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Series

Lesley Blanch

Vagabond Cooks

WORDS BY JOJO TULLOH
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CECIL BEATON / VOGUE © THE CONDÉ NAST PUBLICATIONS LTD

To be a vagabond is to have the urge to wander; to cook conjures a kitchen, a desire to stay in one place. These words do not sit comfortably together. The first speaks of the open road, an itinerant life filled with uncertainty, unfamiliar flavours, meals consumed quickly and often out of doors; the traveller takes what she can find. By contrast, the cook has time to plan and the means of gathering ingredients; her culinary paraphernalia – pots, pans, plates, glasses, knives and stove – are at hand. So what makes a vagabond cook?

For me the phrase describes a particular kind of food writer, one for whom food is a doorway to other cultures, times past and far off places. I think of these women (and somehow they are always women) as cooks whose kitchens have no walls, travellers for whom food was an essential part of the journeys they took. And for their readers, the recipes were a way of travelling without ever leaving home.

As widely read as they were travelled, writers such as Patience Gray, Dorothy Hartley and Lesley Blanch all fashioned books inspired by what they saw in the wider world. This short series begins with Lesley Blanch (1904-2007) – a traveller, biographer, historian and food writer who lived a very long, colourful life and left behind a series of scholarly yet wildly romantic cult books. Read them and be inspired to leave the everyday behind and take a true culinary trip. For as Lesley Blanch herself said, “Nothing can ever replace the joys of eating impromptu meals in some wild and lovely setting”.

Nothing can ever replace the joys of eating impromptu meals in some wild and lovely setting

Lesley Blanch (1904-2007)

Always explore a new town on an empty stomach, it sharpens the vision.

This piece of advice was given to the writer Lesley Blanch by the mysterious ‘Traveller’. This highly-cultured man, a Russian of Mongolian descent and quite possibly a spy, was a friend of her parents, and his tales of Russian life lit up her nursery. He was the most interesting man she would ever meet and he remained the romantic obsession of her life. Only ever referred to as ‘the Traveller’, his identity has remained a mystery.

At 17 Blanch fell for the Traveller hard and, scandalously, they eloped together on a train to Dijon (pretending it was the Trans-Siberian Railway). They had one brief yet marvellous holiday in Corsica together (all without her parents’ knowledge of his seduction) but although he had proposed marriage, he then disappeared from her life. By this time his stories had sparked a lifelong obsession with travel.

The book she wrote about Russia and the Traveller, Journey Into the Mind’s Eye, is an entirely original construct; part travel book, part love story, it describes the evolution of her obsession with wilder shores: “I had fallen in love with the Traveller’s travels. Gradually I became possessed by love of a horizon and a train which would take me there, of a fabled engine and an imagined landscape.” Startlingly ahead of its time, it mixes memoir, travelogue and literary criticism in a way that was entirely new. Facts about food history are interwoven with the narrative. For example we learn from the Traveller that “the word bistro is Russian – it means hurry – quick… our troops brought it with them when we occupied Paris.” Later he tries to get round her dislike of rhubarb by explaining that

Rha is the dialect name for the Volga. All along its bank this plant grows hugely. So since my country has always been considered barbarous by others, the Latin – barbara is tacked on. There you have it – Rhubarb – a plant grown in the barbarous regions of the Rha, or Volga. Yes. I thought you’d want a second helping after that.

1. Journey Into the Mind’s Eye (Eland Books, 1968)
2. The Wilder Shores of Love (Phoenix Press, 1954)
3. Round the World in 80 Dishes: The World Through the Kitchen Window (Grub Street, 1955)
4. From Wilder Shores: the Tables of My Travels (John Murray, 1989)


travelling widely, eating wildly

Blanch was an unusually independent woman both in love and work, earning her own living at a time when women of her class rarely did, first as an illustrator then in the theatre as a set and costume designer, before becoming features editor of British Vogue during the war. Alison Settle, the editor of Vogue at the time, headhunted Blanch after reading a piece she had written against dull clothes for Harper's Bazaar entitled Anti-Beige, A Plea for the Scarlet Woman. But by the end of her life it was as a traveller and writer that Blanch would be best remembered.

