A Day with the Guild

I spent a lovely day this week being inducted into the Guild of Food Writers, beginning with a lunch for new members at my favourite restaurant, Quo Vadis, on Dean St. It used to be a brothel, like anywhere worthwhile in Soho, and Karl Marx lived there, too, though I suspect not at the same time. Jeremy Lee – insouciant and ever-upbeat – is the brilliant chef who masterminds a very British seasonal menu – itself decorated almost daily by the jolly artist John Broadley.

This is what we had:

I sat beside Eleanor Ford, one half of the brilliant team who made Samarkand:

Her membership had lapsed, but then she rejoined, which gave her another lunch. There were no speeches, just friendly chatter and Pic St Loup.

Later the same day, I went to a Guild event on the subject of self-publishing, to offer a few words of encouragement to anyone thinking of going down that route. Lots of good people, fizzing with ideas. My own prescription was a pancake lens, northern light – and getting the distribution right.

To which end, copies of Yashim Cooks Istanbul, which was shortlisted for a Guild Award this year, are now available as Christmas presents for the cook or crime aficionado in your life. The reviews are almost unstintingly enthusiastic, and there is no other cookery book quite like it.

Argonaut Books have also published this Christmas’s stocking filler, a genuinely pocket sized guide to London’s holy places: The Pilgrim’s Guide to Sacred London. It takes you on five walks around the churches, stones, holy wells and forgotten palaces of London, and the reviewer for the Catholic Herald said ‘I can’t think of a better volume to have in your pocket.’

The Pilgrim’s Guide to Sacred London is out in the US in Spring, but pre-Christmas copies are available here.

 

A Pilgrim’s Guide to Sacred London

You may be surprised to discover that I’ve co-authored a guidebook, particularly if you are one of those (splendid) readers demanding a new Yashim story instead. Well, have you seen his cookbook? Yashim Cooks Istanbul – ‘evocative, captivating and a treat to read – a book that breaks new ground in the field of cookery writing’ – reached the final three for best First Book at the Guild of Food Writers’ Awards last week (deservedly won by Pete Lawrence’s The Allotment Cookbook). So if you miss Yashim you can still reach him by taste…

As for A Pilgrim’s Guide to Sacred London, I suppose I sort of owed it, London-born, London bred; for now that I live in the deep country, and visit the capital when I can, I see its shape and genesis differently and with a country eye: searching for the little valley of the Fleet where it wound between the low hills on which the City of London stands – Cornhill and Ludgate Hill; or pursuing the track (Maiden Lane) that led round the convent garden from St Martin-in-the-Fields; or contemplating Thorney Island, all reeds and marsh, where once Watling Street forded the Thames and now the great Abbey at Westminster stands, the holiest in the land. Even the City churches – all forty seven of them in the book – provide exactly the kind of interest that you get from exploring country parish churches, each one different, all by Sir Christopher Wren, each one a sanctuary. Oddly, if you spend a day knocking about the churches of London, the noise of traffic and the press of crowds and the weight of Mammon begin to fall away. That is the spirit in which this book was written, and compiled.

It is available worldwide from Argonaut Books by clicking here.

The best justification for the book is probably to be found in this delightful review by Robert Leigh Pemberton, which appeared in last Saturday’s Telegraph. So here it is, in its entirety.

Pleasing the Guild

Count Palewski, Polish ambassador to the Sublime Porte, burst into the room, waving a paper.

‘Yashim! Yashim! Have you seen this?’

Yashim glanced over his shoulder, knife poised above a bowl of little artichokes. ‘No. But have you seen one of these?’ He held an artichoke by its stem and twirled it in mid-air. ‘George brought them in from Kadikoy this morning. Grown in his garden. The smallest artichokes – you could almost eat them raw.’

‘Stop babbling, Yash.’ Palewski flung the paper onto the sofa, and tapped at it. ‘Le Moniteur Ottoman. You’ve seen it?’

‘Seen it?’ Yashim looked blank.

