I am a food writer who finds people, other cultures – and of course food – fascinating. I love nothing better than to read about food, talk to people about their food, and above all taste and recreate food. Food says so much about a person, country or culture and it has enriched my own life in countless ways.

I grew up in Guyana in a relaxed colonial style and moved to Halifax, Canada to study Political Science and Modern Languages. During my time at university, I spent a year in Salamanca, Spain, where I met my future husband, a Dutchman. We now live in a picturesque village in what is often referred to as ‘The fruit basket’ of The Netherlands. Our two children have already flown the nest, but they are still valuable members of my tasting panel. Their candidness is legendary and helps to keep me on my toes.

I started writing by chance, really. You can read all about it in the interview  below. My work is the result of years of research and recipe testing. But I don’t only write down recipes, I like to tell people a story. Where did the dish come from, how is it eaten and on what occasion for example? I call it putting food in context, and I find that it tastes so much better that way.

 

Baking banter with Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra

This in-depth interview with its flattering introduction was published in The Foodie Bugle Reveille 1, January 2013. Many thanks to Silvana de Soissons at The Foodie Bugle for permission to publish it here.

That the name of baking author Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra is not recognised in every household is, surely, a matter of time. She is one of the most scholarly, thoughtful and intelligent food writers of our time and her three books, “Windmills In My Oven” {Prospect Books, 2001}, “Warm Bread and Honey Cake” {Pavilion, 2010} and most recently “Sugar & Spice” {Pavilion, 2012} are all highly collectable. She is the thinking baker’s author: her work is so finely researched and so thoroughly tested that in addition to learning new and international recipes you will also gain a wealth of information about the growing of sugar cane, the history of patisserie, the making of chocolate, the provenance of fruit, the culture of cake making and so much more. Her reach overarches time and place and her curiosity about the culture and heritage of sweets, confectionary, cakes, breads and biscuits is infectious.

The Foodie Bugle recently interviewed Gaitri to find out more about the process behind her work, and this is what she told us.

The Foodie Bugle: Gaitri, your work is very much influenced by your childhood experiences of growing up in the Guyanese Hindu Indian culture. When it came to finding family recipes and information to draw upon for your books, were there ready-made recipe books, family albums and written details as well as relatives to talk to?

Gaitri: Unfortunately, the only recipes my mother saw fit to write down were for things like cheese straws, rock buns, fruit cake and butter cookies.  At some stage, however, she did write down a few versions of gulab jamun and burfi, which I used as starting points for my recipes in Sugar and Spice. I had to get many of my recipes from talking to people, watching them cook and driving them insane by grabbing all their ingredients to measure and weigh while they tried to get on with what they were doing. People never wrote down the recipes for traditional things that they made regularly. They just did it as they had always done, in the famous Guyanese way, ‘by average’ or ‘by guess’. Americans would call it ‘eyeballing’. Of course, this meant that results fluctuated wildly, but no one was really bothered. It was usually ‘Oh, next time I might need to use less flour – or more sugar, or whatever…’.

 

TFB: All your written work seems to be centred around baking and sugar – is that right? Will there be a savoury book to look forward to in the future?

Gaitri: As a matter of fact, I’m working on an idea that will lean very heavily on savoury items and will be a slight departure from baking as such. It’s still just in my head at this stage. [Note:Wrapped is to be published in June 2014.]

 

TFB: In the very beginning, how did you originally set out to write your first book and find a publisher when nobody knew who you were?

Gaitri: I tumbled into food writing quite accidentally. Before Clarissa Dickson Wright became a household name, she ran the cookbook shop in Notting Hill, Books for Cooks, for a while. I used to ring her up to order books and we had some really pleasant chats during that time. One day, up to my ears in the walnut harvest, I rang up to ask if she had a book with baking recipes using walnuts. She said that she didn’t have one, but why didn’t I give it a shot. If I wrote a proposal that was any good, she’d help me with a few contacts. Of course, you can’t get more of a niche than ‘baking with walnuts’ and this was at a time when baking was at a particularly low ebb. One editor she contacted, explained all of this to me and recommended that I find myself a literary agent to get me organised. The editor was John Midgeley at Pavilion, so there is a lovely sense of completing a circle, as I have happily worked with his successors at Pavilion for my second and third books.

