Archive for the ‘other sides to this life’ Category

My fourth cookbook–Robin Ellis’s Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking— is due to be published in the USA this Tuesday, September 29th.

(Available from Amazon.com and autographed copies from the Evanston bookstore, Bookends & Beginnings.)

This has reminded me of an incident–almost a Happening* (remember those?) four years ago, around the time my previous book (Mediterranean Cooking for Diabetics) was published.

In March 2016, I bought a T-shirt at the vast food emporium, Eataly, on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. It was inexpensive–$8, I think–and had the same logo, back and front, in Italian and English:

La vita è troppo breve per mangiare male.

Translated as the slightly different:

Life is too short not to eat well!

Both the price and the sentiments persuaded me to buy it.


The simple message seemed to chime with what I’d been doing for the past five years (and three books published): Trying to persuade people that cooking is NOT rocket science–so get in the kitchen before it is too late!

The cookbooks are aimed at everyone who likes to eat WELLand/or wants to avoid eating badly–written with my perspective–having Type 2 diabetes.

We were a little nervous that Sunday in Manhattan 2016, because Meredith had put the word out we’d be present in this extraordinary big top Barnum-and- Bailey circus ring of Italian cooking for a “pop-up book launch of my third book:

“Roll up! roll-up! Bring your books to be signed by the author–unique opportunity!”

BUT…we hadn’t asked permission from the store–because we were pretty certain it would be refused!

Eataly is a scrum at the best of times, but Sunday lunch is like a rush-hour subway carriage on its way to Wall Street–standing room only!’

As one o’clock approached, the crowd around the cheese section started to swell with people showing no particular interest in cheese, but waving copies of a familiar book (NOT available in this store!).

We were showing some brass neck**– but, hey, this is America–right?!

A small queue had formed and I started to sign, clutching each eagerly-offered book in my left hand, while grabbing a piece of cheese from the plate we’d bought as a cover–trying to stay upright, put the cheese–not the pen–in my mouth–and write something meaningful on the title page of the book.

At that moment, like a scene from a Broadway farce, an unwelcome presence loomed, threatening to upset the cheese trolley….

“Excuse me sir, what are you doing?”

“Signing a few copies of my book for friends, while enjoying your wonderful Italian cheeses.”

“Strictly forbidden–and I must ask you to leave; you are blocking access to the cheese counter.”

There was still half the queue patiently waiting for a signature (and now being treated to a bit of theatre!).

From somewhere, I found my inner Brass Neck and heard myself suggesting, politely, to the manager, that far from blocking access, I was bringing customers into the Emporium–introducing people who might not think of patronizing Eataly on a busy Sunday brunch morning in Midtown. Furthermore, we were about to buy several large round plates of his delicious cheeses for the queue (which we did!).

After a pause, he relented–and I kicked myself for not having a spare copy of my book on hand to give him, in gratitude for his willingness to bend the rules (with the suggestion that if he liked it, to pop it on his shelves).

But perhaps that would have been sticking out my brass neck troppo lontano!

Fresh pasta being made at the pasta station. Eataly encompasses several restaurants as well as food and cookbooks for sale–and we make a point of visiting every trip to NYC. Excellent cappuccino and gelato bar too! But they still don’t stock my cookbooks!

*A “happening” is a performance, event, or situation art; The term was first used by Allan Kaprow during the 1950s to describe a range of art-related events.
** If someone is described as having a “brass neck” it means they are confident, and say or do whatever they want–but don’t understand that their behaviour might be unacceptable to others (!!).

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This touching obituary of a good man stirred my memory pot.

It got me thinking about my early love of train travel encouraged by the train set I was given one early Christmas–I guess 1948.

Set up by Dad in the freezing, little-used Dining room (not a worry to a charged up six year old,) it circled the room leaving plenty of space for the additional furniture of model stations, goods yards overhead signals.

I’d put my chin on the carpet and using my imagination scaled myself down to the size of the perfectly formed little Trix electric engine and its carriages.

Like a little Gulliver I’d watch, transfixed, as it sped pass my nose and rattlied through hand made miniature stations–presents from gifted model making cousins–just like the real thing from Euston Station heading for Scotland.

I thought it was magical.

