Late Saturday afternoon and evening at Jersey Festival of Words brings two new things into my life: Masterchef and Joanna Trollope.
If you’d asked me a year ago I’d have told you I didn’t do cooking. But in the last twelve months, with new work and only really myself to bother about, I’ve started to try new dishes. Turns out I’m alright at following a recipe. I wouldn’t know where to begin when it comes to creating dishes though so I’m somewhat in awe of Saliha Mahmood Ahmed who’s come to talk about her recipe book, Khazana, and her experience as the 2017 winner of Masterchef.
Two things really stand out: the first is how Saliha talks about her family and the influence they’ve had on the way she thinks about food. Her mother was a consultant working in the NHS with three young children but time was always made for them to have dinner as a family. The food was fresh and the rule was ‘Eat that or go hungry – and you weren’t allowed to go hungry’. Her grandmother ‘cooked simply’ but was unique in putting sour apples in curry, ‘We had apples in every form.’ While her dad’s wanderlust took Saliha to places that inspired her cooking.
The second thing is her interest in the Mughal Empire and how that’s informed her cookbook. She describes a typical hareem with buildings constructed with marble, horticulture gardens and peacocks wandering around. The tables would be calico covering on leather on which food would be presented in huge portions in gold and silver dishes. Flavours in the room would include sandalwood and rose. Rose petals were used as a scent or a seasoning. They would feed chickens rosewater because they thought it would taste better. It’s this that inspired the Rose-Scented Chicked dish which Saliha cooked on Masterchef.
The book has 110 recipes, she tells us and – hurrah – was put together by an all-female team. Saliha wanted to capture the stories behind the recipes in the photography and used the influence of the Mughal Empire for the colours. There’s no doubt Khazana looks beautiful. Whether or not I’m capable of cooking anything in it remains to be seen.
I am definitely, however, capable of reading a Joanna Trollope novel. Although, for reasons yet to be discerned, I never have. Not one of the 31 novels or one book of non-fiction she’s written during her 40 year career aka ‘forever’ as Joanna herself refers to it.
She says she writes to start a conversation about whatever society’s current dilemma is. In her latest novel, An Unsuitable Match, it’s a subsequent marriage between two heterosexuals in their 60s which the woman’s grown-up children have opinions about, particularly when it comes to who’s inheriting what.
Joanna talks about love and how she tries to show it in her novels. Valentines’ Day is ‘the seventh circle of hell’. Love is ‘unloading the dishwasher together’. ‘I deal in reality,’ she says, crediting the success of her novels to observing other people. She shares an anecdote about an ‘immaculate French woman’ who came to one of her signings in Paris and said to Joanna, ‘I don’t know what you’ve been doing sitting in my kitchen for the last three years’.
Interviewer Cathy Le Feuvre asks whether she’s ever felt pressure from her publishers to include a sex scene in her novels. She says no, she leaves them to the reader’s imagination, adding that her books started to become popular as the 80s bonkbusters were falling out of fashion. Ah, that’s why I’ve never read a Joanna Trollope novel: I was too busy with Jilly Cooper’s.
Finally, on the Sunday lunchtime, I chair a panel on a subject that is even further removed from me than cooking: gardening. It’s difficult to write about an event you were part of; I find myself so focused on what’s happening in the moment I can’t remember much about it afterwards. However, all three of the books by the women on the panel are brilliant so I am going to heartily recommend them to you.
A Thousand Paper Birds by Tor Udall is the story of Jonah whose wife has died by suicide following a series of miscarriages. After her death, he spends time in Kew Gardens where he meets Chloe, an artist, and they both encounter Harry, one of the gardeners, and Milly, an eight-year-old girl. It’s beautifully written, perfectly capturing the weight of grief. That makes it sound miserable but, honestly, it’s a gorgeous book.
War Gardens by Lalage Snow covers five years and several of the world’s most dangerous war zones. Working as a war correspondent left Lalage with war fatigue so when she discovered that people in conflict zones were maintaining gardens behind closed doors, she began to seek them out. The book tells the stories of a number of gardeners building new life in places of destruction. Lalage is also a photographer and the images in the book are fantastic.
The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury is a memoir, spanning a year after a relationship break-up when Kate moves to Brighton, buys a flat and tears up the decking outside to create a wildlife garden. She recalls her childhood gardens alongside the work on her new place – including the creation of a bee hotel – and then her mother falls ill and life takes a different turn. I might not know anything about gardening but if one book’s capable of convincing me to give it a go someday, this is it.