I just had another baby. Fresh from China, it is neither human or android, it’s an advance copy of Medina Kitchen. At the same time, nice words came in an email from my editor: “The book feels like pure sunshine.” I won’t quote any more – it was too nice, but let’s say I’m puffing up fast.
With that kind of praise modesty temporarily does a runner, but in an illustrated book like this, much of the glory should go to the photographer and designer. In this case it is one and the same man, Simon Wheeler, with a tiny bit of input from me and great backup from his assistant Jonathan. It is rare for a photographer to take over the design, as usually he is too involved in his own images to stand back, but in this case, flipping through the pages and remembering the arguments we had, I have to admit it really worked. Sometimes he listened to my views, sometimes he didn’t, but the balance, rhythm and overall atmosphere conveyed is spot on. He even used some of my photos – rare humility for a top photographer. The result is not quite what I set out to do, but close, and certainly shows the reality of the places and people rather than hyped up versions. Authenticity is the word.
Open the book and there is a huge orange wall, paint flaking and punctuated by turquoise window-frames. A little man in huge sunglasses is framed in one corner, a strip of blue sky right at the top. The image flies into your face spelling warmth and exoticism – and makes the perfect opener. I well remember that annoying little man who just would not get out of the picture wherever I pointed my lens. I can say that because this is a photo I took about 15 years ago in mid-winter in Marrakesh – when there was plenty of sun and clear skies and we all used film, so each photo cost. That trip continued far south, as we (two friends and I), ended up driving right down to Zagora on the edge of the Sahara in a rattly old Renault 4 – with one of those weird gear-shifts that feels like you’re about to take off. It was good at ploughing through the sand though. Altogether the journey was magical, completely ad hoc, full of moving encounters, stirring landscapes, succulent lamb and syrupy mint tea.
But I’m digressing. Back to Medina Kitchen. What I loved about making this book was the process of getting to know and spending time with the eight characters (home cooks) and their families, shopping with them in local markets, watching them cook, eating their sublime food and even, in a couple of cases, having a siesta in their salon marocain.
Tripoli with its edginess was most inspiring and, as always, full of the unexpected. Even when we flew in from Tunis, having got last-minute visas at vast expense, I wasn’t sure that Fouad, my contact, would actually follow through his promise. Because Fouad is a law unto himself. In the end he hardly figures in the book but it seemed like I called him from London weekly for several months after first meeting him in Tripoli. Every time he’d ask politely “And how’s the weather?” This verbal tic was a hangover from his long years spent living in Blackpool – an experience which gave his Libyan accent a curious northern lilt. Then he’d always say “Call me when you arrive.” It sounded suspiciously like that Arabic word inshallah. When you hear that, you can never be quite sure of what will happen.
His first idea had been to hook me up with his niece, an excellent cook and qualified dietician. This sounded perfect. But when Simon and I arrived, ready to roll, at our wonderful 1960s hotel, the Grand, and I rang Fouad, I got “Oh Fiona, I’m not feeling very well, I have a cold. I don’t think we can meet up.” Gulp. A lot depended on this – in fact an entire chapter of the book and a good chunk of the budget – so there was no way I was going to let him get away with it. So I continued chatting as persuasively as possible. Finally, in a split second, his mind changed. “Alright! Yala! let’s all go and have dinner at the fish market. I’ll come with my wife to pick you up in half an hour.” That was so typical. Then his wife turned out to be a beauty, charming and a good cook. And Fouad, despite odd moments of jealousy and a heavily macho attitude, plunged into the project with enthusiasm.
That’s just a taste of ‘the making of’. Next episode coming soon! Maah-salam! (On the left is a picture of a typical Tripoli lunch – with water all the way.)