“Mmm, saffron coloured Irish stew?”, I thought to myself quite cynically when I first heard of this. “Iranian born Marsha Mehran looks very pretty and neat, Irish hubby sounds over enthusiastic, it smells like a marketing operation to this weary nose.” Yet, I let curiosity win over prejudice and asked for a review copy. A few days later I get this recipe-filled novel and I bury myself into it, managing to interrupt the reading only for frequent visits to my local Persian fast-food outlet – by coincidence named Café Babilonia too – for tasty intakes of dolmeh and falafels. Caffé Babilonia is the italian title of Pomegranate Soup and the name of the small restaurant around which the novel revolves.
The story is the sweet and sour tale of how three Iranian sisters arrive to a small village in the west of Ireland (think Father Ted’s Craggy Island type of thing), set up a little Middle Eastern Café and change forever the lives of the local inhabitants and their own in the process.
Each chapter, there are 12 of them plus a prologue and an epilogue, is equipped with a recipe (except the prologue), ingredients and all, and the recipes are also reported at the back of the book, with tips on how to render the dishes in case original ingredients cannot be sourced in your local store. And here’s Mrs Mehran’s first poetic licence: how plausible it is that Marjan, the older sister and self-taught chef in the Café, manages to find such a variety of spices and ingredients in 1986 Ireland? With all the British colonies influence taken into account, I doubt very much that she could find summer savoury or “good strong olive oil” or buy 5 kilos of feta in one go (even in 'cosmopolitan’ Dublin)! But hey, this is a fairy tale, and practical details should not be focussed upon!
There is no real twist in the story: everything folds out beautifully and predictably until the final happy ending. In the course of the events, set in Ballinacroagh, made-up village at the foot of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, we become acquainted with the sisters’ dark past and learn how they escaped Iran at the break of the revolution that brought to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s takeover in 1979. The girls still bear scars of those dramatic times, but show to the people of Ireland all the resilience they are made of when they successfully manage to set up the Café in barely 5 days. Shortly after they will have conquered, in relative terms, most of the village population, except of course the villain, multi-pub owner Tom McGuire, and a bunch of spiteful old gossipers.
As in other food based classics – Chocolat or Like water for chocolate spring to mind, with all due respect for Laura Esquivel, who remains to me the only masterpiece creator here – Marjan and Co. are able to influence the people of the town with their fragrant and secret ingredients, and carry out their peaceful conquest by serving the perfumed and unusual food they prepare in the Café. For anybody non-Irish who lived in the Emerald island for a while (with the exception of their British neighbours perhaps), it may seem almost impossible to think that the local hairdresser, priest, and senior mass goers abandon crisps and banana sandwiches and/or roast beef with three types of potatoes (roast, mash, and gratin, all served at once with your meat course) for aromatic pickled aubergines, fesenjoon and elephant ears fritters (mind you, fried food has always had an appeal in this part of the world, as proved by the high sales of deep-fried batter-burgers or batter-sausages on an average Friday night!). Marsha Mehran though manages where others gave up before, and in the space of a handful of days has Ballinacroagh 'poisoned’– as in 'captured’ – by the spiced recipes. But hey, this is a fairy tale, and practical details should not be focussed upon!
The characters are plentiful and each has a defined connotation: if they are gentle and well disposed, they are also cute or beautiful or at least nice looking. Little Layla for instance, not only is well built and has a pretty face, but also even sports a natural, provocative rosewater and cinnamon perfume! On the other hand, if the character is a negative one, they must be ugly, beastly looking and almost deformed. Ugliness and nastiness are punished by the events and Fate takes its revenge on each and every bully in town, in an almost Dantesque (which rhymes with grotesque) manner. But hey, this is a fairy tale, and practical details should not be focussed upon!
Two characters are (slightly) more complex than this: Bahar (the middle sister) and Mrs Delmonico, the widow who owns the premises where the Café is located. Bahar is not so pretty, and in fact she is partly responsible for the curse that haunts the sisters, even years after they left Teheran. She is nervous and off-putting for most of the novel, but eventually she’ll come to terms with her demons, to become the bearer of a ”beautiful face” on the last page of the book. Mrs Delmonico (a Neapolitan woman in her sixties, oddly named Estelle) is small, chubby, caring and light-headed, as the stereotype of the Italian widow goes, evidently. She is also blessed with a smell-less, sugary sweat production, which won her the affection of Luigi (now, that’s a proper name for an Italian emigrant!), wannabe confectioner, who married her just after the war, brought her for an unlikely, very exotic honey moon in Morocco, just before having to swap Naples to the West of Ireland for a life of pastry baking in a small minded, wind gusted rural community. If you are not already flabbergasted by this improbable couple, I will also reveal that the widow, when she is sad, cooks a comfort food which Marsha unfortunately miss-spells and would like you to believe comes from Estelle’s native Naples, while in fact is typical of the Milan region. But hey, this is a fairy tale, and practical details should not be focussed upon!
All in all, I enjoyed this curious book a lot with its beautiful metaphors between food and life, and if it is going to help integration between cultures and to show to the world that globalisation is not only exploitation and chain stores, give me saffron Irish stew any day! Pomegranate Soup is a pleasant appetiser. If you want something more substantial for your main course, Three Monkeys literary chefs can recommend The Devil’s Larder by Jim Crace.