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Gilly Smith

Cooking the Books: The Pod

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Helen Graves: Live Fire

SUMMARY KEYWORDSp

cooking, barbecue, people, food, book, stories, called, recipe, absolutely, spice, smoke, goat, eritrean, wonderful, eat, ingredients, london, psychologist, moment, injea

SPEAKERS

Gilly Smith, Helen Graves, Helen

Gilly Smith  00:00

Hello, welcome back to cooking the books with me, Gilly Smith, the podcast which digs just a little deeper into the minds behind the best of the food books through for food moments. And this week I am with early food blogger and publisher of pet magazine, Helen Graves, whose book Live Fire is so much more than barbecue.

Helen Graves  00:18

But there’s all these wonderful techniques and stuff out there that are not just fast grilling some sausages and burgers. You know, some cultures will use spices in a different way. You know, when you’re picking a Turkish Ochakbashi, you’re using the embers that are very, very low and cooking things very, very slowly. So it’s not just one way of doing it.

Gilly Smith  00:36

It’s a book about Helen’s London through some of the wonderfully diverse cultures which cook over a  open fire. I asked her how far she’d veered off the path of the typical British barbie

Helen Graves  00:46

When I was thinking about writing this book, I really wanted to steer it away from sort of beer and burgers and what I call bangers and boob aprons. So you know, sausages, and that sort of stereotype of the man sort of standing in front of the barbecue with his tongs and not letting anyone else get near it. And I thought that, you know, there are so many different cultures that cook over fire. And for many of these cultures, it is simply just called cooking really, you know, it’s not really a case of you know, we’re gonna have a barbecue. And I just think I wanted to bring in some of those different techniques, some of those different flavours and also just sort of get across to people that is not just about meat as well it’s just really important to me that there are so many different wonderful vegetables and so much wonderful seafood and also things like breads and maybe even desserts beyond you know, stuffing chocolate into a banana

Gilly Smith  01:37

you know, in on on cooking the books, you know, I’ve had Honey and Co; we’ve had all sorts of people representing the kind of the, the open fire cooking, you know, streets filled with the smell of lamb kebabs and evening skies lit by wooden coals in burning carts. You know, that is what open fire is all about. I mean, I’m just about to do Gill Meller actually his beautiful new book Outside. And it’s all about the romance of, of cooking on the beach. And and it’s very, very simple. But it comes with a lot of story. But what your book is about is it’s about the diaspora of London, it’s about British barbecues, it’s about tandoors and jerk drums, in London. And that’s what I found so fascinating about it. Why did you want to tell this story of your London,

Helen Graves  02:22

I think is because I was trying to think of a way of telling my own food story. But I didn’t want to just cherry pick from different cultures, which you know, I think the food writing community has been perhaps a little bit guilty of in the past or in some cases a lot guilty of and I just wanted to pick to give people the opportunity to tell stories in their own words in the book, which is why I’ve sort of interviewed people from that diaspora communities. And I wanted to tell people about the the influence that their cooking has had on my cooking. So we’ve got people cooking like Jamaican jerk chicken, Nigerian Suya, we’ve got Turkish Ochakbashi. My good friend Magda, who’s from Eritrea, we came up with a sort of like, London Eritrean fusion cuisine that we basically just made up ourselves. And it there are actually stories from people cooking elsewhere in the UK as well. But they are lots more from London because it’s just been part of my own personal food journey. And those people I wanted to honour the, the influence that they had on my cooking, although I do mention their people smoking fish up in the north of England. And, you know, cooking kind of herring, smoking, macros, smoking salmon, that kind of thing.

Gilly Smith  03:33

You know, the book is so full of stories and people and voice and experience that it seems a bit churlish to kind of say, so what kit do we need at this point? You know, I think maybe we’ll get to that, you know, how can we actually do this food ourselves? Because most of it is very simple. It is straightforward. It’s it’s not about posh kit. But you know, let’s start painting some pictures by going into your food moments. Your first food moment is with old James Wheltor from Cabrito who we know very well is an award winning ‘Goat’. I mean, it was all about actually saving billy goats. billy goats have always been euthanized at birth. And James was one of the principal players in in saving their lives by creating a market for goat you in your first food moment talk about how he came and barbecued goat for you.

Helen Graves  04:22

 Basically, we wanted to feature James in Pit, which is the magazine that I edit, which started out as a live fire exclusive magazine. Now it’s more of a general food magazine. We say it has roots and food and fire. But we wanted to feature James and we wanted him to cook some goats over the barbecue. And he said to us well, why don’t I come and cook a gigantic goat shawarma for 30 people? And we said, yes. Okay. That sounds like a lot of fun. So we hired this. Actually, we didn’t hire it. James had a mate who had this gigantic sort of spit. And we don’t think James put a whole goat onto it so it’s as if you imagine a horizontal shawarma. It’s been marinated overnight a kind of yoghurt and wonderful, you know, cumin, coriander, chilli, garlic, all that good stuff. And then it’s set up over coals and it’s just kind of slowly rotating for hours and hours and hours. And he was like, right, well we need some people to eat it. So we said, okay, fine, we invited all our friends. And then it’s almost as if the moment he set up this goat shawarma, it just began to snow. And it was just this incredible snowstorm in this South London garden. And to be fair, it was like February or something. So you know, we should have see that coming. And that the entire garden just turned into a complete mud bath. You know, people were sliding around falling over. But James has just stood there happily at the end of the garden just rotating this, shawarma, and either way shawarmas are cooked, they they’re not all cut, it’s not all cooked at the same time because of the thickness of the meat. So he was just kind of shaving off the cookbooks on the outside, putting them into Pitta breads with some salad and some lemon juice, and a little  Macedonian salad, and then handing it out to everyone. And you know what, we just had the best time that day, it was a complete and utter mess. And it was complete chaos. But it just it just it tells the story of barbecue really, which is that barbecue just brings that that central focal point to a gathering. And I like to say it’s almost like gloves off entertaining. You know, it’s like, you know, when there’s a barbecue, you’re always gonna have a good time. Absolutely guaranteed.

Gilly Smith  06:28

Yeah, it also makes another major point that your book does really take us through the year and it does say you can absolutely do live fire cooking in the middle.

Helen Graves  06:39

I mean, having told the goat shawarma story is perhaps not the greatest example to encourage people to start cooking outdoors. Look, I’m not saying to you, you should stand in the rain in the middle of winter with a brolly. And you know, just be miserable and cold. That’s not what I mean at all. But what I’m saying is that there are some really beautiful seasonal ingredients that really do benefit from being cooked over fire. Because when you cook over fire, it brings that extra dimension of flavour, which is char and smoke. And it’s about harnessing that. And there are some ingredients that are available. For example, in the autumn months, like there’s a recipe in the book for a, a whole pumpkin. And it’s hollowed out, and it’s stuffed with beer and cheese and it becomes a wonderful fondue. And then there’s just the greatest sort of bonfire nights centrepiece, everybody kind of digs into it, and dips their pieces of bread in. Or you could make a there’s a recipe in there for a smoked onion soup, where you could just have a mug of that around the bonfire is just the most wonderful thing ever. So sometimes it’s about just putting something in the barbecue walking away, and just closing the lid, you know, and just you’re not necessarily spending that time as you would for a summer ingredient like a kebab, you know, standing there turning it every five seconds. So the ultimate winter chapters are definitely shorter. And I have also provided instructions for cooking indoors for every pretty much every recipe because I know that it’s not everybody’s cup of tea.

Gilly Smith  08:07

Yeah, but I do love that idea of that, you know, the blackened leeks and the fat steaks in the middle of winter. And you know, a lot of people all over the world do have outdoor kitchens, don’t they? It gives a sort of a lovely romance, actually. But it does mean that you can cook in the winter, and sort of bring the outside in all year round. You know, when we go into the next food moment, you know, you’re you’re actually making jerk chicken with Bill of JB Soul Food. Now that again, isn’t something that’s limited.

Helen Graves  08:39

No, I absolutely love jerk chicken. And it’s something I became, well, I just could not stop eating when I first moved to South London and specifically when I first moved to Peckham, and I vividly remember walking down Peckham High Street and getting this waft of scented smoke from the jerk drum. And it was heavy with kind of all spice and Scotch bonnet peppers, and thyme and garlic and all these wonderful ingredients that you have in a joke marinade. And I just basically followed my nose around the corner. And that’s where I found Bill Halls whose history is in the book, who owns JB Soul Food in Peckham, and they make so much jerk chicken every week. But his wife Jennifer should say. And he’s one of the few people that I’ve found cooking jerky in London who still has just a drum, just one jerk drum, which is an old oil barrel just on stilts that’s been sort of adapted. And he had all this chicken stuffed into there’s so much smoke coming out of there. And we just became friends. And you know, I still go there a couple of times a week because it’s so close to my house. But he’s very, very protective of his recipe which is completely understandable. So that’s why his specific check recipe doesn’t feature in the book and that’s why mine isn’t there instead, I would just like to say I am in no way saying that I could cook best better Jack than a professional. But I’m just I just Just had a go. And it seems to go down well,

Gilly Smith  10:03

But you know, it’s about sitting and chatting about stories as well. And you know, he does point out that jerk is the cooked on an oil drum, which he made himself, you know, is post slavery. And I was talking to Kalpna Woolf, fairly recently about her beautiful book, ‘Eat, Share, Love’, which again, is filled with stories of the Diaspora in Britain, and you get all these amazing immigrant stories. And she was doing a jerk recipe with with somebody who told her that before slavery was over, people used to cook in a pit and you’ll know this, because they didn’t want the smoke tests, right? Because they didn’t want to be found. I mean, that’s so poignant,

Helen Graves  10:45

So poignant. I mean, as you say, chicken came from a group of people called the Maroons. They were a group of enslaved African people brought to Jamaica by the Spanish. And when the Spanish were forced out by the British, the Maroons headed to the hills, you know, they fled, obviously, they didn’t want to be found because they didn’t want to be enslaved again. And they started cooking the word boy that lived there, spicing it with a local spice barriers. But as you as you say, at first, obviously, they didn’t want to be found. So they would cook the boar underground in a pit. And then as time went by, it wasn’t such a problem. And then they began to cook it over live fire. And that’s when it became what it is today. Because, you know, jerk cooks will say to you now, jerk is about the smoke. It’s it’s such an important part of the flavour profile. And that’s why I don’t have an alternative method for cooking it indoors in the book because I really thought that would just do a disservice to the whole history of the dish really.

Gilly Smith  11:40

Moving through your London, you go into your third food moment, your friends Makda and Jack from LemLem kitchen

Helen  11:48

They used to be at Nettle Market. They’re not anymore. They  now do supper clubs and pop ups. And they obviously took a break throughout the pandemic and enforced break. But now they’re back.

Gilly Smith  12:01

They make an Eritrean London barbecue fusion, as you call it. It’s a mix of Mexican and Ethiopian and Eritrean. It’s absolutely fascinating. Tell us about them. And tell us about the food in this food moment. 

Helen Graves  12:12

I first met Makda and Jack at the store when they when they used to have it in little market. And I just walked up one day, I think I’d been out the night before and I was a little bit worse for wear. And I turned up and I it was a sort of a bar style seating. And just around the kitchen area where Makda was cooking. I remember she just she just gave me all this lovely, wonderful spice tea. And she used to because, you know, in Eritrea and Ethiopia, they have the Spiced.. it’s not really a flat, but it’s like a cross between a flat bed and a pancake called injera. And all the food is served on top of that. And Max didn’t serve that at the store because she said, Look, I can’t make this gigantic injera with a million stews on top work in a street food situation. So what she did was she made these tacos, which are just small portions of injera, in the size of a taco with beautiful spice stews and, and what they call what’s on top and all spice with Burberry, which is the sort of like a rusty red, very spicy spice mix that’s used to flavour many, many dishes. And she fed me these tacos, and then this tea and just completely revived me. And then after that, I’ve just became a bit obsessed with the food to be honest. So when when we when I was thinking about doing the book, I said, Do you want to be involved in some way? And she said, Yes, definitely. Just come round. So it ran to their house at like 9am. And the first thing she did was was thrust the shots of Iraqi which was like an ouzo style spirit into my hands. I said, Here have this. I said, okay, cool. That’s how it’s gonna be. So we did these shots. And then she got really worried that I was going to be really drunk for the whole day. So she said, Look, I’ll get you some breakfast. This is just what Makda was like, she’s the. her hospitality is  second to none. She’s sort of making some breakfast. So we had fit fit, which is what what you make with the injera that’s leftover from the night before. So it’s just cut it up into strips and fry it with whatever you’ve got, like tomatoes, a bit of onion, you know, some garlic and burberry, always burberry and have it was some yoghurt. And I think she put an egg on there as well. And it was just completely again, she just saved my life. I think this is back to skill. She can see what I need at any given moment. In terms of food, Ajay can just give it to me. Anyway, when it comes to the barbecue, she really does when it comes to the barbecue. We said like, well what should we do? Because she doesn’t really do barbecue, Because it’s not part of Eritrean culture. And that’s the point. So it’s not it’s a street food isn’t even part of Eritrean culture, either they do eat at home, but But you wanted to do something because of the extraordinary nature of the food that you’ve tasted. Exactly. And I just thought again, you know, this woman is a part of my food story. I really just want her to be involved and I just really respect her and I love her food. So let’s do something and so she said well let’s do something with them Zygni source and Zygni sauce is a sauce with a base of many many onions I mean many onions so when I got there she had this huge stock pot and she actually had it on an induction hub outside because she said Let it’s going to make my house despite completely of onions for a week. And it is very very very finely chopped onion and and what the beginning of the sauce what you do is you cook it but you don’t cook it with any fat at all. So you know normally when I would start frying an Indian that started off with some butter or some oil or something but there’s not absolutely nothing in there and the onions just swept down very very slowly for like three hours and that they go they go very very sweet and it becomes the base of the dish and then you as your bed array always and it becomes this very richly spiced sauce and there’s some butter in there lots of black cardamom, which itself has a very smoky flavours. So that’s really interesting. And then we used I what I did was I smoked some lamb shanks actually smoked them the day before and took them around with me. And then we we put them into the Signi sauce to finish cooking. So we had this wonderful sort of spice smoky sauce, and it’s very smoky lamb shanks that finished cooking very slowly. And that was one of our dishes. And then the other one we did was a was a wings and it was a is another burberry source but it’s sort of hotter, spicier and, and they actually had already adapted this the traditional recipe to make their own a was a sauce, I think they use a bit of soy sauce and just other sort of umami laden ingredients, just give it that real boost. And we toss that with some quickly grilled chicken wings. And honestly, they are so delicious, if you like really intense, spicy, umami rich foods, that is a recipe for you. 

