June 20, 2014 6:50 pm

The history cook: Mediterranean Seafood

How a Foreign Office diplomat with no cooking qualifications and a ‘pretty depraved taste’ for ketchup and Spam became one of the 20th century’s great cookery writers
Cover page of 'Mediterranean Seafood' by Alan Davidson©Nina Mangalanayagam

Recipes came from diplomatic service colleagues 'and their wives' (Photograph: Nina Mangalanayagam)

Mediterranean Seafood, by Alan Davidson, published by Penguin, 1972

If they are loved, cookery books will journey between the bookshelf and the kitchen worktop on a regular basis. In the kitchen of my childhood, a battered paperback copy of Alan Davidson’s Mediterranean Seafood migrated much further – it came abroad with us on every holiday. The adults used it for inspiration and to identify seafood at markets. The children pored over its intricate line drawings of fish, crustaceans and molluscs.

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Peix en es Forn

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Structured in two parts – a catalogue of species followed by recipes – Mediterranean Seafood is a thorough immersion into these waters. Take the entry on the saupe: “Maximum length 45cm … Saupes are to be found among the banks of seaweed, on which they feed. Their herbivorous habits have, I am told, earned them the name chèvre (goat) in Algeria.”

Davidson was not a typical cookery writer. He had no professional cooking qualifications and he hardly ever cooked. He was suspicious of haute cuisine and admitted to having “pretty depraved tastes” – Spam and tomato ketchup were favourites. It was not credentials as a gourmet that made him one of the great cookery writers of the 20th century but curiosity about what food revealed about people, places and their pasts.

Born in 1924, the son of a Scottish tax inspector, Alan Eaton Davidson won a scholarship from Leeds Grammar School to Queen’s College, Oxford, where he was awarded a double first in classical greats. He joined the diplomatic service in 1948 and served in Washington, The Hague, Cairo, Tunis and Brussels. He was appointed British ambassador in Laos in 1973.

Mediterranean Seafood extended an earlier work of his called Seafood of Tunisia and the Central Mediterranean. At the time Davidson was working in Tunis. When his wife made a “casual request on a spring day in Carthage for a list of Tunisian fish and their English names”, Davidson set about writing her a guide. He enlisted the help of Professor Giorgio Bini, the greatest living ichthyologist, who happened to be spending time in Tunis as part of an official delegation.

The recipes reflect everyday cookery but this does not mean they are ordinary

The book was published by Davidson in 1963 and sold in Tunis via the British chamber of commerce. Somehow, by design or accident, a copy reached cookery writer Elizabeth David. She thought it rather good and recommended Davidson to her editor at Penguin – a commission for Mediterranean Seafood followed.

Davidson’s intention was “to help readers who visit or live in the … region to enjoy fully the seafood available”. Compiled with the help of academics, archivists and fishery experts, the book contains information on 150 species of fish and 50 crustaceans.

But for all its factual information, cooking and eating are at the heart of this book. There are more than 200 recipes sourced from “former colleagues in the Diplomatic Service … and their wives”, with sections on Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, the Black Sea, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco and “elsewhere in the Med”. Significant dishes and traditions are highlighted. “Anyone eating in Bulgaria would be well advised to stipulate it be accompanied by ‘pitka’ (a bap) and a saucer of ‘choubrista’ (mixed dried herbs and paprika).”

The recipes reflect everyday cookery but this does not mean they are ordinary. A recipe from the Black Sea, “Ribi Pecheni na Keremidi”, translates as “fish cooked in roof tiles”. In the Spanish chapter there is “Peix en es Forn” (fish baked with chard, as in Mallorca), from Italy there’s “Burrida alla Sarda” (a Sardinian recipe for dogfish) and, in “Recipes from elsewhere in the Med”, “Maltese Turtle Stew”. Turtles aside, Davidson’s recipes are easy to replicate and reliably good.

Davidson retired from the Foreign Office in 1978 – but diplomacy’s loss was food writing’s gain. He followed Mediterranean Seafood with Seafood of South East Asia in 1976 and North Atlantic Seafood in 1979. The same year he set up the publishing house Prospect Books and the esoteric journal Petits Propos Culinaires, where his love of the obscure was given full rein – subjects such as Thai funeral food and udder eating in the Pennines were typical. His life’s great project, a “Penguin Encyclopedia of Food”, was finally completed in 1999 and published as The Oxford Companion to Food.

Mediterranean Seafood remains a definitive reference work, and one worth packing in your suitcase.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library; ‘Mediterranean Seafood’ by kind permission from the British Library collection.

Peix en es Forn

Fish Baked with Chard, as in Mallorca

Ingredients
3 large potatoes
1 large large onion
  large bunch parsley
  large bunch Swiss chard
2 tomatoes, peeled
  salt and pepper
800-900g (1¾-2lb) slices or fillets of a suitable fish (eg hake)
225–300ml (8-10½ fl oz) olive oil
75ml (3 fl oz) white wine
  1. Peel and slice the potatoes. Oil the bottom of a baking dish and cover it with the slices of potato. Chop the onion, parsley and chard. Add half of this and half the tomatoes. Season.
  2. Lay the slices of fillets of fish on top, cover them with the remaining onion, parsley, chard and tomato. Season again, pour the olive oil over all and bake for 1 hour (335 F, gas 4). Just before the cooking is completed add the white wine.

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