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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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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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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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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 have come to Falcon Field, in Mesa, 20 miles east of Phoenix, Arizona, in search of my father, Anthony Gerald Ellis.

Dad trained to be a fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force (RAF) here in 1944 under a scheme started in 1941 to help shore-up the war effort in Europe.

Many young British pilots had perished in The Battle of Britain in 1940.

Falcon Field was one of several airfields in the USA where members of the RAF—in my father’s case, a flight technician–could train in safety, get their wings and return to the war in Europe.

Dad is standing on the far left under the numeral 2 on the fuselage.

The story of Dad’s American odyssey had long been a part of our family mythology.

His almost permanent tan marked him out as someone who had spent many months in the notorious heat of southwestern United States.

I remember looking in awe at the colour photos in the magazine, Arizona Highways, that would arrive monthly all through the fifties.

Tony, as he was called, was “adopted”—as were all the young fliers—by a family in Phoenix for the duration of his stay.

In his case it was the Smith family whose mission was to make him feel at home at weekends and American holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas–far from his wife (my mother) and me (a two-year-old) back home in war-weary Britain.

(We would love to locate that family–but their name was Smith! They had a daughter named Polly who might be alive still and remember Tony Ellis.)

Meredith and I and our friend Katie Solon arrive at the museum at 9am and the two volunteer receptionists greet us warmly.

When they hear WHY we have come—to find evidence of my father’s time at Falcon Field–they are immediately interested.

“We need to find Dennis Lemon” they agree, “He’s your man—Dennis knows everything there is to know about Falcon Field and its past.”

A promising start, I am thinking, with a rising feeling of hope and expectancy.

For the next two hours that feeling does not evaporate in the intense heat—already 100 degrees! Rather it grows in strength, thanks to the skills of Mr. Dennis Lemon.

Dennis is a senior docent or tour guide at the air museum–and imparts his encyclopedic knowledge of the airfield and its exhibits with charm, humor and authority–and a light touch. He does not rush.

I explain our mission and he is fully engaged–and promises a visit to the archives before the morning ends.

As we start our tour in the first of the two huge hangars that house the museum, a small plane—an F4F Wildcat–taxis out, its propellers spluttering into life with deafening effect.

Dennis explains that it is owned by the pilot who regularly takes it out occasionally for a “run” .

The noise intensifies as the pilot gives us a wave and goes on his way towards the runway.

We spend the morning here in Mesa fascinated by the range of aviation history on show.

There are flying machines from the First World War so flimsy looking that the thought of taking off in one–let alone sparring with the enemy from the cockpit–gives me the shivers.

At the other end of aviation history there is the sinister presence of a Soviet MIG fighter flown here by a Hungarian pilot and gifted to the museum.

In between, airplanes large and small and middling–lovingly cared for–and in some cases prepared for take-off–by a small army of veterans and enthusiasts dedicated to maintaining and growing this remarkable museum as a living and working reminder of the story of war in the air.

Dennis takes us inside the fuselage of a World War 2 Bomber.

With our friend Katie inside the bomber

It is cramped, claustrophobic and unbearably HOT.

The difficult conditions experienced by bomber crews flying into a combat zones suddenly become vividly clear.

We feel humbled–and relieved to get our feet back on the ground.

Poignantly for me, Dennis points out three small aircraft similar to the ones in which my father would have done his training.

One I recognize from a war photo on a wall at home.

A second was involved in a story he used to tell his impressionable sons about his time at Falcon Field.

One morning he took off with others on a training flight going north in the direction of the Grand Canyon.

At a certain point the pilots were instructed to turn RIGHT (east)–and return to Falcon Field.

Dad’s mantra for life was Don’t rock the boat!-but he always maintained that he ignored the order, turned LEFT and flew over the Grand Canyon!

Dennis has an amused look when I relate the story–but confirms that this is plausible.

Dad could well have done it!

HOORAY!

Consequences? He never admitted what happened AFTER he returned to the airfield….