Dad worked at Euston for the London Midland and Scotland Railway (LMS) which was incorporated into the newly nationalised rail network as British Rail in 1948.

He was entitled to concessionary travel on the extensive home network and in Europe. There were no cheap flights going anywhere; if you went ABROAD you took the train.

In school holidays from the age of seven I was put on the train at Victoria Station bound for Eastbourne on the south coast, where my beloved paternal Grandma met me and we’d spend a week together at her residential hotel on the front.

So grand.

We’d be three for dinner–Granny, her friend, a rather forbidding Mrs Fitzherbert* and 7 year old me.

The summer of 1953 we took the train to the Costa Brava NE Spain.

Train and ferry to Calais; on to Paris taxi across town to the Gare Montparnasse and the journey south through France.

Sit down dinner–so grand! and the barely audible kechik-kecha of the train lulled us to sleep on our couchettes to wake up nearly 700 kilometres later in Toulouse–then south again to the Spanish border and a change of train (different gauge) for the final stage to Barcelona and the beach at Lloret del Mar.

Seven years later a schoolmate and I did our rite of passage pre-uni, nine week Grand Tour of Europe–by train.

Thus trains have always signalled adventure to me. A significant change–of location and often culture.

I knew for sure, as it “thundered” passed my head, triggering my imagination,  that that small but perfectly formed Trix model engine and its beautifully painted carriages was heading for a mysterious  place called “Elsewhere” and I wanted to be on board.


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Ma Vie Française #9:

Robin Ellis, cooking up

a (healthy) feast

in Southwest France

I’m thrilled to welcome the actor, cook and author Robin Ellis to the blog today. Robin has kindly agreed to take part in my occasional series of Ma Vie Française interviews.

Many of you will remember Robin as Ross Poldark in the original TV dramatisation of the Winston Graham Poldark novels. He also appeared as Rev. Halse in the recent BBC Poldark adaptation. Robin has had roles in many well-known films and TV series, including Merchant Ivory’s The Europeans, the BBC’s Elizabeth R, The Moonstone, Sense and Sensibility and the pilot episode of Fawlty Towers. His extensive stage experience included a spell with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Robin as Ross Poldark

Robin now lives in Southwest France with his American wife, Meredith Wheeler, and pursues a second career as a cookery writer, focusing on a healthy way of eating and Mediterranean cuisine – more of that below.

I met Robin several years back at Festilitt, our local literary festival. He gave a cookery demonstration while being interviewed about his life and books – thus showing that men can do more than one thing at once. Mind you, he did have a very capable assistant. We sampled delicious salmon fishcakes with garlicky tzatziki while Robin regaled us with stories from his acting life.

Robin and Meredith at Festilitt

Robin has recently published a new cookbook, Robin Ellis’s Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking. Meredith took the mouth-watering photos in the book and generously supplied nearly all the images for this interview. The book details are at the end of this post.

That’s enough from me. Let’s hear from Robin.

Life on La Lune: Thank you very much, Robin, for agreeing to appear on the blog. The first, and obvious, question is what led you to move to rural Southwest France and how long have you lived here?

Robin Ellis: This year is our twenty first year of “permanence” here in the Tarn. It’s by far the longest either of us has lived anywhere.

In 1990 Meredith brought me down to the Tarn to meet veteran TV anchor and correspondent Hughes Rudd, a colleague she had worked with at ABC News in NYC.  At lunch one day I found myself asking if anyone knew of a house for sale. When we left UK, the idea of owning a second home was the last thing on my mind; we were getting married that summer and had enough to worry about.

Fatefully the answer to my question was “yes” and the next afternoon we walked into the courtyard here and… coup de foudre!

We fell in love with this house.

Rural idyll

I had no real grip on where it was or what it would mean to own it and come here, I just knew it had our name/future on it.

I bought it that evening.

We spent the next nine years travelling back and forth—spending about a third of the year here.

Returning to the UK after each visit became more and more difficult over time, and in 1999 we decided—as our “millennial gesture”, Meredith says–to move here permanently.

What appeals to you about la vie française that you don’t find in the UK?

I’m not sure comparisons are helpful, and they are certainly perilous!

The main contrast for me is not the change of country but the change from town to country!

