Waitrose & Partners Weekend Issue 617

15 22 SEPTEMBER 2022 “A lot of my childhood was spent at the park. Nannies would take us there, make a circle around all the children, and we were supposed to stay inside it. But we’d escape to climb ‘themountain’ that was really a little hill housing an aquariumand an ancient tree,” she recalls. “On one return visit to Cairo, I went to the park. I found the tree, and it still had the letters we had carved into its bark – RRT, for Royal Rex Tree. It was verymoving.” As she got older, Claudia excelled at swimming, beating the national women’s backstroke record at just 15. Shortly after that, she was sent to boarding school in Paris (she still has a flat in the city), going from there to study art in London at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. She was a 20-year-old student when Suez happened. Claudia’s parents came to Golders Green, North London, settling in a house that became amagnet for displaced Jewish friends and extended family, a constant flow of people seeking new lives. Claudia started collecting recipes as a way of remembering a culture that she felt was at risk of being forgotten. “We thought we would never see each other again,” she writes in Med, “so [recipes] were something to remember one another by.” Cookbooks didn’t exist in Egypt, she notes – recipes were passed down frommother to daughter. The collection grew, starting as a “mixed bag because the Jewish community of Egypt was amosaic fromall over the old Ottoman world and theMediterranean”, and eventually, becoming her first book. The groundbreaking Book of Middle Eastern Food of 1968 (along with Jewish Food it’s the work she’s most proud of ), introducedWestern palates to zaatar, Persian lamb, houmous and pomegranate molasses – ingredients and dishes familiar to home cooks and restaurant-goers of 2022, but a revelation in late-60s Britain. The book also launched a career that resulted in some 15 publications – one that continues today with the publication of the 25th anniversary edition of Jewish Food. Beyond a cover richly decorated with detail from the ceiling of the synagogue in Toledo, Spain (a nod to Sephardi Jews of theMediterranean balances the Ashkenazi candelabra on the cover of the original edition), are recipes from the Jewish diaspora, personal stories, historical contexts and cultural digressions. It comes as no surprise that the original took 16 years to complete, so encyclopaedic is its scope, so scrupulous is Claudia’s research, fuelled as she was to document rigorously the culture of her displaced people, lest memory fade. The new edition finds itself in a di erent culinary landscape from 1997. Even Claudia questioned the idea when, in 1980, her editor at Penguin, Jill Norman, suggested she should write a book about Jewish food. “I said: ‘There isn’t such a thing, we just ate what was in the country.’” She accepted the challenge, however, and began piecing together the complex, global story of Jewish food by travelling hungrily, talking, observing, learning, asking for recipes fromanyone shemet. “There were no cookery books, no internet. You had to go and find people.” And context was all-important: “For me, a dish always means a person, a place. Part of my research has always been to be part of people’s lives, even if for amoment.” While the food of the Ashkenazi communities of eastern and central Europe was already recognised – salt beef and gefilte fish, the cheesecakes and strudels of bakeries as well as kosher delis – the fragrant flavours and spices of Sephardi cooking was found only in home kitchens. “Now I find echoes of Sephardi Jewish cooking everywhere in Britain. Their ingredients have become staples,” Claudia writes. “A generation has grown up using harissa fromTunisia, tahini fromLebanon, zhoug fromYemen.” New chapters suggest there’s more to discover – Claudia describes the wedding traditions and food-centred hospitality of the Algerian Jewish community in France, and explains the Ashkenazi-rooted, Sephardi-inflected cooking of Dutch Jews with a recipe for a yeasted ginger cake with almond and ginger paste. Years on, Claudia still feels thememory-triggering power of food and cooking. “Last night I made konafa. I took out my mother’s oven tray – the one I always use. When she came to England, the first thing she wanted to buy was a tray the right size for konafa, so this one is from 1956. I thought of her as I washed it, how she’d pull the strands of kadaif to loosen them.” You sense that memories are flooding her head. This Sunday (25 September) sees the start of the threeday holiday to celebrate RoshHashanah, the JewishNew Year festival. Claudia is not religious, but family will gather, traditions will be observed, and glasses raised, as much to mark the arrival of the book as that of Hebrew year 5782. “I don’t host [NewYear] anymore. My youngest daughter does it because her husband knows how to pray inHebrew. I’ll go to theirs,” she says. A crowd of vivacious friends and family will eat foods laden with symbolism. “In Egypt, we would eat something that represents the head of a sheep such as the brains, but here it’s a big fish to share, served with the head on. There’ll be rice, chickpeas, couscous, all symbols of fecundity, and the challah and pastries will be round.” Sweetness features too, signifying happiness in the formof honey, sweet potatoes, meat with quince or dried fruit. And what does the new year hold? Claudia has another book to write, she feels, but its shape is not yet clear. “There will be food, but there’ll bemorememory and storytelling. Maybe it’ll be a kind of memoir.” However it emerges, it will be one to savour, and for those closest to Claudia, it will be reason, as if one were needed, to gather around her table in that shady corner of Hampstead Garden Suburb and linger, talking and remembering, long into the night. The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey fromSamarkand and Vilna to the Present Day, 25th anniversary edition (Penguin) is out now. RoshHashanah recipes, p38 News&Views F O O D B I T E S Something you’re not keen on? In China I ate baby scorpions, deep-fried. I wouldn’t choose it again. How do you take your co ee? At home – strong, with milk and I make it by the infusion method. When I’m out it’s an espresso. What’s in your fridge? Must-haves are lemons, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, garlic, yogurt, milk, butter, cheeses, salamis, bread, wine and fresh fruit juice. A return trip? To Barcelona (below), for seafood soups and stews. ‘Now I find echoes of Sephardi Jewish cooking everywhere in Britain. Their ingredients have become staples’ a culinary journey Claudia in her kitchen in 1987 publicising her book, Mediterranean Cookery Photography: Getty images