Elisabeth Luard

22nd February 2018

Interview: Olia Hercules
Photographs: Dan Dennison

22nd February 2018

Interview: Olia Hercules
Photographs: Dan Dennison

I have been admiring Elisabeth Luard’s work for many years. A couple of years ago I heard her talk at Ballymaloe literary festival while I was experiencing a painful writer’s block – after her talk, the block was dislodged, her words breathing inspiration into me. Elisabeth is an award-winning food writer, journalist and broadcaster – and in an earlier life a botanical painter for Kew Gardens. I felt connected to Elisabeth’s writing because of her focus on food’s historical, geographical and social context. Her European Peasant Cookery is one of my favourite books on food.

On the morning of the interview, I whizz by my allotment in Alexandra Palace and collect a bouquet of sorts – chard, borage flowers, mint, lemon balm, lemon verbena, and a couple of pattypan squashes which Elisabeth refers to as “sputnik squashes”. She recently moved from rural Wales to Acton in west London, where she now lives in a new-build apartment with a mezzanine. It is very modern, which I don’t expect, but Elisabeth has managed to make it look cosy and bohemian. The walls are adorned with her excellent botanical drawings. Heavy curtains separate the living room/study from the small kitchen. Upstairs, the bedroom is airy and light. Wherever you look, there are fascinating objects, full of history, indicating a well-travelled life – she grew up in Uruguay, Spain and Mexico and lived in Andalusia with her own children.

After many years in the Welsh countryside, Elisabeth is eager to reconnect with London and the busy, modern world. At one point she asks me to help set up her brand new iPhone. In the process I introduce her to Instagram, and a few days later her wonderful watercolours begin to appear, a welcome respite to all the perfectly styled dishes in my feed. First, though, there is a potato salad to make. Elisabeth hands me a small (what we call “peasant woman’s”) knife and an onion to chop. When she invites people over, she doesn’t start cooking until she hears them at the front door – cooking with people, she says, is much more fun than cooking alone.

Continued below...

When you cook for yourself at home, what kind of things do you make?

Ah, what did I do last night? Slices of aubergine and tomato and some very smelly goat’s cheese.

What did you do with the aubergines?

I fried them. I am a Spanish cook so I reach for the frying pan, a small one. The Spanish way of cooking is deep frying – two fingers’ depth of oil only. I remember cooking with a bunch of Greeks in Thessaloniki. They stopped and said, “You are cooking like a Spaniard! You are frying like a Spaniard.” Everyone thought it was very funny – it’s always good when everyone finds you funny, don’t you think?

Yes! What about the potato salad you are preparing for us – will it have a Spanish twist?

It probably will. I don’t necessarily know what I will do to it.

You lived in Andalusia as an adult. Were you there for a long time?

Yes, I brought my children up there. When they were born, I was fed up with English attitudes to children – they weren’t much liked by English people of my generation, who didn’t think they should be in public places. So we went from living in the 1960s King’s Road to the Spanish countryside. And it was great. I already had two children by the time I went, I had four by the time I left.
I had a very Hispanic upbringing too. I travelled the world with my mother and stepfather, who was a diplomat and got posted to Uruguay. They had more children, so there was another family – and you are the wrong side of the family, so you get to sit with the cook. My brother used to go to the harbour and fish with a lot of smelly little boys and I used to go home with the cook and the maid. My mum had plenty of money so there were always plenty of servants about.

I thought it was mildly hallucinogenic. But everyone drank it, me and many other kids, sitting on a stoop, sipping sugary mate tea

Did you learn cooking with them?

Yes, though I didn’t probably notice at the time. But I was quite useful. For example, I was allowed to use a sharp tea spoon to scoop out the seeds out of a gourd they called zapatito [little shoe], which they filled with rice… I remember I had a mate gourd. Do you know what that is?

No.

Mate is like leaf cocaine. The leaf looks like dusty tea, just yellower. When I was a child in Montevideo, everyone of my age had one of these gourds as cups and this very finely ground tea, resembling henna, and if you were a child you had sugar in it. I thought it was mildly hallucinogenic. But everyone drank it, me and many other kids, sitting on a stoop, sipping sugary mate tea.

Do you still drink it?

Yes. I just ordered some from my coffee company. I go off the booze on Sundays and Mondays, which is a really good idea, and then I have mate instead.

When we were as young as 10, in Ukraine, our parents used to give us coffee with condensed milk.

Yes, my own children, when we lived in Andalusia, used to find someone they called Cura the Witch who lived at the bottom of a ravine. She used to give them coffee with milk, but with anise added to it. So they’d come back and I’d say, “I know where you’ve been!” I actually learned a lot about Spain through my children. They went to school there.

 

What was the food like in Spain back then?

It was wonderful. It is hard to cook Andalusian food properly if you’re not there, because they have very good fish, excellent Serrano ham, wonderful veg… It was very seasonal, we were in the olive grove territory, so we always used olive oil. We had goat’s cheese, most people kept hens and everybody kept a pig – and they were all Iberico pigs. It was Moorish for so long, and the Moors didn’t eat pig.

Pig is king in Ukraine too, because the Mongols, Tartars and Turks would take every other type of cattle, leaving us with just pigs, which they deemed unclean.