I am a townie. I can remember visiting my parents for Sunday lunch in their retirement village north of Oxford and being impatient to get back to the smoke. I loved my parents but what was I missing in London?

So I astonished myself by falling in love with this house in the middle of La France Profonde and gradually realising that I wanted to live here permanently.

I do respond to the French customs of social politesse. There is a formality when meeting people that I appreciate.

We have also found the people of our department (Tarn) exceptionally friendly and welcoming.

Is there anything about France that you would change if you could?

I wouldn’t presume! When in Rome etc..

Although…there is a tendency here for drivers waiting on a side road to pull out in front of you as you approach their turning with not a car in sight behind you, causing you to slow down to accommodate their move. It’s not dangerous but it is an irritation.

On your website you mention your lifelong love of cooking. What sparked it off, considering (if you’ll forgive me!) that it was uncommon for men to cook when you were growing up?

My mother was a good cook. Not fancy necessarily, straightforward but delicious.  We’d eat together as a growing family round our scrubbed-top pine table in the kitchen.

I learned early that eating together was one of life’s social pleasures; but I also learned from watching Ma cook, that it took a certain amount of work to produce delicious food!

Your diagnosis with Type 2 diabetes inspired your quest for a healthy, but interesting, diet. Had you always intended to write cookbooks, or did that provide the impetus? And what marks out the Mediterranean diet as different and beneficial?

Diets are problematical; they are difficult to maintain and often involve a wagging finger factor.

Better to find a way of eating that you enjoy, that suits you and your health needs, and stands a chance of becoming habitual—so important.

My diagnosis meant I should be willing to accept certain restrictions to my eating habits.

It wasn’t difficult as I had been cooking this way for years—my culinary nose had always pointed south—thanks, I guess, to my adventurous parents taking us on holidays by train to Spain and Italy. The way of eating I’d experienced on many visits south had become our norm—the shelves in my kitchen were heaving with books by Marcella Hazan, Elizabeth David, Claudia Rosen and a long list of others all cooking in the Mediterranean manner. So with a few adjustments it was just what the doctor ordered.

A typically colourful dish from the new book

Meredith liked it too—vital factor!

Yes—my diagnosis was also the hook for a book—the impetus as you put it.

Friends who came to lunch kept saying—”you should write a book!”

Nice idea, I thought, but there are already too many professional chefs and cooks doing brilliant books.

Then a eureka moment—a book of healthy recipes with a diabetic angle.

Robin’s four cookbooks

Do you have a favourite market that you visit regularly?

Castres Market on Saturdays and the Wednesday market in Réalmont—both within twenty minutes’ drive.

The first is the full traditional French market—with professional stall holders mixing with locals selling their home-grown produce picked the night before.

I get there as it opens in the summer at 7am. Too crowded and hot by 9am.

Herbs and spices stall at Castres market, run by Robin and Meredith’s friend, Florence Henrion
Choosing produce at the Castres bio market, held every Thursday afternoon

The second is a farmers’ market in the old sense. It is the event of the week for the retired farmers who come with their wives to drink coffee or pre-lunch tipple of choice, play cards in the cafés, shop a little but principally to chat.

Which is your favourite recipe, the one you find yourself coming back to most often?

I once heard film director Robert Altman asked this about which of his films he liked best and found his reply a touch complacent, if not boastful—“I love them all,” he said!

Depends on the day, the season and the availability of produce. Sorry to be difficult!

I have a great affection for Ma’s Gazpacho. I found it written on the back of an envelope in her lovely round flowing hand. She must have taken notes on holiday in Spain in the fifties. The balance of ingredients do work and it’s a great stand by for company in these hot summer months. The riper and redder the tomatoes, the tastier it is.

We try not to mention the ‘B’ word on this blog, but we can’t ignore its implications. Do you and Meredith see yourselves remaining in France, and, if so, do you plan to take French nationality?

We live in a presbytère next to a church (deconsecrated) on the right and a cemetery on the left. We haven’t booked places in the latter—as yet but…!

Meredith and I did our separate 90-minute interviews applying for citizenship 16 months ago. We were warned it would take a year, but Covid 19 has kicked in and it may yet be months before we hear.

