed with Figs, Goat’s Cheese and Walnuts; Socca and Sardine, Roasted Tomatoes, Olive and Parsley Salad, and Ruby Grapefruit and Campari Granita (a particular eye catcher for me!) All the more inspiring because they bring something new to familiar cuisine.

Scattered liberally amongst all these mouth watering recipes and mood lifting descriptions, like the herbs and spices in the book, are various quotes. These are delicious snippets to add more metaphoric flavour to the reader’s imaginings, Biblical writers and classic authors to writers of note and others in between.

The only real downside for me was the index at the back, which doesn’t reflect the names of the recipes, nor necessarily some of the ingredients. Although it is a pleasure to flick through the book to find something and revisit some brilliant photographs (by Jason Lowe), it is a bit frustrating to look for, as an example, the Socca and Sardine recipe and see neither under ‘S’ but under ‘F’ for fish (that sort of helpfulness reminds me of a sign outside a restaurant in Cephalonia, which invited the guest to ask the owners what the fish of the day was, only to hear every time “very fine fish”).

Part of me feels it a shame that it is merely a cookbook rather than something more for the coffee table. Each introduction evokes memories of the past and imaginings of things that never happened but are just as palpable. Diana Henry’s descriptions of childhood trips to the South of France for example had me subconsciously wafting my hand over imaginary lavender whilst sitting in bed. The descriptions inspire you to want to eat what comes later before you have even read the recipes.

The final word should go to Claudia Roden, who says: “[It is] A glorious and magical feast for the senses”, I would have to agree (and wish I said that myself!) I am so happy I have this book as part of my collection; Diana Henry has written something worth hunting down if you haven’t already got it. 

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