I write from time to time about how my life is a duopoly of luck and discovery. The people I meet lead me to places and products which are of that simplicity and authenticity that so many can only dream of – tiny backstreet bistrots, bars on hilltops with one dish for lunch and artisans who make products with passion, into the kitchens and to before-dawn market with some of the greatest chefs (mostly French and Belgian) - and are sometimes rewarded with sales and reputation way beyond their quartier. And for some unexplained reason, some not despite their talents – for every one Maria Callas, there’s another ten or more soprano’s few will ever hear.
My entire life has been spent engaged with food – not always the best and certainly not always with the most honourable of producers. I’ve seen it all – and as a friend says, “Gareth knows two more tricks than a monkey”.
Age and experience enables one to sieve the dross away and make room for only the best. Next to best is first of the losers – and not for me, whatever my income and circumstance.
Food is above all about the people who are integrated into its being – farmers and chefs or course, but also writers, commentators, teachers and all those who inspire and lead us closer to the truth of real food.
This is the first of an informal series about people who’ve made such extraordinary contributions to helping the British, in particular, appreciate and better understand their food.
I feel the privilege that my first hero is Arabella Boxer. For such a heavyweight, her modesty is enchanting. She was also by birth a Lady, so my headline has weight. Heavyweight refers to her importance these past 3-4 decades of understanding food in England – the pun I couldn’t resist.
Arabella’s near 20 year association with photographer Tessa Traeger is the stuff of legend. All brought together in the great days of English Vogue then edited by Beatrice Miller – most covers were by David Bailey who would send in just one shot – that’s the one, he’d write on the envelope – and who would argue – he even marked the cropping.
Arabella’s research and prose at all times equal the visual feast of Tessa’s highly complex photo-montages – we know what went into so many of them, as Tessa’s assistant at the time is a friend.
I visited Arabella recently in her Chelsea home she shares with two lively budgerigars, surrounded by a lifetime of trinkets and treasures. The table these books were photographed on, she said, “came from Bloomsbury” – those three words are laden with suggestion and intrigue, but Arabella would never spill the beans.
Her kitchen has those wooden spoons that have stirred a thousand sauces and should be made to speak.
With more than 20 books to her name since she started writing about food in the national press in the 60s, she said from the heart, as this photograph was shot – “I do so wish my mother could see me now. She’d be so proud.”
Arabella writes much from the heart about her early life spent between Scotland and London, Paris and Rome. Her reflections – some personal and some researched, took me straightway to the age of Lady Metroland – the crazy impact of rich Americans on English people more at home in the country than 30s London of nightclubs, cocktail parties, lunches and little work. Reading her introductory words, I began to live a fantasy that Arabella Boxer and Evelyn Waugh could have even collaborated on the Introduction to her newly re-published ‘Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food’.
To remark and celebrate English Food when it was at a short lived height between two dreadful World Wars is a wonderful thing – Arabella calls it a ‘discreet revolution’. However one approaches the recipes and the dishes though, the classic French kitchen does keep showing through – and why wouldn’t it – it is where the kitchens of the great houses learned their craft. Marcel Boulestin was one of her heroes; so was André Simon – two Anglophiles if ever there were.
What was yet to arrive in the 60/70s was rustic European where the English began paying large restaurant bills to eat simple and cheap peasant cooking of regional Europe – mostly Italy and France, but Spain and Portugal, Turkey and Cyprus too. For me it was the age of the ‘dreadful mistake’ where canned white beans with Toulouse sausage were passed off as Cassoulet, broiler chicken in cheap red wine was Coq au Vin – and so the list went on which is why Arabella Boxer’s and other’s search for the real meant so much in influencing a better cooking style.
Even the structure of meals was influenced by French bourgeois cooking – and they themselves by the Russians who brought about a less formal service. The very word ‘bistrot’ (always with the 2nd ‘t’) is, in effect, Russian for ‘quick’. The ‘bistro’ spelling came later – the estaminet is lost forever.
Back to Arabella’s work – it certainly doesn’t start and stop with English Food - but I urge all my readers to spend time delighting in the lengthy Introduction – that’s where Boxer meets Waugh. As a pen-picture documentary of a life almost certainly gone forever, the Introduction says it all. It’s a book in its own right.
For me perhaps the greatest delight is Arabella’s section on Savouries – where the French would opt for cheese (wonderful), the English gentleman would ask for a savoury – usually something very savoury indeed and served with or one toast. Arabella mentions ‘Scotch Woodcock’ – a classic like Mock Turtle Soup. I would always offer guests fresh and grilled cod’s roes on toast when they are so fresh as to be eaten raw.
I asked her publisher why Penguin had taken the leap to re-publish such an erudite work when the cook book shelves are full of recycled drivel from ‘sleb chefs, with the odd gem to be shucked out from in between those grinning covers.
“I publish what I like and what I believe in,” said Juliet Annan with a clear confidence. Publishing is a business like any other – Juliet couldn’t have taken that decision alone, so I take succour that there are still those in that world who care for quality and not just celebrity.
I can’t write about Arabella without mentioning warmth, friendship and modesty. I first met her when I was starting out and she was established and installé with Vogue. She has only ever shown me graciousness – and her good friend, Anissa Helou picks this up perfectly. Anissa is a food writer and food historian with a pure blood Middle Eastern background – when Anissa talks about Lebanese, Syrian or any other of the exquisite kitchens of the region that gave us ‘cuisine’, she talks with gravitas.
“I first met Arabella when I was a novice in the food world – she kindly came to my first book launch, then invited me to meet the high and mighty of the food world in her home. For all this, her work is the core – Arabella wrote the first proper recipe for a tabbuleh I’d read by an English person, meaning lots, lots more parsley than bulgar.”
It was Anissa, not Arabella, that told me that to research her book on Mediterranean Food she travelled around some of the more edgy parts of the Mediterranean in a VW Camper Van – simply unheard of in those days. I can’t imagine the great Ms Elizabeth David travelling by camper van – Silver Arrow sleeper from Victoria, or chauffeured Citröen maybe – but not a people’s car VW.
“To put this in context, her drive for researching the genuine, the authentic and the real, took her to corners of the Mediterranean that were almost certainly alien to a Chelsea girl,” explained Anissa.
Arabella’s name comes up in some odd places too. Our priest, Monsignor Rothon, has referred to her work from time to time as he likes to add a food page to the church magazine – he has often taken inspiration from Arabella and has said as much in church. I had Arabella dedicate a copy of English Food for him – he spends much of his time these past four decades, maybe more, at a college near Cadiz, hence his knowledge and love of the Mediterranean kitchen.
Arabella Boxer, I am inspired by what you have done these past few decades for us all. Never stop putting pen to paper (or using a trendy Mac in her case). Recipes are only as good as the stories that go with them.
Of the inevitable endorsements, my favourite by far was The Spectator: ‘A treasury of social gossip….immensely enjoyable and useful’.
I’m sure Evelyn Waugh has at least read the Introduction from the Other Side. He and Arabella were certainly writing this book in a parallel world. Sadly most of her work is out of print, but this is where Amazon and your Second Hand Bookshop come into their own.
Only last week someone about to launch a gastronic quarterly magazine excitedly told me he’d only days before found a first edition ‘First Slice Your Cookbook’ – the book that put Arabella on the map and a witty homage to one of England’s very first cookbooks, Hannah Glasse’s ‘First Catch Your Hare’.
Arabella Boxer. Thank you.