Gilly Smith  16:50

So that’s kind of like I mean, that sounds like a long cook a long weekend Cook, it’s for people who really love to get all their ingredients together and settle in and have some friends around to eat the result of it. I mean, it would have taken half a day, wouldn’t it to prepare all that? 

Helen Graves  17:07

Yes, theseare these are recipes that are more when you’re in it for the long haul. And you really just want to you know, if you’re lucky enough to have a weekend day that’s free, which I think is like gold dust,

Gilly Smith  17:19

Which a lot of people do. I mean, a lot of people do set aside their, you know, a day, a weekend, in a month or whatever, to do something amazing. And, and this is absolutely bang on

Helen Graves  17:30

I mean, that’s my idea of having to be honest, just have a free Sunday, and just start something cooking something in the morning and then eat it about sort of two, three o’clock in the afternoon. And that is just such a relaxing way to spend some time. And if the weather is on your side, then all the better.

Gilly Smith  17:43

Absolutely. Tell me a bit about your background. Helen, then you trained as a psychologist, didn’t you? This is a you came to food writing as a sort of a second career. What was the link between the two before we go on to your fourth food moment? 

Helen Graves  17:55

Yes, I did train as a psychologist, I went to university to study psychology and I did a Masters in health psychology and then finally, a PhD in psychological medicine. And I worked in the psychology of health and illness, rheumatology, in oncology, and finally in diabetes. And I was a researcher. And as much as I did love that work, and I really did love that work. I had always been obsessed with food. And I think, I don’t know why. But I just never had the confidence to really pursue it as a career. And then what I did was I started one of the very first food blogs about must be at least 15 years ago, if not longer. And in those days, there really weren’t many food blogs at all. I mean, now there are millions, but it really was a very small community. And we all loved each other. Nobody was making any money out of it whatsoever. The idea of making money off a food blog in those days was just hilarious. And we were just, we didn’t really use social media, then this was before I was even on Twitter. So we would just comment on each other’s blogs and say, Hello, this is me leaving a link back to our own blog. And then that’s how you would find new people. Then, of course, when social media came along, it exploded. And it was much easier to find a community. Anyway, I just began to get more and more attention for the blog and picked up bits of work and then eventually made the transition. What were you writing recipes mainly, but I also did build up quite a following for just writing about packing when I moved there just just cooking with ingredients that I found there and just writing about interesting people. But yes, I’ve retired the blog actually, very, very recently, it was called Food stories, and it was just time to let it go.

Gilly Smith  19:38

When you were a psychologist, you used some work for your PhD that your fourth food moment. Shares tell us this extraordinary story of this strange coincidence

Helen Graves  19:52

It was so bizarre. It was actually one of my first ever jobs in psychology when I was what is called an assistant psychologist. which is a job that you have to have if you want to get anywhere in psychology. And I worked on what is now a very famous study called, it was about life events and depression. So that in those days, there wasn’t very much research about the link between life events and depression. So for example, now we know, if you get divorced or you move house or you know, something else happens to you, you’re quite likely to have a period of low mood afterwards. But there was no sort of formal research on this. It was a very, very long term study. So it was conducted over, you know, 1015 years. Anyway, if you work in psychology, you know, you probably know what it is. I’m not expecting in Wales to be familiar with it. Anyway, so I was I commissioned a lady called Dr. Andrea Oskis.. She’s a psychologist who’s specialist field is work on attachment. And I commissioned her to write a piece for my magazine pit. I got back in touch with her because I knew she was a Greek Cypriot heritage. And I said, Look, I know that your your auntie makeshift tire kebabs, which are the little lamb kebabs wrapped in called fat? And she said, Oh, yes, Aunty Andrea she makes she makes them, they’re fantastic. I’m about to started talking. It turned out that this this study that I worked on this famous study was the basis of her entire career. And I just, it’s the first time really, that I’ve ever had any crossover of the two worlds that I’ve worked in. So it was really strange for me, because you asked me, What’s the link between, you know, your two careers? And really, the answer is like, none, it till that moment.

Gilly Smith  21:36

But it’s not that’s not true. That’s not what I pick up from the book. I mean, I’m very, very interested in food and psychology, although I would put it down to food and identity and you know, food and food and culture is a it’s about who we are. You talk about food and attachment in your in your fourth food moment. And I think that that comes from absolutely a sense of, you know, the same thing about who we are, how we live our lives. I mean, tell us a little bit about what you get a sense of, having written the whole book, all these people you’ve written about, you told their stories, it’s all about food and attachment. 

Helen Graves  22:15

Yeah, I mean, it’s food as part of a person’s cultural identity. It’s foods, attaching oneself to a place in time, perhaps a place that you no longer live, or somebody that’s somewhere that you’re not able to go back to. And it’s about just, you know, take recreating a little part of that, wherever you are in the world now. And especially for somebody like Makda, who has not been back to Eritrea in a long time, that’s really something that isn’t very important to her in terms of her own identity. So I you know, I think that’s just a wonderful, wonderful thing. And I’m glad that barbeque can be a part of that.

Gilly Smith  22:51

Andrea says it so beautifully, actually, you know, Andrea lives in two places. And when she goes back to her homeland of Cyprus, it’s where she feels absolutely alive. She talks about the performance of the dinner, you know, the dinner in Cyprus, as opposed to the dinner here, you know, the masses of family around the table, the barbecue, the reaching out and getting the ingredients from the land. It’s all about connection, isn’t it? And you compare that I remember when I came back from a family holiday and splitsies and, you know, we’d eaten like that and witnessed everybody eating at one o’clock, two o’clock in the morning, you know, old grannies and children running around, not running around, but the little children running around the grannies, everybody eating these varthur these vast tables with masses of food and, and I just, I felt a real pain to be going home. And I remember sitting back in Brighton, watching telly, having a glass of wine at nine o’clock in the evening and thinking God this time last week, you know, I was just about to go out. And I felt a sense of real depression actually thinking, Oh, here we go. The summer’s over Winter’s coming, you know, Telly, and wine, you know, the families all gone back to their various places. That sense of connection with what food is all about, is absolutely integral to our well being, isn’t it?

Helen Graves  24:13

Absolutely. And like you were saying about the way Andrea describes it as perfect because she says, you know, nothing can recreate that, that sense of fun, just pure, sheer fun and joy that you get from having a barbecue, where, you know, people will be having a barbecue said the mood instantly changes in the kids are stuck jumping into the swimming pool. And you know, her auntie runs off to the shops. And she also said that there’s a will always a sense of spontaneity about the barbecue. You know, it’s something that you can just decide to do and spur of the moment. And then it says to everybody, it sends a message that says right now we’re going to have fun. It’s not just like now we’re going to have dinner. It’s now we’re going to have something to eat, but it’s going to be convivial. It’s going to be fun. There might be a few drinks if that’s what you’re into, you know, and it’s just about creating a certain mood. I think BBQ really has a way of doing that. It’s very, very special. Yeah. 

Gilly Smith  25:05

I think that, you know, as we look forward to a summer ahead, and I can almost smell the charcoal in the street, London has changed enormously. I wonder if the stories and the diasporas, as Britain becomes more and more multicultural, I wonder if those smells will eke out into the streets and country lanes of the rest of Britain? Can you see that? Or what does Britain smell like? In about 20 years time?

Helen Graves  25:28

I really hope so. Because, you know, it’s not a case of, I think, you know, there’s a, there’s a tendency to talk about these different cultures in in terms of discovery. And these have actually always been there, you know, these people have always been that they’ve always been cooking this way, it’s just that we’ve not been interested. So I really, really hope that these stories in the book can maybe give people a little bit of a flavour, a little bit of an idea of what else is out there to try. And for me, the more that these kinds of different kinds of barbecue and techniques spread around the country, the better. But, you know, let’s wait and see. It’s a turbulent time.

Gilly Smith  26:09

Well, it breaks down the kind of some of the issues of race, I remember interviewing a Greek chef in Melbourne, who told me that when his family came over from the homeland, to Melbourne back in the 1950s, you know, all the Greeks were called WOGs, which stood for wine, olive oil, and garlic. And he said, The racism was just absolutely endemic in the school play playground, until the Sunday lamb split roast out in the garden. And then of course, all the kids, you know, would line up, like, Bisto kids, you know, finding their way to the Greek kids’ gardens, that’s where they knew the best food was, you know, we’re bringing together kind of a cultural heritage from all over the world of live fire cooking, and it’s coming to Britain and mixing with our own own love of the Barbie. What would you want to say to where Britain is now in this kind of divided nation? are mixed emotions about people coming in and bringing their their food with them? What what do you want to achieve with this?

Helen Graves  27:09

 I suppose what I wanted to achieve is that what I wanted the message that I wanted to get across is that when I was growing up, you know, there was no exposure to any different cultures, I grew up in an extremely white village in Gloucestershire, and, you know, the only the only barbecue ever went to we it would just be the burnt sausages, and the guy in the boob apron, you know, cremated them over charcoal and, and they were probably still raw in the middle. And I think Ben Chapman, who I interviewed about Thai barbecue cookery put it really well, when he said, Look, for many cultures around the world, Barbecuing is simply called cooking. And, you know, there’s all these wonderful techniques of stuff out there that are not just fast grilling, some sausages and burgers, you know, there are all sorts of, for example, in Thai cooking this many more sort of slow grilling techniques. You know, some cultures will use spices in a different way. You know, when you’re cooking a Turkish ocakbasi by specially you’re using the embers that are very, very low and cooking things very, very slowly. So it’s not just one way of doing it. And I think, I think that’s a sort of mantra that we can all take forwards really over the next few years. It’s not just one way of being there’s not just one way of doing it. So open your mind and you might find something fun and delicious.

Gilly Smith  28:27

Thanks for listening. You can read the transcripts to the show at Gillysmith.com. Just click on podcasts. please do get in touch on social media. I’m @cookingthebookswithGillySmith on Instagram. And that’s where you can follow my adventures in cookery with Leithsonline. Check the show notes and on Instagram for full details and follow the links to get a Cooking the Books discounts on Leiths cookery courses. And I’ll see you next week.

Image by Andrew Montgomery

Gill Meller: Outside

Thu, 6/9 3:04PM • 28:18

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

cooking, book, eating, moment, fire, soup, people, embers, kes, magic, wind, woods, food, felt, literally, beach, picked, delicious, sat, talk

SPEAKERS

Gilly Smith, Gill Meller

Gilly Smith  00:00

Hello and welcome back to cooking the books with me, Gilly Smith, the podcast which takes us through four food moments from the books of our favourite A lister food writers. It’s about life, culture and politics all through the prism of food. And this week we’re celebrating the poetry and timelessness of the great outdoors.

Gill Meller  00:16

You know, this idea of stopping for a moment of slowing down, getting off the speeding train, just taking a breath. How can we do that? How can we do that? 

Gilly Smith  00:31

Outside is Gil Meller’s latest cookbook, which takes us to the elemental beauty of his home on the Jurassic Coast, just down the road from River Cottage, where he’s been a chef and tutor for years. His previous books Gather,  Time, and Root Stem Leaf Flower all captured this little slice of Heaven. But as Gill told me,  cooking outside doesn’t just have to be in the most beautiful place in the world,

Gill Meller  00:53

It’s very much about the joy of actually getting out of the four walls of your kitchen and being out under the sun, or, you know, out in the wind or somewhere where you’re immersed in, in, in the natural world

Gilly Smith  01:12

So the concentration on this one is really cooking outside. You know, you and I have done to lots of outdoor cooking, you took me down to your amazing beach, there was literally no one there. And you cooked me up a mackerel using very little. And that’s the point. And you also did that in the woods for another episode of the delicious podcast, where we foraged for mushrooms, and you just bought a frying pan out of your back pocket and whipped up some gorgeous mushrooms. I mean, it really is that easy for you, isn’t it? Is it that easy for you, it’s so hard for so many other people,

Gill Meller  01:47

I don’t know, if it’s difficult for other people, it’s just that I find it thoroughly enjoyable, you know, to get outside and cook it, I find it slightly more magical than cooking inside to be honest with you. And that’s that’s the sort of crux of the book.  Food always tastes so much better outside. And that simple mackerel dish that we ate down on the beach, you know, we could have eaten it around the kitchen table, but by the fire hearing the sea shore, you know, rolling away and the smoke or all those elements that surround what you’re actually eating what you’re what you’re actually cooking, make it stand out. And I think that’s the sort of message that I was trying to put across.

Gilly Smith  02:33

It’s It’s the magic, and it’s the poetry and the ritual of eating amongst the elements. And I you know, I was we were talking just before we started recording about how beautiful I think this book is. And I asked you if you had a novel in you. I want to talk about your writing Gill, it seems to me to get better and better. And there’s a real story in here. And you know, right in the introduction, it hits you that this is somebody who really has lived in, in your head outside for a very long time. You moved from the town to the country when you were eight years old. And you talk about finding a kestrel and it is the story of Kes. And well, let me let me just read a little bit from the introduction.  “I remember heading out of the door with my backpack stuffed with a flask of soup and some bread. It didn’t take me long to reach the steep hillside, a swathe of coarse grass, tuffets, hollows and little saplings that all faced south over a bowl of wet fields. I sat down between the grasses to shelter from the late autumn wind, pulled up my hood and watched. Although I was alone, I felt a part of my surroundings, held by them. When I got hungry, I had a cup of hot soup and tore at the bread, half hidden, I ate. And what I’d eaten, as simple as it was, became a huge part of the moment. In fact, when I look back, it’s the soup I remember first. Somehow I can taste it in my mind. And when I do, the valley opens up in front of me. I feel the cold breeze across my face, see the colour of the sky. And somewhere in the distance, a falcon soars.” It’s a moment of journeying isn’t it? Is that what you wanted to do with this? But did you want to take your reader outside with you?

Gill Meller  04:19

Yeah, I wanted to really encourage people just to just to do it, just to just to get out there take some ingredients. Whether you’re preparing a salad and eating it out in the sun, or you’re cooking over fire, I think it’s just just having that little bit of confidence and throwing caution to the wind. So some of those romantic stories that you come across in the book and that you’ve just read. I was hoping to tease people with that perhaps but I also just wanted to sort of pour out some some thoughts that I had onto the onto the page and you know, I remember that that may And it literally is like it was yesterday. And I can I am there. I was there when I was writing it, you know, and I know where that place is that bank now it was saplings, those trees are you know, this is 35 years ago. There are huge trees now. I pass it occasionally when I go and see my dad, but yeah, a lot of that stuff and a lot of the the bones of this, this book and my love of outdoor cooking and eating comes from, you know, my childhood and living in the countryside.

