Friday, May 31, 2013


Here it is the last day of May already. It’s been difficult to remember which month we’re in, for we’ve had everything from balmy heat to thunderstorms to snow and frost, all in the flowering month of May. Today we’re back at balmy, almost tropical, with soft humid air and a weighty heat promised.

It’s also the day, as I sit here waiting for the kettle to boil, that I say farewell to one of the treats I brought back from Georgia (yes I declared them at customs!!). It’s a “moraba” of carnelian cherries, given to me, and made by, Elena’s ninety-year-old grandmother in Kutaisi. Carnelian cherries are tart, elongated slender fruits, a strong red, brighter than most “regular” cherries. And moraba is the Georgian word for a way of preserving fruit in sugar syrup. The point to a moraba is the fruit, yes, but also the syrup, flavoured by the fruit over the months since it was put up, which is delectable. A spoonful is enough, a taste hit, that in this case has tartness from the cherries and sweetness too from the sugar in the syrup they were preserved in.

So as I say, I have come to the bottom of the moraba jar: there’s about a tablespoon, perhaps a little more, of syrup left, and I’ll use it, as I have used the rest of the jar every morning this month, to make my morning hot drink, by putting it in my big mug and filling it with boiling water. The aroma of cherry will come wafting up in the steam. The trick will be to enjoy it without regret for its passing…

Time for me to get hold of enough canning jars so that I can make cherry moraba when they come into season. How to find carnelian cherries? If I get lucky, I will, otherwise some kind of tart cherry will be a good substitute.

The wisteria vine which has been twining along the fence, pulling at it and being pruned back by me, had a generous flowering this year of long draping aromatic white flowers. They’re pretty well over too. Meantime the columbines, of many colours, are dotted around the back garden, self-seeded (though I help them along by scattering seeds from the pods after flowering), the irises are out, and the peonies, two ancient bushes side-by-side, are rounding into fat buds and showing a little pink.

I’d like a little cool weather to slow things down, so that the peonies are fresh and full next weekend. That’s when our wonderful friend Kaya is being feted here by friends and family, and somehow full-bloom peonies seem like the perfect festive early-June touch.

Meantime, after flooding rain earlier in the week, the city is looking green and fertile. Cool bowers of shade on the treed streets in the downtown neighbourhoods make me grateful to those who planted the trees decades ago.

I was out early this morning, before the heat, trying to clean up the small back garden. The flagstone path that winds through it is very overgrown with clover and also with young garlics. I usually go along and grab handfuls of the garlic greens to cook up with dandelion greens as part of breakfast. But now some of them have to go. I’ve pulled them up and plan to grill the tender garlics and their long greens this evening at a friend’s place. And why? It goes back to the party for Kaya.

As parties often do, it is prompting me to take hold of things a little, never a bad plan! And so the garden should look a little more orderly, or perhaps I should say a little less disorderly. And the ground floor too will get itself cleared for dancing. That’s what I have on my to-do list for tomorrow, to try to knock off most of the decision-making and rearranging and stashing of things, so that it’s not all left to the last minute.

It’s an interesting process, this getting ready for a party that someone else is having in my house. My mind keeps wandering to questions about food and other logistics, and then I bring myself up short and remember that none of those things are my responsibility. I’m looking forward to being a guest at the party…

Meantime I’ve been reading widely about Akkadians, Medes, Persians, that whole complicated history and geography of the region I’m now obsessed with. The tarragon in my garden came back green and lush and that’s a good thing, for Georgia re-imprinted me with a yearning for it, fresh, with everything! I wish I had a walnut tree, and a hazelnut, and what about persimmons, figs, cherries, apricots? They all grow happily in much of Georgia, and are the backdrop to a lot of the food in the region, Armenian, Georgian, and Azeri, as well as Persian, Kurdish, etc.

How lucky I feel, that these distinctive patterns of cooking and gardening and farming and preserving should be such a fascinating and informative entryway into other places, other peoples. So much to learn. Life is way too short, don’t you think?

