Food/travel Squirrel Pie
Elisabeth Luard (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
IF YOU AIM to be a travel writer, it helps to grow up in a diplomatic family. One of Elisabeth Luard’s childhood homes was in Uruguay and, later,
when she was married to the owner of Private Eye, she lived in Andalucía. Her interests were moulded by staying with the family cooks. ‘Home,’ she says, ‘is a state of mind, portable as a penknife.’ These food-based essays take her vertiginously from snail stew in Crete and jamón from the wild, black-footed pigs in Spain to paximadia—a bread of barley flour and wild yeast that fed Alexander the Great’s soldiers— and on to cannibalism in Tasmania. On ‘Tassie’, she mourns the early inhabitants who ate raw fish, ran naked in the forests and didn’t need to own possessions, work or earn money. They were wiped out. The strangest tale, from the last century, was the attempt by Ceausescu of Romania to abolish home cooking. Families were ordered to surrender their recipe books, which were burnt in the way other dictators made pyres of family Bibles. The people then had to eat according to state recipes in canteens. Needless to say, when the dictator met his well-deserved end, all the family recipe books reappeared from under mattresses. But how megalomanic can tyrants be if they think people’s diets can be changed?
On Maui, Mrs Luard meets Sean, a Hawaiian-born Irishman who won’t eat fish, preferring doughnuts. She tucks into squirrel pie in Maine, gently braised with homecured bacon, and discusses the delicious pata negra of Spain, a country in which ‘history dictates the gastronomy as nowhere else in Europe’. Spain’s hammy diet was a direct result of the fall of the occupying Moors.
Each chapter, divided by country and into islands, deserts or forests, ends with a few relevant recipes. I doubt that many will tackle these, as the ingredients—bottarga, kangaroo and, of course, squirrel —are not on most supermarket shelves. As for the rest, the book is charming, good-humoured and full of information. What more can you ask? Leslie Geddes-brown