The culinary anthropologist’s baklava

close up of walnut baklava rollsThere are ten of us in the kitchen: a South African, two New Zealanders, four Brits, an Albanian and two Kosovars.  We are preparing food together, and too many cooks doesn’t spoil the baklava.

We are doing something which is as old as eating – sharing not just food but the techniques for making food.  In this case, we are being hosted by the wonderful culinary anthropologist Anna Colquhoun who is demonstrating recipes from my book, Travels in Blood and Honey; becoming a beekeeper in Kosovo.

The baklava recipe is going down particularly well. It’s one I was given by my Serbian teacher in Kosovo and she in turn had had it from her Gorani grandmother. I passed it on (with a few amendments of my own) to Anna, and she is now explaining it to this group. One of them says ‘I’m going to pass it on to my Albanian friends here in London’ and it makes it sounds like a cold. The intimate behaviours of food preparation (we discuss the ways to slather filo pastry with butter – the brush versus the fingers, the merits of using a feather) lead to the exchange and mutations of ideas just as surely as the exchange and mutation of flu, travelling from person to person.

Some of the group have made baklava before but no-one has made it entirely with honey rather than sugar syrup. This is the secret, in my opinion, of baklava with rich, complex, warming flavours rather than something that resembles tracing paper in sweet drool. Tonight we made it with excellent acacia honey, and walnuts. It’s this that the Albanian woman wants to pass on to her friends.

In fact, there are more than ten of us in the kitchen – all our grandmothers are with us, and the neighbours we’ll pass on baklava tips to and their children yet unborn. What we are doing is culinary but it’s also anthropological. It’s also delicious – see for yourself:

330g filo pastry for baklava
125g butter, melted
230g walnuts, half of them ground, the other half chopped
230g honey
Juice of half a lemon
Half a teaspoon vanilla flavouring

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees.
Lay out a sheet of the pastry. Slather it with melted butter and then lay on another sheet. Slather again. Repeat so the final pastry is 3 sheets thick.
Cover the bottom third of the pastry sheet stack with the walnuts and then roll all the pastry tightly into a cylinder. Repeat until you have used up all the pastry and nuts.
Grease a baking tin.
Cut the cylinder into lengths of 3-4cm and place each small cylinder in the baking tin, snuggling them together. Drizzle any remaining melted butter between each length and over all of it. Turn down the oven to 150 degrees and bake the baklava at the bottom of the oven for an hour. When the baklava is out of the oven, put the honey in a saucepan with a few tablespoons of water and bring to the boil.
Add the lemon juice and vanilla flavouring. Pour the syrup over the baklava. Cool and serve.

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8 Responses to The culinary anthropologist’s baklava

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  8. Maninas says:

    Sounds fantastic! I would have loved to join you and learn how to make your baklava.

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