AUGUST 4, 2018
JOURNEY INTO the Mind’s Eye by Lesley Blanch (1904–2007) was first published 50 years ago. It begins with “the Traveller,” an unnamed family friend dressed in a fur-lined overcoat, who repeatedly breezes into young Blanch’s nursery, proffering gifts: a silver cigarette case from the Caucasus, a chunk of malachite, then, another time, a Kazakh fox-skin cap, all the while recounting legendary Russian tales of Ilya Mourametz, the heroic bogatyr (a kind of Slavic knight), and Konyiok Gorbunok, the little humpbacked horse.
It is a curious, rambling travel book. Within its pages we go to Paris and Siberia, but really it is a love story and, as the title suggests, an internal voyage into the imagination. The Traveller ignites in Blanch a deep and lifelong love for Russia, especially the early 19th-century Russia of Alexander Pushkin, which becomes a giant metaphor for her adult appetites, all pursued with a “drug addict’s intensity.”
Blanch begins writing love letters to the Traveller as a schoolgirl. Then, aged 17, she is seduced by him on the Dijon Express (although in her mind she pretends it is the Trans-Siberian). Later he disappears, and she searches for him frantically.
On publication in 1968, one reviewer dismissed this glamorous, oddball tale as “pomegranate prose.” But given Blanch’s fondness for the jewel-like fruit — and for the “moon-faced and wasp-waisted” dancing girls who juggled them in harems — I like to think she didn’t take offense at this kiss-off. After all, the Traveller had told her that within every pomegranate is “one seed from Eden.”
Romantic and whimsical, yes, but Blanch was no starry-eyed daydreamer. Running just below the surface of her glossy writing is a good deal of common sense and a brazen appetite. Despite working as features editor at British Vogue, she had a strong dislike of killjoy dieticians and freely indulged her “faiblesse” for suet puddings. Aged 99, she claimed that she was still capable of devouring “a Christmas pudding at midnight.”
Journey into the Mind’s Eye, which casually melds fact and fiction, was the first Lesley Blanch book I read, and it left me craving more of everything she had to offer — unabashed exoticism, humor, and lively, pomegranate-laden prose. It was to her food writing, her sketchbooks of culinary adventuring, that I turned to next. These books travel paths equally luscious to the one covered in Journey into the Mind’s Eye, because just as Blanch was a superior traveler, she was also a superior eater. “Travelling widely and eating wildly” was her motto.
Whether in Mexico or Egypt, the Balkans or Yemen, mealtimes were the lifeblood — and often the goals — of her adventures: food was first culture, then code, and, finally, trophy. Moveable feasts. The ultimate mementos.
Her first culinary travelogue, Round the World in Eighty Dishes, was published in 1956, coming out two years after the end of Britain’s postwar rationing. It was the era of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation and the Suez Crisis. Blanch’s exuberant journeying to such faraway shores, rendered in verbal Technicolor, would have seemed impossible to most. She describes this book, seductively and wonderfully, as her “kitchen-window peepshow.” Like two other great female writer-cooks of the same epoch, Patience Gray (1917–2005) and M. F. K. Fisher (1908–1992), Blanch had an instantly recognizable voice. She was also refreshingly funny and frank, caring less for accurate recipes. “Timidity and prejudice should have no space in the kitchen,” she wrote. How good to hear. How Lesley.
A third of the way into Round the World in Eighty Dishes, Blanch unleashes some particularly honeyed prose for paska, a Russian Easter bread that is, she assures us, “delicious at any time.” In the lengthy introduction above the method, we are taken to Russian Easter services in Nice, Copenhagen, and “even Los Angeles,” but the memory most vividly recounted is in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, at the Russian church on the Rue Daru (that is, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral). There, she recalls, she was:
[S]o carried away that I set fire to myself with the candle I was carrying, and was rescued by a dashing-looking stranger who beat out the flames, and later, taught me my Russian alphabet in icing sugar letters, for he was an émigré who said he’d been a head pastry-cook at the Winter Palace.
Even the most prolific collector of cookbooks would be hard-pressed to find a recipe introduction that could compete with the exoticism of that anecdote.
The opener of From Wilder Shores: The Tables of my Travels (1989), her second food book, begins with a dedication “to my Digestion which has nobly supported so many surprises, trials and unwise indulgences throughout our long years of travel together.”
