Food writer Elisabeth Luard on peasant cookery, learning from children, and the relationship between food and power
Interview: Ellie Costigan
Images: Orlando Gili
Elisabeth Luard is a food writer, broadcaster and esteemed author of 24 books. Born in London, Elisabeth travelled and lived all over the world, adapting to local food cultures and sharing her discoveries through her writing. Her insatiable curiosity about food and people is reflected in the conscientious, inquisitive (and ever-witty) nature of her work. She has been an attendee of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery—a prestigious annual gathering of cooks, journalists and academics—since soon after its inception, and is now its chair.
What are your earliest memories of food?
I was born in London during the war. My father was killed in the war, and when my mother married again it was to a diplomat, so my early life was spent in Latin America: Uruguay, mostly, and Argentina. Because my brother and I were the children of the wrong dad, we were treated as little spares—that’s not at all unknown; I’ve compared notes—so I spent a lot of time in the back, in the kitchen. In the kitchen, I could be useful. There were these round courgettes called zapallitos, and the cook would halve them, give me a teaspoon and I would sit there hollowing them out for the staff’s lunch, and then she would feed me.
I would often go home at the weekend with either the cook or one of the maids—diplomatic families, that’s what they do. I’d sleep on an old bus seat, on an earth floor with chickens around the place, and then be allowed to go and fetch eggs from under the chickens, or fight with the chickens—they didn’t actually want you to get the eggs. All of that was absolutely hotwired into my childhood. Children don’t think they’re ‘experiencing’ something, though—it’s just life.
Did you spend your entire childhood abroad?
No, I was sent to boarding school in the northern hills at the age of 11. It gave me my first experience of English food—and it was completely horrible. Monday mince with toast, and horrible fatty lamb or mutton. On the other end of the scale, my grandmother, my mother’s mother, had a proper kitchen with a chef and a pastry chef—my grandparents had lots of money, but my grandfather was a gambler, so there was nothing left by the end. I was able to go down to the kitchen—just like in Latin America, I was slightly on the outside there, too—where I learned to make choux pastry, puff pastry and proper mille-feuille. I used to go back to school in the northern hills, to the grey mince, with a box full of mille-feuille with crème pâtissière, whipped cream and homemade jam, tucked into my suitcase among the socks and underwear and the grey tweed stuff you had to wear. It was an odd childhood, but I don’t suspect I was unique.
Before you became a food writer, you were an illustrator and painter. How did you fall into that?
I moved to rural Andalusia after I married, but the skills of shorthand, typing and bookkeeping, which are what I’d been doing in England, were not necessarily required there. The only other skill I had was drawing. I was married to a writer. If you’re married and you have children and the writer you’re married to has what they call writer’s block—though I think it’s actually sheer idleness—the impetus to earn a living is great. So, I went back to what I had: drawing. We were living on a migration path and there were masses of birds around the place, so I drew birds and I drew botany. A botanist friend of mine, Betty Allan, would call me in if she was doing an article—she knew all about the botany of that area, but she couldn’t draw. It grew from there.
You lived in rural Andalusia and then Languedoc in France and really immersed yourself in the food of those regions. How did you go about doing that?
I had children, you see—if you move somewhere and you have young children, people are always inclined to talk to you and help you. You can learn a huge amount by having children, which is the reverse of what one would imagine. If you go to a Mediterranean market, there is a noticeably different attitude to children. They will encourage your child to try things—here, there’s a lot of “don’t touch it”, which applies to adults, too. But children are really happy when they can wander around and develop their palates because somebody’s saying: “Try this...”
In Andalusia my children walked to school—sometimes they went on a donkey—and they learnt from their school friends what was edible and what was in season. Their knowledge of wild plants was amazing. They knew where there was wild asparagus, and stuff called bull’s eggs, which is used as an ornamental plant in the UK—I had no idea you could eat it. They knew which lilies you could eat, and which are poisonous. They collected snails. There was a whole language of food that I learnt from the children.
A lot of that knowledge ended up in European Peasant Cookery. What was the genesis of that ground-breaking book?
When we came back to Britain, I was offered a column in The Field. We had quite a rural life—we didn’t mind skinning and gutting and feathering and that kind of thing—so that suited me. They said, “Can we have a piece on the botany of Ronda, the Camino Real, with drawings?” Fine. “I know you’re a good cook; do you want to do a cookery column?” How often, how much and how long? It was weekly, the money was okay, so fine, on we go. Then, did I want to write a book? And I said, yes, I did. I said I wanted to do a book called European Peasant Cookery—that is what I wanted to write, because that is what I had lived. That’s what being married to a writer does—never marry a writer! Poverty doesn’t get you into golf clubs and restaurants, but you can go round the corner to the market.
I know that ‘peasant’ is a pejorative term in the UK, but it’s not in Italy or France or Spain, where it’s a perfectly respectable thing to be. I think there is a shared understanding of what to do with food when you’ve grown it yourself. I was coming in at that basic level—it’s not town cooking, it’s countryside cooking, and the countryside is quite slow to change. There were various areas that I could cover standing on my head, and then I had to add the ones that I didn’t.
