48 hours in Toronto


48 hours in Toronto. It was just too rock’n’roll to miss. I was to present a paper on the ‘Making of Nigella’ a postmodern reading of the creation of gastroporn by the goddess herself  at the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies’ academic conference at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto before flying home the very next day. Jetlag? Shmeltlag; I’d got my Melatonin tablets and was ready to face my public. Conference season is a chance to press the flesh within our communities of practice, to engage with researchers in our fields. These were my people in the world of media literacy and cultural studies and I was ready to get excited again about deconstructing the modern world.

But it was also a chance to glimpse a city that I’d never seen, to taste the culture through its fab fooderies and piece together a jigsaw even if I didn’t have time to see the big picture. With the help of my conference colleagues, twenty-something PhD students Stephanie Patrick and Averie MacDonald, I set out to find the heartbeat of the city through its food and found it in Kensington Market and in a chat over a delicious Pad Thai.  I asked them how food reflects the culture of a city and even a nation… Have a listen.

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Chapter 1. Meeting the Meat

I grew up in a little market town in Wales, notable only at that time for a irritating little ditty called “Taking a trip to Abergavenny? recorded by Shannon in the ‘50s and Marty Wilde in the ’60’s. Ok, so it was also home to The Walnut Tree, where even back in the ‘70’s you couldn’t get a table without booking six months in advance. But the idea that Abergavenny has become a foodie celebrity in its own right, with articles about it in Observer Food Monthly and famous chefs heading down there every September for the Food Festival is more of a headspin to me than that Shannon track ever was.

It’s true that Abergavenny has changed. I tried to buy a dozen eggs at the local supermarket a couple of weeks ago. Next to my lava bread tossed in oats and a couple of rashers, believe me, these eggs don’t have to be anything special, but could I buy a normal egg in an Abergavenny supermarket? The following week I discovered that the Columbian Blacktail eggs I’d settled for had won an award at The Observer Food Awards. It wouldn’t have happened in my day.

Back in the mid 70’s, my school holidays were filled with food. When my brother and I weren’t packing a picnic and setting off for a day’s strawberry picking, I would head into town with my mother with a shopping list for that day’s lunch and dinner. She would have asked us what we wanted to eat while we were still tucking into breakfast, and irritated as I was about having to mentally leave my muesli for floured plaice and roast lamb, it was the daily ritual, and a day without planning a feast would have been a very odd day indeed.

First stop was the butcher where we’d stand in a long queue eyeing up the fresh meat on offer and reading up about their award winning sausages until it was our turn. “Morning Mrs Smith?, said the butcher “I’ve got some lovely oxtail for you today.? And the two of them would flirt over a recipe for braised oxtail, and he’d give our dog a bone.

Then it was onto Vin Sullivan, the fishmonger in the high street which, so my parents kept telling me, provided Harrods Food Hall with fish from the area. We would go in to buy the plaice for lunch that day and lava bread for breakfast, but I thought it was impossibly exotic, with three sides of counters proudly displaying lobsters, crabs, cockles and mussels, and whole salmon from the River Usk jostling for space with locally caught rabbit and pheasant.

Abergavenny market on Tuesdays and Fridays was the most exciting thing to happen in the course of the week, largely because nothing else happened in Abergavenny in the 1970s, and we would buy up the vegetables for the half week there. If I was lucky, I might even manage to persuade my mother to buy me a cheesecloth shirt or garish kaftan which I’d wear proudly on the next market day.

My father would arrive home at the theme tune for Radio 4’s PM programme, often with whatever he’d managed to mow down on the way back from Brecon. Invariably it was a pheasant which had been ambling out of the Gliffaes estate across the A40, and he would take it into the shed where it would hang until ripe enough to pluck and casserole it. On a very cold December night, he might pick up a hare from Vin Sullivans on his way home, and hang it in the shed for a fortnight. A graphic kind of man, he would tell me in great detail how a hare could only be hung when the last of the flies had gone for the winter. Just one could crawl inside the anus of a hare and lay sufficient eggs to eat it from the inside out. He would eventually gut the hare, taking care not to break its rib cage and collect the blood for the gravy.

Such an earthy attitude to food fired my imagination (and made me turn vegetarian for a few barren years), but when he tells me now about the tripe he and my mother would cook, the sweet milky smell floods back into my senses, along with the leeks and peppered mash that they would serve with it “You can’t buy tripe these days,? he tells me. “Or tongue. Bloody health and safety rules. I was only thinking today that I should go up to Mr George in Talgarth – he runs the abattoir up there – and see if I can get some from him. I should take you and the kids there next time you’re down?.

