If some of you are astonished to find this blog offering a recipe, well keep your eyebrows flying -- they'll get up there anyway when you read what I had for lunch today! It's not disgusting, relax. But you'll have to wait to get to it, after I've got through describing a fascinating and very intense book I read the other day, galloping all the way.
It's called A PROFOUND SECRET, by Josceline Dimbleby (Jossy to friends). She's much better known as a creative and very popular food writer in England and is also my elder sister's Geeta's friend from about 20 years ago, when they met on a small boat in the Andamans. She and G and I were together on a (for us) historic journey by car travelling upwards diagonally across the Deccan Plateau, from Bangalore, having got there from Madras by train to Bijapur. Anyway, this is all besides the point, as the book is a very absorbing read and doesn't require anything in the way of historic journeys to make it worth acquiring. Alas, it is not yet available on the Indian market, but I hope it will be soon.
It's been described by some reviewers as similar to A.S.Byatt's POSSESSION but better, because true. In the way of nonfiction, it doesn't have the familiar satisfactions of a novel, but instead it opens up other avenues for enjoyment. For instance it provides the revelation, for those of us who may need it (me, yes), that there really are (or were, anyway) forms of passion that were wholly romantic and ethereal. The narrative concerns a romance discovered -- by Jossy -- between her great grandmother May Gaskell and the famous pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. It is followed through the medium of letters, mostly, and also through photographs. But WHAT letters, oh my goodness! So fresh, so passionate, so precisely detailed in their examination of the condition of love! By comparison, the over-cooked scenes we see in movies and on TV, or read of in today's fiction appear like hot vanilla fudge besides ... ohh ... a delicate champagne sorbet.
Alongside this story, another and more tragic one unfolds: that of May's beautiful daughter Amy. Jossy knew only that her great-aunt had died unseasonably young and perhaps as a result of a disappointment in romance, but had no further details. The book follows a trail of tantalizing clues until ... well, I won't spoil the enjoyment for potential readers, but I will say that I found the exposition warm and human, as we follow J's path through quiet libraries and inside gracious old churches.
Burne-Jones sometimes wrote five letters a day to May -- and there were seven posts, daily, for him to use as a medium for delivery! Seven posts -- ! This was in 1892-93. Do we really do better with SMS and e-mail? Even to ask the queation is ridiculous. It is really difficult to reconcile the wild intensity of these letters with the extremely strait-laced view my generation (certainly) has/had of the Victorians -- yet here they are, absolute testimony. They seem almost hysterical and yet these were people in their middle-years (he was in his fifties, and while she was much younger, she already had two children when she met him) and he was a highly acclaimed and industrious painter.
Not merely the quality of their love, but also the refinement that the people in this book brought to the whole fabric of their lives is what lingers in my mind as I think back on the book. A tremendous, hugely self-aware refinement, like the lace they wore around the necks and at their wrists, somehow heart-breakingly fine. Why "heart-breaking"? When I try to push myself away, looking for perspective, when I try to remind myself that these were also colonials, that their friends and relatives of the same era were involved in a gigantic socio-cultural operation out in the colonies -- I can only feel a kind of pain, that we as a species are so diverse and perverse that it's all but impossible to see around the thickets of complexity. So much sensitivity on the one hand, coupled with so much barbarism on the other ... what does it all mean? How do we make sense of it?
I cannot help thinking, as I write this, of my response to MAXIMUM CITY (which I finished reading a couple of weeks ago) -- where we see barbarism on a scale undreamt of by the colonials, described with exteme precision, like a surgeon exposing the entrails of a gigantic corpse, a corpse the size of a sub-continent, stinking with the filth of centuries. Truly, by the end of MC, I wanted nothing more than to close the book and throw it away and to purge its contents from my memory. It ends with a section on a family of Jains, father, mother and three children who take "diksha", renouncing the world and all their wealth. It is, perhaps, intended as a type of balm to set against the ghastliness of some of the previous chapters of the book. But -- as others have noted before me -- the renunciation was all of a piece with the brutality of the thugs and ghouls of Bombay's Underworld: it was so extreme, so without human dimension, so mechanical and grotesque, that it made a mockery of the intention -- i.e., of renouncing the sin-steeped world.
I don't know what to make of these contrasts and anomalies. All I can do, for the moment, is to note them, and to hope that writing about them is a way of sharing the disturbance they cause in me, and by passing that disturbance around, perhaps, smooth it out eventually.
... abruptly, and with only the briefest pause to apologize for the change of pace, I will now turn to the promised recipe.
I'm calling it FRANCIS' MYSTERY SOUP -- and the reason for calling it that is that if a diner were to be told the mystery ingredient, I believe he/she would immediately choke with scorn. Nevertheless, let me say I had this soup for lunch today and LOVED it. Okay, I have to tell YOU what the mystery ingredient is or else I can't write out the recipe: strawberries.
In case some of you are already grimacing let me say that Francis, Our In-House Chef, DID find an existing recipe in one of his mini-library of cook-books, for Strawberry Soup. However it called for "5 cups of port" -- which, with 1.5 cups of strawberries pretty much makes it into Port Soup. And might best be served after dinner, in small glasses, with cheese on the side ...
F's Mystery Soup, by contrast, is much simpler. He's used to making cold beetroot soup (totally delicious and such a gorgeous ruby-cream colour!) so I advised him to follow that route. He cleaned the strawberries, boiled them in water with a little salt and sugar, then put them through the blender after adding an equal volume of dahi (yoghurt/curds). He put the result away (about one-and-a-half cups of soup) in the freezer before serving it, chilled. He used about 120 g of strawberries and I can't imagine anyone is going to need more in the way of directions -- but tomorrow I have asked him to try the same soup, but with spring onions blended in as well, and served hot.
If it turns out well, I'll post a more precise recipe in "comments". If not ... well, I'll admit to that too!