Chefs / Series: What They Read / Writers

Josceline Dimbleby: Serving Up British Cuisine with a Twist

Josceline Dimbleby’s culinary lexicon has only expanded with her travels. In India, she fell in love with the delicacy of Gujarat’s Jain influenced vegetarian dishes and in Turkey it was Tavuk Gogsu, that famous, tender dessert made with milk and chicken’s breast; in Morocco, it was pigeon pie Bastilla that made her mouth water and in 1980 in Sri Lanka, she still remembers “a simple but luscious potato curry with coconut milk, curry leaves, cinnamon sticks and green chillies, and egg hoppers for breakfast with a soft egg in the centre”.

Perhaps it is these extraordinarily diverse gourmet influences that have made Josceline one of Britain’s most beloved cookery writers. With her 16 books selling a total of over 200 million copies, she has become well known for taking staid English recipes and serving them up with a twist.

“I quite often adapt an English classic such as when, in my first Shepherd’s Pie, I couldn’t resist adding cumin and coriander, spices remembered from eating lamb in Damascus,” she says. Josceline’s other interest is in travel writing and in 2004 she published the family biography ‘A Profound Secret’.

At the heart of ‘A Profound Secret’ is an extraordinary portrait by the painter Edward Burne-Jones and a series of letters between him and Josceline’s great- grandmother, May. The subject of the painting, however, was May’s daughter Amy, whose letters also find their way into the book. A few provide an account of Amy’s visit to Ceylon where she made quite an impression on the acting Governor Sir Hugh Clifford. “One of my theories about her mysterious sudden death the day she returned to England from Ceylon is that she had become addicted to opium while there,” says Josceline.

Josceline herself has pleasant memories of Sri Lanka though this will be her first visit in nearly 25 years. She remembers staying with Nesta Brohier in “the decaying but atmospheric New Oriental Hotel” and how she and one of her friends, Jane Wellesley, who had been a girlfriend of Prince Charles, spent two nights on Taprobane Island: “…at that time it was lived on alone by Stash – Prince Stanislas Klossowski de Rola – his servants called him ‘His Serene Highness’!” she writes. If you’re curious, Josceline might show you a diary she kept of the journey. She’s bringing it along with her to GLF 2012 – delighted with this chance to update it.

Q:What are you reading now?

I am reading Fiona Macarthy’s excellent new biography of Edward Burne-Jones as I helped her with the material about his relationship with my great-grandmother May Gaskell; the unseen love letters that I found in a relation’s house which prompted me to write my book ‘A Profound Secret’, which included her beautiful daughter Amy’s mysterious death ‘of a broken heart’ immediately on her return from Ceylon in 1910.  For my book I was concentrating on Burne-Jones later in his life when he met my great-grandmother so it is fascinating to learn more now about this talented and charming man and the Pre-Raphaelite world he lived in.

Q: Where do you most like to read?

I read every night in bed but can never stay awake long.  My best time for reading is on a holiday when I don’t feel I should be working or getting domestic things done in the house.  For really concentrated reading I find long flights best when there is nothing interesting to distract me and I can read at length.

Q:As someone who travels so much, would you recommend three perfect airport novels guaranteed to make the hours fly by?

‘Restless’ by William Boyd (gripping),  ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini (heart rending),  ‘The Prince of West End Avenue’ by Alan Isler (touching and funny) – all wonderfully written and absolutely page-turning

Q:You’ve raised three children – what were their favourite books growing up? Did their tastes in any way echo your own childhood preferences?

I still have many books my children grew up with in my house and I see that lots of them were ones that I loved as a child and so bought for them – and they loved them too; they include ‘The Railway Children’ and all the other books by E. Nesbit and books by Noel Streatfeild like ‘The Family at One End Street’, ‘The Flying Circus’ and ‘Ballet Shoes’.  They also loved stories by Roald Dahl and Penelope Lively.  When they were very young they adored all the John Burningham books and these are the ones that now my little grandchildren like best too.

Q:When you were writing your many cookbooks, what were the lessons you learnt from other chefs who had done the same? Whose work would you consider above reproach and why?

I am in no way a chef – I have never had a cookery lesson in my life and my training was as a singer.  I learnt to cook by trial and error, which I think is a good way if you are really interested in food.

My dishes stem from a strong sense of wanting to create my own very personal recipes (my family on both sides for several generations have all been either musicians or artists) inspired by the flavours and dishes I experienced in a childhood spent mostly abroad, because my stepfather was a diplomat, and later my own travels.

I find food inseparable from life’s experiences and most admire cookery writers who write well and bring life and interesting anecdotes into their cookery books such as Claudia Roden and Madhur Jaffrey.

Jane Grigson was also brilliant and was the person who encouraged and supported me most when I first started.  What I loved about writing ‘Orchards in the Oasis’, a memoir that includes travel and food, was being able to bring so much of my life into it as well as recipes.

Q:The collection of letters written by Edward Burne-Jones to your great- grandmother is said to have led to the writing of ‘A Profound Secret’. What about those letters so touched you?

It had always been known that May Gaskell knew Burne-Jones but until I found these particular letters, which were definitely love letters and had been shut away for generations, nobody knew the depth of their relationship.  Discovering a secret is always thrilling and I was astonished by the passion in the letters even though it was a friendship which, though nobody can be certain, may well have been platonic.

In his letters to May, Burne-Jones writes in an inimitable and very immediate style, intimately, flatteringly, often vulnerably and with an endearing, quirky sense of humour.  Many of the pages are illustrated by charming humorous drawings; I feel any woman would be touched by them and wish they had been written to her.  I certainly longed to be able to meet him, in fact I used to dream I did when I was working on the book.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on November 13, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel.Pix Courtesy Josceline. 

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