I’ve been making baklava quite a lot recently; for three Thursdays in a row in fact. Two weeks ago it featured as one of the dishes modelled by culinary anthropologist, Anna Colquhoun at the event she hosted to mark the launch of my book, Travels in Blood and Honey; becoming a beekeeper in Kosovo. You can read the recipe and our experience making it, in a previous blogpost at https://100daysofhoney.wordpress.com/2011/05/06/the-culinary-anthropologists-baklava/. That evening I made it in Anna’s beautiful airy Islington demonstration kitchen and all the ingredients were laid out for us in little glass bowls. This is dream cooking (the cooking of dreams and in dreams).
Last Thursday the process was rather less photogenic. I was making the baklava for the UK launch of my book and I was in a small London flat with no food processor or pestle and mortar to grind the walnuts (I used the end of a rolling pin in a wooden fruit bowl). There was hardly any room so the filo pastry (yes, I buy that ready-made) was laid out like the thin pages of a Bible on the draining board. It felt wrong, though I have to say the result was delicious.
Today was the Pristina launch of my book, and I wanted to make baklava again. The guests tonight were, of course, going to be my harshest critics. Baklava is big in Kosovo, and as well as being easily available in pastry shops, many people make their own. At Bajram (Eid) and New Year, baklava becomes a unit of exchange, a currency in which social capital can be counted, as women secrete little golden nuggets of the pastry into foil wrap or plastic pots or onto plates, and take it round to their neighbours.
So the people coming tonight would know what this stuff should taste like. I realised that this wasn’t a challenge I could rise to alone – or at least not if I was to make three tepsis (large round baking tins) of baklava in the time between the end of classes at the school I’ve set up for Roma children outside Pristina, and the start of the launch event.
The impossibility of the task suddenly became apparent at about 8 o’clock this morning, by which time I was in school. So I asked one of the children’s mothers, a woman we’ve got to know well over the last few months we’ve been working in the school, and who is one of the three who clean for us on a rota through the week. Hateme’s family is desperately poor (their income comes from what the father can earn from going through the bins in the city, and what Hateme and kids can gather from begging outside mosques on Fridays, plus now what we pay her for cleaning) and I offered to pay her if she’d come to help me make baklava for a few hours.
She accepted, but a few hours later she came to me and said ‘I don’t actually know how to make baklava’. It didn’t matter – I was happy to teach her – but it did lead to a strange little tableau being played out in my kitchen, where the British woman carefully explained to the Kosovar how to make a local dish. ‘It’s like you’re my mother-in-law,’ she giggled – in most families here women go to live with their husband’s family once they are married.
Hateme learns very quickly, and was soon producing excellent baklava with me. We were both pretty proud of ourselves. ‘But there’s not much point having learned this,’ she mused, ‘since I’d never be able to afford any of the ingredients’. It’s true that walnuts and honey, while not exotic, are not likely to be found in the bottom of a dustbin, and wouldn’t be your first priority if you are trying to eke out 75 euros per month social security payment between a family of seven; once when I went to visit Hateme I found her sitting with her two year old daughter who was eating sugar from the pot. This afternoon, as we took the tepsi out of the oven and poured honey and lemon syrup all over the little walnut rolls until it bubbled up with bursts of baked nut and caramel aroma, I vowed to give Hateme and her family some honey tomorrow to say thank you for helping me.