 

TFB: Other than liquorice, is there a very strong tradition of confectionery in Holland? The inspiration for “Sugar and Spice” is evidently global, but is there culinary heritage from your adopted land in the book also?

Gaitri: Definitely: there are Dutch cream truffles, strikingly white and deliciously creamy against the backdrop of dark chocolate covering. There are also typical sweets such as coffee flavoured Haagsche hopjes, buttery, chewy treacle sweets from the south of Holland, the Dutch version of fudge-tablet, shortbreads and more.

 

 TFB: There is a great deal of academic study and research in your books – do you have a very large food history library in your home to draw reference from, or where do you go?

Gaitri: Over the years I’ve built up a good collection of reference books. But I also go to libraries and museums for more in-depth or specific research.

 

TFB: How do you start a book – do you first make a list of all the chapters, then decide which recipes to include in each section?

Gaitri: It depends on the book. For my first book, “Windmills in my Oven”, it was quite straightforward. The chapters divided themselves neatly and classically into Bread, Cakes, Biscuits etc. For my subsequent books, I sat down and wrote lists of the recipes I wanted to include. Then I made a few trial divisions into chapters, juggling them around a bit before settling on the definitive chapters. I keep things a bit elastic while writing, as some items could fall into one of several categories – and once I really get going, I end up including more recipes than on my original list.

 

TFB: Who eats all the wonderful sweet things you make while you are creating and testing recipes?

Gaitri: My husband and children are my most reliable testers and tasters, so they get to taste straight away. Reliable because they don’t mince words! Then I keep part of every batch to re-taste over a period of a few days so that I can give the reader a good indication of keeping qualities. I always try to let as many people as possible taste and comment. Mostly it’s friends, relatives and neighbours, but I also like to feed any available carpenters, painters and jobbing gardeners. My motives are not entirely altruistic: I enjoy seeing the shock effect that the more exotic items have on them, as they tend to be conservative eaters.

When I’m working on something experimental I make special test batches destined for specific tasters so that I can get as much feedback as possible. The spiced and spicy brittles, for instance, went in several versions in large amounts to my husband’s office and generated a very lively discussion, as I thought they would.

  

TFB: There has been a huge explosion in the interest in baking all over the world – do you feel that you hit the zeitgeist just at the right time in terms of publishing success, or does the limelight and media attention not really interest you very much, you just get on with your work?

Gaitri: It is true that there has been a huge explosion in interest in baking, so in that respect, it was the right time. But at the same time, I feel that the vast majority of bakers have yet to discover the diversity of baking. Most of the attention is still being showered on showy patisserie.

Fortunately, some have already felt the pull of good traditional and ethnic baking. I’m very grateful to my staunch core of readers, who have been writing all kinds of nice things about “Warm Bread and Honey Cake”  and who have also actually been cooking from it. It really makes me happy to know that people are reading, using and enjoying my work.

As to media attention: I would be lying if I said that I didn’t care about it. It’s all very flattering but I also recognise the fleeting and temporary nature of it all. Now that the Dutch book (Het Nederlands Bakboek) has been shortlisted for Book of the Year, I’ve been on TV, on the radio and in a large number of newspapers and magazines over here. I know that a lot that attention comes from the seeming incongruity of the author and subject: a foreigner writing the first book of its kind on such a very Dutch topic. But the comments about the book itself (from both critics and readers) are very gratifying and that’s what matters most to me: recognition for my work above interest in my person. [Note: It won and attracted even more attention!]

 

TFB: How did you feel when you won The Guild of Food Writers Cookery Book of the Year and did many wonderful things happen to you as a direct result of that award?

Gaitri: It’s an indescribable feeling of warmth and joy – as I’m sure you yourself have experienced. I went to the awards ceremony for the fun of it and was mainly looking forward to spending a few days in the UK, catching up with friends. I was absolutely not expecting to win, not with the competition I was up against, for example Darina Allen and Katie Caldesi.  In my mind I can still hear Bill Buckley’s lovely, smooth voice announcing the name of my book. I think I let out a little yelp and I know that I had to wipe away the tears of joy as I went up to the front.

I cannot think of a better award to be given and it means the world to me, to have been recognised by my peers. I’m sure that it was also the reason that my subsequent commissions almost happened by themselves.

 

TFB: Where you live in Holland is there a good “foodie” scene? Tell us what you can and cannot get ingredient-wise that makes you homesick or do you travel often to get what you need?

