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Roots, culinary and otherwise

"As much as we try to attribute foods to nations, to ascertain the origin of a dish, we often end up discovering a dozen other dishes that are extremely similar, that work with the same ingredients and the same principles, to make a final result that is just ever so slightly different, a variation on a theme." Yotam Ottolenghi

According to Ancestry, this is a map of my ethnicity DNA. As you can see it's not very varied - 86% of it is England and Wales, with the remaining 14% being from Ireland and Scotland. Well I think that 14% is just Ireland, and probably just Northern Ireland, and as you can see the bulk of my English/Welshness is from the south and East Anglia. I'm pretty sure there is no Welsh at all. Personally speaking my roots are in and around London with visits to my Hampshire grandmother. So I'm a southerner, which is a very different thing from a northerner. I cling to the idea that those tiny bits of France come into it somewhere, but so far I have not found them. Also Sweden is missing. On a previous estimate from Ancestry I had a small amount of Swedish 7% I think it was - and indeed I do. I have found a Swedish ancestor and several of his ancestors too. So this map is not entirely correct - but then how could it be? Ethnically though you can see that Scotland and Ireland are different from England and Wales - and the uncoloured western extremities of England too. That's because they are largely Celtic in origin I guess.

Truth to tell I do not fully understand how these DNA things are done, but it is interesting. By now, like Jerusalem, which is the inspiration for this post (the book that is), the British Isles is a complete mash-mash of cultures and ethnicities. Way back there were the Britons, the Vikings, the Jutes, the Picts, the Scots, the Celts, the Angles and the Saxons, then there were the French - England was basically French for 300 years - at least aristocratically speaking, and in modern times there have been a series of waves of immigrants from all over the former Empire. These different groups have eventually mixed and merged into completely new and diverse versions of mankind. Yes diverse. Mixing everyone up does not make them all the same, because the mix is always, at least subtly, a little bit different. But those basic differences endure - between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and within those between the northerners, southerners and westerners in England, the highlanders and lowlanders in Scotland and so on, not to mention all of those recent immigrants. But I suspect that these days those differences are not so much genetic as based on where you grew up. Home.

My home is Australia. I have been here for the largest chunk of my life - just over 50 years. And yet I do not consider myself to be a 'true' Australian. In the sense of having been born and bred here that is. I don't quite think like Australians I suspect. Although in another sense I am perhaps a 'true' Australian because I actually come from somewhere else. And all 'modern' Australians do as well. The only 'true' Australians are the Aborigines of course. And sad to say there are not many, if any, 100% Australian Aborigines left either. Indeed some may well be more from elsewhere than from Australia and yet they are still proudly Aboriginal.

My other home is England - and I do mean England, not Britain. But I do not consider myself to be English any more either. When I return I feel a foreigner - a tourist in my own country. I am dépaysée - a wonderful French word which sort of means 'without a country'. It's not quite exiled, because that implies one cannot return, that one has been sent away, and this is not what happened to me.

On top of this I would dearly love to be a tiny bit French. I spent quality time there in my youth, and was made to feel at home by the wonderful French families in whose homes I stayed. So much so that when I return there I feel very much at home.

I'm talking about all of this because Yotam Ottolenghi maintains that he wrote Jerusalem to recall his childhood home and food, and yet to add his more recent culinary experiences to his remembered ones.

"It is more than 20 years since we both left the city. This is a serious chunk of time, longer than the years we spent living there. Yet we still think of Jerusalem as our home. Not home in the sense of the place you conduct your daily life, or constantly return to. In fact Jerusalem is our home almost against our wills. It is our home because it defines us, whether we like it or not. ...

Everything we taste and everything we cook is filtered through the prism of our childhood experiences: foods our mothers fed us ..." Yotam Ottolenghi

Yotam Ottolenghi lives and works in London - another old, if not quite as ancient, city as Jerusalem, full of people (and food) from around the world. And yet, it has to be said that his food is very largely Middle-Eastern it seems to me. He is half Italian, but apart from a few Italian recipes and the use of basil, there is not much of an Italian note to his food. But then his Italian father was an immigrant too. And not much English influence from his current home either. Which sort of implies that the influence of place - home and one's first home at that - rather than origins - DNA - is paramount. In his case anyway.

Australia, having only a short 'western' history has no single root. It's roots are from everywhere including the land itself and the life the original settlers carved for themselves here. 'Traditional' Australian food, such as lamingtons and meat pies are British kind of things and I suspect that the vast majority of those 'traditional' things are, but in recent times Australia has been one of the pioneer countries in 'fusion' food where, mostly Asian, is fused with various European traditions. It's exciting stuff. Not to mention of course, the vast range of ethnic food one finds in the cafés, restaurants and markets as the next wave of immigrants brings yet another way of dealing with food.

Roots hold us in place - they are basic, secure and strong, but roots put out shoots and leaves and flowers - new life, new things, much more delicate and possibly ephemeral but with practically endless possibilities for something even stronger. We turn to our roots, our childhood home when we need comfort and a reminder of where we come from, of our early lives and cooking the food of home is one of the best ways of doing this. Nurturing those roots and building upon them to create something new is a way of growing.

Yes - I know - corny. And in a way I don't think Ottolenghi and his co-author Sami Tamimi did a very big variation on a theme in this book. Not in the sense of building on familiar childhood food, but then I don't know those origins. However, whether it's original, authentic or traditional, or whether it's fusion, innovative and creative, it's all very delicious looking and I shall enjoy adding to my own expanding experience of different cuisines. Thank you Dionne.


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