We wait and hope that we are granted citizenship of the country we have lived in permanently for 21 years, and where we plan to spend the rest of our lives.

I will always be English, Meredith always American, but we pay our taxes here and are unable to vote in France or in UK (after 15 years abroad Brits lose the right to vote). It is a logical step. I feel an emotional attachment to the idea of Europe and we both want to remain European citizens.

What’s the most important piece of advice you would give someone thinking of moving to France?

Be prepared and willing to speak some French. Dig out that school French—surprising how much you remember. At least a bit of grammar—to distinguish past, present and future tenses is very handy. The people of the Tarn have been welcoming from the start. Not once did they show irritation at our clumsy, halting attempts to speak their language. They generously show their appreciation of our efforts.

I read Simenon in French.

Good stories in a repeated, easy vocabulary.


Visit Vanessa’s blog for more interviews and reveries on life in rural France.

Merci, Vanessa!

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Ridiculous, I know, but I’m excited today because I spotted the first blush of colour on a tomato in the new vegetable patch–planted a month ago on our old compost heap.

How long from first blush to first bite?

I’m counting the days.

Depends in part on the weather.

Hot days are forecast–so perhaps not so long to wait.

Bit like opening an advent calendar, day-to-day, waiting for Christmas–agony, I remember.

And it’s not only tomatoes that are keeping me enthralled. We just ate our first  cucumber–the short stubby kind–that can be bitter, or sweet as can be.

Julien, who helps us with the garden and grows vegetables for a living, told us:

“If you pick them in the morning, they are less likely to be bitter. The unpleasantness builds up during the day.”

I’m looking for the second little beauty to mature, to test the theory.

He also advises cleaning the knife used to cut away infected leaves before moving on to the next tomato, courgette or cucumber plant.

Makes sense.

And water tomatoes rarely, he says–this encourages their roots to delve deeper and it increases the intensity of the taste. And pick them late in day when they’ve absorbed all the sunshine.

One of the courgette plants was given to us by our neighbour, Tom, and is a different variety from the other three. It resembles the lighter ridged zucchini our friend Helen uses for her courgette pasta at Boggioli, their olive farm in Tuscany.

I think it yields  a creamier sauce.

(See the AUTUMN section of my new cook book Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking, p. 158.)

Julian, normally a genial, droll character, said darkly before departing:

“I may have to pour vinegar on the plot–I’m so jealous!”.

Echoes of the film, Manon des Sources?



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Winston Graham–who would have been 112 today (!)–and all things Poldark have featured in my life since the day I walked into BBC-TV Centre, for my first audition for the role of Ross Poldark in January, 1975.

Of course, I had no inkling then how significant the outcome of that test might be for me.

I wrote about it in Making Poldark:

It was a lovely sunny day, I remember, and I was going to an interview at the BBC. Another interview! I’d been to hundreds before. I’d been to three in this particular building—and I’d got all three jobs. What had my agent said? It’s for a thing called Poldark, written by a man whose name rang a bell—Winston Graham—and set in 18th century Cornwall.

I sat facing the sun in the producer’s office, my eyes twitching, and thinking of the third degree. As always happens, he covered the awkwardness of the situation by giving me an outline of the story while looking me up and down and through and through. The subtext of first interviews is always more interesting than the scene itself.

“Thanks for coming in. Of course, I’m seeing others for this part….I want to get it right—but very good to meet you at last. I’ve wanted to use you for some time.”

I found a bookshop in Gloucester Road, bought the books and attacked Ross Poldark for the rest of the afternoon.

I went through two more of these interviews and read a scene or two for the directors. By the end of the third interview I was quite keen to get the part.

The rest is history–a history that keeps refreshing itself.

Bonne Anniversaire, Winston!

I have much to thank you for.

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We’ve had two Zoom online book launches of Robin Ellis’ Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking recently. The first with family and friends, was altogether a wonder of chaotic joyfulness. The second no less joyful, but a little less chaotic (practice makes almost perfect)-turned out to be more family and friends and alumni from my healthy cooking workshops.