Gaitri: The food scene here in Holland is developing, but more slowly than I would like. When I came here a long time ago, I used to be homesick for tropical fruit and vegetables. I used to have to go to the Albert Cuyp market in Amsterdam to get quite ordinary things like avocadoes, pineapples and aubergines. Yes, aubergines. They were grown for export, even then, but because local people didn’t eat them, they were not sold in smaller towns. That has changed a lot and they are now commonplace.

As I live in a small village, I have to make an effort to get hold of some ingredients. Good basics such as butter, cream, quality chocolate and cocoa are standardly available in supermarkets. I go to ethnic groceries for specialty items. I usually get my nuts, filo pastry, semolina and Turkish clotted cream (kaymak) from the Turkish grocery in a town nearby. And then in another town, I love to visit the Indonesian grocery where they sell all kinds of Asian items, from frozen grated coconut to fresh spices and various kinds of rice flour. There is also a good Vietnamese grocery not too far away. Asian groceries anywhere in the world have a magnetic effect on me. I can spend hours, just looking around and reading labels – and of course, I never leave empty handed! What we don’t really have – and I wish we did – are the Indian groceries that proliferate in the UK.

I am a great buyer and hoarder of foods, and I love to experiment. Apart from the delight I get from opening my Aladdin’s cave of goodies, I’m able to give the reader better instructions and tips after experimenting with brands from all over the place.

I tend to bring back all kinds of odds and ends from trips abroad, and even give my husband lists when he goes on business trips. It’s an eclectic mixture of the exotic and downright mundane. On the one hand things like saffron and almonds from Spain, candied fruit and peels from Sicily, fabulous vanilla pods and extract from the Philippines, flower waters from North Africa and the Middle East. And on the other hand, everyday items such as rye flour from neighbouring Germany, bread flour from America and Canada, as well as baking powder from various places. The internet is now also a wonderful place to find and buy all kinds of things, from ingredients to equipment.

 

TFB: Do you think that there is a deep-seated psychological need for humans to make sweet treats and handmade patisserie because these sorts of activities make us feel safe, comforted and cosy in a difficult world? Once the skills and knowledge of patisserie and baking were just for professional apprentices, but now we all want to make tarts, toffees and truffles. What do you think?

Gaitri: Over the centuries we have conditioned ourselves to like – and even crave – sugar. I think sweet treats also take us back to our childhoods, when sweets could put almost anything right. Perhaps we are unconsciously still making the same association. Undeniably, baking and sweet-making are two of the most comforting things imaginable.

I think it’s wonderful that people now want to get involved in the process of creation as well as consumption. I do have a few reservations. Obviously, one can make anything at home, including excellent imitations of pastry shop items. However, the hankering to re-create slick pastry shop items still greatly overshadows good traditional home-baking, and I feel that the balance has yet to be found. It is worrying that the pastry-shop cake seems to have been adopted as the norm and people down tremendous amounts of buttercream and excessive amounts of sugar without a second thought – and don’t even get me started on the evil colours they ingest with apparent pleasure. Granted, cake was never meant to be health food, but that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t make informed choices. Too many books now seem to focus solely on excess and over-indulgence in baking, narrowing the reader’s choices.

I love home-style baking is because it’s open to interpretation. You can leave a cake plain, jazz it up to make it more special or tart it up totally to make it gorgeous. Added to that, you can ensure that the ingredients are of the best quality. And there’s no pressure in it – apart from people understandably wanting to display their newly learned skills. As to sweets, I particularly enjoy making them because they are small, dainty and attractive and – best of all – elastic as far as portioning goes. You can have one piece or several, depending on your mood.

In an ideal world, people would look at the broader picture, and not allow themselves to be ruled so much by current hypes. There is so much more to baking and sweet-making than the trendy cupcakes, cake pops, macarons and mile-high layer cakes. (How do people serve and eat these towering creations, by the way? On dinner plates, perhaps, with dining forks? Or do they take them apart, and completely defeat the original purpose?) I don’t want to discourage people from eating what they enjoy, but I would like to encourage them to try new things and extend their repertoires. It would be supremely satisfying to be able, however modestly, to help raise people’s awareness of the wonderful but little known world of delicious ethnic and traditional treats, still waiting to be discovered by so many.