William Dalrymple: 'I fatten up in London, then diet in India’

Date:03-07-2013 07:58:05 read:11

William Dalrymple: 'I fatten up in London, then diet in India’

Victoria Moore talks to author William Dalrymple over an oriental breakfast at Nopi, London.

William Dalrymple with Victoria Moore at Nopi
Breakfast companions: William Dalrymple with Victoria Moore at Nopi Photo: Rii Schroer

I am exasperated with William Dalrymple. He’s obligingly agreed to have breakfast at short notice but wants it to be in the brasserie chain at the end of his road. Failing that – and I don’t think eggs benedict at Côte quite cuts it for a review – perhaps I can find somewhere Middle Eastern? I find Nopi, a sleek white and delicately gold-trimmed place behind Regent Street operated by the Ottolenghi team. Dalrymple worries it’s not Middle Eastern enough – what he really loves for breakfast is good feta, tomato, cucumber, really good black olives, labneh and hot flatbread, and Nopi is modern fusion – then says if he must hike to Soho, can we send a car for him? Hike to Soho? From all-of-seven-miles-away-Chiswick? This from a man whose early reputation was forged on his account of retracing – by foot – Marco Polo’s journey from Jerusalem to Mongolia.

While waiting, I greedily order black rice, coconut milk, mango and banana (£6.50) to eat solo. The rice is warm and nutty, and there is Indonesian palm sugar syrup and extra coconut milk on the side – utter bliss. Just as I finish, William sails in – 43 minutes late – with a big smile and an infectious belly-chuckle.

“Coffee! I could murder some coffee! Very strong cappuccino please. And some orange juice. Any other kind of juice? I like the sound of the carrot, ginger and apple. Why’s it called Nopi? [The name comes from North Of Piccadilly, apparently.] It sounds Japanese.”

He is so lively and good-natured that I go from pugnacious to pussycat in less than 10 seconds. Damn him!

“I know I’m going to pour breakfast all over myself,” he says, taking a napkin and tucking it into his white shirt. “And I’ve got two lectures today. I’m a terrible dribbler. Perhaps I should wear a shell suit.”

We are both having a dish called shakshuka (£11), a hot mixture of tomatoes, spice, red peppers and poached eggs.

Shakshuka. Originally a Tunisian dish but now “hugely popular in Jerusalem and all over Israel” according to Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook. It comes in cute little copper saucepans and is topped with baby coriander leaves and labneh.

“Oooh fantastic. I love labneh,” says Dalrymple. “We make our own in India, we have goats. My wife gave me a mother and a son goat who quickly produced Oedipus, Antigone and a whole flock of incestuous goats. You first turn the milk into yoghurt then you hang the yoghurt in a cheesecloth overnight and then it’s ready and you serve it with olive oil and paprika.”

For 10 months of the year Dalrymple and his wife Olivia Fraser live at a farm on the outskirts of Delhi.

“There is a big difference between life in India and life here. We have the full Downton there. Here, you can just go down and have coffee in the morning half-naked without worrying, but the drawback is that you have to go and get your own lightbulb when one blows, and remember how to unscrew a plug.”

The London months are usually a round of lunches and book publicity. Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, a big, fat and utterly spellbinding history of Britain’s first war with Afghanistan in the early 19th century, is his latest and it’s doing spectacularly well. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is even said to have read it instead of his official briefing notes ahead of a meeting with Obama.

“I fatten up in London,” continues Dalrymple, scraping thick tomato sauce on to toasted focaccia, “then I return to India and do the Dukan for a few months aiming to look nice by January when it’s my Jaipur literary festival and I’m on show. Then it all goes to pot again.”

A dieting male traveller friend of mine says that when he travels east all the ladies admonish him for having lost weight and urge him to put it back on. Is it the same in India?

“I do have a friend who says he had far, far more sex when he was a big fattie. Maybe you become the cosy best friend that way? And then you strike…”

There’s that lovely big laugh again. It never stops. I can see how he might be good at chatting his way out of tricky situations in the course of his research. And there have been a few hairy moments, he says, whipping out his BlackBerry and showing me a picture of a car window with a bullet hole in it.

“My little show-off. Kandahar, the last time I was there. Sniper shot. And my head was right behind it. I heard a crack, turned round and saw the frosting on the inner piece of glass – luckily it was an armoured car. No, they didn’t know it was me. They just assume you’re CIA or army or up to no good.”

Dalrymple is identically fluent, good-humoured and engaging on any subject: the shakshuka is better than the one he makes from Ottolenghi’s cookbooks at home (“I lean on the Tabasco bottle.”). No one goes to Madhya Pradesh in India yet it is richly cultured: he spins a tale of a 14th-century sultan who “cleared off all the men, brought in 20,000 slave women and built pools the shape of stars, long lakes filled with lotuses. I know of no other example in history of single minded pleasure-seeking on such a scale. It makes James Bond look like a total amateur!”

And finally, when at the end of our meal I order breakfast all over again so that we can be photographed with it, he refuses to repeat the napkin-bib. I say he has to. He says no. Go on. No. “Well what are you offering if I do?” Ah, so he’s carrot, not stick. “Very much carrot.” Then he can try the black rice and coconut milk. The napkin is tucked in. The mango is pronounced very good. “Usually in England the mango is no good. But don’t say this is the Billy Bunter look. Black mark for every time you mention Billy Bunter.” Sorry.

William Dalrymple will be speaking on Afghan wars at the Telegraph Ways With Words festival (01803 867373) in Dartington on July 5 at 2pm.

'Return of a King' by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, £25) is available from Telegraph Books (0844 871 1514)

Matthew Norman returns next week

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