Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Interview with Claudia Roden - part 2

Claudia Roden
Photo credit: Red Saunders

In part 1 of my interview with Claudia Roden she shared her experiences from years of writing about the food of the Middle East and her thoughts about cooking in the US and Britain. In part two, she tells us about her upcoming Spanish cookbook, recipe testing, and her opinions on culinary innovation.

For years I've read that you're working on a Spanish cookbook, how is that coming along?

For 5 years I worked on it and I've just given it in. I spent years eating, meeting people, having fun, also doing a lot of research and the history of Spain through it's food, the literature and so on. I researched the life of the aristocracy, the peasants, the church, every recipe has meaning. I only include a recipe if it tastes good, usually if it lasts 100 years it is good. The added pleasure is to know how it fits in to the culture. It becomes a way of life and it's been very enriching.

In a year it will be out, we are now doing the food photography, when I get back (to London) we will start again. The photographer is going around in Spain. I've done two editions of the book, one in metric and one in cups, for the American edition, so it's taken rather longer. I always want to test everything myself. I want to make sure of the measures. I am the responsible one so I want to do it.

Your recipes are some of the most reliable and consistent I have ever used. What's your opinion of recipe testers?
You have to give other indications, by that I mean not just timing, cups and measures. Until now I had never used recipe testers, but I also invite people to dinner or invite one person to dinner and feed them, so that is my test. Right now after having tested all the recipes 2-3 times, they are being tested again. My published in the UK, Penguin, has a policy to retest all recipes, so they asked if I wouldn't mind. I was very glad but I'm crossing out a lot that has been put in by the tester. I do add variations in time, but she has put in so much material that I fear will put off anyone from cooking! I want recipes to be short and direct. I assume someone knows a bit how to cook. She puts in every dish how to fry onions, I just think if people are busy with the timing they may not pay attention to the other signs.

You can't tell everyone everything the best is to teach them to gauge for themselves. They'll have to learn to be confident of their taste and their senses. You can't put every single eventuality in a recipe. I believe you must trust people to use their common sense. People should really trust their senses. You must trust your taste. Cooking is an art of the senses. We can explain as writers, that's our job, not to just give measures.

You and Paula Wolfert are both heroines of mine. You both seem to be able to get amazing details from home cooks. What are the keys to getting people to share their recipes, especially people notorious for not sharing recipes, like Italians?

I do a lot of advanced contact. In Italy the very first contact was an ideal one. I was invited to a dinner with regional chefs and cookery teachers from around the country and there was a man who organized things that had connections to other culinary enthusiasts around the country. Cooking teachers were very generous. They were not necessarily teaching Italian food, but I got them to help me make contacts. I found food lovers who go out to eat in different towns, I had personal connections that helped. I didn't waste any time at all since I was under pressure from the Times.

I would ask people on the train for help, I would ask someone in a train compartment, "what is your favorite food?" and several people would join in the conversation. I was told (by the newspaper) to go everywhere, eat everything, take people with me, but I couldn't always fit in so many meals so I just phoned numbers from the phone book calling randomly and asked people what do they eat? But none of the recipes from restaurants or from home cooks worked. You have to try and use your common sense. You can't force people to be absolutely correct.

In Spain I observed people cooking at cooking schools. In cooking and catering schools they teach Spanish and International food, but all that the young people want is to use machines and technology. They are all besotted by Ferran. On the other hand there is almost a backlash in Spain where people are concerned with preserving their culture and region. The threat has galvanized them to not give up on their beloved recipes.

Speaking of Spain, where do you stand on culinary innovation?
I am very impressed by a lot of innovators, I am not only tolerant but I think everyone is free to invent. Of course a lot of chefs think they have to invent everyday to be respected. In the past people had pride in their dishes, even classics. Now people feel driven to do something new. In a way a lot of messing about happens artificially. When there was change it was due to society--like hybrid dishes of different cultures that took 100 years to become part of the culture. There is change in food when culture changes, but to have a culture where you despise tradition and only revere innovation is very sad. Food is part of identity. Countries like France and Italy should not give up there identity, besides, most people are not very good at innovation.

I don't see the point in innovating to surprise or to gain prestige when it doesn't taste all that good. Sometimes the look becomes more important than the taste. Food photography made an impact that way years ago. The visual is important but you want to eat something that has real taste. Knowing what to put together is very important. If you area great creator you are fantastic. If you are just trying to be in fashion chances are it's not worth it.

In Spain chefs have gone through innovation using science and technology and because of the reaction by Spaniards, they have come back a bit. The roots are there, they want to use regional ingredients. I love the cooking of Santi Santamaria (a prominent avant-garde Catalan and Spanish chef). It's exciting, but it's not what home cooking is about. It's good to shake the Spaniards out of bad habits for example frying everything.

The French had the same experience with Nouvelle Cuisine but they have gone back to their original culture. It's important to find the balance between old and new. For restaurant chefs it's one thing, but for home cooks it's another thing altogether. It seems people entertain more in England than they do in the US, but sometimes what they do is too fussy (influenced by the culinary innovators). To entertain you should do one big dish and have everyone serve themselves. People are afraid to entertain because they think it's old-fashioned. That's a shame.

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Check out the post from yesterday, part 1 of my interview with Claudia Roden