'Through this book I hope to share with you the journey that has brought me to this point 50 years after my birth. Many of the recipes that I cook, the ideas, the memories I have about food come from my grandmother through my mother. I am the daughter of a Jewish mother and Christian father ... migrants from Bulgaria ... and nothing gives me greater pleasure than to share my table with friends and family, because food is such an essential component of our lives.' Rilka Warbanoff
In this delightful and heartwarming book, ABC Local Radio foodie Rilka Warbanoff takes us back more than 100 years and charts the course of her family's journey from Bulgaria to contemporary Melbourne, through food. Through 180 recipes, she shares with us her happy, sad and frequently funny memories of family and food.
From watching her mother and grandmother making filo pastry from scratch, to starting school in sixties Adelaide and hiding her salami sandwiches under the front seat of the family car because they were too 'foreign' from her joyous memories of the beautiful 'name day' cakes her mother would make for her and her twin sister, to the poignant memory of her beloved husband Bill relishing his favourite duck dish in hospital days before he died, Rilka shows how we can map our lives through food and memory, but most of all, she shows us how joyful life can be, when it is celebrated through food, family and friends.
Rilka Warbanoff is known and loved by Victorians as the weekly voice of culinary culture on the high-rating Lindy Burns Drive show on ABC Radio Melbourne. Idiosyncratic, big-hearted and renowned for her authentic East European recipes, Rilka has had a varied career as an entreprenuer, business woman and style icon (winning both Business Woman of the Year and The Age Best-Dressed Woman award in the same year!) and now runs her own business in Melbourne.
Harper Collins Australia
Author: Rilka Warbanoff
Question: Can you talk about the importance of researching your family's journey from Bulgaria to contemporary Melbourne, through food?
Rilka Warbanoff: Research wasn't too hard because my mother is alive and I grew up with food and I had heard stories all of my life because my grandparents lived with us. From the point of view of research - it was there from my birth because every day I lived with my family and I watched and experienced their food in terms of what we ate and how we ate it. I would watch my grandmother make pastry with my mother on a Saturday afternoon.
What I found difficult when HarperCollins came to me and asked me to write the book was that my grandmother didn't have quantities, temperatures or cooking times. Although she would say a cup, her cup was a cup from her dinner set that is 100 years old and I had to recreate all of the recipes over and over again to get the quantities right so that the recipe worked every time. All women, in the last 100 years, whether they are in the country or suburbs make a recipe with a little bit of this and a little bit of that and they have become used to doing things and it has become instinct. When writing a cookbook you suddenly have to become very precise and that is the biggest challenge, more so than anything else.
Question: What is the story behind the creation of Rilka's Feasts?
Rilka Warbanoff: Rilka's Feasts is a memoir and cookbook of my life through the food that I grew up with that I cooked and then shared with my husband and my children and their families. My parents both came from Bulgaria to Australia and met and married in five days. My mother was 24 and had never cooked or even boiled a kettle and consequently after my father went quite hungry for three days he said to her "I'd like to eat something for dinner tonight" and went and found a Bulgarian cookbook and said "tonight, cook something from here" and that is how she began cooking. She loved to eat and therefore if you have a good audience you can cook and if you can read instructions, you can cook! That is how the food journey started for my mother but her mother was a phenomenal cook.
The whole essence of the book is about my grandparent's life, my mother and father's life and then my own through the journey of food.
My mother's parents were very unusual people; my grandmother was independent and liberal minded. My grandparents were both born pre 1900's and had dated for several years and my grandmother didn't have her first child until she was 33 and her second at 35. My grandfather kept proposing and she kept knocking him back and finally he said "if you don't marry me, I will throw myself into the Danube" so she agreed! (laughing)
My parents were big entertainers so my mother would feed loads of people on a Sunday, it would be quiet common to have 20, 30 even 40 people around. In Bulgaria you celebrate name days and there were lots of festivities around those things and they made lots of pastries. In Bulgaria if you were going to make a cake you wouldn't use self-raising flour but plain flour with yoghurt and bi-carbonate soda to fluff the cake up and make it very light.