‘You’re in it, Yashim. Prizes, glory!’ He snatched up the paper and squinted at the front page. ‘Well, glory at least. You might not actually win the prize. It depends on what the Guild decide.’

‘The Guild? What Guild – of Soup Makers?’ Yashim had a momentary vision of old Mustafa, the Albanian Guild Master, lowering his moustaches over a steaming bowl of tripe soup. After what had passed between them during the period of The Janissary Tree, Yashim thought it unlikely that Mustafa would be handing him a prize.

Palewski sat down, and spread Le Moniteur across his knees. ‘Not the Soup Makers, no. But affiliated to them, maybe. Food Writers,’ he read slowly. He looked up. ‘The Guild of Food Writers. They’ve made a list of books they might give a prize to, and you’re on it. For your first cook book.’

Yashim laid down the knife and folded his arms. ‘But I haven’t written a cookbook.’

Palewski waved away his objection. ‘No, no, but someone did, and they based it all on you. Comes to the same thing. Your cooking, Yash. Leeks in oil, and chicken with walnuts, and that excellent thing you do with lamb, you know, from Konya? In the sealed pot. Book’s got your name on it, too. “Yashim Cooks Istanbul.” They say it’s awfully good.’

‘Who says?’

‘Oh, all the chaps. NPR and the New York Times. Delicious. It’s like Le Moniteur, but for cooking. And now the Guild have chosen it for their shortlist.’

‘I – I’m very grateful.’

‘I think,’ Palewski said slowly, turning his head to look at the small bag on the floor at the end of the sofa: ‘I think –‘

‘It calls for celebration?’

‘What an idea, Yashim! But yes, why not? If you insist. I happen to have a very good bottle of champagne, the real thing, left by those Italian boys in the Baklava Club. I’m sorry – I didn’t mean…’

‘No, no.’ Yashim gave him a reassuring smile. ‘The Baklava Club. It’s all over now. Fetch out your champagne. I’ll get the glasses.’

The bottle was cold. The cork flew. Yashim drank, but lightly, listening to Palewski talking happily of the Istanbul cook book, and the pilaf with hazelnut and lemon, and a fish, poached in paper – and a dish of beef, with sorrel sauce, which took the ambassador home again, to the shores of the Vistula, and the rolling foothills of the Tatra mountains.

Yashim Cooks Istanbul: Culinary Adventures in the Ottoman Kitchen has been shortlisted for the 2017 GFW First Book Award, the most prestigious in food writing and broadcasting. Copies are available signed and postage free here: YASHIM COOKS

 

 

Crisis averted: what to do on the plane!

Since the US and UK banned laptops and tablets from the airplane cabins on flights originating in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, I’ve read some really daft articles addressing the desperate question: what can I do on the plane?

Here’s one, from Bloomberg: Hacks to Survive a Twenty Hour Flight – without a laptop or tablet!

One answer might be: read a book. Revolutionary? Perhaps all first class travel could look like this?

Here’s my list for travellers coming out of Turkey:

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

The latest novel by the wonderful Elif Shafak, who first burst onto the scene with her punchy, funny and tragic novel, The Bastard of Istanbul. Elif writes about women negotiating their power and their position in a man’s world, and she does it with sly humour, tenderness, and a wonderful feel for historical time and place. The action kicks off when a beggar snatches the handbag of a wealthy Turkish housewife on her way to a smart Istanbul dinner party. Out drops an old photo… and with it, a life and love that Peri has tried to forget.

Istanbul: Poetry of Place, edited by Ates Orga

Packed with poetry and a little prose, all set in the former capital of the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires, Istanbul: Poetry of Place brings you the voices of the city’s inhabitants, from sultans to modern-day feminists.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Complex, fragmentary, unreliable and poetic, this thoroughly postmodern novel abounds with puns, ironies, double-takes and imponderable conflicts of love, faith and social justice, reflecting not only aspects of the human condition but also of 20th-century Turkey’s preoccupations with secularism, religious freedom and revolution. In the city of Kars, a young journalist, Ka, comes to investigate a spate of suicides relating to the wearing of headscarves – and opens up a kaleidoscopic world of claims, counter-claims and conflicting priorities.