How do you go about researching peasant food?
I ate in a lot of people’s kitchens and I asked a lot of questions. I learnt that the first question to ask is, what time do you eat? Only then will you have a chance of eating like the locals do. If you go somewhere and you’re not dining on the same timetable, you’re going to get tourist food. It’s really not complicated. Also, the market will tell you what’s around, what’s in season and what people eat.
Has that peasant tradition been lost in Britain?
In England we lost our peasant community after the enclosures, right back in 17-something, and then we industrialised very early, which brought everybody into the cities. But still, if you try to eat at eight o’clock in Aberystwyth, it’s not going to be the same thing as they’re eating in the farmstead down the way. There, it’s still cawl—a thick vegetable soup, sometimes with bacon, sometimes with lamb, sometimes on its own, with a wedge of cheddar-type cheese and a large wedge of white bread, usually. And a cup of tea. That’s a perfectly balanced meal, you’ve got everything you need. In parts of Scotland, “come for tea” doesn’t mean “come and have dainty cakes and biscuits and a cup of lapsang souchong”—it means “come around 5:30, depending on the time of year, around sundown, and you will get meat tea. You will get scones and, depending on where you are, smoked fish, kippers, ham.” Those traditions haven’t completely disappeared.
A common thread in all your work seems to be a fascination with the personal side of food: the people, culture and social aspects.
Yes, absolutely. That comes from way back, when I was seven years old. Even then, I had an awareness that food was a way of understanding people. What happened in the kitchen was a dialogue, and children were valued. I noticed that, as an unvalued child—I’m not being dramatic about it, but that’s what happened. I was valued for the skills that I could master: scooping out innards or stuffing squid. As a child, I loved the social aspect, but also that tactility: you could pick things, you could take all the little fiery bits out of chillies. People don’t like handling food now, because it’s all cold—even worse when it comes out of a plastic package. If you’ve got fresh food, you can handle it, can’t you? If it’s cold and slithery, you really don’t want to. Even I can find myself using a fork when I want to slice a cold, packaged chicken breast.
Are markets important to you?
If you find a market you like and you go to it regularly, you get to know who grew your carrots and how they grew them—all those things that having a relationship with a market brings. When Borough Market started as a retail market I was living not far away, in Kennington, and it was very exciting to find proper fresh produce in London. I used to go to Soho and shop there, but a lot of the produce, because they were catering to Italians, was fairly standard imported vegetables—not much from the farms—and all of a sudden there was Borough Market, and that was just wonderful. At the beginning it was much smaller than it is now, but you could go and get fungi that weren’t the standard ones—and I’m pretty good with fungi!
The big change in markets over the last 20 years is the fact that the organic growers, the ones who are very seasonal, have managed to stretch their growing seasons through their use of polytunnels. In Wales, there was an organic grower quite close to me who came to the local market in Aberystwyth, and I could see that the season was being pushed out all the time. In the past, the roots stopped in February or March and then you didn’t really get anything new until mid-May. The season can now be stretched out so that the farmers come to market all year round.
How long have you been involved with the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery?
I’ve been going forever. I think the first one was in 1981. The start of the Oxford Symposium was Alan Davidson, Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson. Jane was a friend, always—a really nice woman. Elizabeth was sort of... not the easiest. Alan Davidson was an ex-diplomat, so I felt I knew where he was coming from. He was publishing a little magazine called PPC and running Prospect Books, which was doing the kind of food history that nobody else was doing at that point. When I was working on European Peasant Cookery, I went and knocked on his door and said, “I’ve got this project.” He said, “Come in, here’s my library, and you’d better come to this gathering...” So, there we go. I’ve been in and out of the Oxford Symposium all its life.
The theme at this year’s symposium is ‘power and food’. What is the power of food, in your opinion?
It goes back to the cave: first you eat, then you procreate, then you find a cave. And it’s in that order, they’re not equal: first you eat. That is the ultimate power, isn’t it? More so than a sword or an army or anything like that. Starvation can be a weapon of war. Starvation can be used to control prisoners. Hunger sparked Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. You can exert power by deciding what people are going to eat, and then you can relinquish it by giving them an option. You even can exert power in a restaurant—plated food is a demonstration of power. That power can be wielded in many ways.
Our current vegetarian and vegan situation I find very complicated, because people can put themselves outside the group. There are lots who can’t eat dairy, can’t eat gluten, so we now have to negotiate this difficult situation where the unifying effects of eating round a table together are being dispersed by people saying what they can and can’t eat and do. When Elizabeth David went out to dinner, she always took her own bread. I’ve only been told this, I don’t have experience of it first-hand, but that was a demonstration of power. Somebody who brings their own food to your table is unnerving. I knew that, even as a child: you can belong to a group by eating the same food. Dipping in the same pot is the ultimate belonging. It’s absolutely hot-wired into us that food is a social, political thing.
Discover more information about the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery here: https://www.oxfordsymposium.org.uk/
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