It must have been more than eight years ago when I first met Cecile. She had been cooking her own particular style of exotic vegetarian food at Baraka, the wonderful little Middle Eastern emporium in Jonson Street where Red Ginger now stands. And she had just published a slender book of her recipes, so I duly interviewed her.
On and off over the years we have met up again. South African-born of Lebanese parents, Cecile is irrepressibly enthusiastic, vivacious and at times provocative, a fiercely intelligent graduate of anthropology, psychology and sociology who for many years worked on behalf of people disadvantaged by or suffering from apartheid-induced poverty and human rights abuses. She moved to Sydney with her husband and two children in 1986 and several years later established a cooking school and catering business called Cecile’s Vegetarian Kitchen. For the past 25 years she has divided her time between Sydney and the Far North Coast. Following her memoir Olive Trees Around My Table she has just recently had published by Wakefield Press a beautiful cookbook entitled Mezze to Milk Tart, which could well be the memoir’s companion piece, drawing as it does on the various influences which shaped her growing up Lebanese in Africa.
‘Food’, she tells us in the book’s introduction, ‘is a great part of the nostalgia we share. It anoints our social occasions and takes our memories to families and friends long gone…’ Her vegetarian food in particular, however, furnishes other functions: Cecile’s desire to prove that it ‘was more than just toast and cheese or lentil soup’ and could on the contrary be truly exciting; a respect for the environment; the great joy of sharing meals with others. ‘Eating is one of life’s great pleasures and… it must be more than simply topping up our stomachs at the petrol station. It is something to be savoured and something to be shared.’
Mezze to Milk Tart is itself a feast of gorgeous dishes to create and share, none of them complicated, interspersed with anecdote and reminiscence. Persian Pilaff with Barberries; Auntie’s Pine Nut Sauce with Garlic; Macadamia and Pumpkin Soup; Quince and Potato Curry; Sweet Potato Chocolate Cake are just a handful.
I want to know which Cecile prefers – writing or cooking. ‘There’s a synergy between writing and cooking or writing and gardening’, she tells me, ‘because the mind needs to roam or assimilate in between times of creative expression, especially after writing something deep and demanding.’ (Gardening is her other love.) She tells me that when she was writing her novel she would go into her kitchen in between chapters and cook those traditional Lebanese dishes her grandmother taught her. And what, I ask, would her last supper consist of? ‘If I knew it to be so’, she replies, ‘green tea and all the cantatas the Bachs wrote would satisfy me until the end arrived.’
This evening (Tuesday 17 April) at the Byron Bay Community Centre, Cecile will be signing her book in the Liberation Larder Kitchen as part of a fund-raising and tasting. It commences at 5.30pm and all are invited. And because she is incapable of not giving, she has pressed upon me a simple, quick meal to share with readers:
LENTIL POTTAGE ON TOAST
Cover 2 cups red lentils and 2 bay leaves with boiling water and cook about 20 mins, until tender. Add 1 vegetable stock cube, 2 cloves garlic and 1 tablespoon olive oil and continue cooking, stirring from time to time until porridgey. Serve on thick wedges of toasted Italian bread, garnished with capers, chopped parsley, crumbled fetta and halved black olives.
Mezze to Milk Tart – Cecile Yazbek. Wakefield Press.