Perhaps the Powers-that-Be let him off with a reprimand—recognising that a sense of initiative in a young pilot should be encouraged in times of war. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking.

At the end of our tour, Dennis shows us the small plane in which a newly-qualified pilot would have celebrated earning his wings.

Not Dad–but looks a lot like him.

I am moved– imagining my father’s sense of pride and achievement as he flew off with his wings on his lapel.

And I feel regret–that I hadn’t questioned him more closely about one of the great adventures of his life.

Now for the archives,” says Dennis and leads us into a nondescript room at the back of the second hangar.

He disappears behind a line of filing cabinets and after a couple of minutes emerges with a pile of cardboard boxes filled with leather-bound notebooks.

We spend the next few minutes examining the files–turning over the pages filled with beautifully-calligraphed names dating back to 1941.

Will we find Dad’?

In the last book– on almost the last page–at the very bottom of the list: THERE HE IS!

A thrilling moment! ELLIS, Anthony G.

He got his wings on April 1st, 1945, age 29 –relatively old for a pilot.

The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945–which is why he survived when many of the pilots who trained here had KIA after their names: Killed In Action.

Dad had spent 33 weeks at Falcon Field–and developed an enduring attachment to the United States.

I only spent two hours, but it was a joy and a privilege, thanks to Dennis Lemon and the volunteers who keep this museum alive.

The museum is special—full of these gleaming beasts of war, glowing with restored life and looked after lovingly by an army of volunteers.

It was a chastening experience too, spending time close up and personal with them–for this lucky boy born into a war, followed–thanks to the deeds of our fathers and grandfathers–by a long period of relative peace in Europe.

I would recommend a visit–even if you are not on a mission to find your Dad!

P.S. Two days later Meredith and I took off in a small fixed-wing plane–similar to Dad’s–and flew through the Grand Canyon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Just back from Rome where we walked and walked and ate and ate–which was the object of the visit.

I planned this trip–to celebrate my 75th birthday with our friends, Helen and Keith (his birthday is two days before mine)–as four nights and eight meals.

In front of the French Embassy in Piazza Farnese

In front of the French Embassy in Piazza Farnese with my fellow Capricorn.

Worked out very well.

This might seem to undervalue Rome–the Eternal City, heart of the Catholic Church, ancient heart of the vasty Roman Empire.

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Church bells sound on the quarter hour and bits of antique Rome are tucked into walls in unexpected places.

Look at those Roman heads in the wall!

HISTORY is everywhere–writ BIG!

It was unusually cold for Rome--as you can see here at the Pantheon.

At the Pantheon–in the freezing cold; unRoman winter weather we were told.

But so is the Roman love of FOOD.

At Pecorino, a wonderful restaurant near the Testaccio market

At Pecorino, a wonderful restaurant near the Testaccio market

 

Close to our hotel, Campo di Fiori–home to a proud statue of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar burnt at the stake in the piazza in 1600 as a heretic–now it’s famous for its daily market.

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Food and history, side by side.

On our last morning, we bought a large handful of prepared punterelle, handily vacuum-packed for the journey.

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Puntarelle is one of the culinary wonders of the region.

A member of the chicory family it is traditionally served in an anchovy, lemon and olive oil sauce.

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On the way to Keith’s birthday lunch we walked through the old Jewish ghetto–where the inhabitants were locked in at night until the middle of the 19th century.

Now there are police sentry posts at the entrances–keeping attackers out.

Restaurant barkers in yamakas–stand outside in the freezing cold, tempting us to try the famous fried artichokes.

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History and food–side by side.

The signature dishes of Rome are on every menu.

I ate an exquisite artichoke fried to a golden finish–the Jewish way–in a tiny restaurant called Soro Margherita (recommended!) in the Piazza delle Cinque Scole on the edge of the Jewish quarter.

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I’d been to Rome with the National Youth Theatre in the summer of 1960 with our modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

The following year I returned with a school friend.

Rome was one of our stops on a whirlwind nine-week tour of Europe before starting university.

