The greatest food writer you’ve never heard of

The forgotten cookbooks of the late Leslie Forbes are a labour of love. Every page, with detailed descriptions of kitchens and cooks, and evocative drawings, speaks from the heart


Leslie Forbes/Simone Bonnet’s Gigot d’Aubergines with Forbes’ book. Photo: Pamela Timms
Leslie Forbes/Simone Bonnet’s Gigot d’Aubergines with Forbes’ book. Photo: Pamela Timms

This morning we waved off the last of the summer visitors and instantly it feels a bit autumnal. The days are definitely getting shorter, the mornings nippier and the leaves on the trees are showing a hint of brown. The BBC’s Great British Bake Off has started—we’ll have the hot-water bottles and cocoa out in no time.

One of our summer house-guests, a couple of weekends ago, was visiting after having spent a good part of the summer absorbing the news of friends who had recently departed. One, she said, was a woman I might have heard of—a writer called Leslie Forbes, who died in London in July. She had written a slew of cookbooks in the 1980s, my friend told me, including A Table In Tuscany, A Taste Of Provence and A Table In Provence—all of which sound completely up my street but were all new to me.

After our friend left, I set about plugging this gap in my culinary knowledge. Online, I found barely a few lines about Forbes on publishing trade websites, where I discovered that she had been born in Canada but had lived and worked in London for over 20 years. As well as her Mediterranean cookbooks, she also illustrated Peter Mayle’s best-selling A Year In Provence. Perhaps one reason that Forbes isn’t better known in culinary circles is that in the second half of her career she focused on fiction writing, including, inspired by a trip to India, Bombay Ice, a well-received novel set around a Bollywood remake of Shakespeare’s Tempest.

I was, though, surprised to discover on Amazon that all the cookbooks were out of print. There were, however, many used copies available for 1 pence, so I instantly placed an order for one of each. Incidentally, I had always assumed there must be some catch to the books on Amazon priced at 1p but I am overjoyed to say that I have managed to obtain Forbes’ complete culinary oeuvre for under £10 (around Rs.885), including postage (and yes this signals a dangerous new era in my cookbook acquisitions).

I’m so glad I did, the books are little gems and clearly a labour of love. The recipes are collected from the homes and restaurants Forbes visited on her extensive travels. Some are just begging to be made immediately—who could resist Denise Pélas’ family recipe for Poule aux Olives? Or the Rhône Ferryman’s Stew? Others are not quite so appealing—a dessert made from Swiss chard and meringue, anyone?

Vegetable market in Aix-en-Provence, France. Photo: iStockphoto
Vegetable market in Aix-en-Provence, France. Photo: iStockphoto

But every page is packed full of detailed descriptions of kitchens and cooks as well as lovingly made, evocative drawings of markets, mountains, vegetables, cheeses, fruits and wines. The effect, with its handwritten-style text, is of a painstakingly compiled, precious scrapbook.

I have already bookmarked several recipes as “urgent must-make” but top of the list was this intriguing vegetarian take on a roast gigot (leg of lamb) from A Table In Provence. Forbes discovered the dish at the home of a lady called Simone Bonnet. She describes the lady’s home, an old windmill in Luberon: “Her ancient Citröen is battered from carrying kilos of grapes to market and from the regular barrage of figs, cherries and walnuts that fall from the trees onto it.” The aubergine gigot recipe came from Madame Bonnet’s aunt, a legacy of winters during the war years, when meat was scarce and resourceful cooks had to use their imagination with vegetables.

I hope others will rush to buy their 1p copies of these lovely books. I’m certainly looking forward to having Forbes for company this autumn as I watch the leaves fall through the kitchen window.

Leslie Forbes/Simone Bonnet’s Gigot d’Aubergines

Serves 6

Ingredients

3 large aubergines/eggplants

6 cloves of garlic, cut lengthwise in slivers

A few sprigs of fresh marjoram (or rosemary), chopped into small pieces

A few sprigs of fresh thyme, chopped into small pieces

Olive oil

1-2 lemons for serving

Method

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

Pierce the aubergines all over with a small sharp knife and press a sliver of garlic and a few herbs into each slit. Rub olive oil all over the aubergine skins, pack tightly into an oiled baking dish and bake until tender (about 1 hour).

When cooked, the aubergine can either be served as it is, with a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice, or made into what Forbes calls “a mousse” but is more akin to a baingan bharta or baba ganoush. To do this, cut the cooked aubergines in half and scoop out the pulp into a bowl. Beat until creamy with several spoonfuls of olive oil, a pinch of nutmeg and a squeeze of lemon. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with crusty bread.

The Way We Eat Now is a fortnightly column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains. Pamela Timms tweets at @eatanddust and posts on Instagram as Eatanddust.

Also Read: Pamela’s previous Lounge columns

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