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

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.

14 thoughts on “Can a dish overcome a man so richly that he faints?”

  1. My wife and I spent many happy Sunday lunches at the Tickell Arms. The hand-written sign at the entrance, imprinted on my brain, read “no dirty, long-haired lefties” and “no T-shirts with waist-coats” amongst some other bizarre things. T would dramatically feed the fish in the pond at the back by stamping his foot to call the fish and pose with palm out-stretched to feed the doves. Perhaps our most memorable Sunday lunch was when a family of four arrived in a Rolls-Royce, all dressed head to foot in all white attire and shoes. You could see that this irked him. When they came to pay, the father asked if he could pay by cheque. “Of course my man… long as you put your address on the back”. The father duly obliged and handed him the cheque. He held it up to the light and boomed “HOUSE OF COMMONS! I asked for your address, not your bloody BOUDOIR!”

    1. What a great tale – he certainly was never one to moderate his opinions. A unique character and I hope that the Tickell will have another homage to Kim de la Taste Tickell again in the Autumn.

  2. Graeme Salaman

    Visiting the Tickell Arms in the late 60s was not simply visiting a charming elegant pub with great food – though it was certainly both those – it was entering a dream, a theatrical event, an experience. Entering that fabulous room with the smell of wonderful food – jugged hare, game dishes, huge crusty loaves, piles of cheeses – the silver bowls of punch, the booming opera – usually Wagner – with Kim Tickell wearing, like his acolyte Siegfried, silk breeches, one was not only entering a performance you were very likely going to take part in it. There were no passengers, you were involved.
    Kim Tickell was the impresario, the producer, the maestro and the main performer in the event. He produced the food, the place, the ambience, the entertainment. And he did it wonderfully with enormous skill, panache and energy. Of course sometimes he went too far and this was because what looked like a performance was actually heart-felt. It was hard to believe his front of extreme theatrical camp could be real. But I think it was.
    We were lucky to experience what he created in his wonderful memorable place which was so much more than a place; lucky to visit when the going was good.

  3. Brings back memories of visists in the mid 70’s, of good food and Kim Tickell at his best.
    Just two examples; He used to go around the car park and note the reg number of any vehicle that had parked badly, then annouce the reg over the sound system telling the owner to go out and park properly, declaring that he ‘could have parked a tank in the space taken up.’
    At one family meal, Kim came over to ask if everything was alright, and my mother said the roast pheasant was rather tough, to which he replied that ‘ your husband is a dentist ( he was a patient), so you should be able to manage that’.

  4. We used to visit regularly in the seventies (a long trip over from Hertfordshire)
    Loved the ambience of the place and hoped to witness some unfortunate being called out by the Squire…
    The smell of garlic, candles, and the sound of Wagner
    Happy memories!

    1. I visited the Tickell Arms regularly when I was an airman at RAF Duxford. It was then the Whittlesford Arms. There were no chairs only beer crates or kegs to sit on, no tables only barrels. The radio was tuned to the Third Programme (forerunner of Radio 3). Cigarettes were sold from behind the bar and the choice was Egyptian or Turkish. No food. A window was propped open with a toilet brush.
      Toilets were out the back and Customers were exorted not to pass on the woodpile

  5. My husband and I have fond memories of Mr Tickell when we were students 1969-72 – a quirky pub with a very quirky owner! Our main recollection is an occasion where a student drinker had the audacity to try and steal one of the glasses he had been drinking from. Thinking he’d arrived safe and sound, undetected, at his vehicle he discovered that Mr Tickell was right behind him, brandishing another glass, which he promptly threw at the car shouting “If you want to take my glass, here’s another one!!”
    There was (reportedly) also an incident when he again accused students of ‘behaving like pigs’ so he covered the floor with straw saying “If you behave like pigs you can live like pigs!”

    Kim Tickell, R I P

  6. We often went, as students. My favourite was the prawn curry. I can still taste it but have never been able to recreate it. Anybody have the recipe?

    On one visit he had a new antique brass thing behind the bar. I asked Tickell what it was and he told me if I could work it out I could have any drink on the house. It was, I thought, a ship’s foghorn and my reward was the finest whisky in the house which he fetched from the cellar and said his father had laid down…

    I do not remember any particular of the staff, merely that there were a number of them, all male and in tight, white, tennis shorts.

    1. I remember the Tickell Arms well too; I was a newly qualified pilot, and used to take various young ladies flying at Cambridge, and then to the Tickell Arms for (usually) an entertaining lunch.

      I remember the male staff too; highly camp, and on one occasion I recall Mr T admonishing a chap called Siegfried for spending more time admiring himself in the mirror than serving. ISTR Mt T refereed to it as a looking glass.

      I’m pleased the pub is still active, but no doubt its famed eccentricity is long gone…

  7. I have very fond memories of the Tickell Arms & Squire Tickell when I was a young undergraduate in the Mid 1970’s and would cycle there for an excellent Sunday lunch. The rough cut pate was delicious on homemade granary bread – all made by Zidfreid. I remember on one occassion a friend asked directions to the ladies on behalf of his girlfriend who was too scared to ask. The Squire boomed across the entire room “ladies, ladies, we don’t get ladies in here – women, girls and the occasional trolope – and it’s through that door in the corner there!”

  8. Gerard Molyneux

    Thanks for the lovely memory, I used to go there in the Sixties when I was working at Newmarket in the horse racing industry. Kim was a very genial host, but it would always make our visit enjoyable by betting on which of the hopeful punters when entering would be thrown out, especially if they had not be nice to poor little Siggy, aka Siegfried.

  9. 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.

  10. 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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