Roald Dahl's Cookbook - Touching Memoir of Love, Family & Loss with Food
This book was my charity shop find of the year, scooped up the day after Boxing Day on a family visit to Woodbridge in Suffolk. I have always loved Roald Dahl and voraciously read his books over and over and over again when I was a child. I clearly remember, aged ten, his death being announced on the tiny television in our dining room and weeping at the loss. This book, which Roald was working on with his wife Felicity when he died, was completed and released the year following his death in 1990. A very powerful poignancy runs throughout the book as a result, which is heightened by the personal and moving memories of his step-daughter Lorina, aged only 27, who died just a few short months before he did.
It is a book of family, history and heartbreak. But also of beauty, joy and celebration, all told though the prism of food. There are detailed, loving memoirs of family past and present, from Roald, Felicity and their large extended family, with their culinary memories and dishes that were particularly associated with them.
The recipes – sourced from friends, family, respected chefs and their annually-changing group of young, talented cook-housekeepers – are elegant and seasonal. Made from fresh, uncomplicated ingredients, it is carefully executed British farmhouse food with international flair. Although born in Wales himself, Roald’s family were Norwegian and their impression on the food is particularly clear.
“A plateful of young broad beans lightly painted with melted butter and sprinkled with a little salt, eaten all alone on a warm plate before the main course is the ultimate joy. There is nothing like it. The tenderness and the extraordinary subtle flavour are indescribable.” – Roald Dahl
Although the chapter Main Courses is entirely meat, game and fish, there is much to offer the literary vegetarian in the rest of the book as vegetables, “surely the greatest of all foods” according to Dahl, are held in high esteem throughout. The chapter Vegetables & Salads in particular contains many detailed, precise, creative vegetable preparations that I definitely plan to add to my repertoire.
A master of the English literary language, Roald has filled the book with enchantingly vivid descriptions of food he has eaten and loved, with particular attention paid to the surroundings and atmosphere. Although lobster isn’t quite my thing, his description of this exceptional meal certainly is: “We each received a massive, grilled crustacean that had literally just been brought in by the lobster-fishermen, and it was served with plain melted butter and crisp bread. I am not one of those who think lobster is a great dish, but I tell you these three, fresh out of the icy waters of the Bay and accompanied by a cracking cold bottle of good Fumé, that we ate in a quiet room overlooking the great calm sea, were astonishing and unforgettable. They were different lobsters to any we had ever had before. What is it that makes three lobsters for three people taste totally and utterly different from all the others one has eaten in a long life? It is of course the mood, the atmosphere, the still waters of the Bay and the blue hills beyond. But forgetting all that, each of us found ourselves saying that these were not lobsters but some kind of food of the gods that had been dropped gently on to our plates from the great kitchen in heaven. Each of us who is in the habit of tasting food with care has experienced this sort of a phenomenon now and again and it is always a wonderful surprise that really has no explanation.”
Every single aspect of this book attracts and the photographs, illustrations and graphic design are no exception. The book is illustrated by Quentin Blake – always a joy – who brings to life this relatively new branch of the family tree and contributes his own characteristically-bizarre illustrated recipe, amongst other delights. The food photography (by Jan Baldwin) is very carefully considered, employing still-life arrangements of the dishes and their ingredients to tell the story of Gipsy House, its kitchens and its gardens. In an unusual touch that chimes exactly with my own forays into graphic design, the book is peppered with the charming vegetable and ingredient graphics you see throughout this post.
Several remarkable chefs also leave their mark on this book, from contributed recipes to whole catered dinners. A touching letter from food writer Jane Grigson, who the world also lost that year, offers her insight into the politics of recipe attribution. Still pertinent in the age of the internet and expressing a sentiment I wholeheartedly concur with she writes: “I really do not mind if anyone uses any of my recipes, so long as there’s an acknowledgement. In fact, surely anyone can use anyone’s recipe, so long as they rewrite it, with or without acknowledgement? . . . In fact the person quoted ought to be grateful for the free publicity, and humbly recollect the number of times they have pilfered from fellow writers past and present.”