Apart from the ridiculous amount of cookery books I have, I am a bit of a fiend for collecting recipes from friends too, usually scribbled down on some scrap of paper that they had to hand. There are box-files and folders, or very often sheets simply slotted into some well-thumbed cookbook.
There is something hugely evocative about handwritten recipes. After all, handwriting is as unique and distinctive as a person’s voice, and when the writer is no longer with us….well then those scraps of paper convey more than just lists of ingredients, cooking times and instructions. These are messages from the past, jotted down and passed on with love, not just for that particular dish, but for the experience of something well-cooked and appreciated. They are doors into the past. Very recently I was allowed a look through such a door – and a really exceptional one too.
But first let me introduce you to Alexis Penny Casdagli….
Alexis Penny is a remarkable woman. She has had years of success as an actress, playwright and artist but has spent the last decade compiling, editing and publishing through Cylix Press two diaries kept by her father, A.T Casdagli, or Cas, Lecky or Leck,as he was known to his friends and family. ‘Loyal To The Hill’ records his first year at public school in 1920. The other, ‘Prouder Than Ever’ couldn’t be darker and documents the four years he endured as a POW in Nazi Germany, following his capture in the Battle of Crete in 1941.
Cas, who always described himself as ‘a Greek from Salford’, was born in Salford, now Greater Manchester, in 1906, to a family of Greek cotton merchants. Cotton had been king in Manchester for decades. In fact, cotton had created Manchester, and made it into the shock city of the new industrial world. The Casdaglis were part of a Greek community that had been establishing itself in Manchester since the very beginning of the 19th century. Some of the first had been refugees from the Ottoman massacres in Chios, during the Greek Revolution of 1821. These Chiot merchants started by trading masticha, but it must have become evident fairly promptly that cotton was the hot product in town. Cas’ branch of the family originally came from Rhodes, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. Over the next few decades, quite a few Greek families became important in the economic fabric (no pun intended) of the city. These were famous names and big employers, like Emmanuel Casdagli & Sons and Ralli Brothers. These two families combined their fortunes in 1898 when Theodore Casdagli and Catherine Ralli married. They set up home at Kersal Hill, in Salford and had four children. Cas was the second of them.
In the Anglo-Greek community of the early 20th century, some descendants had over the years become quite anglicised. Merging into the wealthy upper classes, some families had stopped using Greek at home and some had also converted to Anglicanism – but not the Casdaglis.
Greek was spoken, Greek food was served at, Kersal Hill and in the other family homes. They remained Greek Orthodox; for instance, the 14 year-old Cas writes that the family attended church on Greek Palm Sunday and that he fasted on Orthodox Good Friday. It is interesting to note that they celebrate Christmas with the Eastern Church and the Julian calendar on 7th January, marked by Cas as ‘Greek Christmas’ in that day’s entry. In 1939, all this Greek background would become more important to Cas than he could ever have imagined – but that’s a story for another time.
It’s clear from Loyal To The Hill that, as for most Greeks everywhere, socialising was incredibly important to all these families. In the second entry in Loyal To The Hill (02/01/1920) we learn that Cas went to ‘Demi’s for tea’ and ‘Mr Yorgalidi came for supper’. Demi was his best friend, Demetrius Petrocochino and ‘Mr Yorgalidis’ was in fact Panagiotis Gargarlidis, a visiting Greek Army officer. On 4th January Cas writes ‘Woodhills here for supper’. By ‘Woodhills’ he means the family of his aunt, Henriette Scouloudi (neé Ralli). They lived at Wood Hill House, a substantial mansion in Prestwich. Two days later, on 6th January, there are so many visitors staying at Kersal Hill, Cas is ‘sleeping in the living room’.