That’s very interesting. The presence of the Moors in Spain is such a delicate conversation. During the Inquisition, most of the interrogations were about food, the obvious question being, “Do you eat ham?” They always said they did, they’d see that coming. But one way of telling is the use of metal versus earthenware. So if you come into someone’s kitchen you’d know if they were cooking in a Moorish way because they had earthenware – or if they fried the meat or veg before adding a liquid to a stew, or had a preference for lamb, or used cumin as a spice, or used dried fruit and nuts in sweet-savoury cooking.

I found a slug in the lettuce the other day – it’s a good sign, I was very pleased about that

Are there any boiled dumplings in Spanish cooking?

No, they are not into boiling as such, but they cook a lot with bread, which is really what gazpacho is. In the 60s and 70s, gazpacho as I knew it was a bread porridge, cold in summer and hot in winter. So no dumplings, but plenty uses for stale bread. When I was there, everyone grew their own wheat and milled their own flour, made their own bread and sold what they didn’t need for the family. Each farmhouse would do it in rotation and they would sell the leftovers in the gas station.

Was there much dairy produce?

Well, I used to live in Madrid as a child, and you had to go with a can to a milking parlour once a day to get your milk. So there were still milking cows in the middle of Madrid in the 1950s! In Andalusia there was a man who would come with a donkey [to deliver milk]. All my neighbours made goat’s cheese, everyone was self-sufficient. There were salt flats around the corner, so nobody ever bought salt, you’d just take your bucket down.

At this point, Elisabeth is frying padron peppers, covering them a little as the oil starts splattering so they fry and steam at the same time. Garlic goes on top of ripe sliced tomatoes, followed with a slick of good Spanish olive oil. We sit down to eat at a table with built-in tiles for putting hot things on.

Tell me about your everyday eating habits. What do you have for breakfast?

I have toast with either butter or garlic and olive oil. And I have tea – British tea-bag tea, builder’s with milk and a lot of sugar… I am settling into my London life. I go to Notting Hill farmers’ market, which is absolutely brilliant. I found a slug in the lettuce the other day – it’s a good sign, I was very pleased about that.

Do you cook from a wide variety of cuisines?

I cook Mediterranean as my default setting, usually on top-heat in a small frying pan, though I do eat some Scandinavian stuff like cods’ roe paste in a toothpaste tube and cloudberry jam as sold in Ikea. I use loads of olive oil, garlic, chilli flakes (preferably Turkish), and never buy ready-meals because they aren’t like the picture on the packet.

How long do you usually spend cooking?

It takes me 20 minutes to cook for myself from start to finish in the evening. Warm potato salad’s a fave. When I have guests, I save a few jobs to hand on – making the mayo, podding peas, picking crab, skinning almonds, pitting olives (I hate ready-pitted – they taste of nothing but brine). All my entertaining takes place on and around the kitchen-table – just as well because now I live in a studio-flat so there’s no choice. But even when I had the house in Wales with full-scale sitting-dining-kitchen arrangement, I still preferred people to join me the kitchen. And if I know someone really enjoys cooking, I consult over shopping, then step back and let them rip. You can learn a lot that way.

On The Menu

Lunch with Elisabeth Luard
West London, September 2017

To eat:

A simple lettuce salad with nasturtium flowers
Pan fried padron peppers
Warm new potato salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and eggs »
Tomatoes with unrefined sunflower oil and parsley
Bread

To drink:

Fizzy water with white peach syrup

What are you working on now?

On a cartoon cookbook. So it sort of marries what I do [writing and painting].

She shows us one page from the book, a recipe in the form of a comic strip, beautifully drawn in watercolours.

Look, a Moroccan fish tagine.

This is beautiful.

Well, it is very easy to follow! My children saw it and said “take out the jokes”.

No, keep the jokes!

One publisher got really excited but then said it will be too expensive and that they won’t sell enough copies. So I went with a company called Unbound, who crowd-fund. They are very enthusiastic about the project and I think they will probably do it. Look, there is a goulash… It’s good fun.

She shows us some other sketches from her travels.

I can do them really fast. This is from Ethiopia. Here they are making injera. And this is Rajasthan in India. These tell me everything I need to know. I keep written notes too, but this is much better, even than photographs. I can pick any of these as an introduction to a book, or a feature I am writing. It will come out as it should look, in tune with my imagination and writing.

It’s run by an exuberant Persian woman, serving mostly shish, grilled meats and rice. You can go there for lunch and it doesn’t take very long, it costs very little, a fiver a head or something
Elisabeth on her favourite London restaurants

Tell me how you do it.

When I go travelling, I’ll stand in the corner of the market and sketch. I don’t mind people watching – you have to get over the fact that you can’t be on your own. I always carry spares [watercolour boxes], so people can join me and paint with me. And then they are surprised when they can’t do it, as it looks so easy, which is quite fun too. But it is so much part of what I do, of what pushes me. I always write very visually. The fact that I started out as a painter dictates the way that I write, I’m sure. And also because I am not an imaginative painter, I basically draw what I see. And it’s the same with writing. I’m not a pomegranate person. I don’t put pomegranate seeds on food unless it’s absolutely necessary. There is a lot of pomegranate around isn’t there?

For more about Elisabeth, go to www.elisabethluard.com

Elisabeth is crowdfunding for her latest project, Cookstrip. To contribute, go to the Unbound website.

Follow Elisabeth: Instagram | Twitter

Posted 22nd February 2018

In Interviews

 

Interview: Olia Hercules
Photographs: Dan Dennison

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