Question: Which recipe in Rilka's Feasts holds the most memories for you?
Rilka Warbanoff: There are a couple of recipes. Banitsa is a filo pastry stuffed with cheese and that is what I remember my mother and grandmother making every single Saturday because my father would only eat my mothers, because it was the best and he said that if he went to another Bulgarian home the Banitsa was never as good as mums. My mum had the capacity to make the lightest filo, you could literally see through the filo and I remember the layers and layers of filo pastry that she would make on the dining table, every Saturday.
My grandmother was the cook at home during the week because my parents were in business. My grandmother fed us lots of ragu, stews and that type of meal; what stood out to me was that she would chop an onion in her hand, she'd take the onion and put it in her hand and cut it using a small knife - she'd dice it one way and then the other before slicing the top off and it would all fall into the pot, it was the most extraordinary thing! Everything was cooked with a little bit of water and an onion and she'd always say "you know when something is ready, because it smells good".
The thing I have taken from my grandmother's food and is most fermented in my life is the recipe for The Drunken Sponge and this was a cake my grandmother would make at dinner parties as she was a big entertainer. The sponge is made from egg and breadcrumbs and it is very light and fluffy; you let the sponge cool and then you use a litre of white wine and a kilo of white sugar with cloves and cinnamon and you make a sugar syrup and you pour the hot syrup onto the cold sponge and it literally absorbs all the liquid - it sounds like it has a lot of sugar but it doesn't taste like sugar, at all. Men love The Drunken Sponge for dessert, it is an amazing flavour and there is nothing like it! I will make the dessert if I know I am having a lot of men around for a dinner because they go quiet crazy! I do a lot of entertaining and The Drunken Sponge is the recipe that everybody wants! It doesn't take much time, it is fool proof, but has the most amazing flavour.
The other thing from my early childhood memories would be the recipe for Sweet Salami which is called that because it looks like a Salami log but is biscuits made with egg and cocoa - you don't cook the log, but keep it in the fridge or freezer and my mother used to make eight of them at a time because she used to have them for when friends would come for coffee or when we would bring friends home after school.
Salami was pretty important to us because we were the only non-Anglo-Saxons in the school we went to and consequently the biggest thing was that we would take salami sandwiches but no one else had ever seen salami sandwiches as everyone else had Fritz and Sauce or Vegemite and couldn't stand the idea of either of those! By the time we finished school everybody was eating Salami sandwiches and by the time my niece went to the school there were 60 different nationalities! At the time everyone would say salami stinks and make funny faces (as kids do) but it's those things that you really remember. Our mother was obsessed with us finishing our lunches and because we were embarrassed to eat the salami we used to hide our sandwiches under the front seat of the car. At five years old you don't know anything and when my parents found where the 'smell' was coming from (the pile of rotten sandwiches under the seat) we got into so much trouble because we didn't tell her that we were embarrassed to eat the sandwiches!
I am a twin and my sister and I were born in Adelaide and when we started school, at four, we only spoke Bulgarian as our grandmother had raised us and she didn't speak English. We went to school and we didn't know that we were the odd ones out; I didn't know that nobody else spoke Bulgarian. When I asked my mother "Why didn't you tell us we were different?" and she said "I didn't make a fuss out of it because if you thought you were different you would behaviour different!" As a child we adapted to things quickly and within a few weeks we were chatting away in English and it was okay.
My parents had supermarkets and by the time we were 9 and 10 we were going to school with a Flake bar or a Cherry Ripe bar. We ended up being the most popular kids in the class because our mother would come and pick us up from school with a loaf of white sandwich bread and a block of Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate and we'd have our entire class around the car for chocolate sandwiches.
Those are some of the childhood memories that impacted me regarding food and I have loved food ever since.
Interview by Brooke Hunter