Gilly Smith  05:38

And it was birdwatching wasn’t it? That really kind of took you deep into the countryside. Yeah, yeah,

Gill Meller  05:44

Well, it was initially and then I became obsessed with falconry, like the little chap on in Kes. And, and then when I got my own hawk, the first it was a common buzzard that I trained. And then after that, every day, after school, I was, I was gone, I was just out in the woods in the fields with my bird for hours, literally hours, while my mates were all sort of, you know, on their bikes and playing football, I was just on my own solitary with this hawk. And it helped me tune into the natural world in a way that seasonal cooking has, in more recent years. Yeah,

Gilly Smith  06:33

yeah. No, it’s a fantastic way of just stopping, isn’t it? And you really have to, as you say, tune in to the natural world, because you’re watching your bird I mean, I’ve never done it, but I do. You’re right. I love that film. You know, I watched Kes as a child, and I was absolutely transformed by it. And what’s interesting is what you say about the soup, it’s, you know, I talked to a lot of people if you go back in time in places through their imagination, but it’s always the recipes that then ground them that that lock in that memory. And you know, when you talk about the soup, for example, it’s that that elevates that experience and makes it a visceral experience for the rest of us as well.

Gill Meller  07:11

Yeah, the experience elevates the soup, you know, that was just a very plain, simple soup that perhaps wouldn’t be exciting if you were serving it to your friends around the dinner table. But when you ate it in that situation, it was delicious and warm and comforting and everything you needed on a windy day. So that’s what yeah, that’s what I mean things just taste, they taste better, outside, with all those elements coming into play that surround what you’re eating.

Gilly Smith  07:45

Yeah, I remember talking to Carolyn Steel, about Epicurus, you know, totally, totally misquoted throughout history. He wasn’t somebody who talked about, you know, great big banquets, he talked about that moment of eating something that absolutely sated your hunger, your real hunger in that moment, or a glass of cold water on a hot day. That’s the Epicurean experience. You talk about soup again, in your first food moment. It’s the soup that you had when you went for a walk with your wife, Alice, on a cold wintry Sunday. That was the genesis of the book.

Gill Meller  08:23

So that was a memorable occasion. But it wasn’t meant to be we were just going for a walk. And I remember it because it was very wintry and cold and blustery. And we went up onto the the hill above Charmouth, which is a village just down the coast from where I live. And we sat we walked and then we sat on the bench and looked out to see and it was you know, it was sort of churning up the sea and the wind was coming off it. And we were wrapped up and coats and scarves and we had this thermos of soup. You know, it’s a little bit like my moment as a boy. And we just sat there and had this lovely cup of warm soup, but it was just the most delicious thing. And the most sort of grounding and just just saw that there’s like a big hug, you know, right then and there. And it was it was magic, you know, it’s greater than the sum of its parts to suddenly you know, something very sort of irrelevant, almost. This this sustenance, this meal became deeply soothing and you were very sort of humbled by it in a way grateful for it. In it. Yes, it meant lots of different things. Funny, isn’t it?

Gilly Smith  09:59

It is You know, you and I have talked a number of times about the link between slowing down eating from the land and saving the planet. And it feels to me that this timelessness is your, your theme, isn’t it? It’s about however busy the modern world is, there are these moments of magic that we actually do have to keep coming back to, in order to get some sense of perspective and to put down some real rules of life. I mean, I know you’ve done that with your kids, you’ve taken them out all the time, you show them the magic of the every day of the mundane.

Gill Meller  10:42

Well, I hope so. I don’t know. I hope I hope I have, what do you

Gilly Smith  10:46

You have, and you write about it.

Gill Meller  10:47

No, that’s true. That’s true.

Gilly Smith  10:49

I mean, tell us about that. That moment in the book where you, you write about taking your kids out, and just stopping and showing them the magic of the little things.

Gill Meller  10:59

While there’s when your kids are a certain age, they see things through sort of magical eyes, or tinted fairy eyes, you know, my two daughters when they were, when they were young, we used to take them into the woods, we lived near an abandoned railway track, an old railway track, and it ran through Power Stock Common, and we would venture out. And my memories of it are mostly in the autumn, because we would go out picking blackberries and crab apples and things. But they, they they were fascinated by everything that I showed them. And I tried to point out as many interesting things in the hedgerows, you know, in the trees and the fields, things in, you know, that were part of nature entwined with nature, and, you know, just sort of captured their imaginations, you know, stimulated them in a way that only, you know, only wild things can. And that I hope that you know, had an effect on them. And they, you know, they made a connection that perhaps they wouldn’t have done had I not, not pushed push that, but just I wanted them to be immersed in it.

Gilly Smith  12:23

Yeah. And I think that, you know, so many of us do that with, yeah, of course, Blackberry picking, and I think that’s what everyone is trying to do. And what I get from your book is that it feels like you’re unlocking memories a lot. There’s a lot of this visceral way that you describe things. And there’s a lot of calling back through the ancestors. Is this a sort of a magic that you spin your second food moment, for example, the steak on embers, you know, a million years ago, you say, early man didn’t use any equipment. And there’s this this story that keeps going through that, that is about how it used to be the outside is still where the magic is, you know, millions of years ago, people have just been putting their hunk of meat that they just killed into the fire. I mean, I wouldn’t have thought of putting meat directly onto the embers. Why am I thinking that way? And is it okay?

Gill Meller  13:23

It’s a very ancient way of doing things. As are a lot of these cooking techniques. Weirdly, it’s if you sort of follow trends, it’s become quite popular these days, you know, and you get these sort of chest beating fire chefs who love throwing pieces of meat into the fire. Like it’s a new thing. But obviously, it’s, you know, one of the oldest ways of cooking you know, long before there were grills before there were earthen ware crops and cooking vessels of any type, you know, early man would have been out hunting, they would have come back skin the carcass and literally hacked off pieces of meat and thrown it into the, into the fire to cook. Isn’t it strange that, you know, we’re sort of doing the same thing now, but I’m thinking we’re super cool and, you know, part of this new movement, but is it it’s a way of cooking that completely turns, you know, modern gastronomy on its head, in that you are taking it right back to the beginnings the you know, the very beginnings and it’s, it’s being talked about people are sort of loving it.

Gilly Smith  14:44

Yeah, absolutely. And you know, the other thing is how much time it takes and you know, the way that you talk about just chucking some potatoes in a in some foil and put it putting them back into the embers and just leaving them you know, for some time. I mean, tell us about that one.

Gill Meller  15:00

 It’s an ancient way of cooking, but actually, when you think about it is quite relevant in some ways to how we do things today, I mean, it’s not unusual to wrap potatoes up and pop them in the embers of a fire and let them bake away. While you know, you’re, you’re getting on with something else that that, that we do. And it’s fantastic. And it’s wonderful. And, you know, there’s, there’s a point in the book where I mentioned that very thing. And it’s a lovely story, this, this lady told me where she would go out for, for walks with her entire family, you know, they they wrap up, warm and head off, but before they left, they get a fire going, and they wrap their potatoes up and pop them in, in the embers. And by the time they got back, the potatoes would be cooked and they unwrapped them. And they put lots of butter and cheese on them. And it was just this very beautiful little story about how cooking can make something, you know, so fantastic. So that, you know, that walk became a sort of journey of excitement, because they were going to come back to this delicious reward. You know, it just goes to show that that that form of simple cooking outside in a fire perhaps can be you know, super, super stimulating and interesting and, and engaging. You know,

Gilly Smith  16:38

Again, this this is a theme of slowing down and we were talking just before we started recording about my road trip across France and Spain and I know that you’ve done that too. And your third food moment is the camper van stew. When you and Alice were first married and you you just wanted to travel and eat along the way and that’s the outside cooking as well tell us about that experience of just eating on the side of the road. Cooking where you want.

Gill Meller  17:05

Oh yeah, well, that was a that was a really great trip. But I was young I was like 21 or something like that. And we bought this old camper van and Renault Traffic it was from this old boy in Swanage. I remember very clearly and we headed off we’d saved up a bit of money because I’d been cooking in kitchens and saved up a bit of money. And off we went it was I think it was three months, we went down through France and Spain and ran to Italy. But we didn’t have a big budget. So cooking was something we we thought about, you know, it was considered we didn’t have loads of cash to splash on expensive ingredients. And we certainly didn’t go out to eat that regularly. So it was all about finding good, fresh, locally grown seasonal ingredients and cooking them in a fairly simple way. And that campervan stew that I mentioned in the in the book and give a recipe for a recipe of sorts I must I must add because it varied every time was it sort of encapsulated the whole trip in that it was a way of cooking quite often outside over a little campfire or inside on the little burner in the in the galley in the in the van. It was a way of cooking that just sort of relied on, you know, some sort of fresh courgettes and peppers and beans that we picked up and maybe some tins of tomatoes that we had knocking about fresh pasture and olives and things, things that were relatively easy to get ahold of cheap and seasonal. And the reason I put it in there is because it it switched on a light in my head about what simple good cooking can be and doing that outside in all these different locations along the way. Made it that more special. So yeah, it was it was good. I was glad I wedged that recipe in there.

Gilly Smith  19:20

Absolutely. And the other one that you wedged in there is our mushrooms that you foraged in that wonderful wood next to your house. And what I was so touched that it was such a lovely moment because you say that after you know we did that recording for delicious podcast, the woods have now been what returned to.. what’s happened to them?

Gill Meller  19:41

That particular woodland is managed by the Forestry Commission and they you know, just time had come that they were felling a lot of that that those trees for timber. So where we were walking and in areas that surround that it’s been Yeah, it’s been literally levelled. and which was very, actually traumatic when I, when we’ve next went up there and you know, it was all all change. But those conditions that the mushrooms that we picked the hedgehog mushrooms growing had changed beyond recognition. So they won’t grow in same way. So it was quite quite a moment in that sense. So it went in the book for that reason, but not but not wholly, it went in because it that moment that we spent together and cooked in a very stripped back way, little fire pan, some fresh ingredients that we happen to pick, you know, those collectively made up a very sort of special moment for me and a memorable one this funny how food can, you know, they just carve these memories into your mind, you know, a good cookbook, I think needs that it needs genuine experiences and moments and the things that you’ve eaten that really, you know, knock you back and just blow your mind. If you can get them into the book, if you can convey how special it was, then I think that comes through to the reader, maybe it comes through to the, you know, the food that they make.

Gilly Smith  21:33

It absolutely does. It’s all about… A good cookbook, I think, is when you take your reader by the hand and you take them into your world. And you do that really beautifully. Your final food moment is about the soggy sausage Saturday. Now this is a piece of writing. Honestly, Gill, if you don’t get loads of awards next year, just simply for this piece. So so this is you on your fantastic Jurassic beach with kids and dogs and families and friends and you know, everything that everybody wants out of their Saturday.

Gill Meller  22:10

Well, I don’t want I don’t want people to think like that. But I believe I mean, we’re very lucky that we’ve got this beach and

Gilly Smith  22:16

it is pretty idyllic. And then what happens? So can you just read us a little bit of this?

Gill Meller  22:23

Yeah. So this is the introduction to the feasting chapter. And we did have this feast down on on the beach a few years ago. And as you say, there was lots of kids and it was set to be a fantastic lunch. But it all sort of changed. This is a little section from from that intro.  “I can’t remember whether it was September or October, but I’ll never forget looking out across the water while we ate and seeing the clouds on the skyline. They seem to pull together into a wall of black matter that began to barrel its way south across the surface of the ocean. The squall sucked the light out of the sky and absorbed sound from the air. As we all turned to stare, it felt like time had come to an end. The silence lasted for a couple of seconds, then imploded like a fading star. And then it just exploded dramatically into a fierce seething maelstrom. The sea was drawn up under the darkness and raged like wraiths on black horses. The land bowed under the weight of the clouds. Then it began to rain. It came in hard like stair rods before the wind. As if the torrents themselves were fleeing the fury of the screaming gale.

Gilly Smith  23:48

Beautiful. I mean I that I don’t care about being absolutely soaked to the skin in this. It is exactly what outside it’s all about. It is elemental. And you know the beginning of that section you talk about lost kings and tribesmen and people of the tundra.  To go back in a circular way to where we started, it is about conjuring up your ancestors. There’s this sense of timelessness and this wonderful slowing down and really appreciating loving the outside. Yeah, elements of it all, but it’s about the celebration of the elements. You know, I was thinking about how we or how I tend to be around a fire we tend to be quiet around a fire and that felt very noisy and outsidey and the you know, elemental. I wonder if if now you know when you light a fire or a fire pit or whatever it is people sit around it and they become contemplative, meditative, as if we’ve lost something. There’s a yearning that fire invokes in people and I wonder if it’s something to do with all that magic that that’s gone out of our lives.

Gill Meller  25:00

We have sort of lost lost that connection, I think the you know, there’s something very primal and special about sitting around a fire, whether you’re cooking or not, you know draws us in it’s it’s a, it’s a, it’s a way of coming together in a very much like we would around a table, you know, our early ancestors would come together around around a fire. And that is magic. And, you know, this idea of stopping for a moment of slowing down of getting off the speeding train, and just taking a breath. How do we do that? How can we do that? In the book, I try and suggest that getting outside, getting a fire going cooking, something simple to eat over? It is is one way of doing it. You know, it’s it’s a way of switching off from our mad modern day lifestyles. Getting away from the laptops and the phones and just engaging in something completely primal and you know, very real. And I think we all need that you know, more and more as the world spin seems to spin faster and faster. Just to get off at that, that junction for a moment. Just step off this speeding train, slow down, get outside, whether it’s a picnic on the beach, or just a summery lunch in the garden. It’s so important to stop, breathe.

Gilly Smith  26:40

Thanks for listening. You can read the transcripts to the show at Gillysmith.com Just click on podcasts. Please do get in touch on social media. I’m @cookingthebookswithgillysmith on Instagram, where you can follow my adventures in cookery with Leiths online. You can check the show notes and on Instagram for full details of how to get those Cooking the Books discounts on Leiths cookery courses. And I’ll see you next week when we’re cooking outside again, this time in London, as Helen Graves introduces us to some of her neighbours cooking over Wild Fire.

