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Wednesday 10 February 2010

Home Cooking

When I first lived in Cadiz, people would invite me to their homes and, very often, I would find that they had gone out of their way to serve me something ‘from your country’ - to remind me of home. This was really very kind and touching, but the results were often unfortunate. I remember smiling gratefully as, at a New Year celebration, after a delicious meal of fish and seafood, I dutifully consumed yet another, very dry and unappetising version of what my hostess - really an excellent cook - imagined was ‘English’ apple pie. And then, instead of the delicious smelling coffee on the tray, I was proudly presented with a silver holder containing a glass of very pale brown, almost curdling warm milk - ‘English tea’. I included this rather disgusting liquid in The Maze of Cadiz, when Peter Cotton goes to visit Antoňita, the prostitute. Remembering something she has heard about strange English tea rituals, she serves it to him with slices of cucumber, which she holds up and places on his tongue ‘like a naughty communion wafer’.

But the results of these kind culinary efforts were not always unfortunate.

I was contacted one day by the president of the law courts and asked to stand in at short notice to interpret at a hearing for two rather silly and very frightened young American girls who had been taking a starry-eyed trip to Morocco, and allowed themselves to be charmed by two men into taking their van to Spain, where they would meet up with them a few days later. When they got off the ferry, the sniffer dogs did their stuff and the van was found to be packed with drugs - secreted in the roof, the doors and under the floor. Questioned by the investigating judge, the girls protested their innocence and said that they had been used. I remember them saying that their only previous brush with the police was when they had stolen a string of sausages from a butcher. Descriptions of the villains were taken down.

After the hearing, the President instructed someone to hand over my fee, and then, rather surprisingly, invited me and my husband to have dinner at his home to meet his family. We arrived on the appointed evening and were told that we would be served ‘rosbif’, because we were English. I’ve never been that fond of beef anyway, and my initial thought was ‘here we go again’ - but I couldn’t have been more wrong. As we sat down at the table together with his wife and very clever young daughter (now a lawyer herself), the smells wafting through the house were decidedly encouraging. The dinner, which had been prepared by their excellent cook, began with consommé and fino sherry. It was followed by hake in a delicate lemon sauce, and then the ‘rosbif’ - quite unlike any roast beef I had ever eaten in Britain. Sirloin or tenderloin, I can’t remember now, it had been rubbed with garlic, olive oil, fresh thyme and rosemary, then browned on a skillet and finished off in the oven. It was absolutely delicious - rare and melt- in-the mouth tender, with a wonderful aroma and flavour.

I was reminded of these things recently when reading Carolyn Burke’s biography of Lee Miller (Lee Miller: On Both Sides of the Camera). She had an altogether different way of catering for guests from other countries.

I was already familiar with many aspects of her life - surrealist muse, war correspondent, photographer - most famous for her Second World War photographs and those wonderful portraits of writers and artists in off-guard moments, like Picasso, of whom she made over a thousand portraits.

But one aspect of her life with which I was less familiar was her cooking. In later life, when she was married to Roland Penrose, she entertained an enviable procession of guests at Farley Farm in East Sussex, including Picasso, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Henry Moore, Man Ray, and Antoni Tàpies, and she became something of a gourmet - and compulsive - cook. When Vogue published her piece entitled ‘The Most Unusual Recipes You Have Ever Seen’, she was hailed as having invented culinary surrealism. Her Mack Sennett cream pies were, apparently, cinematic and Dadaesque - ‘delicious to eat and fun to throw’, while her food paintings, such as ‘veal scallops encased in gold foil valentines, relish- stuffed lychees beside cherry tomatoes full of dark green mayonnaise’ were ‘as amusing to look at as they are delightful to eat.’

Joan Miró was a frequent visitor. But he was not served Spanish dishes to make him feel at home. Instead, Lee Miller served him her creation ‘Sesame Chicken for Miró’ - because 'I wanted to amuse him by giving him dishes unknown in Spain.’

I feel rather the same about that fabulous Rosbif.

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