In Arabia, coffee is drunk from egg-cup-sized finjans, sugared heavily during festivities but unsweetened during mourning periods, “bitter as grief.” In the Balkans, she notes how pure water collected from certain sources and wells is coveted as if it were vintage wine. In Bavaria, driving back from a Wagner festival, drunk on sound and revelry, she considers the diet of mad old King Ludwig, who would eat breakfast at sunset. She also discovers a dish as “rich as Wagner’s music.” It is “Cheese Muff,” and she provides the reader with a recipe — little more than 100 grams of cheddar, butter, breadcrumbs, and eggs — as well as with the suggestion to serve it with dry biscuits and coffee, as “the Muff is on the heavy side.”
In the chapter “Meals on Wheels,” we find Blanch focusing not on “trolleys carrying hot food to the needy” (heaven forbid) but rather on the “whirring and clash of steel on steel — the wheels of express trains hurtling powerfully across limitless tracks.” To read her descriptions of restaurant cars belonging to bygone eras is to weep into your concourse-bought sandwich and Styrofoam cup of coffee. Here, naturally, Blanch recalls her Trans-Siberian train journey, where five days on-board meant “round the clock relays” of stews, fish soup, caviar, black bread, vodka, and Caucasian champagne, kept going, of course, by endless cups of tea from the gurgling samovar. When I undertook that same journey, two years ago, there was vodka, and, of course, tea, but mainly there was greasy, thin solyanka served in a somewhat glum on-board cafe with red faux-leather chairs.
Blanch remembers that when the “satiny expanses” of Lake Baikal came into view, the dining car collectively sprung to their feet to toast the “Holy Sea.” I too paused there, in the depths of winter, to walk across the lake’s frozen surface — but my abiding memory is of that evening, back in the overheated carriage, when the air hummed with the pungent fishy smell of smoked omul carried on-board by almost all of my fellow passengers. Blanch tackles omul in a later chapter of From Wilder Shores, entitled “Russian Traditional”: “Omul is so good that it requires no fancy treatment.” I beg to differ, but that is the situation affecting taste and memory — of course omul is good served differently. As to alcohol, only Armenian brandy seems capable of slaying her. “My hang-over lasted two days and left me in a state of Dostoievskian repentance,” she wrote of it.
I like the fact that even today, in Odessa, at its spectacularly baroque opera house on the Black Sea, one can obtain the same snack between acts that Blanch purchased in Moscow in the early 1960s, namely, “a thick square of white bread with a dollop of caviar on top.” As she rightly says: “Those theatre snacks […] were easy to handle, sustaining, and added a festive touch.”
Back home, or “en poste” with her diplomat-novelist husband, Romain Gary, Blanch travels in her kitchen. “Sometimes I make manti/pilmeny and munch lovingly, recalling both the Afghan wastes, and my journey across Siberia.” Although the more sensitive reader might want to forgo the kicker at the end of the recipe: “In Turkestan the sauce was a rather rank goat cheese, thinned down.” But then, Blanch’s were “cookbooks” unrestricted by their recipes. She could write about mealtimes, food, and eating in a manner so luxurious that the reader need not attempt the recipes at all.
Blanch understood the values attached to cuisine as national identity, knew that behind each dish lay “centuries of history, travel, exploration and adventure.” She also understood that where tourism heavily treads it eclipses culture in its path. For her, it was in the kitchen, and at the family table, where traditions were cherished and fiercely protected.
In re-creating Afghan, Uzbek, and Moroccan dishes — national cuisines so à la mode in the West today — in her books and in her kitchen, Blanch unintentionally proved that she was ahead of the curve. And she offers fitting substitutes for our most faddish of food trends, too. Rather than “smashed avocado toast,” try Blanch’s “Avocado Summer Soup,” mashed with lemon (rather than lime), whipped with yoghurt, stirred through with a “breakfast cup” (no idea) of water, and then chilled over night. Delicious.
This summer, NYRB Classics has rereleased Journey into the Mind’s Eye in paperback, with an introduction by the author’s goddaughter, Georgia de Chamberet. If only a publisher would refresh Blanch’s culinary books and kickstart a revival of her food writing. Her culinary prose is so enjoyable and so unique that it cries out to be introduced to new generations of readers. Blanch believed, absolutely, in the power of an open mind and a good appetite. How well she applied this adage to all aspects of her long, globetrotting life, and what useful advice it still is to us today, wherever we choose to travel.
Caroline Eden is a UK-based writer contributing to the Guardian, BBC Radio 4, and The Telegraph. She is the author of Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus and the forthcoming Black Sea.
Banner image by Michael Himbeault.