Can a dish overcome a man so richly that he faints?

posted in: Cambridge food memories | 2

I asked myself this when eating with my family in the Tickell Arms in the mid-seventies. This was an elegantly scruffy blue painted Georgian house with ornate white windows and stone lions perched either side of the front door. This village pub and restaurant in Whittlesford just outside Cambridge was a legend for eccentricity.

The flamboyant proprietor was Kim Tickell (middle name De La Taste, although his first name was actually Joseph Hollick). He famously banned all “loony lefties, collarless shirt wearers, and women playing with candle wax ”.  Kim was acceptably non–politically correct only because it was the mid-seventies. He did not wish to conform and played classical opera, typically Wagner, at a high level. When he wanted to close, he sent in his dogs.

 Whittlesford in the 1970s

A hunt meet
Outside the Tickell Arms in the mid-1970s

Hunting with beagles at the Tickell arms with the then owner Kim De La Taste Tickell
Kim second left at a Beagle meet

Inside on the brushed pewter bar counter lay the dishes with candlelight playing on the dark red walls. The smoke-darkened ceiling had remnants of World War II names in candle soot.

The sultan faints – Imam Biyaldi

The food was quirky and very original for the time. I chose the stuffed aubergine vegetarian dish named Imam Biyaldi. The dish nestled against other brown pottery dishes of meaty lamb moussaka. A juniper infused pheasant casserole came out on good shooting days. The flavours were exotic, intriguing, and different to anything any restaurant in the area was making then.

Describing the recipe name of Imam Byaldi as “the sultan fainted” gave me an image of him slipping back onto his overstuffed cushions, replete with too much olive oil, a rarity in many dishes even post-Elizabeth David.

According to the legend,  these halved stuffed aubergines filled with roughly chopped onions, chunks of garlic and slowly cooked tomatoes could do this. The addition of raisins plump with cooking juices, pine nuts, slivers of aubergine flesh and hints of paprika, cumin and cinnamon burst through the smoky flavours from the charred skin in the version I consumed.

The memory of a dish

This dish of my memory intrigued me by not only its flavours but also how the name inspired me many years later to delve into its history. I realized how much the chef had adapted the dish from its humble origins. The dim light over the distressed dark mahogany tables made it difficult to distinguish the ingredients other than by taste, but I can remember it more than thirty years on.

Ottoman Turkish cooking purists use dried mint, oregano or chopped parsley and then just paprika and lemon or pekmez (which is reduced grape juice) as a natural sweetener to produce a soft blend of flavours. However, I preferred my memory dish and I have subsequently cooked this many times. I realized then that food could have a story, dishes are developed and available sultans seduced with deftly crafted vegetarian dishes.

One of Cams Cusines' restaurants
The Tickell Arms Whittlesford

The pub and restaurant still serve excellent food and is now owned by Camscuisine .   But they have not served Imam Byaldi since Kim died in 1990.

This dish expanded my food horizons towards the unusual and different. It meant that I took up food as a career: studying, teaching and lecturing. It sparked my desire to learn more and develop a sense of food as excitement, pleasure, history and fun.

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2 Responses

  1. Dr Sue

    Dear Eugene

    Thanks so much for your lovely reply. Yes, we love to visit The Tickell Arms and sit in one of the garden arbours by the large pond. We still miss the house dogs and the angry swans, but agree the Squire was well ahead of the times in his approach to food. Having talked to friends – I think you are right about the ceiling and that the Eagle and the Queens Head , Newton are the ones with the intriguing ceilings.

    Recent update however – having talked to the current staff and manageress at The Tickell Arms, they tell me I am right. The ceiling by the working fire in the back bar area is covered by dark rusty red panelling. However there is a trap door that allows for viewing of the original ceiling. There is indeed writing there plus a view to a mysterious upstairs internal window.

  2. Eugene

    I enjoyed the reference to Mr Tickell’s dislike of people “playing with candle wax”. Candles, ten-a-penny in restaurants nowadays, were rare in the 1960s and 1970s, and some youthful patrons were mesmerised by the novelty. I recall more than once hearing the Squire’s upbraid: “Do not play with the candles. It betrays a weakness of the mind.”

    Some may be interested to know that the elderly man in clerical hunting rig in the photograph is Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, from 1932 to 1965 the Roman Catholic chaplain at Cambridge.

    “Dark mahogany tables” evokes the main room with its proper dining-room furniture, including the large table under the window at which Mr Tickell often himself sat, back to the main fireplace, reading The Daily Telegraph through an eye-glass; though on Sunday lunchtimes that pride-of-place was usually occupied by his old aunt, Miss Couch. I am unsure about the “remnants of World War II names” on the ceiling: is this a possible confusion with the Eagle in Cambridge’s Bene’t Street?

    The food in those days was indeed good and original: pike, smoked duck, smoked fish paté before you could buy it in plastic tubs anywhere; game casseroles. The cuisine is imaginative nowadays as well, and consistently excellent. They have done a good refurbishment, the cuisine is first-rate, the locally-sourced beer is well-kept, and the friendliness and helpfulness of the staff stand comparison with any establishment in the land. I am not local, but I stay in nearby Sawston sometimes, and the pleasing stroll over the meadows by day or night to Whittlesford is well repaid by a visit to the Tickell Arms.

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