Kitchen 'gran' central: the taste for family favourites has returned
The tried and tested recipes our grandmothers pass on are being celebrated globally. We look at some projects that celebrate grannies' best
“My grandmother’s house was really a temple of culinary knowledge; I learned absolutely everything I know now about cooking in her kitchen,” says Mercedes Lopez-Izquierdo, the 86-year-old grandmother we’re currently preparing a Spanish-style cold, melon soup. She has swapped the more traditional grapes in “ajo blanco” for honey melon and has extolled the virtues of chilled soup in hot weather.
Forming an assembly line of crushing almonds, juicing melon and chopping garlic in her eccentrically styled (pattern-on-pattern-on-pattern) Madrid apartment, we’re given a history lesson on Franco’s post-war Spain.
It’s been a year since I began documenting the recipes and culinary techniques of the world’s grandmothers with my closest friend and creative director, Iska Lupton, as part of a project called Grand Dishes that sees us cook, laugh and dine with grannies as we gather their recipes and stories for a book we’re planning to publish.
There is no dish quite like that time-perfected by a grandmother. Say what you like about gourmet dining and 12-course tasting menus, but nothing will ever compare to your grandmother’s signature recipe, potent with nostalgia and charged with emotion.
The project began with my own Greek “yiayia” and her lovingly prepared, hearty family feasts. Cinnamon-rich stifado, sweet-smelling pastitsada, sea bream dripping with lemon and olive oil marinade grilled over an open flame with oregano fries, stuffed peppers and tomatoes made from seasonal ingredients planted by the moon’s cycle and grown over the course of months by my grandmother. Every bite carries with it a feeling of being loved, knowing how much work (not just today’s cooking, but a lifetime of development) has gone into making these dishes.
It’s a sentiment shared by many and it seems that this year the foodie world has contracted granny fever. While we’ve been travelling to as many different grandmas as possible (this year in Spain, Greece, France, Italy, Croatia, Poland and Wales) to cook with, photograph and interview the women with a dish to share and a story to tell, others have been cooking up their own granny-inspired projects.
In France, Grandmas Project has become a sensation, focusing on sharing the culinary knowledge of grandmothers by inviting filmmakers from all over the world to submit films of their own granny’s meals – a kind of DIY cooking programme with the original culinary veterans, if you will. The project, kick-started in May 2015, has raised US$21,000 (Dh77,122) in 30 days. Since then, the team has generated huge interest, with their contributor network continually growing and the films on their channel becoming more diverse – documenting granny fare from India, to Serbia and Morocco, straight from their own kitchens.
Then there’s Pasta Grannies, the YouTube channel by Vicky Bennison, which documents a series of Italian “nonnas” as they make fresh pasta. Every Friday you can tune in to catch a new “nonna” teaching Pasta Grannies’ dedicated 324,000 subscribers exactly how to twist tortelloni, twirl out tagliatelle and knead, roll and shape the perfect pasta dough, all from scratch. This, too, has become something of a sensation this year, and it makes for hypnotic watching.
Even celebrity foodies have become wise to the “cooking with granny” trend that has cemented itself this year. “When I travelled around Italy, I met so many amazing nonnas, their food was incredible and I wanted to take them all back home with me,” enthuses British chef Jamie Oliver, as he introduces his new Jamie Cooks Italy series. Christina Tosi, creator of the Milk Bar bakery in New York and Netflix’s 2018 series of Chef’s Table also pays tribute to grannies, proclaiming: “I love baking because it reminds of my grandmas and it makes that moment in life a little sweeter.”
In India, 106-year-old grandmother Karre Mastanamma has become a YouTube hit after her grandson, Laxmann and his friend began filming her cooking signature Indian dishes over a coal fire. The videos of Granny Mastanamma, eyes twinkling and full of energy (watch her bashing spices using a pestle and mortar with the gusto of a 20-year-old trainee chef, in spite of the fact that she’s a centenarian) have been viewed more than 11 million times and Country Foods has become a viral sensation in India, with more than one million subscribers.
