My friend Helen is generous, graceful and clear eyed. She is also well organised and gets tickets to the Almeida Theatre, even when the play stars Juliet Stevenson. This level of forward planning amazes me. Further evidence of her meticulous organisation: an email arrives saying that we will meet at a restaurant called Ottolenghi, have a main course, go to the theatre, and then return for coffee and pudding. When you live surrounded by acres of wheat, this all sounds as exotic as a trip to Polynesia.
The train to London crosses through fields in Suffolk and Essex still wearing patches of snow. Only as we pull into Liverpool Street station does winter disappear. Infused with the sense of occasion, I take a taxi to north London, staring in wonderment at the unfamiliar city streets. No one looks sad or worried or poor or lonely, despite the rivers of gloom that flood the news.
I’m early, so I walk along Upper Street, gazing in the windows of the estate agents that dominate this part of Islington. Despite their ground-floor locations, the offices look like converted lofts straight out of Sex and the City. The properties for sale are as seductive as the sellers, sunny rooms with wooden floors, kelims and bookcases, the look of prosperity tastefully disguised, although I know that the ‘kitchen by Fisher & Paykel’ and ‘iroko worktops’ cost more than a herd of cattle.
The restaurant reflects the city feeling of the priceless simplicity of its neighbours: a long white table down the centre of the room. You’d think communal dining was a country thing, grape pickers at long tables for lunch during the vendange, but now it’s a city thing, in which pressure of space and high rents moves people ever closer. Even the loos are communal two cubicles and one rectangular marble basin all very sophisticated or vieille France.
Although it’s early, the restaurant is buzzing. Everyone looks interesting. I study the clothes as carefully as the beautiful food that arrives around me. My neighbour asks me if I’ve been there before. She tells me that the restaurant was started by two young chefs, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, who met in 1999 when they were both working in Baker and Spice, a patisserie in west London. They discovered that they were both born in the same year 1968 and in the same place: Jerusalem, Sami on the Arab east side and Yotam in the Jewish west. They grew up a few miles apart in two separate worlds. A Jew and a Palestinian. Two people with a common city and uncommon talent, united by a shared love of lemon and garlic, olive oil and mint, passionfruit and pomegranates.
The play (by the way) Duet for One is thought-provoking, sad, funny, powerful. Miss Stevenson plays a glamorous and fragile once-famous violinist now confined to a wheelchair with MS, and it’s the kind of play that, ordinarily, would stay in my mind for days. But, in fact, it’s the restaurant I keep thinking about. Not just the food delicious, fresh and light with Middle Eastern flavours but the story behind it. A miracle that you despair of ever happening.
On the train back to Suffolk, I had one of those visions rooted in dreamy optimism. What if the vast amount of money that governments pour into the Middle East was spent on opening branches of Ottolenghi instead of on weapons? What if Yotam and Sami went back to their native land and set up cooking schools so that the vast armies of unemployed young men could learn the secular thrills of artichokes and olive oil? What if ancient enemies could be reminded of what they have in common?
The soundtrack is by Daniel Barenboim, who believes this troubled world can be changed through music. I would add lemon, garlic and a little chilled white wine. Meanwhile, here’s to Ottolenghi and world peace. Where there is milk and honey, there is hope.