Their faces started popping up in little rectangles on the screen from around the world: From a bear preserve on an Alaskan island; a vegetarian restaurant in Belgrade, Serbia; from a kitchen in Kent; a brownstone back garden in Manhattan; an indoor terrace garden in beautiful San Miguel de Allende in Mexico and dining tables around the UK, the USA and France.

We were forced to hold the celebration online due to the coronavirus–plans for the book tour were scuppered–but as it turned out it afforded an opportunity to bring together a larger group than we could ever otherwise have assembled.

We popped the champagne– and waved at friends and family near and far.

It was a BYO (Bring your own) dinner party (or brunch or lunch for those in North America). Some guests were invited to make a dish from the new cookbook and do a kind of “show and tell”.

Cooking workshop alumni in Minnesota actually made a video of their efforts:

Special thanks to Shelly and Lisa!

Meredith’s sister Holly was at the controls in Silicon Valley–valiantly marshaling the throng, politely asking people to use their MUTE button. (It seems actors, journalists and writers do not like to be muted!)  But it all contributed to the “chaotic joyfulness”.

If you speak on Zoom, you automatically become the face in the centre of peoples’ screens.

“If you want to make a comment pop it in the chat box,” Holly pleads…

“I never quite found the chat box,” says a friend plaintively in Rhode Island.

“Where’s that extraneous music coming from?” says a grumpy voice in London.

After a bit of investigation, Holly confirms: “From your own computer actually…!”

“Oh sorry!”

It didn’t matter.

Everyone was charmed by Meredith’s opening montage of food photos from the book, backed by Lionel Bart’s incomparable Food, Glorious Food number from Oliver!  followed by a short tour of the church which gives our rectory its name.

Our dear friend, John Willis, “interviewed” me about the new book–and NO, we are not fully vegetarian ourselves, though we lean that way.

Getting to know the cattle who calmly graze in pasture behind our house–beautiful Blonde d’Aquitaine, raised for beef, put us off meat.

My dish for this special booklaunch supper was a colourful early summer recipe dubbed My Ratatouille (p. 90 in the new book) which omits aubergines and courgettes.

I chose it for both its colours and its deliciousness (but then all the recipes are delicious–that is the sine qua non to get into the book!)

This new cookbook–my fourth–is available now in the UK.

The official publication date in the USA is Aug 18th–but if you order from The Book Depository, they will deliver it free around the world.

Thanks to my editor at Little, Brown, Tom Asker, Copy editor Amanda Keats, Duncan Proudfoot who has seen all my books into print and Andrew Baron, the designer of the last two. And finally, thanks to my wife, Meredith, who has taken all the photographs while the food got cold….

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Today’s the day!!

Robin Ellis’ Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking emerges into the sunlight–my fourth cookbook:

A joyful day for Meredith (photographer, chief-taster and bottle-washer) and me (writer and cook).

It is available now on Amazon.ukFoyles, Waterstones, Blackwell’s, Hive and The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery) and from good bookstores. It’s available as an ebook too!

(In North American, the publication date is not until August 18th–but The Book Depository will send it to you NOW.)

The recipes are simple, seasonal and do not have long lists of ingredients.  Dare I say they are delicious too?

Meredith and I are not fully paid up veggies but we’ve both enjoyed this voyage of discovery ’round the Mediterranean Sea.

The ingredients are often similar in the different countries that border the sparkling waters, but the treatment varies–like the difference between a French omelette and an Italian frittata.

Herbs and spices feature strongly; olive oil is the cooking medium and the sun an ever-present element, ripening the ingredients and honing the flavours.

Our new vegetable patch is bursting to show off its wares. (“Me, Me–I’m ripe!“) and this book provides plenty of ideas for what to do with them!

We planted it this year on an old compost heap–and here is the BEFORE and AFTER:

Bon appetit!

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Castres‘ Saturday morning market is a major event.

It attracts locals–alarmingly known as Castraises–and weekend visitors, among them the occasional cluster of rugby fans from Angleterre visiting for the match against erstwhile national champions Castres Olympic.

As well as offering a stunning source of local, fresh produce, it serves as a chance to meet friends, share a coffee or apéro [apéritif] in one of the bars that surround Place Jean Jaurès in centre ville.

It’s teeming by 10am with slow-moving crowds, greeting friends in the traditional French fashion of shaking hands or kissing on both cheeks (sometimes twice) in normal times–but these are NOT normal times.