Grandmothers and their recipes are certainly having their moment and the age-old cooking techniques and processes of our matriarchs are appealing to us once again. Perhaps it’s because we live in a world in which food is either obsessively displayed in hyper-saturated Instagram images – something to be snapped and posted, rather than enjoyed along with a conversation at the dinner table. Or perhaps it’s because of our modern habit of “grabbing lunch” on the go, quickly wolfing it down at our desks, in front of the television or en route to a meeting.
“I have such fond memories of baking English classics like shortcrust pastry and lemon meringue with my own grandmother,” says Dubai resident Jenny Collins, who happens to have all four generations (including her grandmother, mother and daughter) in the UAE with her. “I often cook my grandmother’s recipes with my mother, as does my daughter. It helps to keep old traditions alive and combat the fast food lifestyle that is all too easily adopted. It also helps to build the family bond,” she says.
Sharing a lavish lunch at the dinner table with Mercedes, her two daughters and granddaughters after a morning of cooking, telling anecdotes and silly jokes across three generations, I realise that it’s a combination of this, keeping tradition alive and combating the ease of fast food, mixed with the nostalgia of smells and tastes so locked up in our own grandmothers’ kitchens, that stirred something within us this year.
It’s not just a memory of those special dishes that feed our bodies and souls driving the cooking with granny phenomenon; it’s the interactions with an elderly generation that we may have lost touch with; an acknowledgement that in spite of our fast-paced modern lives, one day, we too would like to cook as well as our grandmothers do.
Recipes to try at home
Yiayia’s marinated sea bass and skordalia from Greece
Preparation time: 30 minutes Cooking time: 30 minutes (Serves 4)
10 medium floury potatoes
1 whole bulb garlic
100ml olive oil
Juice of two lemons
▶ Peel the potatoes and boil them until soft.
▶ Peel all garlic cloves and bash them using a pestle and mortar until paste-like.
▶ Add the potatoes to the mortar if big enough or transfer garlic to a sturdy bowl with the potatoes and pour in a couple of generous glugs of olive oil.
▶ Bash / mash until smooth.
▶ Add the lemon juice and some water until it’s runny.
Marinated sea bass ingredients
4 medium sea bass
2 tbsp dried oregano
15 tbsp olive oil
6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Juice of one lemon
▶ Scale and gut the fish.
▶ With a sharp knife, make three to four incisions on each side of the fish then salt it.
▶ Prepare the marinade by combining the oregano, olive oil and garlic.
▶ Put the fish into the marinade, spooning the mix inside the fish for maximum coating.
▶ Cook the fish on the hob, barbecue or under the grill for eight to 10 minutes on each side.
▶ Squeeze the lemon juice over the fish and serve.
Greek salad ingredients
1 red onion
1 handful of Kalamata olives
1 green pepper, horizontally sliced
Dried oregano to garnish
1 thick slice of feta cheese
Olive oil to dress
Dash of vinegar
▶ Chop the cucumber, tomato and red onion and place in a bowl.
▶ Add the Kalamata olives.
▶ Garnish with a few green pepper slices and oregano and top with a huge slab of feta cheese.
▶ Pour over lashings of olive oil and a sprinkling of vinegar.
Mercedes’ Ajo blanco con melon de miel (white garlic soup) from Spain
Preparation time: 30 minutes. No cooking required (Serves 8)
250g white bread (no crust)
150g raw almonds
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp vinegar
2/3 glass good olive oil
2 tbsp water
▶ Soak the crustless white bread in water for 10 minutes.
▶ Squeeze the water out the bread a little and put it into a blender with the almonds, finely chopped garlic, melon, salt, vinegar, oil, eggs and a dash of water.
▶ If your blender is small, you may need to blend in two loads.
▶ Blend each batch of the mixture for at least four minutes
▶ Transfer into a bowl and put into the fridge for at least two hours before serving.
▶ It won’t be super-smooth because of the almonds, but it should be the consistency of single cream.
Updated: September 27, 2018 02:10 PM