The Nodding Donkeys: Anna Iltnere Interviews Caroline Eden

Vintage postcard of the Black Sea shore in Constanta, Romania. Source:

“Greetings from Almaty!” she writes in her e-mail a few days ago. If British writer Caroline Eden is not at home in Edinburgh, she is most probably traveling the roads of Eastern Europe or Central Asia, and her explorations in different cultures have a special kind of prism – food. Caroline Eden uses local food traditions to “tell stories of cities and seas and places and people”. In our interview she compares recipes to “photographs, sketches, snapshots, etchings, vignettes”. Her book, Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes Through Darkness and Light, published last year, is a sensory exploration of the Black Sea region and its post-Soviet countries. Since publication, it has won three awards and was shortlisted for four, and was chosen for the best book of the year round-ups by The New York Times, Financial Times, BBC and The Independent. Black Sea follows the success of her debut book Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus, co-written with Eleanor Ford in 2016. I wanted to find out about her thoughts on a sense of place, cosmopolitanism and the role of food in her writing.

What is your understanding of “place”? What creates place?

When people – correspondents, journalists and travel writers in particular – speak of “a sense of place” what they tend to mean is that a destination has a clearly defined identity of its own. Something – an atmosphere, a view, a feeling – that when we arrive we say “Ah! Now, I know I am in Venice, Vietnam, Venezuela.” This feeling might be created by an architectural style, a particular light, weather or by public squares. But it is also created in conjunction with the things that we cannot see: a certain smell, background politics, linguistics and prejudices. It is also shaped by nation building, flags and border guards. It is what went before, what is happening now, and what is to come.

It is a handy term, of course, but it is essentially meaningless. Where doesn’t have a sense of place? Even the blandest generic shopping mall, an empty car park, a chain motel, a workaday supermarket (especially supermarkets!) has a sense of place. After all, it belongs to something bigger than itself and it belongs to a certain postcode. And, it contains people who carry a sense of place with them. What is more interesting is the writer’s reaction to the place. How it makes you feel when you are there. Writers who go to other places travel with a dual vision: there is the outsider eye we go in with, and then the vision that starts to shift once you get there. There is value to the outsider eye, which is why the foreign correspondent will always be of value. Locals will always have the upper-hand, in so many ways, but both views are valuable and valid. A mixture of the two is ideal.


Caroline Eden, Oil fields in Mangystau region in western Kazakhstan


What is the role of food in your writing?

Food for me is a constant companion as well as a brilliant tool. It is often the fabric of travel and the land itself: it is a country’s trade, water, economy and history. Sometimes I use the food theme lightly, sometimes heavily. For me, recipes, inspired by meals, meetings and literature, are very useful in conjuring up a moment, event or place. They are like photographs, sketches, snapshots, etchings, vignettes – they are another way of telling the story. Essentially, I use food – and recipes – to tell stories of cities and seas and places and people.


What do you think “cosmopolitan” means in the contemporary world?

The idea of cosmopolitanism has changed. It is not enough to be cosmopolitan in the bygone meaning of the word – i.e. to be well-read, well-travelled and worldly. Now, to be truly “cosmopolitan” I believe we must return to the root meaning of the word – to accept that human beings belong to a single community in the world. Borders are closing. Climate change is threatening entire countries, murdering wildlife and traditional ways of life. Walls are being built and have already been constructed, separating people. Dividing families and communities. Creating barriers to ideas. To be cosmopolitan is to constantly challenge these threats and divisions, and I believe there are many ways of doing so.


Caroline Eden, Mangystau in western Kazakhstan. Wide views of stony arid deserts, Sufi sites and hermit caves


How would you describe cosmopolitanism of the Near East and Black Sea states? How does it compare with the rest of Europe?

There are plenty of places of interest and remarkable traditions that unite the countries that share the Black Sea: Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia and Russia. And each Black Sea settlement and city, on the water, has its own different atmospheres (and its own distinct “sense of place”). But what they fundamentally share in common, first, is that they are all connected by the sea and watery borders, at least psychologically, are far less fixed than land borders – they are fluid and alive. Black Sea places have a sense of the frontier about them while physically looking out to the water and therefore over to the countries that border. The sea both divides and joins. This is also bolstered by the fact that many shared histories (Bulgarians living under Ottoman rule, Ukrainians, Georgians and Russians belonging to the former Soviet Union) and in the hosting of migrant communities from the Caucasus and the Balkans and in Turkey, for example.


Caroline Eden, Two women look out over the Caspian lowlands of Mangystau in western Kazakhstan. The landscape in this part of the country – of cavities, desert, mountain ridges, labyrinths – is painted with yellow, pink and red sediment


Your last most memorable moment while traveling?

Driving through the oil fields of western Kazakhstan at sunset. Creating the country’s wealth, the “nodding donkeys” – that dip up and down to the ground just like the camels who go strolling past them – are hypnotically calming to watch. Plus, the vast steppe, desert and plains of western Kazakhstan allow for epic sunset views broken by these weird moving manmade structures you just don’t see everywhere. There is something captivating and hypnotic about oil fields.


Anna Iltnere, based in Jūrmala, Latvia, opened a Sea Library by the Baltic Sea, focused on books about the sea. Coming from a family of artists, architects and actors, and formally a journalist covering the Baltic, Russian and Scandinavian contemporary art scenes, she now follows her passion. She can be found on as well as Twitter and Instagram.