The idea of my taking the girls to an abattoir is laughable. Thirty years on from those Abergavenny days, my eleven-year-old has just announced that she’s converting to vegetarianism after watching Jamie Oliver slaughtering a lamb on TV. And my eight–year-old is considering her position. Their attitude to my stories of cooking rabbit with Jamie’s mentor, Gennaro Contaldo the other day, reflected their differing stance on food; Elly blanched when I told her how we had chopped the head in two to look at the brains, cheeks and tiny tongue that Gennaro swore tasted so sweet with garlic and red wine, while LouLou took it all in silently – particularly the bit about how it’s important to keep the head on a rabbit at market to differentiate it from a cat. Skinned, they look identical.

After a few moments, she was on the phone to Grandpa to ask if he had ever eaten rabbit. It’s a regular call; she and her elder sister have always been fascinated by Grandpa’s stories of eating snails, frogs legs, brains on toast, heart and tongue jelly, and even if she knows she’s unlikely to eat it herself she knows there will be a good story in it. He didn’t disappoint, with tales of how his mother would go to Cardiff market and bring home a basket full of rabbit heads for the family which she cooked in onions and served up with mashed potatoes.

My children have, at best, a voyeur’s relationship with real food. I write about it and we cook a lot and talk about it, but we buy from supermarkets, and trips to local farms have been more for the climbing frames and tractor rides than to meet the pigs who become their packed lunch a couple of months later. I’ve become so used to doing the weekly shop silently, alone in the crowd of other foodies who have sold their soul to Sainsbury’s when the day became too crammed, that I’ve forgotten the banter that comes with popping into the local butcher or baker, and to be honest, I’m frightened of going back there.

My husband comes from a good Jewish family, but of the two types of Jew, mine’s the Ashkenazi whose ancestors thrived on dumplings. Just thinking of the Sephardic feasts that might have been laid upon my mishporcha’s tables had I chosen a swarthier Jew, makes me faint with hunger. Instead I get to eat a lot of salmon. But give Jed a market in the Mediterranean, and he becomes fluent in the global language of the shrug and the smile and loves nothing better than finding the ingredients for that night’s meal. With such promise in the man, it’s time to introduce him to Sussex.

For the sake of the children, and to see if anyone other than celebrity chefs can find the time, the confidence and the produce to make it worth their while shopping locally, I shall let go of Uncle Sainsbury’s hand. Venturing deep into the forests and farms of Sussex, to the weekend farmers markets and daily open markets, we shall transform our shopping habits, measuring air miles and car miles, time and patience.

And we’ll watch our 11 and seven year old girls mature into … what? Carnivores or vegetarians? Foodies or food haters? Will they cook more or less? Will their children shop like I did or like I do? And will our experiment be an inspiration, or confirmation of the power of the supermarket.

Tugging on the Shoots

It’s a weird old world, the media world. Everything is so rushed, everyone’s working to a deadline and the rules of common decency are crushed in the race to get that front page laid out. Phone a newsroom in a newspaper office or a radio station and you’ll generally get some junior newshound answering the phone with an urgent “News!” as if your call is jeopardising world security. In another world, that kind of tone would be met with a swift reprimand and sent to bed without supper. And what happens to that news he or she (the women are often worse) is putting to bed while you’re trying to sell your story or get an email address? It’s used to light your fire or clean up the puppy’s latest mistake.

Yet it’s time, I realise at the grand old age of 44, that makes the greatest stories. I’m updating my book on Jamie Oliver at the moment for a second edition and while once, not so long ago, the idea of my writing a blog/morning pages/having another coffee instead of stressing about meeting my deadline, would have sent me into headspin, I realise now that the less time I write and the more I let the ideas simmer, the better they are.

The book, when it came out, was sold by the publishers as “the unauthorised biography”, intimating, while not exactly promising, a tittle tattle of a tale. Most of the people I wrote it for would have dismissed it without even reading it; ‘if Jamie didn’t authorise it, we won’t read it because he’s our best cover star/he writes recipes for us/we’re his fans’. And the many who did would have been looking through for the dirt on Jools, and found a melting pot of foodie superstars telling a very different kind of story.

Two years on, I get the chance to add another couple of chapters, bringing Jamie’s role in our food revolution up to date and folding in my own messages, the authorial voice that I was too scared to raise back then. Time will make this book a better read.