Turkey: a Short History by Norman Stone

A fanfare for modern Turkey and a vivid, provocative, often funny, always insightful account of how it came about. Stone pulls together his accomplishments as a philoturk, a philologist, controversialist and narrative historian to sweep his readers along a short crash course in Turkish origins, their history and current challenges. If you don’t really know why a portrait of Ataturk hangs in almost every shop in Turkey, read this book.

Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire by Philip Mansel

The definitive history of the city from 1453, by one of our finest historians, also explains how a multi-ethnic, polyglot empire was controlled by a single dynasty for more than 600 years. Mansel mines a vast range of sources to bring the fashions, pomp and politics of this ancient world capital to life.

Birds without Wings by Louis de Bernières

I keep picking this up – and putting it down again, because I can’t quite face the onrushing tragedy. Needless to say, it’s the story of a doomed love affair between Philotei and Ibrahim, as relations between Greece and Turkey collapse in the First World War; prelude to the massive population exchange of 1923, which ended Greek settlement of Asia Minor. Gallipoli is in it; so is Ataturk; so are some characters from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. De Bernières insists this is the better book and I believe him.

Eothen by AW Kinglake

The title, which means “from the east” is, as the author points out, the hardest thing in the book, a sly travel account purporting to be written by a Victorian hooray which makes for spectacularly funny reading. Jonathan Raban has described the narrator as having the “sensibility of someone who is a close blood-relative of Flashman”: witness his thoroughly waspish account of a meeting with Lady Hester Stanhope. Typical, too, is his insouciance towards the plague in Cairo, which claims his heroic doctor while the narrator survives unmoved.

A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich

The three volumes of his magisterial history, boiled down into one, may seem too condensed at times, but Norwich deftly and entertainingly outlines the often outrageous story of an empire that lasted 1,123 years and 18 days. It is as good on Byzantine art and church matters as on the peccadilloes of the emperors – and their triumphs.

Rebel Land by Christopher de Bellaigue

Caught up in a journalistic furore after his mention of the Armenian massacres that occurred in the dying days of the Ottoman empire, de Bellaigue decided to find out for himself what may have happened. He settled on – and in – the town of Varto, which once had a huge Armenian population. Without delivering any final answers, de Bellaigue’s beautifully written account of his experiences with locals, secret policemen and even exiles still sheds light on this intractable issue, if only to illuminate the complexity of the situation both then and now.

The Sultan’s Seal by Jenny White

The first of the Kamil Pasha detective stories, set in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, kicks off with a body on the beach. Kamil Pasha, the Anglophile Ottoman detective, must draw together the threads of this murder and of an older, unsolved crime, sifting through the murky waters of late Ottoman politics and society. Sequels are The Abyssinian Proof and The Winter Thief.

Yashim: Don’t forget that all five Yashim novels are available as a set from Amazon.com and from Amazon.co.uk – and in dozens of languages, too. Meanwhile The Janissary Tree and The Snake Stone are published in Turkey by Pegasus as Yeniceri Agaci  and Yılanlı Sütun

Istanbul, mon amour

Cumhuriyet Kitap, Turkey’s answer to the TLS or The New York Review of Books, recently ran an essay I wrote on Istanbul. It was translated and introduced by Selçuk Altun, whose novels include The Sultan of Byzantium. Here’s the English version, with a few illustrations added:

ISTANBUL

It was an Irishman who introduced me to Istanbul, the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats. He had never been, himself: he never got further east than Ravenna. But he thought of Constantinople as the Holy City where, for a moment in the early days of Byzantium, art and action, feeling and intellect, had been fused into a single, graspable Truth.

That is no country for old men...Yeats wrote, in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.