Of course life wasn’t all play, cotton is an exacting, international business and the Casdaglis were based in Egypt too. In fact there was a great deal of travel backwards and forwards between England and Egypt. After all, in many ways, Egypt was almost a ‘home from home’ for much of the Greek diaspora at that time. For the Casdagli family, their home there was the Villa Casdagli, a grand European mansion, situated in the exclusive Garden City quarter of Cairo. It had been bought by Cas’ grandfather in the early 20h century, and it was famous for its opulence and grand parties. Cas spent several years there in the 1930’s running the family’s cotton farms, along with his cousin, Emmanuel Xenophon ‘Noli’ Casdagli.
When war broke out in 1939, Cas and Noli were in Cairo; they both joined the British army and served with HM Forces. It was in Cairo after the war that Noli married Miketta Papageorge.
Miketta (or Miquette) had been born in Alexandria, the daughter of Dimitri Papageorge, a cotton merchant who had worked for Ralli Brothers in India. When his wife, Angelina, became pregnant, she insisted that the baby, Miketta, was to be born back home, in Egypt.
Sometime in 1930, the 20 year-old Miketta Papageorge bought a blue-covered ‘cahier’ an exercise book. I say ‘bought’, but perhaps it was even one left over from her not too distant school years. On the cover, with meticulous penmanship, she wrote, ‘de cuisine’. This was her recipe book.
I imagine her life, growing up in Alexandria with walks along the Corniche, the heat coming in from the desert, tempered by the cooling breeze from the Mediterranean. Then there would be the easy socialising with other Levantine families in a multitude of languages; sometimes Greek, sometimes French or English and, obviously, with a good smattering of Egyptian.
And the food? Those recipes our young Miketta puts down with such care? They are a little window into the Levant in other times. On one single page there are three recipes, one for the Greek dessert ‘Ravani’, another for sourdough bread – both in Greek – then the other is for ‘Mousse au Chocolat’, in perfect French. Then there is a recipe too for the traditional Greek Christmas biscuits, kourabiédes, with their heavenly combination of butter, almonds and rosewater, all drenched in icing sugar.
And as an explanation to it all, on the final page there is a polyglot conversion chart. In this corner of the eastern Mediterranean it’s not enough just to adjust the weights and measures from grammes to ounces. Here the old Ottoman weights and measures are used; all Miketta’s Greek recipes use this system. Multilingual on very many levels.
The 1950s brought huge changes to Egypt, and life became difficult for these old Levantine families. In 1956 Miketta, now married to Noli, and with children of their own, moved to England. It is impossible to imagine how dull and cold it must have seemed at first. Of course, they did have the ‘Manchester’ Casdaglis, who mostly now had moved south, to help them settle in and make a new life. Through all this upheaval Miketta had her faithful ‘cahier de cuisine’ to rely on, and help recreate those important tastes of home. Sharing family meals became part of the glue for all the Casdaglis, helping to fix them solidly to their Greek roots.
Alexis Penny says:
‘Their family home near Leatherhead, was called Netherfield. It was at Netherfield that my parents and I had numerous wonderful meals – no, feasts! – cooked by Miketta with such style, no fuss, elegant, delicious and always punctual, served on a hugely long polished dining table. The special Greek foods she cooked bound us together, both as a family and as a family who had chosen to make England their home. The kourabiédes were Christmas. I always remember them served in a deep “snow” of icing sugar like special islands.’
Miketta sadly passed away in 1997, leaving the treasured ‘Cahier de Cuisine’, with its wonderful collection of recipes, to her daughter, Daphne. It is thanks to Daphne that we are allowed a tiny glimpse of life in another time. It is thanks to young Miketta and her blue cahier that we can still taste it all.
I would like to thank Daphne Casdagli for allowing me access to her mother’s ‘Cahier de Cuisine’ and some wonderful family photos – the copyright of which belongs to her. My thanks also go to Alexis Penny Casdagli for help with the history of the Casdagli family and her father’s early years – and above all her friendship.
Further reading :
- ‘Loyal To The Hill’ A.T.Casdagli – published by Cylix Press, 2021
- ‘Prouder Than Ever’ A.T.Casdagli – published by Cyclix Press, 2014