@selfmadeandseen

Dominique Woolf

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

book, cook, dishes, food, absolutely, literally, recipes, bit, omelette, pears, louise, soy sauce, talk, started, grandmother, sugar, busy, kitchen, moment, love

SPEAKERS

Dominique Woolf, Gilly Smith

Gilly Smith  00:00

Hello, welcome back to Cooking the Books with me, Gilly Smith, the podcast which digs a little deeper into the minds behind best of the food books through four food moments. And this week, I’m with the winner of Channel 4’s Great Cookbook Challenge with Jamie Oliver, Dominique Woolf. She’s a publisher’s dream, a busy mum juggling three young kids in the kitchen, and cross platform ideas sizzling away on every burner, a Thai mum and Auntie whizzing up sources that really do transform every dish. And a new book was super easy pan Asian cook hacks,

Dominique Woolf  00:31

We’ve often been talking about my USP in my food business. So I was able to put that thinking hat on. And I remember some conversations I’ve had with friends who said, Oh, we love Asian food. We love Thai food, but we really don’t know where to start. So I started sort of working out how I could frame that in a way. It was obvious. You know, this is a solution for people who love Asian inspired food, but they don’t have the time or they don’t know where to start.

Gilly Smith  00:52

This is a woman to watch you watch, she’ll have her own TV show before you can even say Saturday Kitchen. I asked her how it felt to win a book deal with Jamie Oliver’s publisher.

Dominique Woolf  01:02

I thought about writing a book for years and years. And just to sort of, I guess, have so much enthusiasm about my concept was was amazing. And it’s a really proud moment. And actually, you know, it’s a tangible thing, isn’t it having a cookbook out on the shelves? And literally, I think I’m gonna have it in my hand in about two or three weeks. So very, very excited about that. It is

Gilly Smith  01:23

It’s absolutely about validation, though. I mean, I do talk to a lot of content creators and cooks and chefs and writers across the board. And it’s a very solitary job is. I mean, yeah, you know, I mean, everybody’s been watching you on the Jamie Oliver show, of course, the Great Cookbook Challenge. But actually, that’s not the reality of it at all. Take us through a typical day of somebody like you creating recipes. 

Dominique Woolf  01:47

Oh, goodness, it’s really, it’s, it can be quite intense. And I think for me the process of writing this book was, yeah, it was it was quite crazy, because we had a very tough deadline. So I would literally set myself an agenda, this is what I need to do, I need to test five or six recipes a day. So I gave myself quite a hard target. I worked this sounds bizarre. But I even for this book, I worked from a spreadsheet. I normally don’t like spreadsheets in the slightest. But I thought How on earth am I going to put my ideas down so I can understand this. So I created a Google Sheet spreadsheet that I could then access on my phone. And that was a brilliant for me a brilliant way of working and I put them by columns, I colour coded them. And I create you know, we literally would work on creating recipes that I had ideas for I researched a lot. And then I would serve allocate time, right? I’m going to be in the kitchen now. And I’ve got three young kids. So I sort of had to do it when they were at school. So I have this window of opportunity, and literally just had to be super organised and have this agenda basically otherwise, it would be so easy for it to drift. So in a way I am the sort of person who actually likes targets and deadlines. Because I think an idea can just sit there for ages if you don’t have it. Oh, one day, I’ll clean out the shed, you know, for example, and that’s five years later still have it it really is like yeah, it literally is.

Gilly Smith  03:06

 When my kids were young, the mothers and I at the school gate, and it was always the mothers, we would talk about the amazing projects we’re about to do in that window. Right? 9.15 Yeah, go go. Go go. 

Dominique Woolf  03:22

Exactly. 

Gilly Smith  03:23

Really quite extraordinary. I mean, you do come over in the show as incredibly driven, organised and motivated. You know, I watched episode seven the final Yeah. With lovely in the Skint Roofer and lovely Rex, the Filipino. Yeah, I mean, either of them could have have won that prize. I mean, both of them were excellent concepts, weren’t they?

Dominique Woolf  03:46

Yeah, absolutely. And they were, you know, it was it could have been anyone and they are, they’re amazing. I’m in contact with them. And yeah, I mean, they I actually thought, wow, they’ve both got brilliant concepts, you know, 

Gilly Smith  03:58

Will they get to market? I presume a publisher will pick them up,

Dominique Woolf  04:02

Quite potentially, I think, you know, I’m actually quite new to this in a way although I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. So I’m still learning and understanding what it is that makes a successful book or a concept that people are interested in. Part of it is the I suppose it’s that accessibility, isn’t it? And I think with this show, in particular, it you know, Louise was looking for a commercial book, ultimately, that’s what they want. They want a book that’s going to sell. And I think it’s just about the concept how, what is the concept going to be that that the most people are going to want to pick up and by ultimately, they all they could, everyone could, you know, I think everyone in that final six could sell a book without a doubt.

Gilly Smith  04:42

Yeah. And it was really fascinating actually watching that dinner with Alan Jenkins from Observer Food Monthly and somebody from Tik Tok and somebody from Tescos. You know, they were joining Georgie and Jim and Louise, the judges, in really kind of imagining what this book, the winning book would look like out in the world. And Rex’s idea was, you know, Curiously Filipino, as he wanted to call it was much more of a sort of a backstory about an unknown cuisine, which Alan Jenkins would always love. Yeah, everybody the Guardian or the Observer always lking for the next big thing in cuisine. But Ian’s, the Skint Roofer was an absolute supermarket sell.  Yours one possibly because it had a mix of both. It has story. It has identity. It has backstory. That’s what everyone wants to be able to write about mean, people like me when I’m doing a story on a show. I want to know more about the story behind it. Well, I’m not going to sit around talk about soy sauce noodles. Although we are going to talk a little bit about noodles, but only in context of your your Thai Auntie Dang. That’s what interests me. But you were really drilling down to your USP for you? What was that about?

Dominique Woolf  05:58

Well, you know, when I started, I guess on the first episode, or the first challenge, I knew it was simple, you know, easy, delicious, Asian inspired food, and there was always going to be the same food. But as the show went on, I started and Louise had question, what’s your USP? What’s your USP? And I then sort of, I’ve got a food business. And actually, I’ve often been talking about my USP and my food business. So I was able to put that thinking hat on. And I remember some conversations I’ve had with friends who said, Oh, we love Asian food, we love Thai food, but we really don’t know where to start. And I thought, gosh, you know, every day, I’m making myself a really quick noodle dish or a quick curry. And it’s not complicated. It doesn’t have to be hard. So I started sort of working out how I could sort of frame that in a way. And actually, it was obvious, you know, this is a solution for people who love Asian inspired food, but they don’t have the time or they don’t know where to start. And it was just about literally putting it in that context, that made all the difference, I think, because it is there’s nothing, you know, when my friends tell me that they are in a food rut and they cook for dishes on rotation, or they order loads of those food box meals, I think, Wow, you don’t have to do that. There’s so much you can do with your store cupboard ingredients. So I think that’s what it was just being able to articulate that as a solution. And as a sort of, here’s the here are the people that I’m that would be interested in it. And here’s the solution. Yeah,

Gilly Smith  07:17

Absolutely. And that came over really, really clearly. The other thing that came over really clearly was when you said ‘it’s me on a plate’. Yeah. Yeah. And I know that, you know, publishers want to get a snapshot of Britain now, don’t they? And you are perfect. You’re mixed race. You know, half Thai half. Well, you’ve got all sorts of parentage? Haven’t you’ve got a Dutch grandmother coming into one of your food moments. But you know, you represent what Britain is all about you and you’re bringing your culinary heritage. Yeah. Which is a mix. Yeah. And your interest. So and you’re a mum, you’re a busy mum. So the combination of all that is you on a plate, which will speak to a lot of young mums who want really interesting food for their kids really quickly.

Dominique Woolf  08:00

Yes, exactly. And you know what I, I just because I’m busy, and I’m tired, I still want really tasty food. And that’s what it boils down to. It’s something I’m really, really passionate about. You know, that’s for me having I’ve got to have had a difficult bedtime with the kids. But I come down and I’ve got some, you know, an excitement to look forward to. We, we have family meals at the weekend. But you know, and I think maybe when you’ve got younger kids, you perhaps feed them separately, and you have your dinner afterwards. A lot of people do may do that. And then it’s just about, okay, I’ve only got 20 minutes, but I want something really tasty. And I’m also passionate about cooking from scratch. And when I say that, I don’t mean, you know, I mean, you can use a green curry paste. Absolutely. You can use your sweet chilli sauce, oyster sauce, but it’s about cooking it, you know, I never get a takeaway very, very rarely, because I know that I can cook something even tastier in half the time that’s healthier. And once you know have some of those, you know, a few tools and a few of these ingredients. Anyone can do it.

Gilly Smith  08:56

 And I wonder if that’s why the title changed from Simply was it Simply Dominique?

Dominique Woolf  09:01

There was a working title of Simply Dominique actually, there was a I think that was the sort of one for quite a while when we were in there when we were shooting the photos for the for the cookbook, and it changed at the last minute and actually I’m really really happy with that because I think it really you know, it really fits well.

Gilly Smith  09:17

 It’s much more about who you are. And that picture of your busy life. Yeah, um, you know, Dominic’s kitchen is about three kids running Dominique in the middle of it cooking up something gorgeous very quickly, you know, probably with a whole load of mates hanging around. He’s gonna come and join you for a glass of wine at the end of the day. Yeah, let’s get on with the play date. It is that it? Is that what it looks like?

Dominique Woolf  09:38

Oh God when the kids are here. I mean, I can’t emphasise enough how noisy My house is. They are particular screamers my kids so yeah, it’s a very busy kitchen.

Gilly Smith  09:48

How was Jamie? He I mean, I’ve met him a few times. And he genuinely is actually he’s much more than the real deal isn’t here. He’s much more than that. When it comes over on television tell us the scenes behind And the making of the programme where he was particularly helpful.

Dominique Woolf  10:02

I mean, we shot it here at his HQ. And I have to say, this is a wonderful place, you know, I live really close, which is, which is brilliant, it really, I live in the next postcode basically. So, I mean the commute to work when I was doing the show, well, when I was doing the shooting for the equipment was amazing. So he’s got this wonderful HQ and he is just got the most charisma, you know, I’ve seen in someone, he just walks into a room and you know, he’s there, he is full of energy, enthusiasm, he’s so passionate. And from an entrepreneur’s perspective, he’s, you know, the ultimate entrepreneur, and something that I absolutely aspire to, you know, if I could have a fraction of his career, it would be incredible. And he was there, he was so sort of willing to share advice, you know, you know, we didn’t get hours and hours with him, but when we were sort of, in the middle of shooting scenes, he would come over to each of us and, and talk to us and find out how we were doing and we’d ask him questions, you know, I’d sort of try and ask what I could in that moment, because, you know, you’ve only got a few moments to, to, to speak to him. And, you know, he was really great. And he’s been so supportive over this whole process. He came in a couple of times when I was, you know, shooting the cookbook, and, and was just yeah, really lovely. And just very genuine. Yeah,

Gilly Smith  11:18

He really is that man, you know, talking about marketing and USP, you know, those are very sort of industry words, aren’t they? They’re designed to sell. Yeah, I know that you’ve listened to the Fortnum and Mason’s shortlist, especially on Cooking the Books. Did you hear something else? When you were listening to your peers now? Mark Diacono, Tara Wigley, and Georgie Hayden, who was one of the judges, of course, on the Cookbook Challenge. Did they say something different? 

Dominique Woolf  11:47

Oh, it  was really interesting, because the array of books they were judging, they weren’t just pure recipe books, per se. There were books that had that were much more sort of entrenched in story and people and places. And I think that was something that really appealed to mark, there were so many different factors. So some books were about that simplicity and accessibility. But actually, it appeared that some of the books that they loved were because they were really unusual concept just done really, really well, something they’d never come across. Or I mean, they were talking about the med book, for example. It’s familiar, but done really, really well. So I don’t think there’s just one type of USP it really depends on you, you know, it’s about the right thing at the right time, in a way, and whether it’s simplicity, whether it’s demystifying cuisines, like sampleshere, which is a beautiful book, you know, I’ve seen it and that’s on my birthday list. And it’s about the voice. I think that was something actually that really struck me about the voice of a writer. And I think that’s probably something that regardless of what category is seeing would be very important for for the Fortnum and Mason awards particularly.

Gilly Smith  12:51

Yeah, and that’s what Alan Jenkins picked up on yours. He said, I get your voice. Yeah. And I have to say that’s the first thing that I picked up when I when I read it. It has a confidence about it a fun and a kind of a zingyness about it,. You can tell that you’re talking to us. And let’s start to go through some of your food moments. Yes, we are going to talk about soy sauce. But it’s your Auntie, your Thai Auntie Dang. And this is where a lot of your ideas come from. Obviously, your mum on the show was a great inspiration to you. But tell us about Auntie Dang.

Dominique Woolf  13:21

Oh, she’s a very vibrant character. She was the you know, kind of the cook in the family in the sense that she ran a pop up in a pub. Pop up Thai restaurant and actually, I’ve never had soy sauce noodles, pad see ew, until my eldest son was a baby. So he but seven No, nearly eight years ago, my auntie would come over I was so lucky. I can’t believe this. sleep deprived new parents and she would come over and make us food. I mean, God how lucky was that? I mean really, it was just incredible. And he’s you know, like restaurant quality obviously. And one of the favourite dishes was these soy sauce noodles is pad see ew and she used to make this. She used to call it magic sauce. I’m going to make magic sauce. And she’d whip up like a huge saucepan, a vat of literally I think it was soy sauce, oyster sauce and sugar and boil it down to listen to a syrup. And she’d keep it in a large Kilner jar on the side of our kitchen and then often would use it for stir fries but in particular this pad to you this soy sauce noodles, and it’s flat rice noodles stir fried with sort of often beef or chicken and some veg. And I’ve never had it before but bizarrely enough, I’d always had Pad Thai and these were great you know and once you know how to make it they are really simple and that’s a great you know, it’s a dish I sort of often go to when I don’t know what else to make. I always have a stash of rice noodles, you know but I buy them in bulk. So you know, you can I kind of mix it up you don’t have to do it to the exam protein or meat or whatever she used and I use whatever veg I have, but the essence is still the same. So I have her to thank for for that simple recipe.

Gilly Smith  14:55

Yeah, it fits very nicely into the time poor narrative of which I am not a fan. I think that it’s a it’s a narrative that’s designed to make us buy things and to make us feel shortchanged all the time. But actually what it does deliver a cook hacks and this is one of Yes, I did your soy, sesame oil, chilli flakes, sugar and rice vinegar dressing for my kale was that absolutely amazing you know, and I’ll keep that in the fridge and I’ll probably you know check it on some charge at lunchtime as well. And it will be absolutely delicious. It’ll completely, you know, change the whole spirit of my grown Sussex chard but that that kind of cook hack, how much pressure did you have to from Louise, for example, because you know, Michael Joseph publishes Jamie Oliver. And he’s all about five ingredients. 15 Minute Meals, you know, it’s all about cupcakes and it’s about time the time poor narrative. Did Louise talk to you about creating something for busy moms? You know that that thing?