His belief had nothing to do with Istanbul; yet the outsider’s view cannot be disqualified. Istanbul has always been, in part, a figment of the imagination. The emperor Constantine, who founded the city in 330 AD, envisioned it as the New Rome; and it was as Romans, Romanoii, that the Greek-speaking rulers of the city faced their nemesis 1100 years later. The rough Frankish knights who turned the energies of the Fourth Crusade against Constantinople in 1204 saw the city as a painted harlot; the Venetians, meanwhile, as their California. The Vikings called it Micklegard, the Great City. The Muslims, who first attacked it in 668 AD, called it the Red Apple. Osman, whose descendants were to capture it in 1453, saw the city in his dreams, and even today, on the walls of old mosques and mansions throughout the Balkans and the Middle East, you may find it wistfully represented, a city of hills and kiosks, trees and minarets rising gracefully from the water: a glimpse of an earthly paradise.Some of these illusions may even survive an encounter with the physical city, too.

The young in one another’s arms…

I first came to Istanbul on a wave of youthful romanticism, making my own Haj across eastern Europe, on foot, treading woodland paths from the Baltic to the Bosphorus. I was 26 years old. I stood beneath the dome of Aya Sofia like those ambassadors of old who said: ‘We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth.’ Outside, old men waved us to share their café chairs. The bread was dazzlingly fresh, the mackerel came off the boats, and in the Grand Bazaar a concoction of mint and chicken blew away months of dreary, Soviet-style meals. Walking across Europe was like a fairy-tale adventure; Topkapi was a fairytale palace; and the streets of Istanbul seemed tinged with gold. Of course I fell in love.

I married the girl who shared the journey: and in a way, I married Istanbul.

It was a city where you could bump your shins on history, eat well, take a ferry, ride a tram, and travel from one civilisation to another in ten steps. It took me a while to get to know Istanbul. I began like a jealous husband, raking up the past, combing through the stories people had told about her over the years. It helped that I had decided to write a book on that very subject: Lords of the Horizons, A History of the Ottoman Empire.

I wrote it to explain the Ottomans to myself. In Cracow, we saw some of the war tents captured at Vienna in 1683. In Hungary, we walked past a beautiful minaret, in a dusty town square. Who were those Ottomans? Where had they gone? I discovered there were many answers to those simple questions. For four years I immersed myself in books. There was something in the Ottoman style I liked – a gracefulness, a grandeur. As the former Yugoslavia tore itself apart, the old Ottoman settlement seemed less arbitrary, perhaps more merciful. My source for many stories was not in Istanbul, but at a private circulating library in the heart of what was once fashionable London, near Piccadilly. Among millions of books, all cloth-bound in library bindings, with stamped titles, I fell on the dusty memoirs and reminiscences of travellers and diplomats.

Some were fools. Some were wits. Charles White collaborated with Ahmet Vefik Pasha to write a three-volume description of the city in 1846. Eduardo de Amicis spent only six weeks in Istanbul, to write Constantinople (1878). They described the texture of daily life, which Istanbullu of the period seldom bothered to record. Everyone knows London, from Dickens or Sherlock Holmes: Istanbul never had that sort of chronicler. Those foreigners, amazed by everything they saw, wrote for posterity, creating prose pictures for their friends at home in an age before photography. They wrote down the mundane details of Ottoman life, and that is how I got to know Istanbul.

In time, of course, I discovered my city, not through the eyes of other lovers, but through my own. I came back three, four times every year, making new friends, visiting new places, tramping the streets of the city. My friends took me to places I might never have guessed existed, like Sinan’s bents in the Belgrade Forest. I liked ferries; forgotten parts of the old Genoese walls in Pera; hammam towels (but not hammams); mouldering hans; Istanbul Modern; smoking in taxis; and the certainty that there would be something extraordinary, memorable, perhaps invisible, within ten metres of anywhere I stood.

I liked Istanbul’s energy.

