Tuesday, November 26, 2013


I’m headed back to Toronto… My early departure from Victoria, headed to Swartz Bay for the ferry across to Tsawassen, was a real gift, for the landscapes I drove past were more like dreamscapes. Green pastures were enrimed, it’s the only word really, coated with hoarfrost. That cold ground, as the sun came up and warmed the air a little, created an ethereal mist that floated tantalisingly, a gauzy drift of scarf that hid and revealed at the same time. What a beautiful farewell to Vancouver Island.

Now I’m parked out by some green grass near the water and near the airport, enjoying fresh air and the light-shade-light of the cloud-patched sky, before I submit to the closed-off atmosphere of the airport and the airplane for the rest of the day. I’m listening to the CBC, an interview on Q with Bryce Destner, a member of the group The National who has been composing for the Kronos Quartet; his work is on a new recording by the quartet called Aheim. I’ve been a fan of Kronos for a long time, but this interview makes me realise that I haven’t kept up with them at all. Time to break out of old patterns and explore new recordings, new music.

Yesterday gave me good time with my cousins, and then a wonderful dinner of reconnection with old friends I haven’t seen for nearly ten years. 

But before that I had a very interesting visit to Cliff Leir’s bakery Fol Epi (meaning a stalk of wild grain). I’d met him over a year ago at the Kneading Conference West. But I hadn’t realised all that he does at the bakery. He’s milling all his own flour, (bakes with it after a one-week rest), uses Red Fife as his wheat, and also bakes with rye. He made his own mill, using stone millstones from the eastern US, and he also built his bread oven. The oven is deep, brick lined, and wood-fired. But instead of making the fire ahead on the baking surface and then brushing it away so he can bake, Cliff has the firebox under the oven. The hot air then circulates through the oven (and there are several options for directing its flow). The result of the design is that he can do a large number of bakes, and can adjust and add to the fire or raise the heat without interfering with the baking.

I’m not sure if any of what I have just written  makes sense to you. I hope it does. I found the whole design very practical and impressive…it’s also beautiful, especially when side-lit by slanting winter morning sun.

If you are ever in Victoria, do go and have a look at the bakery, just across the bridges from downtown Victoria in Esquimault. Cliff is also playing around with other kinds of fermentation, making kimchi and sauerkraut, both of which he uses as flavourings in the sandwiches on offer at the bakery.

It’s the first time I’ve seen the details of a bakery where the baker has taken control of everything except growing the the grain. Milling is so important, and is such a wild-card variable for many artisanal bakers. It’s great when grain is milled at the farm, but I think this baker-miller way of working must be even more satisfactory for the baker, giving more control, and more chance to experiment.

Now it’s time to go and hand in this rented car. I’ll post this online in the next hour or so, once I’ve checked in and found a place to connect to the internet. 

I am sorry to leave the beauties of the west coast, but I am really looking forward to getting back to working on recipes for Persian World. And this bakery visit has made me impatient to start playing around with sangak and other Persian breads in my home oven.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


It’s early morning here on Vancouver island. I’m staying with my aunt and uncle north of Courtenay. Their house looks out westward over green pasture, fruit trees, and some conifers to a spectacular view of Mount Albert-Edward and Mount Washington, already snowy and soon to be deeply snow-covered. Sunrises are limpid pale beginnings with all the moisture in the air, and sunsets a glorious burst of gold and then a lingering glow of light from behind the mountains, like a mirage. Each morning, six or seven of the trumpeter swans who over-winter in the Comox Valley fly overhead, beautiful big white birds, honking loudly, their wings moving in strong unhurried strokes.

Not far from here is the shoreline of the inland passage, and beyond it a view that always feels like a mirage to me. First is the expanse of calm and (at this time of year) blue-grey water with low humped islands. Beyond are the jagged snowy mountains of the coastal range on the mainland, blue-ish and mauve and gleaming white. They feel like a painted backdrop. It’s hard to believe that Mother Nature has laid on such a glorious spectacle.

The Comox River flows past the flat green fertile fields of the Comox Valley and out into the bay to merge with the salt water of the inland passage. This was a paradise for salmon, where huge trees grew, and the berry-picking was generous. CaptainVancouver passed this way in the 18th century, and then loggers and settlers arrived in the nineteenth century, pushing aside the native people who had fished and farmed in the region.

