Sunday, January 23, 2011

josceline dimbleby's food memoir 'orchards in the oasis'

A food odyssey from Damascus to Gujarat
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 23 January, 2011

At the age of seven the future food writer Josceline Dimbleby travelled with a governess by cargo ship from England to Lebanon and was then driven over the mountains to Syria to join her mother and stepfather. It was 1950 and Dimbleby’s diplomat stepfather had been posted to Damascus.

To the young British girl the ancient city of Damascus “looked like an illustration from a fairy story: encircled by the desert hills, its domes and minarets nestled in an oasis of poplars and fruit orchards, irrigated by sparkling streams fed by a shimmering river, the Barada.”

Dimbleby’s memories of Damascus inspired the title of her latest book “Orchards in the Oasis: Travels, Food and Memories”, published by Quadrille Publishing of London. In Damascus the family was catered for by their Armenian cook, Joseph. Josceline was entranced by the kitchen’s unfamiliar smells of spices and herbs. On one occasion Joseph gave her a crispy honey pastry with a slightly scented taste. “That was the moment, I have always felt, in the distant aromatic kitchen, which awoke my taste buds and kindled my lifelong passion for food and flavor.”

Dimbleby is the prizewinning author of 24 books and was for more than 15 years food columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. She has written for various publications, and has featured in many TV food and travel programs.

“Orchards in the Oasis” is a lively account of Dimbleby’s adventures in travel and food, starting with her childhood in Syria and ending with a trip to Gujarat in 2005. Along the way she takes in Peru, Turkey, Iran, Morocco, the Canary Island of Lanzarote, North America, Burma and Vietnam.

Josceline also writes of food in her native England, from her maternal grandmother’s kitchen in Chelsea, London, to the village of Dittisham in the county of Devon where the Dimbleby family has spent many holidays.

The colorful book is beautifully designed, with photographs on every page. Dimbleby comes across as a warm, inquisitive travel companion, and her reminiscences include many amusing anecdotes and memorable characters. Scattered among the text are 70 recipes, illustrated by the renowned food photographer Jason Lowe. The Syria-related recipes include Damascus garden salad, Bloudan walnut soup, rose petal tart and apricot and pomegranate jelly (pictured at end of article).

Dimbleby’s stepfather Bill was a dominant, eccentric character. He drove the family all over Syria in his German “Nazi” car, a whale-like Horsch he had bought it after seeing it in the backyard of the British embassy in post-Second World War Paris.

When Bill was posted to the Peruvian capital of Lima, he took the family on marathon drives in a Buick Special, far up into the Andes. Peru is reckoned to be the birthplace of the potato, and countless varieties are grown there. Dimbleby’s Peruvian recipes range from a potato dish, to beef in chili and chocolate sauce, fish with avocado, lime and chili (pictured) and chilled passion fruit snow.

In the early 1960s Josceline studied singing at Guildhall school of music in London and lived in a basement flat. Here she started experiments in cooking. She relied on her memory and imagination rather than on any cookery book. The first dish she cooked was the quintessentially English shepherd’s pie, enlivened Syrian-style with cumin seeds and ground cinnamon.

Dimbleby first encountered Turkish food when the rich father of her friend Elizabeth gave the two girls a month’s holiday there plus first-class tickets from Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express. Among her Turkish recipes is one for Muhalebi milk dessert with orange blossom syrup.

In 1967 Josceline married the British broadcaster David Dimbleby, who was at the time a CBS TV reporter in New York. Her time in the Big Apple is reflected in such recipes as baked cheesecake with a ginger crust. The couple returned to Britain in grand style, travelling first class on the legendary Queen Mary 1930s liner which was about to be retired from service.

For St Valentine’s Day 1970 Josceline and David went to Marrakech, the source of her recipes for crispy pigeon pie (a version of the Moroccan classic bastilla), meatballs (pictured), and spiced carrot salad with mint. In Marrakech the couple met a famous old soldier, Field Marshall Sir Claude Auchinleck, who was nearing 90. Bizarrely, he entertained them by getting his Moroccan servant Bashir to dress up in masks of Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill and many other figures.

At the end of that year the couple’s Iranian friend Jamshed arranged for them to visit Iran. In his opulent modern house on the mountain above Tehran, Jamshed indulged them with a bowl of Caspian Beluga, the largest most lustrous caviar they had ever seen. The dishes Josceline absorbed from Iran included eggs on crispy saffron rice, marinated kidney kebabs and Yazd honey cakes.

On her first visit to India, Josceline met some men going game shooting. They explained how their wives cooked quail, partridge, duck and other game. Back in England she tried combining game birds with Indian spices. This opened up delicious ways of cooking game, as shown by her recipe for rich red quail curry. (picture shows Calcutta kheer milk pudding) .

Josceline’s 25-year marriage ended painfully in 1992, and she found travel a welcome distraction. In Vietnam she discovered that country’s incredibly sweet and succulent seafood – as well as its French culinary legacy, with baguettes baked freshly in the mornings even in remote villages
Dimbleby’s food odyssey ends in Gujarat. She has visited the state three times, and finds its cuisine particularly delicate. She writes that it is only while travelling that she gets the feeling of simple excitement she used to get as a child. “I hope I can experience a wide variety of places, food, people and surprises for many more years,” she says.

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