But it’s not the content of the book I need to rework. Two years on, I know more of the pitfalls of publishing. I know that I have to sell this book, that if I can get sales and marketing, rights and editorial talking to each other and to me at this stage in the game, we’ve got a chance of a single message emerging from the project. And would the world end if I didn’t get it in bang on next Friday’s deadline in order to make that meeting happen?

I’m 45 on April 7th, and it’s such a relief. Time is teaching me to breathe a little more often, to slow down and consider what’s really important. I’ve learnt that there’s no point in tugging on the shoots in Spring, that once the soil is dug, the compost mixed in, the seeds sown, the only course is to water them reguarly, and to sit back and watch them grow.

Last night a guru saved my life

It’s a funny old game, being a writer. Opportunities to do the most extraordinary things are very often dangled under my nose, and I’m left wondering what to do with them. Last week I found myself in a stately home with a viscount and a roomful of sceptical hospital caterers, chewing delicately on the front end of a South Downs lamb. Monday night was spent filming a crimson sun setting over West Sussex as 60 local kids gave up their half term to gen up on their roles as elected members of the Youth Cabinet. I’m so often inspired by the commitment of others to what they believe in that I’ll travel miles just to sit in their company.

So as I sat on the train to Victoria from Brighton yesterday afternoon, musing gently – but not much – about what might happen when I met my first real life guru that evening in a posh address in Bayswater, I didn’t realise that my life was about to change.

I try, as much as a journo can in a cynical old world, to enlighten. I write about the simple things of life, food from the land, parenting, green tips, and all, I hope, in a jolly kind of style that might just inspire people to think twice about the choices they make. That both my kids are vegetarian at the moment may prove just how rubbish I am at this, but hey, they love chocolate, don’t they? (see latest entry for Eating Sussex.)

And I’ve been in the company of enlightened folk before; I’ve even written books about them – go on, try telling me that Jamie Oliver is not a blessed communicator – but last night, a tiny group of us sat in front of a man who knows nothing and everything, and I was floored. Ananadagiri, 32, spreader of something called Deeksha for the last 18 years (of which I know nothing and am not even going to Google) was telling us that all we need is love. Oneness, connection from small child to its parents, lover to lover, workers to means of production, human to universe, if experienced by a mere 70-90,000 people, he told us, could save the world.

Ok, now I know that that seems mad on a frosty February morning back in Sussex, but not because it’s wrong. Everyone wants to feel connected to each other. That primal rip from the source/mother is profoundly traumatic and most of us never recover. Fear dominates us for the rest of our lives, keeping us from ever feeling that connection again in case… in case what? In case it’s taken away again? I imagine a world in which we genuinely care for each other, where life means something, and suddenly a vaseline lens appears to have veiled my view. But it didn’t stop me feeling something quite lovely last night. Utopia? Perhaps.

Anyway, who says that energy can’t raise the vibrations of the planet, affect global warming, crime rates and interpersonal relations? It’s a story for another time, but I’ve experienced the energy of a connected mass of people (hasn’t anyone who’s been to a football match, rave or wedding?)and I’m convinced. But even though society is changing and beginning to think again about the way we live, the oil age is not yet done, and the Culture of the Self is just too entrenched right now to find itself in the presence of a Deeksha-giver.

John Peterson, one of only 200 futurists in the world, was also there last night. His job is to advise big business and governments about the various disasters whose convergence by 2030 will be apocalyptic (global warming will kill vast numbers, artificial intelligence will be way smarter than any human, and we shall be mere servants in its mission, oil will be no more, fundamentally reframing our entire existence – you know the kind of thing). But, he also works with what he calls “wild cards”, and having been Deekshad, he is a believer in the power of energy following thought.

One wild card, he says, could be the kind of spiritual uplift that Deeksha people can bestow by the placing of their hands on our heads in what looks like a blessing, but feels more like cranial osteoapthy. I’m convinced my lobes were moved. It’s a lot of people to bless, but maybe, just maybe, it could be done.

Chatting to my fellow blessed ones afterwards – people who run the media, influence government and radicalise the communication of new ideas (no, not telling..) – I felt like I was back in Essaouira circa 1990, marvelling at the lightness of my hands after a particularly strong rollup. Something happened in that blessing and I’m not sure what.

I’m up for having my consciousness played with, but I’ve always stopped short in the past of putting it into my work. In the cab back to Victoria, I asked the blissed out man from The Guardian if he would write about it. “You’re joking”, he said. “I’m not that brave”.

The question is, am I?