Friday was a real treat. I was asked to introduce Claudia Roden at her Jewish Book Week session on her new work “The Food of Spain”. The book, sadly, has not quite arrived in England – it’s somewhere on a boat on the way from China but should arrive very shortly.
Claudia Roden is a truly remarkable woman – anyone who has met her or heard her speak before will testify to that. She was born in Egypt and, although she is now in her 70s, she is a good deal more active than many of my peers in their 30s. She travels the world researching her books and accepting fresh accolades for all her remarkable work.
The last seven years have been devoted to travels for her new book . It is, predictably, beautiful and brilliant. I had a short time to look over a copy. The content is remarkable and the design is excellent. Claudia Roden is, of course, a cultural historian as much as a food writer. No one better explores the nexus between food and culture and identity better than her. Recipes tell a history.
In her book, for example, she chats about the perversity that the Conversos of Spain heralded a pork dish as one of their great traditions. Using cumin and other spices the pork was cooked in the same way that they had cooked lamb before.
Discussing such dishes Claudia explained that so many recipes from Spain involve ham because cooking with “treif” (forbidden food according to the Jewish dietary laws of Kashrut) was one way that anyone in the country would hope to prove their religious roots and would be protected from the horrors of the Inquisition. Over history, many Spanish nuns were of Jewish origin but converted to escape persecution. Seville, in fact, had more churches than any city in Spain – and many were funded by Jews eager to hide their true identity.
Roden divides Spanish cuisine into three zones – the plains, the mountains and the seas – rather than by region. Regional cuisine was damaged by the Spanish dictatorship which demanded mass production of food and left no room for smaller scale regional production.
I would urge anyone with an interest in food and identity to buy the sumptuous new book. If you missed her at Jewish Book Week, hear her talk at the Gefiltefest festival on May 20th.
Michael Leventhal is the founder and director of the Gefiltefest London Jewish Food Festival www.gefiltefest.org.