Fabienne Viner Luzzato’s Tunisian mother Fortunée raised her children with a love of food, her food filled with herbs and spices and combining French, Arabic, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours. Five of her seven children were born in Tunisia, but by the time her youngest, Fabienne, was born, the family had moved to Paris.
“My most distinct memory growing up was waking up on a Friday morning to the smell of challah, and couscous,” says Fabienne. “Because I was the youngest we were always in the kitchen. I learnt to cook with my mother and also my sisters.”
Friday nights were a big event, with at least 15 around the dinner table. The menu included kemia — a Tunisian tapas — of ten different starters to share. They included salads, such as cucumber with lemon and oil; carrot salad with coriander; potato salad with cumin or harissa; and cooked dishes, like matboucha (cooked red pepper, tomato, garlic and onion), and roasted salted almonds.
All these dishes were eaten with exotic fried minced meat balls known as boullettes. These were minced meat with baguette, onion, harissa, dried rose, individually wrapped in thin layers of vegetables, dipped in flour, egg and then flour, before being shallow fried in garlic and onion. The kemia would be topped off with boukha, a fig-based aperitif. This would be followed by a main course of the traditional couscous and roasted chicken with turmeric and roasted potatoes.
This love of food prompted both Fabienne and sister Isabelle to go professional. But when her mother passed away, in November 2015, cooking suddenly became too painful for her. “It was difficult for me to cook as it was too raw, and everything I did reminded me of her. I was scared my sorrow could be felt in my food.”
Eventually Fabienne, who is a chef and teacher, got back into her love of cooking and to this day continues to be inspired by what her mother taught her.
“Demonstrating to others is my way of continuing the legacy. She taught us to appreciate what nature gives and what you can do with it. We love transforming ingredients into a feast.”
Judi Rose, daughter of doyenne of Jewish cookery, the late Evelyn Rose MBE, was three years-old when she started cooking with her mother. “I had a tiny step stool and my job was to add sugar gradually to her pavlova, one of her show-stoppers.”
Judi, who co-authored several cookery books with her mother, says Evelyn was a natural teacher and always sharing titbits, not just about how to follow a recipe but about understanding technique. “She always said that you have to watch some dishes being made to learn how to make them,” recalls Judi. “Like challah or kuchen dough — you have to feel it, see it and touch it.”
Evelyn, who died in 2003 aged 76, travelled widely, picking up ideas wherever she went. “She was ahead of the curve with aubergine and avocados from Israel in the 70s.” But it was her recipe for gefilte fish Provençale that became synonymous with her name, inspired by a trip to Provence. “That was a good example of how she reinvented Jewish cooking,” notes Judi. “It was Jewish but fresh, vibrant and healthier.”
Judi never ceases to be impressed by her mother’s precision, saying that she would test dishes 15 or 20 times before passing them to husband, Myer, who had a good palette. She would even fine tune already- published recipes. “I have her books with her notes in the margins. She was always trying to improve them. For example, her matzah ball recipe says ‘add 5 oz matzah meal’. Next to it, in her handwriting are the words ‘better with four’ ”.
Although always a passionate cook, Judi did not initially make it her career, starting at the BBC, but then moving to teaching cooking and food consultancy when she moved to New York in 1995. Following her mother’s death in 2003, she spent five years working on the weekly JC food column her mother had written for over half a century.
It was not just her mother’s role she inherited. In her kitchen are many of her mother’s pots, pans and utensils, and on one wall is the original 1940’s front door from the family home in Manchester. Judi brought it there in 2015, when the house was sold. “I use her old egg beater and spoons and spatulas, and I feel I am carrying the tradition forwards.”
She also carries with her the wisdom imparted to her by her mother. “It’s all about learning the foundations and then you build on top of that. I’ve taken what Mum taught me and moved off in different directions, which is what Jewish cooking is all about.”
Amanda Ruben’s cookbook Feasting (Hardie Grant) published this month, is a tribute to her late mother Tamara Ruben, a passionate foodie. Originally a medical scientist, Tamara used to throw lavish dinner parties, before embarking on a career change in her forties — when she bought her first food business, a small catering company.
“When I was growing up my mother went on to have lots of food businesses and I worked in all of them. I was always surrounded by food and worked alongside her,” says Amanda. “She was self-taught. Nothing was planned or thought out. She was very natural and impulsive.”
Like her mother, Amanda switched careers, leaving journalism when she was 34 to open a café in Melbourne.
Two and a half years ago she opened Miss Ruben, a food store/boutique catering business with a New York deli feel. Feasting is filled with recipes from her shop in Melbourne’s Ripponlea, such as their signature pastrami sandwich, cured salmon, and challah bread and butter pudding. The cookbook also includes many of the dishes made by her mother when she was growing up, albeit healthier versions.
“My mother passed away when she was only 68 and she never wrote anything down, so when she died so did her food in a sense,” says Amanda. “I found that really sad. By writing the book I could honour her memory and her passion for food while at the same time leaving a beautiful legacy for my own daughter who loves to cook.”
Many of these dishes reflect the food of Amanda’s childhood, such as the “amazing” cholent her mother was renowned for making.
Tamara may not have taught her daughter specifically how to cook, but she instilled in her a lifelong passion for easily achievable sumptuous food. “I did not learn to cook from my mum but I did learn to cook because of my mum.”