After a 10-week absence in lockdown due to the virus threat, I’m back, wearing a mask.

I still get there early to bag the best, and move more freely from stall to stall.

There has been some rearranging of stalls to aid social distancing–but relative location has been more or less respected–important for punters to find their favourites.

Our great friend and neighbour, Flo, is an unlucky exception.  She and her marvelous spice stall have been radically re-located.

She is not happy about it.

Flo at her spice stand in happier times

Not everyone is masked now—though most traders are and shoppers must point to the courgette they fancy rather than sort through the pile.

I locate all my usual vendors and favor a few new ones.

There’s a seasonal limit to the vegetables on offer–summer’s bounty is some weeks off. Courgettes are featuring strongly and aubergines are making their shiny black presence felt for the first time since late autumn.

I’m hoping for broad beans next week and young artichokes so I can make Vignerola–the marvelous Roman vegetable stew–which features in my new book: Robin Ellis’ Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking, published on 25th June (and available for pre-order now via various booksellers*).

The atmosphere is convivial, despite everyone looking slightly confused and discombobulated.

Queues run differently, stalls face the opposite direction than B.C. (Before Coronavirus!), voices are muffled.

All that said–it is good to have a little of the old life impose itself on the new.
“My kingdom for a ripe tomato!

*The new cookbook can be pre-ordered at any of these booksellers–and for those not in the UK, free worldwide delivery via The Book Depository/.






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I just dug a grave for a squirrel.

Two graves in fact–both in shady cool spots.

In which hollow it finds a final resting place–is a decision that must wait  Meredith’s return from her Memorial Day ceremonies.

The fully grown red squirrel with its long bushy tail, made me jump as I swung the watering can round, early this morning.

There it was, lying peacefully stretched out and unmauled–at the corner of the vegetable patch; like a perfect specimen in a taxidermist’s shop.

No doubt a cadeau [a present] for Meredith–thought one of our six, well-enough-fed cats.

The reds are one of the many joys of living here in southwest France. They lift the spirits with their antics in the trees and their hop-along gait.

We’ve a mulberry tree dropping its tiny ripe black berries on the lawn and the roof of the car; that’s what attracted the poor mite. It ate one too many, too close to the ground and BANG!

We’ll find  a stone or heavy tree stump to mark the spot–not far from its last temptation–and place some flowers there.  Meredith planned to do the same this morning– honouring the fallen.

Mulberry trees are a source of food for silkworms (leaves) and squirrels (berries).

It’s the fruit of its beautiful, deep-red cousin that I covert.

Succulent, melt-in-the-mouth delicious; they are too delicate to harvest in large quantities. I’ve never seen them in the markets here.

Best to know a private mulberry tree–and not tell anyone about it!

Schoolfriend Chris Fordyce and I feasted–like the squirrel–from the overhanging branches of just such a tree, on the  outsikirts of Delphi in Greece–in 1961!

We reached up with bare arms–popping them straight into our hungry mouths.

There was no disguising our indulgence as we quickly signed the youth hostel register for the night, trying to hide our red-stained hands.

When Meredith returned from the ceremony–we agreed the appropriate resting place was under the mulberry tree; on the fringe of our cat cemetery.

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We heard this morning that June 25th is the day my new book is officially LAUNCHED!

No dry dock smashing of champagne bottles or the equivalent book launch parties this time–circumstances don’t allow.

Just a heartfelt virtual heave.

Maybe later when the virus has met its match and it feels the right moment we’ll take a trip to Cornwall–Truro, where Meredith and I had planned a return to Waterstones and to meet up with everyone, as we have with previous books.

Meredith–who appropriately has just started a vegetable garden–repeats her triumph with the last cookbook, supplying all the photographs–upstaging me shamelessly. It looks beautiful, with the photos doing their job of making you want to cook the dishes shown.

Over a 100 recipes from round the circumference of the Mediterranean–many with the same components cooked in different traditional ways–the sun nearly always topping of the list of ingredients.

The book is written season by season–the way I like to cook–starting with Spring.

The recipes are simple with approachable ingredients lists.

It is available now for pre–order on Amazon.






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