Dinner with Thea Porter

1970s, Food, harpers and queen, interior design, interiors, thea porter
Thea Porter (right) and her daughter Venetia. On the richly decorated table are some of Mrs Porter’s favourite Lebanese dishes.

‘The great thing about an Arab meal is its variety’

Thea Porter, painter and dress designer, whose shop in Soho and flat off Piccadilly are ports of call for the international set, writes about cooking Arab food.

I love my kitchen – from the neatly stacked Margaux (Brane Cantenac is a current favourite) to the painted Louis XIV cherubs smiling innocently from the shiny brown wall into the mirror shelves opposite, lined with Damascus spices and French herbs. Even late at night I enjoy boiling up an anti-hangover drink, and gazing at my cookery books before carrying one up to bed to plan some future meal.

But I also get inspiration in restaurants. Sitting in the ordered splendour of the Orangerie in the Ile Saint Louis (where the waiters all look like jeunes premiers among the flowers) I think of my kitchen, and wonder how to re-create the delicious sauces without bothering the chef. How do people con recipes out of restaurant owners ? I try to guess the ingredients, and then have to keep going back to make sure the proportions are right.

At the Orangerie they have enormous baskets of crudités – like cornucopias by Tiepolo – overflowing with mush-rooms, avocados, grapelike tomatoes and black radishes to go with smoked ham, and two different sauces. One, I think, is made with thin cream cheese (Gervita from Roche, 14 Old Compton Street, W1 will do) mixed with cream or yoghourt and chives. Their vinaigrette is also excellent – the herbs are so finely chopped it breaks my heart. This type of hors d’oeuvres is my favourite start to a meal. I quite often add tarama to go with the avocado, or a mixture of cream, finely chopped shallots and artificial caviar. Smoked salmon is an alternative : it rather depends on what one can find.

I never have time to shop in London, and usually send someone out with a list. This system breaks down when smoked trout instead of fresh trout is discovered sitting in the kitchen -but it is also fun to improvise at the last moment. I always have a supply of tins from Roche to fall back on, and a packet of paper-thin Greek pastry from the Hellenic Provision Stores to make burreks . These can be layered and stuffed with practically anything, then rolled into thin cigars and baked.

The best thing about raw vegetables, apart from their crisp texture with the melting sauces, is that they are so pretty. Nothing is so exquisite as plumed sliced fennel or cauliflower. (Edna O’Brien says she finds even sliced leeks that tendril round her fingers beautiful.) I pile them into a motley collection of Japanese bowls
and plates and arrange them with bowls of flowers, although not as ambitiously as they do at Parkes, where roses nestle expensively by the melon. I think I must spend as much on flowers as on food. (If I’m cooking something really smelly, I find even lilies aren’t enough, so I light one of those Rigaud candles on the stairs.)

But if you have crudites for starters, and have to peel mushrooms and clip radishes, there is very little time left for preparing the main course. So it has to be something easy like sirloin, very rare with horseradish, served with tinned flageolets from Roche – either heated up with cream, or cooked the way Arabs cook broad beans, with fried onion and pounded coriander – delicious.

Arab food is ideal for the hard-pressed woman, torn between trying to call New York and attend to her guests, as it is always better the next day. I’m very fond of a Lebanese Lenten dish: spinach leaves stuffed and slowly cooked in oil and water. This is a delicate dish and should melt in the mouth if cooked long enough. Another Lenten dish is artichoke hearts fried in oil with onions and then simmered in water and lemon. Lebanese food has a lot in common with Provençal cooking, which means that I can start with an aioli with cod, potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and salsify, and then go on to sfeeha – a kind of Arab pizza, spread with mincemeat and pome-granate seeds, and served with thick yoghourt and a sharp lemony salad of green tomatoes and cos lettuce. As a child I used to watch black-visored Muslim women on a Friday clustered round a waterfall, greedily stripping and eating cos lettuces the way people here eat chocolates at the theatre.

The great thing about an Arab meal is that there is always a large variety of things to eat – often all plonked on the table at the same time. So you can choose a spoonful of this and a taste of that – excellent when you want to talk and drink in a leisurely way, and easier than coping with a large plateful of the one thing you perhaps can’t stomach. It certainly takes quite a lot longer to prepare ten or fifteen small dishes, but to my mind it makes for a more exciting meal.

I try not to give food that I myself adore (like brandade de morue) to guests who may not happen to enjoy that very earthy taste, unless there’s another choice. Brandade de morue is rather a soothing thing to cook with the music programme full on : you slowly heat oil in one saucepan, and milk in another, then beat minute quantities of each in turn into the desalted and poached salt cod. Some people add mashed potato for instant smoothness.

As I’m extremely greedy, I find cooking soothing and enjoyable after working and thinking all day, and I enjoy every stage – breaking eggs and beating them into a smooth hollandaise to go with a pearly bass cooked with tarragon in champagne dregs, or chopping up cuttlefish and stewing it a la libanaise in its beautiful sepia ink to make a thick, wicked-looking sauce with an intoxicating smell.

French cooking is undeniably far more subtle than anything oriental can ever be, but you do need time the same day. I find the sauce cracks when I try and heat up a poulet en demi deuil , while Circassian chicken is just as good heated up.

These are two extremes of taste, and it’s difficult to find a wine that will stand up to highly flavoured food, but that still goes well with a subtle flavour. I do my wine tasting at the Jardin des Gourmets when I eat there, and can then usually find the same wines at a cut-price wine store, Milroy’s in Greek Street.

There are so many exciting things to eat, it’s difficult to choose – though it’s easier to prepare something you like enormously than to experiment. I sometimes regret not living in France because the matieres premigres are so good there: the first white truffles to make into a salad or to roast on skewers ; fresh, white, shelled and skinned walnuts soaked in salt water ; the endless herbs that are always around and that you do not have to hunt for. Alas, the herbs in my window boxes wither and die regularly, but I shall doubtless go on re-stocking them hopefully until I wither and die too.

Photograph by Michel Molinare.

Scanned from Harpers and Queen, April 1972.