Blanch’s most well-known book is a biography of four 19th century women who found themselves drawn inexorably towards the East seeking love and adventure. The Wilder Shores of Love was published in 1954 and has been in print ever since; it made Blanch a best-selling debut author at age 50. Several more biographies followed, but in addition to these vivid historical works, she also took time to publish two lighter books on food. In Round the World in 80 Dishes: The World Through the Kitchen Window, Blanch, who also illustrated her book, offers a medley of recipes from Europe, the Middle East, the Balkans, Central and South America, the Pacific and the Far East.

Blanch’s other food book, From Wilder Shores: the Tables of My Travels, details not only her love of breakfast ­– “Find a liver that matches your own or breakfast alone with Darling Self” – and English nursery puddings but along the way tackles train food, diplomatic dinners, Persian country life, and Turkish weddings via a chapter entitled Bread and Velvet. Blanch describes this book as neither travel nor food book but a ‘sketchbook’ written for those who “fiddle around” and “generally enjoy cooking as much as eating and travelling”. She wrote it to “recapture the rapture of some faraway plate”. Just as she used literature to visit a Russia that no longer existed, so food became a portal to far away places when she was back home.

I became possessed by love of a horizon and a train which would take me there, of a fabled engine and an imagined landscape

Blanch’s globetrotting had already begun (with trips to Russia in the early 30s) when in wartime London she met and fell in love with a Free French airman with Slavic looks: the French novelist Romain Gary (born Roman Kacew). After the war, Gary took a diplomatic post in Sofia, Bulgaria and while Gary wrote, Blanch took trains across the country and sampled the culinary delights of her much-loved Bulgarian cook, Raiina. 

Bulgaria was a place she stayed passionately attached too and later wrote about in her travelogue, Under a Lilac-Bleeding Star. Gary continued his dual role as diplomat and novelist and the couple travelled first to New York, where Gary was secretary for the French Delegation at the UN from 1952 to 1954, and then to Los Angeles where he was French consul – in effect, French ambassador to Hollywood. The pair did much official entertaining as well as mixing socially with the biggest movie stars of the time: from simple suppers of stuffed cabbage cooked by Marlene Dietrich to perhaps the most memorable meal of her whole life: a supper hosted by Cole Porter, where Blanch and her husband dined on caviar, pheasant and Grand Marnier soufflé with Fred Astaire. Though Blanch happily describes this as her perfect meal, and is not shy of name-dropping, she was equally if not more enthralled perched on a mountainside drinking dough (a yoghurt and mint drink) with the Kuchi tribesmen of Afghanistan.

5. Under a Lilac-Bleeding Star (John Murray, 1963)
6. The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus (John Murray, 1960)
7. On The Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life (Virago, 2015) 


surprises, trials, unwise indulgences

After Blanch wrote her best-selling book, the couple left Los Angeles for New York and it was here that their stormy marriage ended when Gary left Blanch for the actress Jean Seberg, the urchin-like star of Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (Breathless). In America Blanch had begun what she considered her finest book, The Sabres of Paradise, a portrait of Imam Shamil, the Chechen leader-prophet ­– a prescient account of Chechnya’s oppression by Tsarist Russia. Although heartbroken, Blanch was freed from the exhaustive drama of her marriage to this demanding and difficult if charming man. She grasped the opportunity to travel and threw herself wholeheartedly into her own work. 

So began a new and highly-productive stage of her life living between Paris and Roquebrune, above the Mediterranean Sea close to the French-Italian border. Blanch took many adventurous solo journeys, falling in love with the Far East and Afghanistan and becoming drawn more and more to the Muslim way of life. She combined serious research into the historical figures she was writing about with more light-hearted culinary adventures. She relished the discovery of exotic dishes, which she recorded and recreated at home and which gave her the basis for her two entertaining food books. She was a one-off; I can’t think of another food writer who has dedicated her book to her own digestion, “which has nobly supported so many surprises, trials and unwise indulgences”.

Lesley Blanch filled the great span of her life with the experiences of many lifetimes. Before she died at the age of 102 (having just finished her memoir, On The Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life) she had written 12 books of biography, memoir and cookery. With more than a century to record, it is impossible to do justice to such a rich life in so short a space. So while I urge you to seek out her books, I will leave the last word to Lesley Blanch herself: “Benign fate whisked me elsewhere to follow less restricted ways, travelling widely and eating wildly.”