Saturday, May 25, 2013


I’m sitting here listening to Arcade Fire on my computer. It’s Friday early evening, bright and cold and windy, a very unusual May 24. Tomorrow is full moon, a seriously important day for buddhists, for it’s the day Buddha’s birthday is celebrated all over the Buddhist world.

I’ve been thinking about context and how it affects our perceptions and reactions. I’ve also been marvelling at how it seems possible for me (and I presume this happens to others) to make a problem, or find a problem, however well things are going. Let’s start with that.

 I am just finished with some tight and pressing deadlines and am now in the clear, able to get started on dreaming about and working at my next book project and other ambitions too, from the garden to sketching to seeing neglected friends.

You’d think it would make me feel light and free and very happy. And yes, I felt that way right as soon as the time pressures were over. But then I fell into worrying about what I should do each day. I no longer have the coercion of tight deadlines to keep me moving steadily and methodically from one task to the next. That was survival mode and it worked well.

Now I find myself trying to optimise, because I have the luxury of choice. But it means that I hesitate and get fussed about what I should do first, or whether I should go for a run or do a household errand now and work later or vice versa, and on and on. It’s not very interesting at all. And I’m sorry if this description is tedious. It just seems important to raise this. Is it human nature at work here?

I assume the answer is that I need to impose a structure on myself that resembles the coercive deadline-situation structure. My efforts at optimising are just a way of insisting on exercising moment-to-moment choice. If I could settle into the harness of a structure, it would simplify a lot. And then I wouldn’t be fussing and anxious about my moment to moment decisions.

On the other hand, the unplanned moments of the day, the unfilled spaces, are the fruitful ones, often. They mean there’s room/time to talk to a friend who has a problem, or to daydream my way into a new story idea or a fresh way of seeing a familiar problem. That’s part of my rationale for improvising my schedule through the day.

Another more disciplined way of working would be to cram or jam the work obligations etc into one pre-determined part of the day, a defined chunk of time, thus leaving the ret clear for these other more fluid and open-ended possibilities. I confess that I have never managed, for more than a couple of days at a stretch, to impose “artificial” constraints in that way. I am task driven, rather than structure- or discipline- or rule-driven.

That being the case I need to just chill a little on this pressure to optimise, to forgive myself when the day feels unproductive, and to not have the heightened amped up expectation that every day will be a knock-out.
Is this what growing up is supposed to teach us?

I guess I am stuck in an “optimistic child” mode, where each day or week or month feels full of rich possibility, with elastic time into which can be crammed all sorts of delights. And that’s fine, as long as I don’t get tied up in knots trying to optimise all the time. Rather than focussing on what I don’t get done, I need to move from task to task, without second-guessing myself.

I aked a friend in the market about how he works his way through his days. He’s got some have-to-dos at the start of the day, but then he moves into a mode where he just does whatever chore or task presents itself next, a kind of fluid flow. He doesn’t worry about the decisions, the order in which he does things. And my issue of trying to optimise was a foreign idea to him.

He’s a model to emulate, for sure, in his easy matter-of-fact “enjoy the day as it unfolds” attitude. And he sure is productive, whle making it look effortless.

The other idea I wanted to think about in this post is how context affects perception. It’s a truism, sure, but worth remembering. I started reflecting about it a couple of days ago when the weather suddenly turned extremely cold. In a coat and sweater and scarf and socks and shoes, warm pants too, I still felt assaulted by the cold and wind as I walked outside. I realised that this reaction was just like the one described by winter-hating friends who have never become used to the cold. And yet, if it had been January and the weather had been just the same, I’d have found it balmy, pleasant, a wonderful treat.

This is not about my emotional or intellectual reaction to the cold (though I have to admit that wearing layers of wool on May 24 feels all wrong!). It’s that my body was in another mode, summer mode, and as a result every chilly gust of wind inflicted a kind of pain. In winter we tighten up and brace against the cold, so as not to feel its assault. Without that kind of self-sheilding, we’re vulnerable to it.