Dominique Woolf  15:59

 It’s funny because actually, Jamie, when I was thinking of before I knew he was going to present the show, I was thinking that he’s probably my biggest influence because of the simplicity of his recipe. So actually, that was quite funny that, you know, he ended up being the present if you like, but there was never pressure as such, I think it’s because these are the recipes I do. I literally don’t have time for complicated food. You know, even at the weekend, the idea of actually making my own pastry even would be like, this is a big deal. I’m making pastry. That’s not what I cook when I’m entertaining. I always go for simple. So these are just naturally the kinds of foods I cook and, and obviously, you know, being a busy mom, it’s not just about and I think I said this, it’s not just about being a busy mom, it’s a busy person. And I think a lot of us are busy people so I think you know hopefully my dishes speak to everyone who is busy not just the parents among us. But um, yeah, these are just this is just how I cook because I’m not I won’t say lazy because I’m not lazy but uh, you know, I get tired at the end of the day, and I don’t have the time or energy but I really want to eat something nice. So yeah,

Gilly Smith  17:00

yeah, I’m it’s interesting, because I’m doing a Leiths Online. 

Dominique Woolf  17:04

Oh, amazing. 

Gilly Smith  17:05

Literally just started and we are literally learning how to cook eggs. I mean, it’s that basic.

Dominique Woolf  17:10

Yeah. Oh, yes. I remember. 

Gilly Smith  17:11

You did Leith’s?

Dominique Woolf  17:12

 I did. I did it in person part time course of the Essentials certificate.  And I actually did. I didn’t do so well in that one because I put too much salt in it. And they marked me down and I thought to myself, oh my goodness, I thought I could cook and now I’ve got a three out of five on my own.

Gilly Smith  17:16

 which is the one that I’m doing. So yeah, remember the omelette? For example, the cigar shaped omelette?  Well, I you know, I put too much butter. I thought oh, I know what 10 grammes of butter is, you know? No, no, I didn’t you know, I had to do it twice. And it’s interesting, isn’t it? So, you know, your mum’s Thai stuffed omelette is your second moment. But actually, I wonder if you would use your Leith’s omelette.

Dominique Woolf  17:56

Absolutely not No, too buttery, and rich. And it’s quite a different beast, actually. And actually, as a cook, I don’t use as much oil at all. I’m not big into oil, but you have to use a certain amount so it doesn’t stick. So I’ve had to sort of compromise on what I’d normally use, but definitely not as not as rich. This is a really interesting dish. It’s something my mum used to make when I was a kid. And actually, I found a journal of mine. I think I started over 20 years ago, probably 23 years ago to put recipes in it. And this was the first recipe I put in it. This Thai stuffed omelette it’s an omelette with minced pork inside, it’s got sort of tomatoes, it’s actually really, really simple. It’s tomatoes, vinegar and sugar into onions and garlic. And it makes slightly sweet sour pork mint, and it goes really well with an omelette. And it’s not very British in the slightest. I think people would probably think, oh, that sounds a bit strange. But when you taste it, it really, really works. And I always wanted to include this in a book and funny. I was speaking to my brother the other day and he said, Oh, you put the omelette in the book. And I said, Well, it’s a bit late the book is going to print but yes, I have put it in

Gilly Smith  19:02

It’s part of Thai cooking, isn’t it? I mean, I’ve had plenty of  omelettes in Thailand.

Dominique Woolf  19:07

 Yeah, they love omelettes, absolutely love eggs. But having it with this pork mince is, you know, it’s quite unusual. And it’s not the sort of dish you would see in a restaurant. And part of my idea I had sort of, I guess my concept was, it’s not just about simple. It’s also about dishes from around sort of parts of Asia that you won’t see here. So I’m putting my spin on those dishes. It’s not necessarily this actually is more true to the to the original recipe. And although in my journal, I didn’t of course it didn’t put any quantities. I just put onions, garlic, tomato, you know. So I over the years I’ve had to sort of work out what on earth I meant and when my mum is here I get to taste it and other is this right? Oh no, a bit more sugar. Oh, no, a bit more sour. She’s definitely taught me the importance of tasting as you go. And you know how with Thai cuisine, it’s got to be a bit salty, a bit sweet, a bit sour, a bit spicy depending on the dish. 

Gilly Smith  19:58

So how lovely to have your mum on hand to do all that with you. You do already doing that with your kids.

Dominique Woolf  20:04

Oh, yes. You know what I’m, I’m really lucky because they love their food and they are. They are pretty adventurous. And probably when I say lucky, it’s probably because I’ve forced it down. You know, they’ve not had much choice in the matter. But they I mean, the other day, I made some snacks, cucumbers and just a really chilli oil and some rice vinegar, just a simple version of it. And my daughter six year old said, ‘Mummy, can I try that?’ And I said, ‘Oh no, no, you won’t like it’s too spicy.’ And mainly because I wanted to eat it. And she said ‘I want it’ and she basically took it and devoured it. I had to replenish I gave her about half a cucumbers worth and it was so spicy. She was saying Mommy This is far too spicy, but I can’t help it. I can’t stop myself. It’s so good. And that is you know, they love they love weird and wonderful things like prawns and mussels and they’ll suck the heads out of seafood and also Yeah, they they love it which is actually becomes a bit of a you know, you think that this is a grown this is my grown up Street and they’ve come in and nicked your food. So

Gilly Smith  21:03

that’s good genes you see, leading nicely on to your third food moment. Your paternal Dutch grandmother, Granny Woolf. She grew up in Indonesia. And one of the things that, you know, we really must mention about the book is that it is pan Asian. Yes. It’s not just Thai at all. Was the pan asianness of the book inspired by your own heritage?

Dominique Woolf  21:23

It’s absolutely I mean, obviously, starting off with with Thai food was what I grew up with. But I was born in the Middle East. So I’m not saying there’s middle eastern food in it. But I was just used to experiencing different foods from different cultures when I was young, like one of the first restaurants I went to would have been an Indian restaurant because there was a big Indian community and Qatar where I lived. But Asian. My mom doesn’t just love Thai food, she loves Japanese food, Korean, all sorts and Malaysian food, of course, and she would have eaten a lot of that as when she grew up in Bangkok. And and of course, then I would have experienced that as a child as well. And they are there are similarities in ingredients and in types of dishes. So I’m just naturally drawn to all of those types of foods. And my grandmother, she was brought up in Indonesia, until the war broke out. And you know, it was she was unfortunately put into a camp, as were her whole family. So she hadn’t been back since she was young, but still still love the food. And about 10 years ago, I went with my brother and my dad and my grandmother for her last trip to Holland. So she was a native Dutcher from the Netherlands anyway. And she, we went to visit one of her old friends who she grew up with in Indonesia, but they hadn’t seen each other for 30 years. So, you know, I think by this point, my grandmother was in her late 80s. Sadly, she had dementia. So she, you know, I shared a room with her she was sort of okay, but didn’t really know what was what and her friend was so delighted to see her it was really beautiful to see them reunited. A bit sad as well, because my grandmother didn’t know what was going on. But she still loved the food. So we took, we all went up for a celebratory Indonesian meal in a local restaurant. And there’s there are lots of Indonesian restaurants in Holland. And we had this feast to restore full and rijstafel is basically lots of small dishes. And because there were so many of us, we had about 30 on the table, can you believe it? And the one thing that I’ve always remembered from that feast was this surrending out of all the dishes and I remember my brother I you know it was in this little wooden bowl, this kind of a toasted coconut, very aromatic with spices and garlic. And we literally fought for the last bit and we didn’t know what to do with it. We just sprinkled it on our rice and our curries and we ate it. And after trying that, I thought well, I have to recreate this. And it’s so delicious. And you can make it without the chilli flakes or the children love it. And it just works. It’s just a little garnish that makes all the difference. And it doesn’t take long to cook as well. So yeah,

Gilly Smith  24:01

another one of those little cook hacks. You know, you you make it up in advance in your Kilner jar. You just sprinkle it on things and it transforms a dish. Definitely brilliant. You You’ve chosen for your fourth and final food moment: caramelised bananas. Yeah, I’m surprised. We will talk about those. But I’m surprised about those because I would have thought you do the Miso Pears because they did render the judges and the industry experts speechless.

Dominique Woolf  24:26

Yes, that’s true. I mean, I’ll quickly talk about the Miso Pears. I came up with this recipe a few years ago or a version of it. And you know, they absolutely delicious. The judges love them. But the reason I chose the bananas is because I first discovered them in Bangkok. A few years ago, I think I was on my babymoon. I must have been that was the last time I went there about seven or eight years ago and I love street food. It’s something that really excites me and having kids now I don’t get to travel as much as I well. I don’t get to travel to places like that at the moment. and hopefully that will change. But I’ve just remember sort of seeing the street foods stores and and I spotted them from a distance and it was, Wow, what’s that I was so excited to see these huge there were sort of two skewers, and they had sort of lots of bananas on each sort of double skewer, and they were being barbecued. And then they were being dipped in this vat of caramel. And wow, for me as a foodie, I just, it was so exciting to see this. I made a beeline, I had to go and try them. And they sort of, they divvy them up, they take sort of a few of few off at the time, they put it in a plastic bag, and they cover it with more sores. And these bananas were starchy, very unusual, not like the ones we have here. Starchy. So they hold their shape so they can skew with them. And it was it was fantastic. So it was a great experience and, you know, lived up to the kind of I want to try street food and have an experience. So it was it was a moment for me.

Gilly Smith  25:55

And I can smell those. I absolutely smell them right now as you’re talking about the minister in the streets and the steam coming up all the festivals, and

Dominique Woolf  26:03

absolutely so good, very sticky, very sweet. And, and this version, again, it’s a little hack, actually, it’s it’s literally boiling down coconut milk and sugar, and it creates a syrup. So easy and surprising, because, again, it’s not that common here, I don’t think and yeah, it makes a very simple dessert, but really delicious.

Gilly Smith  26:23

And then you’ve got to finish off by telling us about the Miso Pears.

Dominique Woolf  26:26

So again, this, I don’t make things like caramel. Actually, what you might do in your Leith’s course is a caramel, so I have made caramel. But for me they are a bit faffy.  I can’t be bothered to wait till sugar turns a different colour or whatever. So this is a cheap version. And it’s so easy. It’s literally mixing some milk with honey and the miso. So you mix that up and you put it into the pan with a bit of butter. And it sort of reduces down into this miso, caramel or cheat miso caramel, I will say and you’ve cooked the pears off before and you can cut them into quarters to do them quickly. In the book. I’ve done them hard because they were prettier, but you can do either. And that is a really tasty combination. And then I sort of elevated it by doing a crumble with it. Again. I love texture, textures. Great. And I do love a crumble topping so and with any leftover topping you can use as a granola for other sort of things. So for me, that’s a great dessert. And I’ve got it I do have a terrible sweet tooth. But I don’t like I’m not a pastry chef. I don’t want to spend hours cooking a dessert? Absolutely not. So all my desserts are really quick, just because that’s the sort of thing I would naturally cook at home. And yeah, these go down great. And if you’re feeling like you need a treat at the weekend and make a lovely breakfast as well.

Gilly Smith  27:40

It’s a wonderful time for you. It’s great to be talking to you before the book comes out, you know, post the series and pre the book. I mean, what are you most excited about at this stage?

Dominique Woolf  27:53

Oh, there is so much to look forward to. I feel for me, this is different, excuse the pun, a different chapter. You know, I’ve been in a way I’ve been working towards this for a long time. This has kind of been my my goal if you like, and I’m really looking forward to everything that’s going to come with it. It’s, you know, the book is the start. As far as I’m concerned. I’ve got a number of food exhibitions lined up, which I’m really excited about as a consumer, I’ve always loved going to those things. So I’m going to be doing things like that. But there’s a lot more to come. Which, you know, I’ve just signed with an agency, a talent agency. So that’s really exciting. So I’m looking to see how my Yeah, it’s a new phase of my career, basically, more telly. I’d love to do more TV. So yes, I’ve started putting the feelers out for that in just giving me a taste, you know for what it could be. So yeah, there’s a lot more, I’ve already started thinking about but number two. Now, when I’m making food, I’m trying to sort of cook slightly different different combinations. So I’m starting to sort of develop that and starting to research as well. So I love the creation for me. I just love being in the kitchen and creating something different. And that’s something that which is why I love writing recipes, so something I’m continuing to do.

Gilly Smith  29:10

Thanks for listening. You can read the transcripts to the show at Gillysmith.com. Just click on podcasts. To get in touch on social media. I’m @cookingthebookswithgillysmith on Instagram, where you can follow my adventures in cookery with Leiths online. Check the show notes and on Instagram for full details and follow the links to get Cooking the Books discounts on Leiths cookery courses. I’ll see you next week.

Joe Woodhouse

Transcript

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

cooking, food, vegetarian, eat, cookery, people, dishes, bit, meat, ukrainian, book, learning, moment, good, recipes, broad beans, cook, meals, chatting, ukraine

SPEAKERS

Gilly Smith, Joe Woodhouse

Gilly Smith  00:00

Hello and welcome back to Cooking the Books with me Gilly Smith, the podcast which digs a little deeper into the minds behind the best of the food books through four food moments. This week I’m with Joe Woodhouse to talk about cookery courses, food photography and launching your very first book in the middle of a war when your wife is Ukrainian food writer, Olia Hercules.

Joe Woodhouse  00:19

I posted a few recipes and I got quite a few messages from people saying you know what I’ve been completely consumed by this. I just cooked this recipe and It distracted me for half an hour or whatever. And it was really great because it took my mind off and I was like, okay, that’s the  at least something positive

Gilly Smith  00:37

His book Your Daily Veg has been lauded by Nigella, Anna Jones and Cooking the Books favourite, Rachel Roddy and is packed with vegetarian recipes inspired by his career to date styling and photographing food from all over the world. But also, by a lifetime of being a vegetarian. I began by asking him to take us back to that moment when, age 10, He told his family of farmers that he was giving up meat,

Joe Woodhouse  01:01

We were just watching a TV programme in the evening and someone was, you know, taking the mick out of his wife turning vegetarian. And it just set some cogs kind of going in my brain. And I sort of thought, well, I want to kind of step back, have a think about this and then re approach you know, meat and fish. And I kind of never found my way back. I kind of the more I kind of read or didn’t kind of eat meat and was cooking other things I kind of went further down the rabbit hole of not needing to and kind of being excited by you know, other other ingredients. I mean, there’s still massive things I haven’t eaten or tried.

