Preserving the lessons of the past

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‘Use your eyes, ears and nose and appreciate everything that happens…!’ Sage advice from Elizabeth Luard, a food writer who has never been afraid to grab life, or indeed her dinner, by the horns. By Emma Hagestadt

Over the course of a long and influential career, Luard has not only penned several classic cook books, most notably European Peasant Cookery, but published three volumes of candid memoirs and two romantic novels. Earlier this year she was awarded The Guild of Food Writers Lifetime Achievement Award. Now in her late-seventies, and with the vitality of someone half her age, she still has plenty of projects simmering away. When I spoke to her in her farmhouse in Wales, she was busy putting the finishing touches to her latest travel-memoir, Squirrel Pie, and in mid stand-off with a new Apple keyboard.

Like Elizabeth David, to whom she’s often compared, Luard has always been interested in the historical, geographical and social context of food. Her new book, Squirrel Pie, draws from her extensive globe-trotting past, and considers the impact of climate, trade routes and latitude on ‘the what, why and how’ the world prepares its dinner. Whether she’s discussing rosehip jelly in Maine, or the significance of snails in the Cretan diet, there’s always a telling or amusing anecdote attached – the novelist in Luard is never far away.  Both entertaining and serious,  the book is a clarion call to remember life beyond the supermarket trolley, and to respect the lessons of ‘the ancestral hearth.’

From an early age, Luard was immersed in the tastes, textures and culinary traditions of other cultures. The step-child of a diplomat father, she spent her girlhood in Uruguay catching ‘bony little little flatfish’ down on the quay for supper. Later as a young mother herself, she famously uprooted her family to make a new life in a remote valley in Andalusia. Here she embraced self-sufficiency, learning how to skin a rabbit and salt down the meat of a household pig.  ‘To understand food,’ she says firmly ‘you have to immerse yourself in how people live.’

Originally trained as a natural history artist, Luard’s charming line drawings of rootling pigs and crazed crustacea, are one of the many delights of her new book.  However Luard the cook is no sentimentalist. ‘My heroine is Beatrix Potter,’ she says. ‘Tom Kitten getting rolled up in pastry – that’s my kind of story. Beatrix Potter was a sheep farmer, and it’s very important that as a society we don’t de-nature meat.’ Though she’s not as tough as she sounds. In a chapter recalling a trip to Australia, she describes the disturbingly bouncy contents of ‘bush-tucker chow’. ‘Big brown eyes’ are always a problem, she admits.

If Beatrix Potter is her heroine, then Jose Luis, a portly business man from Spain, is her hero. The owner of Salamanca’s most celebrated ham-curing house, Jose Luis is a respected authority on the mountain-cured hams of the Extremadura. It was during a memorable journey around the tapa bars of the Plaza Mayor that he and Luard became fast friends, sharing lengthy tasting menus and a Rioja hang-over. “We should about all value expertise…’ says Luard. ‘ It takes 20 years to learn how to carve a ham correctly’.  Indeed the book’s most sensuous descriptions are reserved for her friend’s black-footed Ibericos: ‘the slenderness of the haunch… the narrowness of the ankle.’

Now a grandmother several times over, Luard is keen to hand down the fruits of her gastronomic knowledge to the next generation. ‘All the children are competent in the kitchen,’ she says. ‘When they come to stay I push boundaries with them: fish from Cardigan Bay, cheese from the Welsh-Spanish deli in Aberystwyth, picked garlic and dried mulberries.’

Indeed her book is a reminder to us all to preserve our native food heritage. “From my back door I can pick Welsh poppy seeds,” she says. “They’re edible, and flourish through until Christmas – they’re a good source of protein. It would be a shame to lose knowledge like that.’

When asked which cuisine from a lifetime of adventurous eating she most enjoys, she doesn’t hesitate: ‘Oh, Mediterranean! A red pepper always brightens up a grey English day.  Littoral recipes are always the best.’

Squirrel Pie (and other stories) by Elisabeth Luard (Bloomsbury £16.99), bloomsbury.com

For a taste of  Elizabeth Luard’s recipes go to breadandoyster.com/recipes