And so context is everything. It’s not just about whether the temperature feels cold for this time of year as opposed to January. It’s also about expectations, both emotional and physical. So much of our reactions, physical, emotional, social, is determined by our expectations. Of course this leads me to wander into that whole other realm to do with expectations, which is how we manage ourselves when we have disappointed expectations, because a person or a situation fails to come up our expectations of it.

But that’s for another day…

One thing the hit of cold has done is remind us all what a blessing warmth and sunshine are. And here in Toronto, as I finish this post on Saturday afternoon, the sunshine is beckoning, enticing me outside to beathe in its generosity.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


I’m feeling light as air this evening. The weather is soft and kind, with showers every once in awhile to keep us moist and the scents of flowers heavy as I walk down the streets. The tall magnificent chestnut trees on Henry Street have all their candles out – tall spikes of white flowers touched with pink, that lightly perfume the air. I have walked under them for years, but this evening for the first time I reached way up to a bottom branch and took the liberty of breaking off one tall candle of a flower. So lovely. I sniffed at it as I walked on up the street and then discovered that my cheeks and chin were smeared with golden pollen.

The sky was smeared with tangerine and golden pinks as I walked past the lovely open space of King’s College Circle this evening after my second Foods that Changed the World class, this on eon wheat and rice. I must get out at dusk more often I caught myself thinking. It’s a time of mystery and promise, especially on a warm mild night.

My lightness is about the beauty of everything at this time of year, but also because I’ve passed through another portal, the Cilician Gates of income tax prep, for this year. Why does it weigh so heavily? Is it the feeling of being called to account? Or is it just the idea that someone is looking over our shoulder? Or is it a basic fear and dislike of numbers, addings-up, and organising tedious paper? Whatever…

I pulled together my records and typed things out on four or five pages. It all seemed to make sense to the wonderful Ian, who does my taxes every year. This time, because everything needs to be translated into Canadian dollars, my first page started with a listing of the exchange rates of US dollars, British pounds, Australian dollars, Burmese kyat, and Thai baht…. It all brings a touch of faraway into the tedium of accounting.  Anyhow, I am delighted to have done with this stage. Yes!

Now I just need to get peppers and tender herbs into my garden, and maybe some cucumbers. I've been eating dandelion greens, asparagus, sorrel, chives, and other herbs, for awhile now. Each bite is so renewing somehow, still full of life because fresh-picked. 

And there is also work to be done, pleasurable most of it. For example I need to be ready for the last four sessions of Foods that Changed the World.  The class is great, lively interested students of all kinds.  Next week is olives and olive oil; peanut and peanut oil. It will take us from the Mediterranean to Peru and Senegal, and to Vietnam too. I so enjoy engaging with food ideas and with the world through food What a privilege to be able to teach it to engaged students.

And now with heavy eyelids it’s time for me to head upstairs to bed. I’m hoping to sleep the sleep of the just, with the heaviest of my deadlines now over with. I’m still not clear why tax accounting weights so heavily, nor why it should come in the spring, when otherwise everything feels so wonderfully optimistic.

I hope you too have the opportunity to stop and smell the flowers this week. It’s a good time to be mindful, for this full moon (May 24 or 25) is celebrated as Buddha’s Birthday, a huge holiday in Thailand and in Tibet, among others. Let’s have that sense of new life and beauty springing forth ignite our feelings of optimism and our energies. Enjoy the light and all the fresh new life that’s emerging and blooming…

Monday, May 13, 2013


These days, in damp and drizzle and wind and hail and chill, the streets of Toronto are paved with gold, and green-gold and white and pale pink and pink-red….the tiny yellow-green maple tree flowers, the cherry and plum and apple and flowering almond blossom petals, that are being washed and blown to the pavement by rain and wind. It’s a dazzling show for those like me who are walking people. The vivid colours are kind of hallucinatory as I rush along; today I was in a hurry to get out of the cold.

The other day I was hurrying along petalled streets to see a young friend whose first baby was born at the end of March. It was my first sight of her. Olivia is of course downy-soft and adorable, her little fists clenched under her chin as she sleeps, her gaze direct and alert when she’s awake. I took her mother some books, kid books, to get her library started. I imagine them later with perhaps crayon lines and marks in them, and fingerprints. Every child needs a store of books. I’m no good at buying clothes or other things; I never know what’s needed or wanted. And anyway, babies grow like weeds, so todays large garment is tomorrow’s giveaway. I’d rather give books.

