This book was my charity shop find of the year, scooped up the day after Boxing Day on a family visit to Woodbridge in Suffolk. I have always loved Roald Dahl and voraciously read his books over and over and over again when I was a child. I clearly remember, aged ten, his death being announced on the tiny television in our dining room and weeping at the loss. This book, which Roald was working on with his wife Felicity when he died, was completed and released the year following his death in 1990. A very powerful poignancy runs throughout the book as a result, which is heightened by the personal and moving memories of his step-daughter Lorina, aged only 27, who died just a few short months before he did.
It is a book of family, history and heartbreak. But also of beauty, joy and celebration, all told though the prism of food. There are detailed, loving memoirs of family past and present, from Roald, Felicity and their large extended family, with their culinary memories and dishes that were particularly associated with them.
The recipes – sourced from friends, family, respected chefs and their annually-changing group of young, talented cook-housekeepers – are elegant and seasonal. Made from fresh, uncomplicated ingredients, it is carefully executed British farmhouse food with international flair. Although born in Wales himself, Roald’s family were Norwegian and their impression on the food is particularly clear.
“A plateful of young broad beans lightly painted with melted butter and sprinkled with a little salt, eaten all alone on a warm plate before the main course is the ultimate joy. There is nothing like it. The tenderness and the extraordinary subtle flavour are indescribable.” – Roald Dahl
Although the chapter Main Courses is entirely meat, game and fish, there is much to offer the literary vegetarian in the rest of the book as vegetables, “surely the greatest of all foods” according to Dahl, are held in high esteem throughout. The chapter Vegetables & Salads in particular contains many detailed, precise, creative vegetable preparations that I definitely plan to add to my repertoire.
A master of the English literary language, Roald has filled the book with enchantingly vivid descriptions of food he has eaten and loved, with particular attention paid to the surroundings and atmosphere. Although lobster isn’t quite my thing, his description of this exceptional meal certainly is: “We each received a massive, grilled crustacean that had literally just been brought in by the lobster-fishermen, and it was served with plain melted butter and crisp bread. I am not one of those who think lobster is a great dish, but I tell you these three, fresh out of the icy waters of the Bay and accompanied by a cracking cold bottle of good Fumé, that we ate in a quiet room overlooking the great calm sea, were astonishing and unforgettable. They were different lobsters to any we had ever had before. What is it that makes three lobsters for three people taste totally and utterly different from all the others one has eaten in a long life? It is of course the mood, the atmosphere, the still waters of the Bay and the blue hills beyond. But forgetting all that, each of us found ourselves saying that these were not lobsters but some kind of food of the gods that had been dropped gently on to our plates from the great kitchen in heaven. Each of us who is in the habit of tasting food with care has experienced this sort of a phenomenon now and again and it is always a wonderful surprise that really has no explanation.”
Every single aspect of this book attracts and the photographs, illustrations and graphic design are no exception. The book is illustrated by Quentin Blake – always a joy – who brings to life this relatively new branch of the family tree and contributes his own characteristically-bizarre illustrated recipe, amongst other delights. The food photography (by Jan Baldwin) is very carefully considered, employing still-life arrangements of the dishes and their ingredients to tell the story of Gipsy House, its kitchens and its gardens. In an unusual touch that chimes exactly with my own forays into graphic design, the book is peppered with the charming vegetable and ingredient graphics you see throughout this post.
Several remarkable chefs also leave their mark on this book, from contributed recipes to whole catered dinners. A touching letter from food writer Jane Grigson, who the world also lost that year, offers her insight into the politics of recipe attribution. Still pertinent in the age of the internet and expressing a sentiment I wholeheartedly concur with she writes: “I really do not mind if anyone uses any of my recipes, so long as there’s an acknowledgement. In fact, surely anyone can use anyone’s recipe, so long as they rewrite it, with or without acknowledgement? . . . In fact the person quoted ought to be grateful for the free publicity, and humbly recollect the number of times they have pilfered from fellow writers past and present.”
“In cooking originality is rare, it’s all a matter of adjustment and balance.” – Jane Grigson
The importance of seeking out good ingredients from small-scale artisan farm producers in the UK is also continually stressed – before it became so very fashionable. The elusive private chef and food writer, Marwood Yeatman, makes several appearances in the book, both contributing recipes and cooking advice and cooking an impeccably sourced feast for one of the family’s special celebrations.
Roald describes Yeatman’s remarkable approach to buying ingredients for their party: “We had never before met a person who took such immense care in selecting the ingredients for a meal and, in particular, the precise places those ingredients came from. . . . He wanted wild mushrooms, so he used ones picked earlier in the season and dried at home. He knew all about mushrooms and where to find them and he gathered a basketful of several different varieties. He ordered thin leeks that must be pulled that day. He found salsify and viper’s grass (scorzonera). He got laver (a kind of seaweed) from Barnstable. ‘This is the best time of year for laver,’ he said. His red and green salad was made with landcress, sorrel and lamb’s lettuce. . . . For the clotted cream, he went to Mrs Mills of Bideford’s famous Pannier Market and for his butter to Mrs Sevier in the New Forest.”
“The cheeses were superb. Each had been collected by him from small dairies that he knew well, made with unpasteurised milk by expert and loving hands.” – Roald Dahl on Marwood Yeatman
We learn in the book that one of Roald’s daily pleasures in life was eating chocolate. He approaches the invention of British chocolate bars with an enthusiasm and appeal that makes me want to reconsider not ever eating them! “I tell you, there has been nothing like it in the history of chocolate and there never will be. . . . We are no more likely to see another Crunchie or another Aero than we are to see another Mozart or Beethoven. So we must relish what we have and be grateful for it. . . . If I were a headmaster, I would get rid of the history teacher and get a chocolate teacher instead and my pupils would study a subject that affected all of them.”
The sweetie-puddings he tells us he made for children sound like a dream: “We also used to make a lovely sauce for vanilla ice cream with melted Mars Bars, but I expect you know all about that one. . . . there was also the Creamy Kit Kat Pudding. This one will make any child in the world love you. Put a layer of Kit Kats in the bottom of the dish. Then a layer of whipped cream. Then a layer of Kit Kats. Then another of whipped cream and so on for as long as you like. Put the whole thing in the deep-freeze. Serve in slices when frozen. Yum-yum. . . . Chop up a couple of Crunchies and mix them into a bowl of whipped cream. Freeze for an hour.”
“Yum-yum again.” – Roald Dahl
This really was one of the best cookbooks I have ever bought and take it from me I have bought a great many cookbooks! Every part of this book sparkles. The recipes, the stories, the memories, the emotions, the food ethos, the illustration, the photography, the graphic design, the descriptions, the imagery. Wonderful!
I cannot understand why this book is not more well known. Roald Dahl is such a popular writer – still selling millions of books – and I’m sure that his fans past and present would delight in this window into his world as much as I did. I truly appreciate the heart-rending effort it must have taken for Felicity Dahl to finish this book and I am very glad that she did.
There are a wide variety of delectable-sounding dishes I would dearly love to eat in this book. These are a few of my favourites. Stay tuned for me to cook and blog my way through them!
Vegetables & Salad
Neisha’s Baked Aubergines
Potato & Chicory Soufflé
Baked Marinated Courgettes
Special Tomato Salad
Iced Pecan & Orange Mousse
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