Posts Tagged ‘Ismail Merchant’


The title of a Henry James novella set in mid-19th century New England, filmed in a barely-changed New Ipswich by Merchant/Ivory productions in the fall of 1978.

The setting was authentic–a New Hampshire village; the season–a blazing autumn, gold fading into silver; the story–Old Europe on the make in New England; my part–a Boston nabob unable to make up his mind.

Stark contrast with impulsive Ross Poldark for me–and one I found difficult. 

And I was playing with an impressionistic “American” accent opposite the real thing–Boston Brahmin daughter par excellence, and Oscar nominee, Lee Remick–herself playing with her best cut-glass English accent.

Poor stuck-in-the-mud Robert Acton was too rich, too comfortable and too complacent to contemplate the upheaval a life with a gold-digging, not-yet-divorced, European princess would put him through. 

Years later Ruth Prawer Jabhvala, Merchant/Ivory’s perennial screenwriter apologized for writing me such a dull part.

In truth, the fault was not hers.

No matter. I have good memories of fellow actors–in particular, Kristin Griffith who played my sister, and Tim Choate–plus one extraordinary feast.  And I loved spending weeks watching nature reflect the story, as the foliage changed colour and with it, the Princess’s prospects.

Tim Choate played Clifford.

That feast…

Independent film production is a hazardous business, and three-quarter’s way through the filming it became clear that the film was in financial difficulties (a scenario not unfamiliar to Merchant/Ivory productions). 

I heard that in earlier days, producer Ismail Merchant would visit American film company offices in London (he lived in New York) offering a slice of freshly-baked apple pie–in exchange for the use of the telephone.

Around 5pm one Saturday afternoon, I returned to the unit base after filming, to find irrepressible Ismail unloading a number of large brown supermarket bags brimming with produce from his car.

“Hi Ismail–how’s it going?–can I carry something?”

“Very kind–perhaps a couple of these bags–to the kitchen….”

“What’s happening?”

“Indian feast. Eight o’clock this evening. Everyone is invited!”

“That’s in barely three hours time, Ismail!”

“You’ll see!”

I guessed that cast and crew were not to be the only guests at the table.

Other interested parties attended too–perhaps worried about their investments in the film.

On the dot of 8pm, the dining room doors of the unprepossessing Holiday Inn Leominster, Massachusetts (only Holiday Inn in the world without a swimming pool?) were flung open by Ismail, dressed like a maharaja–in his full Indian finery–not a bead of kitchen sweat visible–to reveal tables groaning under the weight of his sumptuous Indian feast.

After weeks of location catering and fast food suppers, we gulped it all down.

The film wrapped without further rumours–and ran for nine months at the Curzon Cinema in London.

It’s the 40th anniversary of the release–and the film has been restored and is being re-released.

James Ivory, the director and the other half of Merchant/Ivory recently won an Oscar for best-adapted screenplay and is working on another. He’s 91! 

Ismail Merchant–whose refrain was always “Everybody loves our films!”–died in 2005. (And incidentally, he wrote several cookbooks too!)

Their partnership was the longest in the history of independent film production–44 years.






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We arrived back home at midday yesterday, after a hair-raising, heart-stopping near miss of our Toulouse connection at Heathrow.

It was always going the a bit tight, but worth the risk we thought, as the next connection left six hours later.

We waited our turn for a hand search after three of our bags were side-lined going through the X-ray machine, then watched the security staff carry out their essential, life saving duties–in aspic, it seemed.

“Last call–this flight is closing!” We made it by a hair’s breath after a long dash.

I’m trying to avoid going shopping today–recovery mode at St. Martin.

But what’s there to eat–the fridge and larder are low on fresh produce after our month long trip.

A look on the shelves…

Red lentils. Yes!

Ismail’s* spicy comfort soup–oh yes!

And a sweet potato on the side–perfectly enough until tomorrow–with a glass of red wine.


8oz red lentils–thoroughly washed

1 onion–chopped

3 tbsp olive oil

12 peppercorns

4 bay leaves

3 small red chilis–left whole

1.5 pints stock–I use organic vegetable stock cubes

2 tbsp parsley–chopped

1/2 tsp salt

  • Soften the onion in the oil.
  • Add the bay leaves and the peppercorns and cook a further five minutes.
  • Add the stock with the lentils, chilis, parsley and salt and bring up to the boil.
  • Simmer for 20 minutes until the lentils have cooked through.
  • Serve hot–with a sprinkling of parsley on top.

* the late Ismail Merchant–producer half of Merchant Ivory productions–whose touch of genius stretched into the kitchen.