And that got me thinking about permanence and impermanence. Those flowering trees, fragrant or not, give us a moment of heart-stopping beauty, and then it’s washed away. The tree remains, a reminder of a moment, and it promises us another next year. So too a book gives us intense moments of pleasure, or connection, and later on its presence on the shelf reminds us of those moments and perhaps invites us to open it again and reread it. Kids of course love the familiarity of the already well-known book. They will ask to have the same book read over and over, weekly or nightly. We lose some of that impulse when we become autonomous readers. We seek out the new.

And yet at the same time there are some books that I go back to and reread, as a kind of soothing technique, a remnant of kid-impulse I think. They are mostly books that I read as a kid or teenager: the Complete Sherlock Holmes, in two volumes, is one candidate for rereading, perhaps every three or four years. For my kids it’s the Philip Pullman books, and some of the Harry Potters.

Perhaps it’s age, and the perspective it can give as I gaze back in time, or put my head into an earlier year’s place and gaze forward, but I am more and more aware that one of the things that keeps me feeling alive and well is an ongoing effort to keep a sense of balance as things around me change. Those can be the seasonal changes, that remind us of fragility and loss, even as those first blossoms are emerging on the trees. Or they can be the announcement that a friend or the parent of a friend has only a limited time to live, or the demolition of a familiar building on a neighbourhood streetcorner, or the closing of a bookstore, or the purchase of a new piece of technology that is complicated and needs to be mastered.

All change can be disorienting, or anxiety-making, even just as we contemplate the possibility of change, let alone when it shocks us with its suddenness.

I love through-lines, stories that continue across generations or across continents and oceans. I like other people’s family stories, the history of long-term friendships, I like thinking about the long-term cross-linkages in my own family and in my life. That idea of some kind of continuity is precious. And for me perhaps it’s what helps me keep my balance in the day to day changing scene, helps me enjoy the dynamism of young people’s ideas and the liveliness of their open horizons.

And so as the tulips fade and the petals fall from the flowering fruit trees, rather than regretting their passage, I love the anticipation of the next phase of the year: rhubarb and sorrel and tarragon now my garden, tender asparagus now coming into the farmers’ markets, and then after that the generosities of summer. Yes! 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


It’s extraordinary how happy a little soft fine weather with fresh green leaves and flowering trees can make me feel. And I’m not alone: as I walk or pedal down the streets of Toronto many people seem to have a smile on their face and a lightness to their step. Springtime, this late greening springtime, is so renewing to the heart and spirit.

This time last week I was having my last full day in Georgia. And it was truly full, for I was whisked east to wine country by Irakli Nikolashvili and his friends to visit the vineyard he has with his uncle and cousin, and then to eat a remarkable and of course delicious Georgian feast at his aunt and uncle’s house. Imagine skewers of veal grilled over vine clippings, several pkhalis (like a vegetable pate, but more wonderful), stacks of khachapuri, tkhemali sauce, pickles of various kinds, and more, all washed down with local wines…

I’d been in the Telavi and Gurjani area ten days earlier, but then it had been cold and rainy: The flowers were beautiful and the landscape green, the colours popped in the grey, but it was very cold and the mountains, the mighty Caucasus mountains that frame the north side of the valley, were entirely hidden by heavy clouds.

This time there they were, the mountains, wreathed in tendrils of cloud and majestically tall, snow-covered, a true barrier. Behind them lies Dagestan and slightly farther west is Chechnya. The rich fertile valleys of Georgia are like a paradise in comparison with the harsh high-altutude mountain gorges and heights of the Greater Caucasus. Those mountains also mark the border between Europe and Asia. Russia is Europe and Georgia is Asia.

It’s hard to take in, for Tbilisi’s downtown has the graciousness and the esthetics of a European capital. And the Greeks were at the Black Sea coast in ancient times. Wine-making and wine traditions go back millenia in Georgia.

