Bread, Wine & Thou: The Wilder Dishes of Lesley Blanch

We're thrilled to team up with Bread, Wine & Thou, Melbourne's newest and most beautifully designed literary periodical about food and wine culture, to present one of the featured articles from their latest issue, Maternal. Read on, then share this page on Facebook for a chance to win a Bread, Wine & Thou Prize Pack: a copy of the first two issues, plus a double pass to Cinema Nova. We'll notify the winner next week.

The Wilder Dishes of Lesley Blanch
By Kevin Rabalais

Behind every great man stands an even greater woman, so the story goes, while behind every great woman you tend to find a man staring at her derrière. We often come—some of us, shame on us—to wonderful women via the men in their lives. Readers may discover Martha Gellhorn as Ernest Hemingway’s third wife. After a few pages of Gellhorn’s work, however, you understand why her talent infuriated Papa. And who would Richard Burton have been without Isabel, or Vladimir Nabokov without Véra?

Romain Gary strutted through life as if he had stepped from the pages of a picaresque novel. Dashing pilot in the French Air Force during World War II, writer and diplomat, screenwriter and film director, the only two-time winner of the Prix Goncourt (France’s most prestigious literary prize), Russian-born Gary once challenged Clint Eastwood to a duel. It was the late 1960s, but when that bygone pastime of Russian writers stirs, you heed the call. After catching rumours that his wife, Jean Seberg, had started an affair with her Paint Your Wagon co-star, Gary flew to the film set in America to lay down the rules of the contest. Even Gary—a novelist so talented that many call his pseudonym Émil Ajar the greatest writer who never lived—couldn’t have made this up.

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For fifteen years of his epic-worthy life, Gary went home to a different woman, not the pixie Seberg, but Lesley Blanch—“Author and traveller, racy yet scholarly romantic,” as Georgia de Chamberet describes her in On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life. A decade older than Gary, Blanch spent her life on the run from convention. Her most famous book, The Wilder Shores of Love, examines four women travellers in Arabia who did the same. Each of them, like their author, deserves an opera.

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Marianne Faithful wrote a song about it. Cy Twombly borrowed its title for a painting. And when Blanch parted The Wilder Shores of Love in search of something new, she turned to food. She wrote her next book, the anecdotal, recipe-laden Round the World in Eighty Dishes, while married to Gary, whose services as a French diplomat sent him across the globe. She used the opportunity to study the countries she visited through their culinary traditions.

Diet affects character, Blanch believed. She also believed that cooking, like eating, becomes what you make it: “For some, a habit; for others, an imaginative art.” In these pages, which relay her adventures through Africa, the Far East, the Balkans and the Americas, Blanch investigates the “centuries of history, travel, exploration, and adventure behind each dish.”

We couldn’t ask for a better guide through these eighty culinary delights that range from Kabul rice and Gogel-mogel to Congo Chicken and Pineapple Pigeon. A one-time features editor for British Vogue, Blanch observes the world like a novelist every bit the equal of the rogue Gary. Consider the following, from her foreword to Round the World in Eighty Dishes:

Certain climates produce racial types and characteristics which are expressed individually, by different ways of eating. For example, there is a popular conception that southern food is rich and that southern passions run high. Nothing could be further form the truth. You must go to the north—the dark, ingrown, seething north of Ibsen households—if you want to find overwhelming passions and those rich, nightmare-producing meals which, I feel, may have been responsible for some of Dostoevsky’s greatest flights.

Blanch provides cultural and historical context to each of these dishes. She finds herself in Guatemala, learning about the Saint’s Sauce. Legend equates the name with the dish that cooks were preparing at the moment the 1773 earthquake destroyed the colonial capital Antigua. As Blanch writes, “The sauce is said to have been found, after the earthquake, unharmed in its little pot, among the ruins of the Governor’s Palace; perhaps it is named in reference to the saint who said, ‘God walks among the pots and pippins.’” In Greenland, she discovers Eskimo coffee (serves four: four cups strong black coffee, four eggs, four to six tablespoons sugar. Beat the eggs in the hot coffee and serve while frothy). A journey through Albania leads her to the table of an outlaw who, judging by the name he gave to his honeyed potatoes—Bandit’s Joy—must have had the soul of a poet.

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There are well-worn tales of culinary history. We know, for instance, of Napoleon’s love of chicken and how he kept a chef on staff who would roast birds at any hour. Blanch draws us deeper into the plot. “After the Battle of Marengo,” she writes, “Napoleon and his staff, cold, tired, and hungry, found themselves separated from their supply wagons. The one cook who was with them had nothing for supper but chickens and nothing to cook with them but some tomatoes. He made what turned out to be a culinary masterpiece by cooking the chickens in oil with cognac, and making a sauce of tomatoes. It sounds simple, but I daresay the brandy added a very special flavour.”

A similar twist in Blanch’s style and sensibility make this book, like her masterpiece The Wilder Shores of Love, a continual delight. Her stories and recipes remind us that even if we can’t journey beyond the four walls of our own home, our adventures—and the sustenance that literature provides—never have to cease.

Lesley Blanch’s recipe for Veal Marengo (“without brandy, however”):
(For 6)
3-4 pounds veal rump
½ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 large onion
3 tablespoons flour
Salt and pepper
1 cup water
3 tablespoons tomato purée
Pinch of dried mixed herbs
½ pound mushrooms

Bread, Wine & Thou: Issue 2, Maternal:
That dish that feels like a hug from your Mum, and the ones that make you feel like hugging her. Cooking and baking glimpsed from under the table, or from between a mother’s feet. 

A sneaking hand smacked aside, the long wait to lick the cake bowl clean. The chicken soup cure-alls, familiar fables, stories, memories and tales.

Reminiscences, handed down cultures, hand me down recipes, secrets long held onto, skills, techniques and quirks, the squabbles and the makings up. 

The tastes, smells, memories and sense of home. The feelings we carry with us across time and geography… maternal.





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