Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Black Sea - Caroline Eden

 'Black Sea, Dispatches and Recipes Through Darkness and Light'. I grabbed this book the moment I saw it in my local Waterstones, pausing only for a lengthy conversation about how beautiful it is, before carrying it home in triumph late last autumn. I've mentioned it in passing a few times since but not written about it in detail, partly because I'm still reading it.

It won the James Avery special commendation award at the André Simon awards last night though and that's spurred me on to write this post because I'm going to be still reading this book for quite a long time. It lives by my bed for handy end of the day reading - first the recipes, then the chapters in no particular order, and soon back to the beginning to go from start to finish.

It's a remarkable book, and not quite like anything else I've read. I have plenty of food book which are part memoir or travelogue, or memoirs which talk a lot about food, or books that in some way mix food with a particular philosophy, but nothing that strikes the particular balance that Eden finds for this book.

I bought it assuming it was primarily a cook book, but it isn't - and although you could use it for nothing else but the recipes, if you did that you'd be seriously missing out. Thanks to Annis for pointing me towards the Honey & Co podcast (it's only really in the last couple of months that I've started really exploring podcasts so I'm late to discovering a lot of good stuff, but catching up is a delight) I caught up with Eden's episode about 'Black Sea' at the weekend which builds on the introduction.

Both explain that 'Black Sea' is meant as much as a travel book as anything else, and I think it's really the travel section that it belongs in (although it in food that you'll find it in any bookshop). The recipes give you the some of the flavour and aroma of the places that Eden is talking about, both through the traditional recipes that look to be a mix between home cooking and cafe or simple restaurant food, and those inspired by particular moments, like the Potemkin Cocktail, or other things which have caught her imagination.

Mark Twain's Debauched Ice Cream is just such a recipe, Twain wrote about eating ice cream in Odessa, he doesn't give specific details but the supposition that it would "...have been something simple but decadent." seems reasonable. What we get is an easy no churn recipe based on condensed milk with a generous shot of rum. I will be trying it just as soon as the weather turns warm enough, it's a combination which sounds as seductive as it does simple to make. The Potemkin is brilliant, and rather better than the Fireside cocktails it's based on. (At least that's true of the way I've made them).

Overall the book is structured on a journey around the Black Sea focusing on the three cities of Odessa, Istanbul, and Trabzon, with some stops along the way. Each chapter works well as a stand alone essay, full of stories, history, and Eden's own experience. It's meant to be read cover to cover like a travel book, and because it's a travel book I'm really enjoying the photographs that illustrate it, instead of finding them a distraction from the food. (Cookbooks with page after page of arty non food related images are a pet hate).

It's an overview as seductive as that ice cream recipe, of a region that I knew next to nothing about before I started reading. I cannot overstate how much I love this book, or how beautiful it is - the cover is particularly stunning - or how much I enjoy Eden's authorial voice which has a pitch perfect blend of erudition, warmth, and charm. She is the ideal guide, or maybe I mean host - always ready with a cocktail, a snack, a story, the suggestion of a book to read, and somewhere to explore.

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