And yet there is no olive oil, no olives in the traditional cuisine. And very little lamb is eaten, except in the mountains, and little rice. There are leavened flatbreads, baked in a tandoor, or cheese-filled and baked in a home oven or on the stove-top even. And there are corn breads as well as gomi, which is a little like polenta. There is a Garden of Eden's-worth of fruits and nuts, especially walnuts and hazelnuts. And there is a huge array of distinctive inventive foods and flavour combinations.

I’ve been thinking about this question of distinctiveness. It’s much more familiar in the settled cultures of  Europe and Asia than in places of immigration and mixing such as Canada and the US. On the other hand, Georgia, like many small countries that lie between major powers, has been invaded and controlled by many different rulers.

How is it then that the people have retained a sense of who they are? There’s pride in the language, yes, with its many local variations; and there’s of course the Georgian Orthodox church, which is a marker of culture and gives a strong sense of identity and belonging. (Christianity came to Georgia in the 4th century; before that people were a mix of animist and Zoroastrian. The Jewish community in Georgia also dates from long ago.)

All this complexity and all these lovely local mysteries and histories are fascinating to me. I feel lucky to be able to delve and to try to understand, with the help of friends and of chance-met strangers too.

The other day I was in Javaheti (in southern Georgia near the Turkish and Armenian borders), in the town of Akhalkalaki. While the friends I was staying with were it church (it was Orthodox Palm Sunday) I went wandering around the town. The population is mostly Armenian with a fair sprinkling of Russians and very few Georgians. Street signs and all other signs were in three languages, three different scripts: Russian, Georgian, and Armenian. A beautiful massive snow-covered mountain filled the eastern horizon. In town all buildings were low, one-story houses mostly of stone, a little sombre. When I started exploring the bazaar was not yet open and there were few people out in the streets. The wind whistled along them and the bright sun made sharp shadows in the clear high-altitude air (the town is at over 1700 metres).

But I came on the sign for a bakery, so I headed down a flight of stairs into a cavernous basement area. At the far end the baker and her assitants were getting ready bake the next batch of loaves. She was Armenian and spoke excellent English. She was making not lavash (there was a stack of lavash that she’d made the previous day) but instead a version of Georgian “puri” or leavened flatbread, that is distinctively from Javakheti region. The dough had been shaped into rounds which had risen into soft mounds. She made a hole in the centre of some of them. Others she brushed with water and then she and her assistant used their cupped hands to make a circular dent in the centre of each mound, which they then cross-cut with the edge of one hand to make three more deep dents.

The pierced loaves were then stretched to make a large oval doughnut shape, slipped onto a peel and into the oven. The dented breads were one by one stretched over the back of their hands into a long oval, placed on a floured peel, and slid it into the hot stack oven. I’d never seen that particular shaping technique, which gave the breads a distinctive pitted central surface, nor could I have guessed how they achieved it without having seen them work.

I felt so lucky to have come on them just as they were shaping the breads.  It’s these small accumulations of good luck that I rely on when I travel. They slowly add up, piece by piece, to make a picture of a place, a culture, a tradition.  Later I met another baker, a village woman who was Georgian and who told me that the doughnut breads were known as kokora while the Georgians call the pitted flatbreads lavashi

And so now, home from my first trip for my next project, I feel well launched on it. The Persian World is my working title for an exploration of the culinary cultures that have been influenced by Persian traditions, cultures where there are traves of the Persian legacy. 

I am thrilled to be reconnecting with the cross-currents and complexities of Central and West Asia and the Caucasus. I’m looking forward to learning a lot more about breads, pulaus vegetable dishes, and the brilliant ways in which fruit and nuts are incorporated into the cuisines in the region. In the coming two years I am hoping to be able to travel to Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, as well as to several places that, like Georgia, I visited long ago in 1989, when doing research for the Flatbreads book.

Please pass along any suggestions you may have about books and other resources you think might be useful. I will need all the help and insight I can get, as well as traveller’s luck of course.