Went up to Elk Falls yesterday, up the Campbell River from the town of Campbell River… Despite many trips out here over the years I had never seen the falls, a lovely rush of water with glowing green moss lighting the rocky far bank and tall straight Douglas Firs making everything look upright. When I say tall, I mean around 200 feet tall, with lowest branches at 60 feet or so, and a diameter of over 6 feet on the largest of them. It’s all awe-inspiring and a reminder that there are still natural treasures in this world. We owe it to ourselves and our children and to those who came before to respect them and to try to do less damage….

And then I will get in my car and drive three hours to Victoria, rather than taking public transport, a bus or whatever And after that I’ll be in a plane back to Toronto. So what exactly am I doing to reduce my carbon footprint?

Monday, November 18, 2013


A lovely November sunset this evening to the west, as I pedalled home in the dusk, with car headlights bright on the streets and people hurrying home from work along the sidewalks.

It’s an exciting time of year, but days are so short that each moment of daylight feels precious. I thought it would be easy enough to get work done here in Toronto in November and December, with no warm sunshiny days to tempt me outside to play. But in fact it doesn’t seem to work like that. As long as it’s not pouring rain or wildly windy outside, I find I yearn to catch a little sun and air, not just a little but a good dose, rather than diligently working away at the computer. Hmmm

Perhaps this is just another expression of procrastination. I think though that it’s a lifelong urge in me, to be active and moving, to be outside rather than inside, and that weather (and obligations) have only a small influence. When I was a kid my mother used to say, “It’s such a beautiful day; why are you inside reading/studying/sitting around when you could be out in the sun and air?” Perhaps that’s part of the origin of my deep-seated guilt at staying in or sleeping in when the day is beautiful.

My kids say to me (when I start talking like my mother about not wasting a beautiful day): “That was your mother’s line, because she was raised on a farm, where a beautiful day was an opportunity to get necessary work done outside. It’s not relevant to us”. I feel fortunate to have the push-back from them; it helps keep those still-active mother-inspired feelings of guilt at bay.


I was interrupted right after finishing those first paragraphs and then the weekend swept me up. Here it is now a windy blustery Monday morning, not cycling weather, for sure.

The week is starting well: Lillian is visiting from Grey County and that’s a treat. But also in the last ten days, including on the weekend, I have managed did get a lot more recipe work and writing work done. Each bit, however rough and approximate, is a necessary part of constructing this complex thing that is a book. And each bit of progress makes the rest feel less difficult.

Why is that? I wonder, each time. Part of the answer of course is that each bit of work or recipe tested or reading or travel adds to my understanding, sheds a little more light, and makes my footsteps surer. But the other, arguably more interesting reason lies in the whole process of starting out, or initiating any new project. Those early decisions set the tone, and the course, of what comes after. They are an embarkation in a certain direction. And so they feel very determinative of what follows.

Hence the procrastination, hesitancy, fear, frozenness, paralysis - there are many words for this state – that afflicts me intermittently at the start of each project. I’m talking about book projects here, but in fact a milder version of “starting-out-paralysis” strikes when I go to plant the garden in the spring for example…the first decisions, or optings, eliminate some options right away and narrow the possibilities. There’s thus a big pressure to “get it right”. That is the negative view.

But there’s another much more positive way of thinking about each project (book or garden or whatever): to see it not as a task directed at achieving a perfectible goal but instead as a process of engagement. Each decision then, or each bit of progress, generates its own new insights and possibilities, enlarging the field of vision. I love this mindset. I love the idea of the process being the source of creativity and pleasure. It means that there are huge possibilities awaiting, just around the corner. My project will not be limited to just what I can imagine now. It will take on its own life and become bigger and richer than I can possibly know in these early stages.

Strengthened by this more generous idea, I’m pumped by the ideas and insights I have gained from work I’ve already done. And I am moving forward into the rest with enthusiasm rather than anxiety.

It feels like a kind of rebirth, this new attitude. It certainly is life-giving in all kinds of ways.