Gilly Smith  01:35

But when you’re 10, that challenge is given to your, your mother, maybe your father, but in my case, when my kids went vegetarian at age six, it was me who suddenly had to come up with all the ideas and cook loads of different meals in one sitting. So what was the reality of that? What did your mum or your dad who was cooking most in your family? Or  maybe you did at age 10?

Joe Woodhouse  01:56

Well, it was given to my mother for a little bit, but then one of the couple of nights in, she’d made this big effort making this black eyed bean pie, black eyed beans being one of her favourite things and she kind of made this mega pie for about I mean, it must have had about 20 people. We sat down to dinner and we kind of cut into it and something was a bit wrong. It looked a bit grey and she’d forgotten to soak the beans before cooking. So I think technically poisonous, but and I sort of at that point I was a bit like a sort of a bit bad, and my dad kind of soldiered on eating it. I  was kind of like well, we don’t fancy it but I sort of said then I kind of said about trying to do simple things myself you know tell you a bit more you can kind of do some eggs or you can kind of chop some things to make a salad. And I mean we used to watch a lot of cookery shows back then and my parents were really into food you know their holidays or whenever they’d if they’d go away for the night they just come into London to a restaurant to go eat. And we you know my granddad look after us or something on the rare occasion they would go off, but the and it’s kind of fascinating that that’s what they’d sort of spend their free time doing is going to someone’s restaurant that’s what they’re kind of excited about. And they’d go off and go do this and as a young child you kind of you know sort of interesting the so in excited and kind of wanting to go in and talking about it afterwards and you know just kind of going off to eat someone’s food is kind of such a wild. Yeah, I used to have full cooked breakfast every morning with three different kinds of meat and everything you know, we’ve kind of proper farmers kind of set up for the day. And you know, it just be kind of all really good quality all kinds of local and just it just naturally was that way because that’s just you know, in the countryside, and that’s how we were but

Gilly Smith  03:38

You know, my kids were just a little bit more demanding that their activism aged six was much more important than my ability to make something out of a mushroom again. What what kind of farm was it that you grew up?

Joe Woodhouse  03:51

Predominantly arable but with farms, you kind of inherit certain bits so there’s a few cattle and in a lot of Turkeys chickens, geese that we used to do for Christmas. So that used to be a Christmas job of plucking .. Actually I used to do the geeese.

Gilly Smith  04:08

Was that post vegetarian or pre vegetarian?

Joe Woodhouse  04:11

Pre vegetarian. I did a little bit then after, you know, just kind of, because it’s all part of the food system. But it wasn’t there’s no kind of squeamishness because that was just what you do. You know, from a young age, we were always, you know, that’s the reality of the food system.

Gilly Smith  04:26

Yeah, that is what I find so interesting. A lot of people turned vegetarian, you know, my eldest daughter turned vegetarian at six because I was taking her around an amazing pig farm where these pigs were able to just root around and have fresh apples that are just falling freshly off the trees and I was saying how brilliant this was. She thought it was absolutely unacceptable that they should end up in sausages. But you know, that’s because she didn’t grow up in a farm. She didn’t grow up around farm animals. You did and presumably, you know, your family kept them pretty well. So was there a compassion with the farm animals around you that turns you vegetarian? Or was it just that your body did better with vegetables?

Joe Woodhouse  05:07

I don’t know, I kind of we ate some meat before I was 10 I kind of had enough to do me for a while. But I do feel lighter and brighter. And it is one of the things that you kind of have lots of energy. And, you know, kind of just talking to someone recently about it. And they sort of just do good quality meat one meal a week now, and they’re sort of saying how good they feel. I mean, each person has their own, but just find good stuff, you know, cooking kind of simply and don’t do too much.

Gilly Smith  05:36

Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting, isn’t it, that in British food culture, we can just replace whole ways of eating fairly easily. And it tends to be some kind of activism or compassion or active choice to change our eating habits. But you know, you are married to the Ukrainian food writer Olia Hercules. And meat is very definitely within that Ukrainian culture. You know, how easy was it to be vegetarian in a family like that?

Joe Woodhouse  06:09

I think her mum really loved  the challenge, not even so much a challenge. It’s just a kind of easy segue. I mean, everyone has an allotment, and there’s loads of produce kind of, you know, especially when you go into summertime, it’s just like burst, you just go off and go pick kind of what you’re going to have for that meal. And most things kind of, I mean, Olia always maintains that, oh, there’s mainly vegetarian anyway, which I don’t think is necessarily, you know, there’s a lot of bone broths or things, it’s kind of, to a meat eater, maybe it feels quite veggie, or like, there’s a lot of vegetables included, it’s a very good balance, I think, is maybe more great, but I Yeah, but it lends itself to them being I mean, there’s a big passion for mushrooms, and everyone kind of just gets so hot in the summer that they just slice and leave them out, and they dry outside and the sun. But so there’s masses of mushrooms that can kind of make up mushroom broth and things as a good substitute. You know, I don’t know not necessary substitute just a different option. I think that’s something that it shouldn’t be that you’re you’re lacking is not you’re kind of just doing something different, I think is maybe more of a mindset that people Yeah, is an interesting thing to get into. Because it’s not like you’re missing out on something. It’s just this the meat should be a treat, I guess it’s kind of a thing. And I think that there is that the Ukrainian side. You have big family meals on the weekends, and they will come over and do kind of, you know, the kill ducks and things are kind of killed a couple of ducks, roast them, you know, and kind of have that and it’s a big celebration. And then you kind of make other things from the carcass and things afterwards, as you do and I think that’s, I think there’s a more, there’s still a more traditional way of eating like that, rather than this kind of meat all the time every day, you know, every meal kind of convenience side of things.

Gilly Smith  07:57

Yeah, I mean, meat has a cultural place rather than off, you know, going down the Tescos and picking up a shrink wrapped bit of white stuff that nobody even associates with an animal, let alone how it lived, and what it’s supposed to taste like. I’m very interested, Joe, because I have just started a Leiths online cookery course last week, and I want to talk to you about how cookery courses can change your path. I have no idea which path I’m going to go on when I finished this course in six months time. But you did a cookery course in your 20s Didn’t you which one and and what did it do for you. 

Joe Woodhouse  08:34

I wanted to change my path from the university course I was doing that was not a bit disillusioned with and so I wanted to go to catering college both thought that I’d probably be better off at the Vegetarian Society doing a course there than going to traditional catering College in Scarborough being a vegetarian, which I think was the correct thing to do and get a basis and I did a diploma there over a series of months. probably yes  about nine months. And then and then just started working and sort of got into kitchens and just kind of learning on the job as well and reading a lot and I mean back then when you have a TV show it has so many cookery shows were kind of blowing up so it was just trying to get as much knowledge and cram as much in as possible you did courses in but then it was a lot of emphasis on doing at home so every day I do two new techniques or to dishes say that I hadn’t made before. So I kind of really enjoyed kind of that sort of being empowered where you’re kind of you go off teach yourself come back shows what you’ve learned kind of thing.

Gilly Smith  09:43

Was that way you started taking photographs. Did you have to take photographs of your food and show them to people because this is pre Instagram wasn’t it?

Joe Woodhouse  09:49

Yeah, funnily enough I’ve still got them somewhere where I’ve up ended a some cannelloni with some asparagus and an onion butter sauce I need to say I found them so earlier found them as I was like, What’s this? Early examples of my food photography? I mean, it’s extremely dated. But the Yeah, we I think it was part of the presentation and things and talk about what you’ve done because they were training you to go into restaurants. So you are supposed to be looking at presentation and, you know, and how to kind of best show off things as well,

Gilly Smith  10:20

That I find fascinating, you know, when you’re presenting your food as something that, you know, would look great on Instagram had it existed at the time, you’re thinking very differently. And that did, presumably lead you to a very successful career as a food photographer, which is how you got to produce your first book. What was the relationship then between learning to cook and producing something that is popping off the page and selling other people’s books at first? I mean, you did all Olia’s photography, or most of her books?

Joe Woodhouse  10:54

The latest ones. Yeah. I mean, for me, and when I was in the restaurant and things, it was a large part of the what I was doing was helping design the dishes, and the presentations are really kind of enjoyed that side of it. I mean, a lot of the time, I’ll start at the beginning, kind of think of what the end plating is like. So you kind of when you’re chopping your ingredients, you kind of already kind of have a mind to it. When I left the kitchen to go do photography, it was more to get wider exposure to food and learn about more cuisines and dishes. And so I started doing styling as well as photography assisting. And which practically meant I had more work. So I had a livable income and then stylings amazing cuz you just get to you get put on a job. And it’s like, Okay, we’re gonna do food to Spain. So then you just gonna crash course and Spanish cooking, and you kind of have to do all these things. And it’s such a good way to kind of learn and you’ve also got to then think about, as you say, how that’s going to show on camera. I mean, we always I trained to Jason Lowe, who’s always like, you want to eat the food afterwards? Because what this is such a waste of ways. And also that’s kind of part of it. Because everyone’s so into, into the food you want to try. It seems kind of what the flavours are on things. And so we kind of the only thing we kind of do is slightly hold back kind of overcooking, you know, certain things. So the colours are still kind of bright. But on the whole, it’s sort of cook it, well shoot it quickly, and then eat it. It’s a kind of ethos,

Gilly Smith  12:23

And you’re learning massively, aren’t you? You are, it’s like a crash course in so many different types of dishes, but also trends. Joe, you know, when you’re thinking with your eyes, and you’re capturing stuff to entice people to buy new cookbooks or try new things, you are trendsetting aren’t you? You’re the cool hunter, you know. What do you see now, that is coming up? I mean, obviously all the food in your book, which we’ll talk about in a minute through your food moments, is bang on trend, but what do you see that is coming up that we might be cooking say next year?

Joe Woodhouse  13:04

Well, I mean, what I want to come up because I always kind of look to the past and sort of really good examples of Mexican food as well I want to come up I see that kind of growing.

Gilly Smith  13:14

Like what what kind of Mexican foods have we not seen already? You know, we’ve got so many, at Wahaca, in every high street is actually full of Mexican food well, What haven’t we seen?

Joe Woodhouse  13:23

Some of the more regional things I think and some of the not so known, you know, kind of off the beaten track.  It’s somewhere that I would love to go to I think that’s kind of just my that was coming out as well. I just I would love to travel around Mexico eating you know, for a month or so and just kind of really get stuck in but it’s just, there’s I mean for me a lot with travelling being vegetarian you get a lot of what people would eat normally as opposed to the celebration dishes or the what we what they think you want as a tourist and which involves a lot of meat which you know, which is fine but it’s those kind of everyday dishes I think there’s quite a lot of magic in a lot of the time they’re just kind of just really simply done but that just kind of you know you haven’t necessarily seen before and just kind of different ways of cooking things or Olia has a lot of in Ukraine where you have from village to village you know household the household that someone it’s the same dish but it’s whatever spin someone’s grandma was put on or they put on those those little nuances I think that are kind of inspiring.

Gilly Smith  14:28

Yeah, yeah, something that’s very grounded, but then it has its own little personal tweaks. Let’s go through your food moments. You’ve chosen as your first food moment the brown sauce, which you developed in lockdown with your son Wilf, you whist strapping him to your chest as a baby and cooking over the hub. Is that legal?

Joe Woodhouse  14:53

Well, yeah, he was small enough that it was been we’d before he’d kind of get anything leaning over the hub too much I mean, I used to do like a kind of Ready Steady Cook kind of cookery show for him and just narrate through what we were doing both of us. We, obviously, he was born in January, and we went into lockdown. So we’ve kind of, but we still had to kind of work. So I, I’d end up having him in the days and then write in the evening, write the book in the evening. So OIia could work in the day. But I just, you know, had to do some development and different things, but also kind of entertain him. And he just loved it so much in the heat, you kind of listen to everything you say, you got to talk through, tell him what the ingredients are, what you’re doing, and then you kind of put his hand on my arm as I was chopping, they kind of helped me along, you know, and kind of really getting involved. And then it’s still we got them a little tower. So he now stems along side and kind of helps cook got to get him a knife for Christmas. And then, but he just gets, he gets involved. It’s great. I mean, he then tastes everything he eats, everything he kind of is, it works really kind of works really well, because he kind of you know, he’s sort of feels involved, and he’s tasting along with it. And he knows what’s kind of gone into it. And then he sees the end dish, and he kind of puts all the dots together, he loves the brown sauce now and ever bring out a breakfast and things he kind of just had a pile it on.

Gilly Smith  16:13

So tell us about this brown sauce, then it’s I mean, it’s a typical sort of condiment, but you know, why is it that featuring in your in your vegetarian book? It’s something that you would not normally put with some bacon or something, wouldn’t you?

Joe Woodhouse  16:25

Yeah, well, I mean, I’m a massive lover of condiments of any kind, but I wanted to develop a brown sauce, I’ve been meaning to do it for years, and I was like this is having a cookbook deal is kind of the opportunity to realise this. A lot of the idea in the book is to use things as templates and kind of put in whatever value you’ve got, or take it a different direction. Or if you don’t, like, you know, parsley, use this as you know, use what you like and said and it’s just it’s kind of giving. It’s trying to show people that you can do things not it doesn’t have to be that tricky to kind of do certain things like that. And you know, fresh made brown sauce is worlds away from, you know,

Gilly Smith  17:09

A squeezy bottle. Let’s not mention any, any brands. Yeah, but I mean, it’s also about giving people a way of being more creative with some very basic vegetables, isn’t it, it’s about just doing a quick little stir fry. And then giving it a flavour bomb is something he calls it. Your second food moment is a series of recipes that you’ve plucked from the book that you’ve picked up along your way, as a food photographer. Now, we’ve already talked about accessing so many cuisines and cultures through your work. But it just mentioned some of these actual recipes that you’ve picked up because they do come from all over the place where the sweet potato ginger stew, for example, where did you pick that up?

