21 December 2021 · Author Profile
Elisabeth Luard is one of Britain’s most respected and prolific food writers. A Londoner by birth, her life story is worthy of a Hollywood biopic. Her father died in the Second World War, her mother remarried a diplomat, prompting her primary school education in Montevideo. She returned to the UK for boarding school (“nothing good to eat”) had family holidays in Madrid and San Sebastián, and studied at the Eastbourne School of Domestic Economy. Then it was finishing school in Paris (“short skirts, black stockings, Simone de Beauvoir”), followed by Florence (“home-made pasta, kitchen-Italian…”)
She brought up her children in Andalusia, lived on the Hebridean Isle of Mull, and then in Wales for 25 years, where she wrote A Cook’s Year in a Welsh Farmhouse. She has worked as a journalist, novelist, and presenter – and in 2017 moved back to London, where she says she intends to stay put. She continues to write and to paint – her watercolours feature in The Guardian’s gift guide for food lovers.
The author of 24 books, including two novels and four food memoirs, Luard received The Guild of Food Writers Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016 and, until her tenure ends in late 2021, is Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Oxford Symposium of Food & Cookery.
A Cook’s Year in a Welsh Farmhouse, written in 2011, chronicles a full year of growing food in her garden, cooking with the seasons, and introducing her three young grandchildren, to whom the book is dedicated, to the joys of living in a wild rural landscape. The 12 chapters follow the calendar year, each with recipes, giving the book a strong sense of time and place.
Luard is now busy writing her next memoir, based on her time back in London (Covid and all…) tentatively entitled Talking to Strangers. She has a keen eye for detail and a wicked sense of humour, so this will be a book worth looking out for when it is published (keep an eye on Elisabeth’s website for updates).
We spoke to Elisabeth about her Christmas traditions and future writing plans.
Q How has your peripatetic life has shaped your attitude to Christmas?
When the children were small, it was a different deal. Christmas is definitely a moment for a midwinter celebration. It’s such a relief when you suddenly think the sun may be on its way back. And I think the idea of going somewhere else for Christmas is definitely a thread that came out of my peripatetic life.
We would rent houses in France or Spain when the children were teenagers. They were always places that people rented for large amounts of money in the summer and have got no central heating for the winter. So it would always be somewhere unfamiliar, freezing cold – and trying to keep warm! The idea of going to local markets and learning over the Christmas period about what people did – that was wonderful.
Q What will be on your festive table this year?
My daughter who lives nearby has a large family house with lots of teenagers and young adults. She is the one who does the turkey and the sprouts and the roast potatoes. And I will stand in a corner and cheer!
Q Is there a Christmas tradition that you have carried through your life?
Well, I’m adaptable. When the children were small and we were living in Spain I did make an English Christmas. But I couldn’t buy any suet for the Christmas pudding, so I had to go to the butcher and make it. It was always a very communal meal. It has to be cooperative; everyone has to muck in. Well, they don’t have to, mind you – they could just sit in a corner and get pissed if they want to!
In Wales, it all happened around my big kitchen table – which I’ve brought with me to London (yes!) – and I live in what my daughter describes as a posh studio flat. The idea of a large bird, of having a lot on the table – or even having too much on the table – that is all part of my Christmas tradition. You have to plan the leftovers when you plan the Christmas meal. Nobody really likes Christmas pudding unless it’s deeply overpowered in brandy, but I like it fried the next day in lots of butter.
For a flavour of Luard’s writing, here is an extract and some recipes from the December chapter of A Cook’s Year in a Welsh Farmhouse, which we are proud to welcome to ckbk.
THE FEAST OF MIDWINTER, by whatever name we call it – Christmas, Hanukkah, winter solstice – marks the time when the year turns, a time of change, for contemplation as well as celebration, a time to remember the past and hope for the future.
It’s no accident that whenever we gather together at such a time we look back to the good things we remember from childhood. What we look for on the table is exactly what we ate last year and the year before that. If the cook decides to change the menu, there must be a very good reason. And the reason can very well be a change of place. When my own four children were small, Christmas happened wherever we found ourselves, which might just as well have been a remote valley in Andalusia as a windy plateau of the Languedoc or the wilds of Wales.
Other years we found ourselves in the hills of Tuscany or the uplands of Provence or the islands of the Hebrides. One particularly memorable year, when my eldest was courting the young woman who later became his bride, we spent it in clapboard splendour in the elegant Hamptons on Long Island.
These wanderings produced a varied menu for the feast – the Hamptons a massive heap of lobster – but always, on the Eve, I follow the rules of fast and set out a dish of plain-cooked vegetables and maybe fish – the exact composition depends on where we find ourselves and what reflects the local habit – but certainly no meat or wine. A moment of abstinence, as far as I’m concerned, serves the body as well as the soul.
For the feast itself, I have no appetite for cooking ahead, and am more than happy to share my kitchen with whoever might feel inclined to volunteer themselves. While it may well be true that too many cooks spoil the broth, it’s equally true that many hands make light work.
Family Christmases, in Wales or anywhere else, have always been something of a pick-and-mix affair. When my own children were young and decisions on where and how we celebrated the holiday were mine to take, I took advantage of my own lack of geographical roots and the nomadic life we led to follow the traditions of the midwinter feast wherever we found ourselves.
Some of these traditions have been retained, particularly those of southern France, and others reappear when circumstances demand, as in a year when we’ve lost one of our number – an empty place might be left at the table, as they do in Italy, for those who are no longer with us.
From Provence we’ve adopted the tradition of les treize desserts de la fête de Noël – the thirteen desserts of the Christmas feast. This is not, as might be supposed, trouble and strife for the pastry chef, but a kind of open larder – little dishes of nuts and fruits whose composition, though varying from household to household, features hazelnuts, oranges, almonds, apples, pears, grapes, raisins, dates and quince paste, with a specially baked cake or sweet bread or a beautiful walnut tart taking pride of place in the middle as the symbol of Christ.
The thirteen dishes, along with their accompaniment of stories for children on the symbolism of the different nuts and fruits, are laid out on the Eve to greet members of the household and their guests on the return from midnight mass. The arrangement holds throughout the twelve days of the holiday until the feast of Epiphany, the end of festivities, when all good Catholic children receive their presents on the same day as the Christ child accepts the offerings of the Three Wise Men.
Meanwhile, supplies are renewed daily, ensuring that visitors can be offered something good to eat at any time and that the cook can safely come out of the kitchen – which, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, is just the way I like it.