April 6th: Pesach

The orchard’s harvested; the stoves are lit
to burn all winter; the house is steeped
in a musty odour of fruit.
Think how it is 
to own nothing, to carry nothing
from one place to the next…..

From ‘Punch’s Day Book’ by David Harsent (b1942)

Food is not just about what you eat, it's about who you are.  Carlo Petrini founder of the Slow Food Movement, said that when he buys a shirt it does not ‘become’ Carlo Petrini but when he eats, the food he eats ‘becomes’ him - and of course it does and not just in a physical way.  How often do we forget that simple thought?

The great religions of the world have always known that food is about community and identity.  One of the things that has interested me most as I have written this blog has been how much we in the west have lost the highs and lows of the year, and I’m not just talking about seasonal food or religious practices here.  I’m talking about rhythm; about ebb and flow, about routine and expectation, about knowing, as my Christian ancestors did, that there will be fresh sheep’s cheese at Candlemas, no meat in in Lent, green goose at Michaelmas, a seed time and a harvest.  Sometimes I think we are lost in a sea of so much plenty, it’s boring.

Anyway today is the eve of Pesach - Passover to give it its English name.  At sundown this evening Jewish families all over the world will be sitting down to a meal that always follows the same format even though what is eaten may vary between different Jewish traditions.   I love the idea that wherever they are, one community is connected by a meal celebrated on the same day and in the same way - it binds them through space and through time.

Pesach is the ‘Feast of the Unleavened Bread’ and you might remember from your school days that it commemorates the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.  The Jewish population fled on the instant and their bread had no time to rise. For this reason all leaven is banned during Pesach, and homes and kitchens are scrupulously cleaned to eliminate all traces of it. On every table tonight will be a 'Seder plate'. The plate will have on it (amongst other things) bitter herbs, a roasted egg, a lamb shank bone, unleavened bread - all foods which symbolise some aspect of the story of the flight from Egypt.

If you want to see the whole Seder plate you can read about it here:

'The First Passover Feast' by Huybrecht Beuckelaer (c1538-c1585)

In the early Middle Ages the Sephardic Jewish community in the Moorish part of Spain developed a distinctive cuisine with no pork and little dairy that was very similar to their Moslem neighbours.  In 1492 when the Jews were forcibly expelled from Spain they took their food traditions with them to their new homes in North Africa, Turkey and the rest of Europe.  Sephardic cuisine has retained its character for more than five hundred years.

Claudia Roden, who is herself a Sephardic Jew from Egypt, says in her book ‘Jewish Food’:

‘Every cuisine tells a story. Jewish food tells the story of an uprooted, migrating people and their vanished worlds. It lives in people’s minds and has been kept alive because of what it evokes and represents.’ 

Here is what Sheilah Kauffman author of ‘The Turkish Cookbook’ says about Sephardic cuisine -

... sensual, aromatic, and colourful, and the dishes make use of anything that provides flavour, including seeds, bits of bark, resins, pods, petals, pistils and flower waters. The Sephardic Jews were very sensitive to beauty and pleasure, and good eating has always been part of their traditional Jewish life. Their cooking is of a kind that lifts the spirits. Hospitality had an all-important place in their culture, and they entertained warmly, graciously, and constantly.

The Passover ban on leavened products extends to most grains, so Sephardic housewives wanting a special cake for Passover developed a number of fabulous wheat free recipes. This is one such, it’s a traditional cake and Claudia Roden gives a version of it in 'A New Book of Middle Eastern Food'. I've tweaked her method to make a slightly lighter cake and added a little flavouring.

Tishpishti  (a flourless orange and almond cake)        

2 large oranges
6 large eggs
8oz ground almonds
8 oz sugar

1 tsp baking powder
1/2 teaspoon almond essence
1 tsp orange flower water

10" loose bottom cake tin. Oven 180c. Oil the cake tin and line the bottom and sides with baking parchment.

Scrub the oranges and boil whole and un-peeled until very soft. Alternatively do what I did and zap in a covered bowl in the microwave for six minutes. Allow to cool completely. Split open and de-pip. Then put into a food processor and puree as smooth as possible.

Put the eggs in a food mixer and beat until light coloured and really fluffy. Add the sugar and beat again, now add the almonds, orange puree, orange water and almond essence. Beat well together. Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for about 70 minutes until browned on top. Pop a piece of parchment over the top if it's getting too brown. A skewer should come out clean. Leave to cool in the tin. This is a soft and moist cake, very suitable for a dessert with creme fraiche.

'On this night
my ancestors arrive,
uninvited but expected
to have their usual word.....

They sit around the table
but refuse my offer of food.....'

From 'Seder Night with my Ancestors'  by Joanne Limburg (born 1970)

(it's a fabulous poem - I wish there were space for all of it)


George Care said...

Chag Pessach Samaiach V' Kasher

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

Gosh, this cake looks good. Your picture seems to ooze with flavour!

I love the description of Sephardic cuisine . . . it has an almost fairytale quality about it.

My copy of A New Book of Middle Eastern Cookery is very well-thumbed - I love reading her descriptions of the origins and the people behind the food. Claudia Roden is definitely up there in my Top 10 of best food writers ever!