Joe Woodhouse  17:55

Yeah, I mean, that’s the kind of, for me the most sort of luxurious part of being a food photographer and getting to travel and go to different countries and photograph foods, people cooking the foods, like just learning you know, just constantly learning. And it’s such a, you know, wonderful thing. The sweet potato stew was I was on a job in Brazil and staying with Jason who was directing, he’d moved to onto moving images as well and I was taking stills on the shoot. Just staying at his house I was with them partner Paola Carosella. She is a well known chef, and she was just cooking for us each night when we came back, I’d go out at 6am Get back kind of six 7pm and then sit down to these amazing meals every night. And it just struck me it was kind of looser suit kind of dish I just made it a bit less liquidity just to make it a bit more substantial for UK climate rather than the Brazilian climate. So in that kind of week just learned so much from from Paula just you know in cooking techniques and different things and it’s just that’s kind of swapping ideas or telling people about oh, I saw this the other day and how to kind of use this fed or you know, whatever ingredient is is so much fun different people

Gilly Smith  19:14

Sitting around chatting, squatting and chatting. You know, women have been doing it for forever, you know just sharing each other’s recipes. I remember doing a film way back when for Channel Four called Food File where we were talking to a whole load of nonnas about how to make the perfect tomato sauce and you know, they were all chatting away in Italian about well they were arguing let’s be honest in Italian over you know their different tomato sauces and I didn’t understand a word but I did understand everything. You know, it was so clear that’s what women mainly have done since the beginning of time swapping ideas and arguing their case and you know, the aubergine and tomato seed dressing is there a lot of chat about where did that come from?

Joe Woodhouse  19:58

Yeah, I was on a job in In Tel Aviv, and there’s, there’s a restaurant, we actually ate out twice because there’s so good, called Port Said. And it’s, it’s the same guy that owns one of Miznon restaurants, there’s just a simplicity to the food, he is really, you know, just really produced kind of small plates of sort of really delicious things just coming out that kind of you put together to form your kind of own table laden with all these different dishes, but it’s just so many from that. Those two meals, I just kind of remember so clearly, because it’s just that all the flavours are really bright and singing. It’s more than the sum of its parts. I mean, I’ve got to say, see, there’s quite a lot of places in Tel Aviv, a lot of influence from there that was just such a kind of light touch, but kind of with really strong clear vision kind of coming through. Yeah, I mean, I can’t wait to go back.

Gilly Smith  20:47

Yeah, no, absolutely. Peas, broad beans and feta. Just the words together in a recipe in your third food moment. Delightful. I want to eat that right now. You used to eat it. Just satiate your hunger with your brothers while waiting for dinner. Why did you choose this one?

Joe Woodhouse  21:04

Wow, this is here I’m trying to is trying to get Olia to grow peas again. Because it is so good. I don’t know why she sort of things a bit fuzzy. Yeah. But you just we just run out to the garden, pick a load of peas and broad beans that kind of potted them all bland, some fruit and on top of this block of feta dressed it it was just more as a kind of snack antipasti kind of thing. While we’re waiting for Ali to I think she’s pretty well off to bed to come. And, you know, down for dinner. But I think what I sort of putting that in just because is that a lot of the book is these kinds of dishes where they’ve kind of just naturally occur because it’s like, oh, we’ve got what have we got, we’ve got a load of peas and broad beans, or just quickly do something. And then they’re kind of like, Oh, that was actually really good. Let’s make a note of it. Those impromptu you moments kind of something great happens. And it’s just like, Yeah, let’s keep that

Gilly Smith  22:01

The best ideas always come from that, that sort of, you know, spare at the moment that looks lovely. Let’s just put it on the table and feed people. It’s kind of the attitude of Towpath, isn’t it? And your whole food moment is to pass corn on the cob corn bread from when you were working there as a chef. I mean, the interview I did with Lori and Laura, I think is one of my absolute favourites from last year, they are really properly special people, aren’t they in a very special place that they’ve created must have been wonderful to work there.

Joe Woodhouse  22:28

Yeah, I mean, that’s got to be one of the largest influences on my cooking and my approach and just learning so much. And just, I mean, Lori and both Laura and Laura sort of wealth of knowledge and just the people and experiences they’ve had and the kind of knowledge they can pass on. I mean, it’s felt like a privilege working there the whole time in cooking, it’s pretty close to I think you’d only been open a couple of months when I turned up and we used to do big event a massive weddings and we’re cooking pilot for 200 people and things and then but it just kind of loads of outdoor events like you kind of go have to set up work around the problems. And you know, kind of just make food it’s just a lot of cooking on fire and barbecuing the corn on the cob there was we used to do it on the weekends. We just set up a barbecue on the side of the canal and just as people walking past we could you know kind of see what you’re cooking kind of talk to you about it. Everyone loves to go around a barbecue and chat about you know what call using wooden things, but it’s just a really fun way because you actually cooking the food with someone standing there who’s about eat it next year. It’s quite it’s a step further than an open kitchen. 

Gilly Smith  23:39

I guess. What is so amazing about it, Joe, because people talk about it in glowing terms. I mean, Keira Knightley says it’s the reason why she still lives in London. I mean, that’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? I just talking to Lori, and Laura, you know, I really did think that they had they got the meaning of life sorted. They just have such an incredible take on generosity and simplicity. That’s what I picked up from them you say that they shaped your cooking and your food so much what is it that they imparted?

Joe Woodhouse  24:12

But yeah, I think that I mean generosity is just a simplicity as does sum it up. It’s just there’s an excitement and an interest in food on such a deep level, you know, or just looking after people as well and the whole thing where there was no there’s never been any takeaway coffee cups of things because all the sauces like the Italian thing, you have a minute or two to stop and drink a coffee. Everyone’s fraught and kind of rushing in and out of work and things it’s that kind of taking a moment to slow down and you know, take a breath and I think that kind of you know, goes through to the whole ethos of the place it sort of I think it’s something in that side of London your by the canal and you just you kind of don’t expect it as well and it’s just kind of gently kind of taken hold of that area in a you know, in such a way I mean it When we said it feels quite like Berlin, but I think he kind of it is in that kind of quite bohemian kind of vibe, you know, just loved working there, it was such a great, you know, environment to be in the staff lunches used to be the really pick dishes off the menu, you know, you just you’re eating the food that you’re cooking and making. And I think that’s quite an important thing as well, where it’s all about quality of life for everyone, rather than making as much money. But yeah, it’s always a joy to go back.

Gilly Smith  25:27

It’s a very difficult time I imagined for you to bring out your very first cookbook. Sure you put an enormous amount of work into it. And then of course, the war in Ukraine, literally eclipsed, everything must have completely changed your life. I noticed you’re doing amazing stuff for cook for Ukraine, you cooked with Jamie Oliver last week, you you’re watching your wife turn into a proper champion. She always was, of course, but you know, you must be so proud. But you know, in the middle of it all, you’re bringing out your book, feel,

Joe Woodhouse  26:02

You know, you’re slightly apprehensive and kind of you don’t want to lessen any other message and what the other work that’s being done. But then there’s I actually posted a few recipes or talked about that. And I got quite a few messages from people saying, you know, what, I’ve been completely consumed by this, I just cooked through this recipe and It distracted me for half an hour or whatever. And it was really great because it took my mind off. And I was like, okay, that’s least as some think positive. And that’s kind of it’s not to make light of anything else. But it’s sort of I think it is important to take a breath and a moment. And also make sure you’re you know, eating in looking after yourself as well because as an overvalued, this is sort of a you know, it’s non stop, because it’s just trying to problem solve and help in any way you can.

Gilly Smith  26:54

Yeah, you know, I can see from Olia’s posts that she’s not eating, and I you know, I feel so so so for her and so many of the Ukrainians who victim to this awful, awful tragedy. But at the same time, you know, I’m part of a group of women who are going around all the village halls around East Sussex, and we’re cooking, wonderful Ukrainian inspired food for, you know, 70 people a couple of weeks back 60 People next week, you know, and people can’t get enough of it. Because, you know, I’ve never seen all these people together in one place, but they are sitting down and they are eating together, and they are eating beautiful food. And ultimately, that is what it’s all about, isn’t it, it is getting together to raise awareness and funds, of course, for Ukraine, but to also remind people of the depth and the richness of the culture that is being absolutely decimated, but that will live on. Can you see that from your position from absolutely within the heartbeat of it?

Joe Woodhouse  27:58

I mean, the the response from everyone, you know, from people, it’s just incredible, you never would have thought it’d be such taken hold in such a way it has. I’ve been taking Wilf off to little trips just to kind of give all your break and things and you got to take the sending pictures to all his parents of you know, some coastal town flying a Ukrainian flag at the town hall and which I think they find so important because there’s the fear is that you kind of people get a bit oversaturated after a few weeks of it, it’s kind of just kept going so heartwarming. I mean the bake for Ukraine that we got there, about an hour into it, and it kind of pretty much nearly sold out of everything. You got to just got accused down the street. It’s just incredible to see. And so you know, so much done. So many things still happening, so much money raised, and just going to a really good place, which hopefully, we’ll start seeing some more positive soon.

Gilly Smith  28:52

Thanks for listening, and you can read the transcripts of the show actually smith.com and just click on podcasts. please do get in touch on social media. I’m at cooking the books with Gilly Smith on Instagram where you can follow my adventures in cookery as well as I spend the next six months at leats online. Check the show notes and on Instagram for full details of how to follow the links to get special cooking books discounts on some of the leafs cookery courses, and I’ll see you next week.

Melissa Hemsley: Feel Good

Transcript

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

book, feel, cooking, recipe, people, flavour, food, important, bit, podcast, instagram, feta, little bit, courgette, thinking, lockdown, delicious, mary poppins bag, struggle, called

SPEAKERS

Gilly Smith, Melissa

Gilly Smith  00:00

Hello and welcome back to Cooking the Cooks with me, Gilly Smith the podcast which digs just a little deeper into the minds behind the best of the food books through four food moments. And this week I’m with a woman who made Cooking the Books happen in the first place. No really; when Melissa Hemsley said yes to my invitation to be on a brand new indie podcast over two years ago, before we’d even met, the rest of the A listers flooded in. And that’s because she’s not just the best selling green queen, but one of the most generous, genuine and well respected members of the food community.

Melissa  00:30

I care even more about my cookbooks, I care even more about my Instagram, my newsletter, and during lockdown, thinking about purpose, you know, I just thought what I can do is support OLIO, what I can do support the Felix Project, what I can do is bake for the breast cancer department for Future Dreams. 

Gilly Smith  00:50

Her latest cookbook ‘Feel Good: 100 quick and easy recipes to bring a bit of comfort and joy into our kitchens and beyond’ is I think what makes her so compelling as a read, both in her books and on her social media. But I began by asking her what she intended it to be

Melissa  01:06

Gilly. I was just having a shower and thinking about you and I am so rubbish at summing stuff up. If you can help me summarise it, I’m going to steal whatever you say and use it in all future podcasts and interviews. What is Feel Good? I mean, that is a huge question, isn’t it? I think what I kept coming back to is it’s unique to you is whatever suits you, whatever makes you feel best whether that’s sinking into the sofa with the most comforting bowl of dahl and topped with a piccalilli crunchy salad or it on a happy, happier, more energetic day, maybe doing a double batch of something and freezing it as a little investment to your future self. Sometimes it’s the simplest thing and at the last second you get, you know, what I have got energy for that one minute frizzly dizzly leaf flourish on top of my scrambled eggs. I’m taking my basic scrambled eggs into something else. It is all those things. Sometimes it’s a can of beans, and a little bit of leek fried together and five minutes and then the like a fingernails worth.. that’s not a very nice word to go with.. like a fingernails worth of parmesan, you know that bit right at the end grated on and a bit of lovely frozen sourdough the last heel of the bread that you froze six months ago and natural dinner and that’s complete feel good. And that’s actually what I might have for lunch.

Gilly Smith  02:33

I’m following your lunches by the way on Instagram very very, very often. I think having lunch I’ll just check where Melissa’s having. Oh, I love that that’s a very good idea.

Melissa  02:41

You know what you can do? Look at the hashtag laptop free lunches although I have been a little bit slacker updating it because I do think I do think it’s important for us to step away from our phones and  laptops. 

Gilly Smith  02:52

And so I mean going back to that kind of essential sell of the book. So what did you say to your publishers for example, what did you say that you wanted to do with it?

Melissa  03:05

I can never something up. You know, the the strapline on the book says ‘quick and easy: recipes for comfort and joy,’ which I love. That took us about two weeks to try and distill. I’m always so envious of other authors. They’re just so good at saying what the sell is. You know, Eat Green came out January and then we had the pandemic in March or kicked off and first lockdown in March. So I was already tinkering at what is now Feel Good. And I mean, the publishers Ebury you know, Sarah Bennie, you know, you know themselves, they’re so kind to me and generous, and unrushy. I just tinker. And it’s rare that I know what it’s going to be called or how to sum it up. But what I kept exploring even pre lockdown was community and connection, which we always talk about you and I because it comes back to Food Foundation, the Felix Project charity, giving young people amplifying their voices, us chefs having a responsibility not just to churn out great recipes but to help show people how to waste less and save money and use less electricity and gas. It’s obviously super never been more important.

Gilly Smith  04:22

Exactly. I think that that’s what Feel Good is all about and it’s interesting where you put the emphasis is it Feel Good? Is it a directive or is it Feel Good food? I think there’s a purpose behind what you do. And I the way I read it, it felt very much a mental health book, a positive mental health book and it’s a kind of and your Instagram posts are all about how anxiety inducing modern life can be and how food is integral in that and the way that you cook the way that you consciously cook to avoid waste the waste hacks that you give, the the surplus food you know where that goes to with Felix Project, helping underprivileged kids to cook with, you know, the Prince’s Trust charity that you’re involved with, you know, all the things that you do are a nod to how tricky life is. And this is a sort of a Mary Poppins bag of all the wonderful things that you reach out again and again and again. And there are so many that just make you feel good.

Melissa  05:24

And your Feel Good might be different from mine. I bet we’re gonna cross over so much, but you will have things because it will be your life experience, your childhood memories, your little things that your mum or dad did for you.

Gilly Smith  05:37

You know, let’s just talk a little about anxiety and mental health. You do refer to it a lot. You know, we’ve just come out of lockdown the last time we saw each other. In fact, you were the last person I saw before I locked myself.  Yes, we were at Katie’s Caldesis’ in Marleybone , weren’t we? La Cucina Caldesi and we were doing a piece with you on waste, a piece for How to Eat to Save the Planet. And it was brilliant and your waste hacks are always amazing. You cooked a frittata then and that is one of your food moments. But you know, what lock down did really kind of a bring up was how many people are just suffering from low level anxiety that just went completely over the top? Food helps to calm people. Can we just, what’s the Melissa Hemsley take on that? What have you been watching? What have you been talking to people about what’s your take on mental health?

