Silvena Rowe is a busy lady; having just launched a dazzling new cookery book to wide acclaim and with a sequel already scheduled for publication next year, she is now preparing to open a restaurant at The May Fair Hotel to serve her signature Eastern Mediterranean cuisine in a luxurious, modern setting. Our Editor went to meet the flamboyant chef to talk food, food and more food.
When I first received a copy of Silvena Rowe’s latest cookery book, the evocatively titled Purple Citrus & Sweet Perfume, I thought, here we go again, yet another bland cookery book. The vast majority of food titles on the market today contain 10% of recipes you want to cook, another 10% you’d like to cook but really don’t have the time for, 15% featuring an awkward ingredient that is impossible to source without scaling precipitous mountains and battling fire-breathing dragons, which leaves the remaining 65% of the book completely redundant.
The first sign that this was no ordinary cookery book came as I read the words on the jacket sleeve that said, “With a foreword by Heston Blumenthal”. Heston doesn’t bandy his name about like a brand-for-hire; this is surprising and it intrigued me. He even goes so far as to state, “I defy anyone to resist.” Okay Heston, you’re on.
I leafed through the first ten pages and Heston had already won the bet. “Ooh, nice photos“, I muttered to myself. “Gosh, great recipes, I’ve never seen a dish like that before. Blimey, I’d love to eat that!” And it continued in that manner until I reached the end of the book. I wanted to cook and eat every single recipe. This has never happened to me before. Even some of my favourite cook books contain a few recipes that don’t really get my taste buds tingling, yet here I had to restrain myself from tucking into the very pages in front of me. If you think this enthusiasm is hyperbole, you only need look at the facts: the book sold out within 20 days of its release, prompting an emergency reprint. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in the world of cookery books.
“It happened unintentionally,” Silvena told me, in the air-conditioned cool of Quo Vadis. She had just come from an interview and photo shoot with the New York Times; it seems that the buzz around this book is truly going global. “I wanted to bring Eastern Mediterranean food such as Turkish, Lebanese, Syrian – which can be very time consuming – to our Western way of life and a modern, faster way of cooking it for people who don’t have time to cook such cuisine normally. It’s had a great response even from Middle Eastern readers here. It very much derives from where they come from, only sexed up a bit. I love flavour. I love to find the G-Spot in food and that’s what I always try to do.”
The head-honcho at the book’s publisher, Random House, has decorated her office with framed photos from Purple Citrus. This may sound odd, but the photography by Jonathan Lovekin is dazzling and like the recipes, it sets the book apart from its run-of-the-mill competitors.
“I planned everything very carefully and I knew what I wanted. We shot the book in Istanbul, at a friend’s house with an incredible wealth of amazing antiques and fabrics. I wanted it to be totally unique, to be derived from very traditional methods but applied to modern techniques for the Western palate.”
Not only are the recipes easy to cook, packed with flavour and accessible to both fledgling home cooks and experienced foodies alike, but the book is peppered with charming stories that Silvena has collected during her travels through the Eastern Mediterranean, making it as much of a travel book as it is a tome of her signature cuisine.
“I wanted it to be the kind of book that you could take into the kitchen during the day, but perhaps at night you could take it to bed and read the stories. It was very difficult to collate these stories as it’s a world that is disappearing. I spent a lot of time in Damascus for the book and it’s an amazing place, it’s like the world’s best kept secret.”