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Meredith tells me the first time she became aware of lentils, was at the age of 35! They had not been part of her experience growing up in suburban Chicago in the fifties.

One of the first things I cooked for her was a dish I call “comfort lentils” (it’s in my cookbook Delicious Dishes for Diabetics).

Much has changed–Indian restaurants are common place now in the US.

Indian and Chinese restaurants and “take-aways” (my equivalent of MacDonalds–first outlet opened in the UK in 1974!) featured regularly in my life at college and in provincial theatre.

Affordable and open late–just the ticket!

This recipe is hands on for the first half hour or so, as it builds in the taste.

Then it chugs along on a low heat for fifty minutes as the lentils dissolve and the dal forms.

The finish involves sautéing a small amount of onion, garlic and dried red pepper to stir into the mix to lift it.

It’s adapted from a recipe in Ismail Merchant’s excellent and quirky cookbook Indian Cuisine.


8oz red lentils–rinsed until the water runs clear

1 small onion–chopped

2 tblsps olive oil

a short stick of cinnamon

1 tsp fresh ginger–grated

250ml/1/2 pint stock–I use organic vegetable stock cubes

250ml/1/2 pint hot water

1 tsp cayenne pepper

juice and the shells of a lemon

to finish:

2 tblsps olive oil

1/2 small onion–sliced

1 garlic clove–chopped

1 tsp salt

1 small dried red chili–chopped

Cook the onion over a low heat in the oil until it is opaque–about five minutes.


Add the lentils, cinnamon and the ginger and mix in.


Cook these  together gently for about ten minutes, keeping the heat low and stirring from time to time to avoid them sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning.

A nutty aroma starts to rise from the darkening lentils, as they cook.

Add the stock and hot water, cayenne and salt.

Bring to the simmer.

Cook on gently for a further ten minutes, then add the lemon juice and the empty lemon halves and stir it all together.


Cover the pan and continue cooking on a very low heat–use a heat diffuser if necessary–for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid sticking.

In a small frying pan heat the tablespoon of olive oil and add the sliced onion.

Let this color for five minutes over a medium heat.

Add the chili and the sliced garlic and continue cooking until the garlic begins to brown.

Add this to the lentils and mix it in.

We ate it yesterday as an accompaniment to spicy marinaded chicken breasts–(recipe soon).

It’ll taste even better today!

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I bought a couple of chicken breasts for lunch in Castres market this morning.

The recipe below is adapted from the late Ismail Merchant’s excellent book, Indian Cuisine.

Ismail Merchant

Ismail, who died too soon six years ago aged 68, was the producer half of the enormously successful film production team Merchant Ivory. I filmed The Europeans with them in New England in the autumn of 1978, with lovely Lee Remick.

Food played an important part in the ebullient Ismail’s modus operandi.

In earlier days he would do the rounds of the established film companies looking for backing, with a homemade apple pie in his bag.  Slices would be produced in exchange for the use of the telephone!

Money was never NOT a problem for them in those days and it was clear, deep into the filming in New Hampshire, that things were tight. Anxious creditors hovered and it was uncertain whether we’d be able to complete the filming.

About five o’clock one Saturday afternoon, I spotted Ismail coming in from the car park laden down with several grocery bags. “What’s up, Ismail?”

“Curry for dinner–everyone’s invited!”

He disappeared into the hotel’s kitchen which he had commandeered for the night.

At eight that evening, the whole company (at least 80 people) plus a few unfamiliar faces entered the dining room where  a wonderful Indian feast was laid out–a fantastic sight!

We finished the film on time, with no further rumours of money worries.

His simple recipe makes the rather bland chicken breasts more interesting with chili and cinnamon.

Chicken breasts sautéed with cinnamon, onions, and parsley

for 4

4 boned chicken breasts (without the skin)– sliced in half, lengthwise

4 tblsps olive oil

1 cinnamon stick– broken up

1 largish onion– chopped

2 to 3 small red chillies

juice of two lemons

Cook the onions gently in the oil with the cinnamon until soft.

Add the chicken breasts with the lemon juice.

Season with salt and pepper.

Turn them over after three minutes and cook for a further three minutes; then add the parsley and chillies.

Turn the breasts in the sauce and continue cooking for a further 5 minutes–the exact cooking time depends on the thickness of the chicken breasts.

In the pan...

(I just cooked two today.)

Cut into the thickest part of one to check. If it is still very pink, continue to cook another couple of minutes.

I served it with a salad of  raw fennel, radish, avocado and rocket  dressed with 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, a tablespoon of freshly-squeezed lemon juice, half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard,  salt and pepper,  whisked together.

On the plate....

A healthy & delicious dish for diabetics–and everyone else….

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