Under my byline

Live well, dine well

Posted in Profiles by Rrishi on 22 March 2009

Henry Ledlie, who helped make Australian universities popular among Indian students, collects recipe books and antique cooking utensils — and uses them to make the homemade treats he’s famous for

“One? Why did you get just one? Why not two?” asks my aunt, annoyed. One jar of Henry’s Juicy Gooseberries is what she means — a terrific jam concocted, bottled and labelled by Henry A S Ledlie, all in his own home. The jam is a take-home gift. “It’s dreamy,” says my mother, spoon in hand.

“I’m very proud of my this-year’s mastery of gooseberry jam,” says Ledlie. “I must have gone berserk — I made 70-80 kilos of it.” He’s also pleased with the slightly naughty name he’s given it. But the gooseberry season is brief and has only just ended, so what’s happened to all that jam? “I’m a very well-respected and loved neighbour,” Ledlie explains: he gave it all away.

“While cooking I keep tasting,” he says, “but I can’t eat a lot — I’m chronically diabetic.” Ledlie is big, bluff and carries a beard like peppery icing on the chin. He looks as well as could be. “You know something, man? This jam on hot crispy toast with a little butter: it’s absolutely S-O-T!” (SOT = Sex On Toast.)

Ledlie has had time to experiment with his gooseberry jam this year because he’s freshly retired. Until December 31 he was CEO of IDP Education India, a company co-owned by a consortium of Australian universities and Australian billionaire Kerry Packer’s son. Since 1995 IDP has marketed Australian education to Indian students and also helped them prepare to live abroad — so to IDP must go much of the credit for the recent Oz-ward rush of Indians.

Now the Ledlie family, including three fidgety Jack Russell terriers, are in the process of packing up and moving to a new apartment nearby — this one a tremendous 8,000 sq ft, which will give Ledlie ample space to showcase his collections. “I’m having a special room for my books,” he says, “and a Christian room, a Buddhist room…” The books are Ledlie’s thousands of cookbooks; he also collects old Christian art, including “ikons, crosses, Bibles, busts of Jesus, rosaries”, Buddhist sculptures and paraphernalia, antique teak furniture, and a range of old cooking tools (some of which look rather dangerous) that he actually uses.

Some of the cookbooks are still lined up in his study, along with a few food implements. That’s what we have come to see. The Christian and Buddhist art, apart from a few jaw-dropping pieces, are all either in storage or bubble-wrapped in anticipation of the move. “I’ve got another 22-odd metres of cookbooks,” Ledlie says, “which is about 18 packing cases.”

“By and large,” he says, “I prefer cookbooks that are pictorial, because you can’t describe taste. The final product should have a picture — so when you’ve done yours you know whether you’ve mucked up.” His favourite is a big slab of a book called The Good Housekeeping Step-by-Step Cookbook. It is crammed with photos of every stage of the making of every dish.

It’s odd that books with titles like 1,000 Italian Recipes should grace his shelves — because Ledlie is known for his Anglo-Indian food. “I collect recipe books as a collector of these things,” he says, unabashed, “but in my cooking I’m more into Indian stuff, preferably Anglo-Indian.” In one cupboard in the study are rows of bottles of Old Monk rum — for the Christmas cakes the Ledlies send every year to their friends. (There’s even one old bottle shaped like an old monk: you have to remove his bald head to get at the cap.)

“I cook with something called andaaz,” Ledlie says, which means that he tinkers with quantity and method even when he follows recipes. But none of these books look dog-eared or food-spattered, or show cracked spines. I ask if he’s a messy cook: “Messy? Bloody hell — me?” Ledlie exclaims, offended. “I hate it when my books are touched or mucked around with! I’m happy to share recipes, but treasures you don’t give anyone.”

That ingrained neatness means that Ledlie can’t scribble adjustments in the margins. Instead, he laboriously types them into his computer — often with playful comments and in multiple font colours. If only he would publish an Anglo-Indian recipe book! “My handicap,” he demurs, “is that I’m not a writer, I’m a visualiser.” Perhaps Ledlie at least half resembles his round and smiling mother in one more respect: so long as she lives, her own precious, handwritten book of Anglo recipes will remain her well-guarded secret.

All collectors have their quirks, and one of Ledlie’s is his habit of stamping his name in all his books, on pages 9, 29 and 54 — his birthdate. Then there’s the rampant perfectionism: “I’ll show you my 20-year-old pickle,” he says, taking down from the bookshelf a tall jar which holds a wonderfully pungent-smelling relish of big Pakistani kagzi limes — still maturing.

On the way out, while ogling beautiful, heavy decanters full of dark homemade “sherry” and wishing I could try the ivory-handled Mappin & Wells carving knives, I carelessly kick the bucket. An ice-cream bucket, that is — a small, precisely made wooden barrel with a handle and mechanism to churn the contents. On top it says “Reliance Husqvarna Sweden 2 qts”. “I actually make ice-cream in that,” says Ledlie. “In summertime I’ll call you, all right?”

(Also did a “foodie” story with Henry Ledlie a few months ago: here’s a link.)


One Response

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  1. Nick said, on 10 April 2009 at 11:53 pm

    Dear Mr Ledlie, Great to read of your interest in cookery books. I trade exclusively in that subject with over 5000 books in stock.

    Check the website where ai have some 2000 written up, but obviously more that could be of interest to you.

    Kind regards,
    Nick Zehnder
    Johannesburg, South Africa

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