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Victoria Schofield
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Spices of life [Josceline Dimbleby]

The Green, October 2000

Full Article

I come from a completely creative family  - artists and musicians on both sides’ generations back - and making my own dishes was a way of being creative.

Josceline Dimbleby’s success as the author of numerous cookbooks, which include Josceline Dimbleby’s Complete Cookbook and Josceline Dimbleby’s Almost Vegetarian Cookbook, was not something she’d expected.  Rather she saw her love of food and her liking to experiment as a way of being able to follow in the family tradition of being creative, whilst remaining at home to look after her three children (now aged 31, 30 and 27). Before her marriage to TV presenter David Dimbleby, she had trained as a singer at the Guildhall School of Music.  But a singing career didn’t fit with looking after children and so she began both to learn to cook and to write about it. Even now she doesn’t consider herself as a ‘chef’, which she thinks is a huge bonus.‘I approach food like anybody else in their kitchen who may never have learnt to cook; that’s why I feel my recipes work, because I work them out teaspoon by teaspoon. And so whatever I can do, anybody can do. It’s just they may not have had the idea.’

 In a market now saturated with cookery books by experts like Delia Smith, Katie Stewart, Jane Grigson, Keith Floyd, Jamie Oliver, it’s hard to think back to the 1970s when cookery books were a  rarity. But that was the time when Josceline Dimbleby started writing. ‘I wrote a magazine article and then someone said ‘you really ought to write down more of your recipes.’  Her first book was published in 1976 and then came a second book. Soon afterwards she was asked to become what she calls Sainsbury’s ‘guinea pig’ author. ‘Marks and Spencer had just started doing cookery books but Sainsbury’s had never done books and it was quite by chance that the Chairman’s wife had one of my cookery books. And she said, “I like this and why don’t we ask her to write a book.” So that was a real break.’ Josceline Dimbleby wrote one book for them and then they asked her to write another. Her next book, Cooking for Christmas, became a trend-setter. ‘For years there weren’t any others and then Delia Smith wrote one and then everyone did one.’

Although Josceline professes to do ‘a good line in tarts’ – both sweet and savoury – her greatest love is cooking with spices. Having lived in Syria as a child, she found that she was trying to recreate the tastes of her childhood, which led her to become a pioneer in what is now called ‘cross-cultural cooking.’ When Josceline told Sainsbury’s that the next book she wanted to do was Cooking with Herbs and Spices, the only spices, which they stocked was ‘one little drum of dried mixed herbs and one of dried spices’.  In order for her to write the book, they had to be persuaded to stock a wider range of spices so that people could find the ingredients for her recipes on the supermarket shelves. ‘Sainsbury’s were terribly worried because they thought people wouldn’t like it. But they were amazed, that book sold like anything. People had begun going on foreign holidays and had had foreign tastes and were completely ready for it. Since it was presented in a user friendly way with ingredients they could get at Sainsbury’s, they weren’t put off.’

Josceline Dimbleby’s love of the cross-cultural is exemplified by where she came to live six years ago after her separation and subsequent divorce from David Dimbleby. After living in Putney for 25 years, she moved to a leafy street near Turnham Green.  ‘What I realised that I’d missed by living in Putney was being amongst people from all over the world.’  The area also suits her interest in food. ‘What’s perfect for me is that there are fantastic food shops, which I adore, with all the ethnic ingredients in Shepherd’s Bush Market and the Uxbridge Road. There’s even a Syrian shop in the Uxbridge Road called Damasgate with a picture on the wall of a wonderful painting of the souk in Damascus where I spent so much of my childhood. And the real foodie street has become Turnham Green Terrace where you have Maison Blanc, a fantastic butcher, Mackens, a fish shop, and the delicatessen, Mortimer and Bennet. If you suddenly have people to dinner, you can go to Turnham Green Terrace and get everything you want in a few minutes.’

After over twenty years, Josceline Dimbleby is beginning to slow down on cookery writing and now has other writing projects in mind, including a memoir on her mother and her childhood abroad. A keen travel addict as long as she can ‘stagger onto a plane’, she is also hoping to write more travel articles, possibly using her own photographs – another major hobby which she has always enjoyed. She also loves gardening, music and reading biographies. But the rewards of being a cookery writer remain. As with her book, Cooking for Christmas, the first edition of which she’s often seen in people’s kitchens, completely covered with stains of food, her books have stood the test of time.  ‘The nicest thing about having done books for ages is knowing that people are going on using them. That’s the best test of all.’ 

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