Perhaps it infected me: I started to write novels set in the city I knew from books. My detective hero Yashim investigated a coup attempt in the reign of Mahmud II, and a murder in Topkapi. Fiction gave me another way of telling an Ottoman story, another way of looking at Istanbul. The Janissary Tree won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Novel, and I felt encouraged to write more, trying to bring Ottoman Istanbul alive for readers all over the world.

One way was through the food. When Yashim wants to be quiet, and think, he goes home and cooks simple Ottoman-inspired dishes. Soon my readers were asking for recipes, and now I have collected and improved them, and added more, to make an Istanbul detective’s cookbook: Yashim Cooks Istanbul. So even when I am not in Istanbul, I can taste the city, and dream. It always was, partly, a figment of the imagination.

 

BEATING THE JANUARY BLUES – IN A MORTAR

How many mortars do you have? While I was working on Yashim Cooks Istanbul, I added another two to my kitchen collection, one stone, one made of olive wood. 

Various recipes in the book call for spices, nuts or even pulses to be beaten, chopped, crushed or pounded. Most cookbooks suggest giving your ingredients a quick spin in a food processor, but I fight shy. I can’t stand the noise, for one thing, or those rubber feet, or the clutter that a food processor brings into the kitchen. These machines have a horrid arsenal of blades and graters, rendering every drawer a danger to unwary fingers. They make me jump – and who wants to be jumpy in the kitchen?

Pestle and mortar, on the other hand, work just as they did when these dishes were first prepared, centuries ago in the kitchens at Topkapi Palace. They were there, in the shape of two stones, when cookery was invented: after fire, and a pot, perhaps even before decent knives, cooking must have involved crushing. Old stone querns, for grinding grain, belonged to the ancients and have entered myth. Baba Yaga, the Russian witch, flies about in a pestle and mortar. They are an elemental pairing – yin and yang: pestle is, of course, cognate with pizzle, which it basically resembles. That, I think, is cheerfully salacious.

Not that I am driven by myth and Luddism. Or not entirely. Yashim Cooks Istanbul isn’t an exercise in historical re-enactment, like making mediaeval rice of flesh in an iron bowl, or chucking up lark’s tongues in the vomitorium. The recipes in the book are simple, inspired by their Ottoman originals but not slavish. They are dishes I’d cook at home, any day of the week, as Yashim does in his Balat flat.

No – the advantages of the pestle and mortar are as practical as elemental, even if they aren’t all visible. What you do see, for starters, is the beauty of the tools, in the grain of the wood or the clean, clear lines of the stoneware. It’s that simple, a tool for the hand and another for the bench. In my kitchen, the mother of them all is the 12 gallon mortar in which, incredibly, you can crush the tiniest pinch of cumin with the merest roll of your weighty pestle.

You probably know that a proper pesto is always made in a mortar – just as basil is always torn, not chopped, for adding to a dish. Whirr a pesto in a food processor and you have a glaucous minced mess, whose oily perfume has been already dissipated by the whizzing blades. Beating the leaves, garlic and pine nuts in a mortar takes a little longer (though washing out processor jugs and bowls is another chore), but the whole thing breaks down the oils, and keeps the pesto cool as it should be.

The same thing applies to spices – or to chickpeas. The reviewer at Country Life Magazine called Yashim’s hummus ‘the best ever’, perhaps because I suggest using a pestle and mortar to reduce the chickpeas and garlic to a thick, uneven, consistency rather than the whirred-up paste you get from a plastic pot. There’s no way to grind spices better than a mortar, either; or to crush herbs. It’s about avoiding stress, not inducing it – nor inflicting it on your ingredients.

Pound away. It’s good exercise, and a therapy. Wonderful aromas rise like soothing balm, the action is physical but not exhausting, the sound is regular and human. It is the sound of somebody chopping wood down in the valley. It is as satisfactory as ringing a gong; and it makes you happy.

