It was 2003, I was working as a recipe writer for Le Cordon Bleu cookery schools, based between London and Paris – I was living the “tale of 2 cities” with a beautiful 4 Oven AGA in dark blue in the main demonstration kitchen. I used to work early and late so I could test the ideas of Escoffier and Carême the grandfathers of modern day French gastronomy on the AGA in London. Just like the Dickens book I was the peasant working for the aristocracy, but it taught me my food knowledge. My revolution was food. It was at that point I met Marlena Spieler, she had just returned from winning the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards and was going to present a guest evening at the school. Who was I to know that 10 years later after winning the award myself I would be sharing a stage with Marlena, cooking in Paris at the World Cookbook Awards in the Carrousel de Louvre, and yes, the smell of our cooking made the Mona Lisa smile.
Marlena was demonstrating a few recipes from her latest book ‘Recipes from my Jewish Grandmother’. She explained the cuisine in great detail to the biggest cookbook writers in the world, the global food trendsetters and most famous chefs. We were told how the food is olive oil, fresh white cheeses, citrus fruits, beans, salads, in essence plates of colour and fresh vitality. I remember her explanation of Israeli breakfasts in a Kibbuts and her ability to make words taste in your mouth.
Marlena had never used an AGA before, however she fell in love with the array of 13 colours available, especially the new Aqua AGA we were cooking on. First step to make a recipe called Hatzelim was to roast a whole aubergine. Marlena just pierced it, rubbed it with oil and it was cooked on the floor of the Baking (or indeed Roasting) Oven for 20 minutes until soft and ready.
We discuss our last event on stage in Paris, how I was surprised by some of the words she used. ‘Shmaltz’ being one of them, it’s Yiddish for chicken fat. As the Jewish people left Europe for the USA after WW2 Marlena tells me they left the language behind as it had many painful memories and learnt Hebrew. I’m reminded of cuisines and how they change with social issues. How life changes and so does our food culture.
Israeli food is a combination of the traditional cuisines of all the Jewish communities across the world who came home and the indigenous cuisine of both Jews and Arabs who lived in the land before the modern day state of Israel coupled with what grows there, the Kosher system and the religious holidays. I do remember the stories of the Exodus where the Lord called it a land flowing with milk and honey. According to K-Star the AGA can be used for Kosher cooking providing a few rules are kept on the Sabbath.
As we cooked, on and off camera we discussed why food is special, forget the nutrition, the fact remains food tells a story. A story of people, of feast and famine, of war and peace; a social history if you must, real life of people in a snapshot of time, the tale of 2 cities. Food, when we eat together is a time of sharing, religion and politics aside, it’s a time for communicating. Food provides a facilitation for stories, a love and friendship creator. And the AGA in the centre of it being the heart of the home made me think of the many qualities of conversations AGA owners may subjected many varieties of the family work horse to. If only an AGA has ears. Remember it is the heart of the home.
Just like those French heroes of Gastronomy, Marlena in my opinion is the modern day hero of Israeli food, over 70 cookbooks to her name, she writes about food for the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. Escoffier was known as the King of Chefs, and the Chef of Kings. With a biography like Marlena has acquired she surely is the Queen of Israeli cooking.
1 medium – large aubergine
3-4 cloves garlic, crushed
Kosher or sea salt as required
1 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
a few pinches cumin, to taste
pinch ground coriander
hot sauce as desired
Pierce the aubergine in 1-2 palaces with a sharp knife. Rub the aubergine with the olive oil and place on the floor of the Roasting or Baking Oven of the AGA and cook for 5 minutes, turn over and cook until soft inside. Remove from the AGA and allow to cool.
Slice off the stem and scoop the filling into a bowl. Squeeze the skins to extract all of the juices.
Add all of the ingredients and mix well.
To serve, place into a bowl and drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with cumin, hot sauce if desired and serve with a fresh lemon wedge and fresh coriander leaves.
Enjoy with toasted pitta bread.