POSTCRIPT: What recipes? I can imagine you asking. Well I've made three different soups, the word is "ash" in Farsi, all of them easy thickly satisfying, loaded with green herbs and other greenness, one vegetarian (ash-e-reshteh) and two extremely light on meat. And I've made a delectable grilled eggplant dish that's flavored with raw shallot/onion, dried mint, and loads of pomegranate seeds. I learned it from a home cook in Shiraz. Last week I also made a roast chicken Azeri-style, stuffed with tart fruit and walnuts and glazed with saffron water, and to go with it a classic herbed Persian rice. Some of these need another test-drive, but they're all good additions to the book.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


A week ago today I was on a flight from Istanbul to Toronto, having flown out of Tabriz (in northwestern Iran) two days earlier. In my checked bags I had a kilo of honey, some dried apricots, halvah, a selection of sweets from Yazd, sour pomegranate fruit leather (called robb in Iran), fresh pistachios, a second-hand Farsi-language cookbook, and a bundle of small kilims, as well as my well-worn clothing. My other luggage weighed next to nothing physically, but was a rich load: memories, emotions, early understandings, jam-packed notebooks, and digital photos.

I’ve been thinking about this process of travel, memory, and story. People have different ways of remembering. Mine tend to be visual: I have pictures in my mind after a trip. They’re not so much of actual events. Instead they are images generated by my thoughts about events or people or places. I would call them secondary images of events. At the same time I also have hundreds of photos, moments preserved, you could call them.

Because my memory works with past experiences, digesting and processing them in sometimes surprising ways, in the weeks right after a trip I like to keep that set of mental pictures uninfluenced by the “reality” of the photos I have taken. Once that digesting and processing is well underway, many memories have reshaped themselves as stories or vignettes that are informative or tell a small story in themselves.

When I then look at the photos I often notice the gaps between my (processed) “memories” and what I see in the details of the shots. The differences between them interest me. Sometimes they are due to the fact that I failed to notice certain elements of a scene, perhaps because I was caught up with other details, or with an emotional context that kept my focus elsewhere. Sometimes the differences are because I have subconsciously “forgotten” inconvenient, or ugly or uncomfortable details…

At the moment I am still early on in the digesting process. Stories and cross-connections, ideas about place and people, food and attitudes, are still taking shape, and will be for the next month or two. I’ll try to help that process along by doing recipe work. I find that as I draft recipes and shop and prep and cook, I often become more sure about the importance of particular details, or I get a flash of memory or insight.

This is why I am such a believer in developing and testing my recipes on my own to start with. It leaves me with a free head and imagination…so that unbidden thoughts can surface freely.

All of this probably sounds rather abstract and perhaps unreliable or fabulist to you. After all, am I not, in writing cookbooks, supposed to be transmitting information rather than invention?

Well, yes and no. I am not a journalist, digging out “the truth” in a factual literal sense. Yes I want to get the recipes right and to give them full honour and respect. But there are other truths that story-telling and imaginative reconstruction and reflection can elucidate. The aha! as I realise what anxiety or concern lay behind a comment someone made to me, may take me weeks to arrive at. But when I am able to understand the human, emotional, and social dimensions of a situation, then I think both the story-telling and the recipes gain strength and reliabilty of a deeper kind.

I hope that those of you who have had the stamina to read this far can make sense of what I am trying to say. I’ve been thinking about the connections between the “facts” on the ground, be they in Burma or Georgia or Iran, and the emotional reactions I feel or sense in a place. I admit that they are complicated.

It’s here, in the human complexities of place and perception, that I find the juiciest excitement and the largest potential for creative understanding. The trick is to not worry and to not force the pace. Sometimes at this stage right after a trip I begin to get impatient. I want to be further along in synthesizing my understanding. But things take the time they take.

And so, in the meantime, I plan to try making Tabrizi kofta, and sangak (bread baked on a bed of pebbles) and dizi, and more. I’m trusting that the same process of subconscious story-shaping that has happened before, most recently with the Burma book, will take over and allow me to create a rich and reliable set of stories and recipes in this new book of mine.

All I need is some tolerance and understanding from friends and family as I look or act a little dazed or distracted…