The pestle and mortar’s closest relations are the wooden chopping board and the sharp steel knife. A family resemblance also exists between a pestle and a rolling pin, as between the mortar and a pot. These are what cooking is about. These are the implements it requires. And not much else.

When, in An Evil Eye, Yashim observes that cooking is really about a sharp knife, he’s pleased to be given one forged of Damascus steel. With the blade he can flatten, crush, chop and slice anything. But when he wants to make muhammara or hummus, or grind spices or nuts for baklava – or roasted coffee beans – he turns to the pestle and mortar. His is a marble mortar, and the pestle has a handle of cherrywood or ash, attached to a marble bulb, whose significant weight does half his work.

It is primitive. But then living in Istanbul in the first half of the nineteenth century, Yashim knows nothing of the magimix.

Some favourite reads from 2016

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These are some of the fantastic books that I’ve enjoyed this year. All ten were published in Britain, but they have taken me through time and space as only good books can – to Calcutta and the Sudetenland, Swinging London and revolutionary Petrograd – and even to Palmyra, when it was a pristine ruin. With Queen Victoria I’m on home turf – see below. We go to Turkey, too, because it matters to us all – Turkey and Russia, Turkey and Europe, Turkey and the Middle East – raising some big questions for 2017.

Continue reading

selling out

When a book sells out, and it’s your book, which means they liked it, you may well want to punch the air, or kiss a policeman, or whatever. I think you are allowed. Just don’t kiss the air and punch a policeman, that’s all.

But then, when an ENTIRE COUNTRY sells out of your book, you may realise that while it’s great in its way, in another way it’s problematical.

America has sold out of Yashim Cooks Istanbul. Only last week we had a huge load, palletfuls of Yashim Cooks Istanbul, boxed and sitting cosily in the distributor’s warehouse in Chambersburg, PA. Then everyone ran out at once and went to buy a copy. Almost every American – well, they mostly didn’t run anywhere further than their mouse pad, where they feverishly clicked on the link – http://amzn.to/2gbTAz3, if you don’t believe me – and swept all available copies out of the online warehouse. Who instantly reordered, thus sweeping all available copies out of the Chambersburg warehouse and into the mailboxes of a few quick-thinking Yashim afficionados and leaving a note saying that the book was temporarily out of stock. Continue reading

Thanksgiving turkey Ottoman style

screen-shot-2016-11-23-at-15-13-51Just in time for Thanksgiving, here’s a gentle Ottoman twist on the festive dinner – Yashim’s spiced stuffing, made with rice. Funnily enough, Ottomans seldom emigrated to the United States (an exception was a Syrian, Hadji Ali, aka Hi Jolly, who set up a camel corps for the Confederates during the Civil War), otherwise this stuffing would have delighted them. 

The recipe is below. You will of course find lots more recipes in YASHIM COOKS ISTANBUL, out now.

Signed first editions of Yashim’s new book are available at http://bit.ly/2c7fkIU postage free. Also on sale on Amazon or a good bookstore!

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Yashim Cooks Istanbul Storms US Charts!

You may imagine how thrilled I was to wake up to a fabulous piece about Yashim’s cook book on America’s number one radio show, Morning Edition. They gave it the great title: “Popular Detective Series Gets Its Own Cookbook” which is succinct, accurate and somehow funny. Very professional.

We did the interview about a month back, with Mary Louise Kelly of NPR, in my sister’s kitchen in London. Garlic, pumpkin AND fuzzy microphone.

jasoncooks

The interview isn’t without its own drama, either – do listen to the 4 minute broadcast (and check out a few recipes) via this link:

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/11/15/501588281/assassins-steak-tartare-popular-detective-series-gets-its-own-cookbook

Anyway, it’s a really generous launch present and immediately sent the book skimming up the Amazon rankings into the top 300: heady stuff for a 19th century Ottoman sleuth. Best of all, though, is the feedback from people who have started cooking from the book.

Signed copies are still available via this link: http://bit.ly/2c7fkIU and we’ll be using an express route to ship to the States, too.