I remember a single meal from this short visit.

It was a packed lunch of chicken and salad; eaten on location on the edge of what smelt like a sulphur pit.

It was my second day as an extra on a film called The Best of Enemies–starring Alberto Sordi and David Niven plus a galaxy of famous British character actors playing varied ranks in the British army in the Western Desert.

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I’d met this guy in the youth hostel who had already been an extra on the film for weeks in Israel, but had decided to quit.

“Why don’t you take my place?” he  suggested. “They won’t notice if you keep your head down–just say you’ve come from Israel with the others. They pay £11 a day!”

A FORTUNE on our budget!

“Just make sure you are at the studios (the legendary Cinecitta at the southeast city limits) by six in the morning,”  my benefactor advised.

The hostel opened at six, so no chance of sleeping there and making the studios in time.

So I decided to try a bench at the main railway station.

They moved me on.

I don’t remember HOW I got there–but I ended up sleeping on the wall outside the studios and–keeping my head down–coolly signed on.

The first day we shot in the studio.

There I was–hobnobbing with my HEROES–Harry Andrews whom I’d seen playing at Stratford two years before with Laurence Olivier in Coriolanus and Duncan Macrae, the bony Scots actor whom I’d also seen with Olivier in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros in the West End.

I have no memory of what I ate that day!

The second day we were on location outside Rome.

I was a dressed as a Private–khaki shorts and boots–Desert Rats, they were called.

When we broke for lunch I took off my hot, sweaty boots and dipped my toes in a nearby puddle while tucking into my grilled chicken lunch.

By the time I got back to the studio, my left left leg was feeling odd–painful even.

It got worse quickly. Whatever was infecting that pool of water was now climbing rapidly up my left leg!

By the end of the day, I could barely hobble on it–and I had to inform the third assistant director that I didn’t think I could return in the morning.

Then it all came out that I was taking the place of the previous guy–and it got a bit awkward!

They paid me off, but said “don’t bother to come back!”.

As I limped into the hostel, Chris Fordyce, my school friend and traveling companion, looked worried. By ten that night he persuaded me to consult the hostel manager.

He sent me directly to a doctor in the neighbourhood, who by some MIRACLE was still at work .

The doctor examined my leg, shook his head solemnly and said in a wonderfully accented English:

“Eets very lucky you come see me tonight. Tomorrow, I would have to take your leg off!”

He gave me a shot of penicillin and a week’s supply, with a single needle to inject it–brave Chris’ job.

I was in bed for seven days–and the needle got blunter and blunter.

But I kept my leg.

Life might have been so different!

I eventually saw the film at the Odeon Leicester Square and thought I caught a glimpse of a very thin ME clambering over rocks with other desert rats–but I wouldn’t swear to it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I pass Gaby and Pierette’s farm on my daily walk and scurrying out of my path two days ago were a platoon of ducks and geese.

December the first today. They must be new arrivals in time for Christmas.

Les pauvres!

December the first….

DAY ONE, in the early 1950’s, on the advent calendar and the agonisingly slow build-up to the big day.

Sweet torture!

The decorations are up in our little village of Lautrec and outside Monoprix in the town of Castres, the little carrousel and its prancing horses is doing its rounds.

What to buy so-and-so and and mustn’t forget thing-a-ma-jig….

Christmas is now inevitable and the pressure is on.

Well, I have a suggestion….

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I know what it says on the cover but the recipes a healthy and delicious–good for everyone–and Meredith’s photos are sensational.

If your local bookstore doesn’t have it (in the UK), it’s available on Amazon–and only Amazon or other online book dealers in the USA. It’s also available for Kindle.

Here’s a look behind the scenes!

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All these events are free.

If our paths cross, hope you’ll come say hello!

 

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CoverBook

In New York City:

ManhattanSigning

In Los Angeles:

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In Palo Alto:

RevisedBooksInc

In Arlington, Virginia (Washington D.C. area):

Arlington

 

Poldark

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