Melissa  06:30

I imagine like lots of us have had a roller coaster, not just day by day, hour by hour, week by week. I always something in my body always catches whenever someone says like you just did. We’re out of lockdown now because I sort of don’t feel it yet. I still feel nervous travelling into town. I still feel to be honest, a little bit overwhelmed with big groups. I’m going on a book tour shortly. And I can’t wait. And actually, it’s lovely because quite a few people have have said I’ll see you there. And I can recognise faces from previous book tours. So that’s really lovely. And I know I love it when I’m there. And then I know I’ll get home off the train and I’ll be buzzing, won’t be able to sleep. But the little things that seemed easier than day to day work, shopping, putting together a meal, tackling life, admin all I feel feels a bit harder for me now. So what do I do differently? I walk twice as much as I used to. I loved walking anyway you and I have our dogs and our dog walks and actually, I was looking at our WhatsApp so I’ve got pictures that you’ve sent me from a Sunset Beach. You know, you know when you and I are quite similar and I’m sure lots of us are in that. What what might have thrilled me before is now completely soothed by being out in nature. I feel that I plan my day differently now and I understand that I’m in a privileged position that I can control my hours somewhat. I think that because I know I’ve got a two month book tour coming up that I’m being extra gentle to myself a little bit before a little bit after I put meetings in the diary with myself for walks I’ve been napping jelly. Do you ever nap?

Gilly Smith  08:21

I do. I feel so incredibly guilty that I don’t do it very often. So that you know I can’t have too much of it. But oh my goodness, what a joy.

Melissa  08:32

Do you get grumpy and grouchy if you over sleep?

Gilly Smith  08:35

No, I just give myself such a hard time that it’s not worth it.

Melissa  08:39

Do you know what? Speaking of, you asked me what have I been reading and consuming and watching? I believe we’ve talked about Kimberly Wilson before – How to Build a Healthy Brain.

Gilly Smith  08:49

who I interviewed for delicious actually.

Melissa  08:51

Oh yes, of course you did. So I’d recommend listening to Gilly’s podcasts with Kimberly. She also has the Thinking Space Book Club; Kimberly’s got so many resources, she reminded me that we shouldn’t think of a nap as a treat or something we have to justify doing like oh, I’ve worked so hard or have have worked 10 days in a row. But that weekend, I’m allowed an nap. It’s something that our body needs and is and is positive for us in so many ways. So sometimes when I lie down my mind’s racing, I don’t actually nod off but that’s okay to just the lying down. You know, I love a soup. I know you do too. I have been eating even more soups, albeit with as you know, some interesting toppings –  got to have a crunchy topping or some oozey feta melting

Gilly Smith  09:35

my soups have been transformed by your crunchy toppings, I have to say

Melissa  09:40

Going back, you know me, love to roll around all your questions throughout the whole podcast. Going back I’m determined that my next book if my publishers ever offered me another book deal, I’m just determined to be a soup cookbook. 

Gilly Smith  09:51

I think you should absolutely 

Melissa  09:53

Soup and nothing but soup.

Gilly Smith  09:54

You do give away a lot of your recipes. I mean every single day, you come up with something and that’s where I get Mary Poppins analogy, where do you get all these ideas from, you just be thinking about them all the time?

Melissa  10:06

From my veg box, from my local food shop, you know, I get my food box every Friday, I actually think that my doorbell may go with my Riverford veggie box man. That’s all right, I’ll shout out the window to him and say, Hello. I’ve got an amazing refill shop on my high street. But I think that, okay, while us authors would like to be able to sell books so that we can earn a living, it has never been more important to be giving free recipes. Because, of course, the cost of living, the availability of time and resources that people have to cook has gone down, stress levels for everybody hears me just banging on about how I feel, I feel that the community team needs to pull together more than ever locked down hopefully has reminded us how important and good it feels as a as a positive, it doesn’t feel bad to have to support someone. And I think that when you’ve got a little bit more sharing what you’ve got with someone that doesn’t have that, or or needs a bit more help, is, is saying it’s our moral duty to preachy, I think it might be what’s a better way of being not a preacher, I just feel it’s important. 

Gilly Smith  11:14

And I tell my girls that happiness is a social movemen;  sort yourself out, and then get on and help the rest of the world. 

Melissa  11:22

I like that 

Gilly Smith  11:23

Happiness is a social movement. 

Melissa  11:25

I’ll take that, Gilly. 

Gilly Smith  11:26

And I think that going back to you know, the mantra of your book, I get purpose. I think that I mean, I don’t know, if you listen to the episode recently with Kitty Tait kitty, and Al Tait, The Orange Bakery. 

Melissa  11:37

Yes. 

Gilly Smith  11:38

Now she, it. You know, it’s such a wonderful story, there was a 14 year old girl with crippling anxiety. And she said that she didn’t feel that there was any point to her life. And baking gave it purpose. And I think that you know, that’s a really sort of dark edge to what we’re talking about. But I think a lot of people feel purposeless,

Melissa  12:02

We all have that dark edge, to varying degrees and at various times. And that’s why actually, it’s so important. There’s some things I’ve shared on social media that I’ve gone through the last two or three years, there’s some things I haven’t shared. And the reason I haven’t shared them is many fold. For one, if I shared certain things that would open up a conversation, I don’t feel I have the right skills, or the energy to respond appropriately. But I’m certainly seeking out that type of information and content myself because it is helpful to me. So I feel that my I feel like I take my job even more seriously than I did before. If that makes sense. I care even more about my cookbooks, I care even more about my Instagram, my newsletter, and during lockdown. Thinking about purpose, you know, I just thought what I can do is support OLIO what I can do to support the Felix Project, what I can do is bake for the breast cancer department for Future Dreams to say thank you for you know. You’re right purpose is.

Gilly Smith  13:13

It is very important. I mean, let’s put some picture around that in through your food moments. I mean, chocolate pots.

Melissa  13:21

 Let’s go chocolate pots!

Gilly Smith  13:23

Let’s go chocolate pots, it’s really important to treat yourself

Melissa  13:26

i I’m going to quote back Kimberly Wilson again, this idea of I mean, it’s just delicious. And actually my friends are coming over tomorrow and I’ve got some hazelnut milk and I’m making the chocolate pot so it’s three ingredients. It’s dates, preferably Zaitoun dates because they are just incredible Palestinian Fairtrade brand, small batch brand. Dates, hazelnut milk or whatever milk full fat dairy, yum, all of all the milks and grey chocolate Fairtrade chocolate, hopefully, and with a little sprinkle of sea salt and you blitz it all up together. I’ve told you the whole recipe, don’t buy the book. And then the important thing is you top it with whatever you want to top it with. So you know, it’s it’s pretty freezing cold today. You know, I may be some like roasted with a little bit of brandy, some boozy, boozy fruit on top or maybe some some of them are berries, maybe I’ll get some blackberries from Epping Forest when the time comes. So I love that but it’s that little sprinkle of sea salt, maybe a little bit of lovely olive oil as well. Yeah. And it’s so easy jelly that recipe my God I’m not a big sweet person, both in my. I’m not a great I’m not a great skill wise. And I don’t love sweets. I love chocolate though.

Gilly Smith  14:42

Yeah. And it is very much you know, curled up on the sofa with Nelly the dog, put the fire on and just give yourself some time out, isn’t it? You talk about that in the book. You talk about your kitchen as being the place where you can really find peace and calm and  You’re constantly sort of having to create, there must be some kind of pressure on you to constantly pull stuff out of your Mary Poppins bag. But you, you say that, that’s the place where and I’ve seen you in the kitchen and it is beautiful. And to see you in it, you are absolutely at home in it. Tell me about that kind of that double edged sword of calm and pressure.

Melissa  15:19

Calm and pressure, oh, I struggle with it, I really struggle with it. I don’t feel pressured to deliver the recipes because I cook three times a day, or I eat three times a day, let’s say. So I’m cooking what I’m eating. And then because I love to not waste food, and don’t waste money, then everything’s rolling over into the next one. So it’s just what have I got to use up. So that’s why often it will be a fritter free, you know, free star fridge on a Friday frittata. What I do feel pressure is though is to then remember to share it. So, you know, I, I was actually getting a bit peed off with myself. Because, you know, this morning, I wanted to do a meditation. And I’m not strong willed enough or surrendered enough rather, because about surrendering meditations there to meditate without any aid. So I had to go to my phone to get on the app to meditate. And I as soon as I touched my phone, in terms of the double edged sword of common pressure, you know, my blood pressure went up. You know, because your body sometimes struggles with what stress and excitement and if you love your job, which I do on the most part, you know, it’s just too tempting to not do the meditation app and suddenly respond to something whether it’s a job coming in, or it’s a book tour day or it’s someone saying, I love your recipe, and I want to say thank you so much for trying it and which which option did you do? But so I struggle with remembering to share, because I do love it so much I want to share and when I said there’s almost everything you know, what I love about my job is almost everything. The bits that I don’t like is how much it involves having to be online, which let’s be honest, is my choice so that I don’t you know, I don’t need to pull out the violin for myself. Yeah, but, but but you do have a lot of people asking for connection with you. They they feel very part of your world, and you can’t just ignore them and you wouldn’t and you don’t No. And I thrive off it,

Gilly Smith  17:26

yeah, but it must take you a hell of lot of time. And yes. How do you how do you? I mean, there’s lots of people playing with Instagram at the moment. You know, of course, how do you put down the boundaries around your time? Or do you turn your phone off?

Melissa  17:41

Yes. And I have been I’ve seeing therapists on and off since I was about 16,17. And I started again, about three and a half years ago, weekly, because I was ready to process my father’s death, which had been three years before that. So I sort of shut down and didn’t really want to deal with it. And actually, in terms of the Mental Health conversation, I have to give a huge, always a huge thank you to Bryony Gordon because about three and a half years ago, she invited me on to her podcast Mad Girl. And we ended up talking about grief. I told her that Henry and I and my boyfriend had bonded over off on our first day which was a tinder date at the amazing Canton Arms in Stockwell, the best pub ever. And we bonded over what we called and I was a bit worried afterwards that it had been a flippant statement and I’d get into trouble. We call it the Dead Dad’s club. Because Henry would Henry very sadly lost his father that I lost my father and you know, I I called it the Dead Dad’s club.  And then I said it on the podcast and I thought oh my god, my mom will kill me. People will find it so flippant. But I mean it with love and my heart we bonded because we could talk about the fact that our fathers had passed and the impact it had on us and when anyway, so I felt I felt freer when i Obviously I worried about I had given too much away. But then I felt freer after doing that podcast and people still messaging me now. And that’s about three and a half years ago saying they heard it and it helps them. But that really helped me realise that I can share a recipe on Instagram, let’s say on TV. And in it I can use that opportunity to talk about mental health. I can also use it as an opportunity to talk about the fantastic farmer that made an ingredient in that recipe whether it’s a fair trade chocolate brand, whether it’s a family run smallholding whether it’s the fact that it’s got Jersey Royals, and we’ve got to grab them because it’s such a short season and why they’re so important or why asparagus grown in the UK is important to you, you know, and actually if you give a recipe and tell people that things and weave it through. It is more. Well, I’m coming back to the word preachy. Not I hope, not preachy, more palatable to show a food waste recipe that’s absolutely delicious and eye catching and cool promise that it’s delicious. And then the bonus is its stops food waste. If I just I think I’ve learnt that over the last 10 years, maybe I got myself into a bit of trouble earlier on, where I felt where if you don’t explain things enough, and just put a picture out, it can seem unachievable, or not for everyone. And now I think I spend a lot more time writing to be useful and helpful, and I hope I hope 

Gilly Smith  20:41

Yeah, well, that certainly comes out over that way. Your second food moment is very much like that. The farinata what.. the crispy golden bites tell us about that one.

Melissa  20:52

I’m actually making some later with anchovies in it. I love gram flour, chickpea flour. Also, I actually oiled my hair yesterday because I’m growing it for the Little Princess Trust so I can log off seven inches and and donate it if anyone who has got long hair over lockdown wants to also join me that then they then the Prince Little Princess Trust, they take your hair and turn it into wigs for young people. They need at least seven inches I’ll just throw that out there anyway, so oil to my hair because it was looking a little bit dry. And then I realised that I would then struggle to wash out the oil.Used  sesame oil and I remembered that chickpea flour sprinkled into your hair is really good for then washing your hair. Yeah. Anyway, that’s back to back to food. Chickpea flour gram flour is so delicious and affordable and easy to get. Whether it’s from your local shop or your big shops, and it’s I just it’s very easy to use for things like for titles or egg replacements and I wanted to make something that just had tonnes of flavour bombs, you know from your olives and your capers and your onion and your anchovies. Good cupboard ingredients. expensive though so the chickpea flour is relatively cheap, the olives and so on are a little bit more expensive but together you can create a snack or you know the base of a delicious lunch or meal that’s so easy to make you can customise it you can throw on sun dried tomatoes if you want you can throw in your leftover roasted carrots if you want it’s just this amazing baking trays worth of goodness and I love it and it’s delicious hot or cold.

Gilly Smith  22:33

Yeah. And as we talked about it at la Cucina Caldesi before Lockdown. You know it is really about learning very, very basic skills, isn’t it and then just going into the back of the fridge and pulling it all out and knowing that it’s going to be fine and not making it too fussy and just masses of flavours just never throwing stuff away. Your third food moment is about always having a block of feta in the fridge and you picking your fritters I mean you your frittatas and your fritters..

Melissa  23:04

maybe that’s my next book fritters and frittatas brackets and soup. first I’m gonna get on with the proposal now

Gilly Smith  23:15

there are endless ways of making frittatas and fritters for you. Tell us about the courgette feta fritters. I’m gonna have to do this one for lunch.

Melissa  23:22

Ah, it’s also fantastic for carrots. You know, when you cook when we’re out of season with courgettes. It’s just well obviously, I know none of us but all of us like to cook seasonally as much as possible. But also a watery courgette isn’t ever inspiring, is it? So this is also good with lovely carrots. Ha Well, it’s so funny I struggle whenever we do this with the food four food moments. I love that you do it but I I struggle as you know to be succinct and drill down into things. So I thought about if you were with me today, we probably would have put feta somewhere. So it’s a cold day. It’s a cold summery day but it should be a warm summery day. So I thought what again a bit like I just said for the farinata. What’s delicious and makes me feel good at any temp because the pressures off what I haven’t mentioned yet I also feel feel good as about not just purpose not just uniqueness. What not what just suits us is I am determined I said to myself, as somebody that gets frazzled, easily, quickly and heightenedly and then struggles to come back down to earth. I promised myself to stop I was like do not invite people around unless you enjoy cooking the meal and hosting because nobody wants to go and eat at someone’s house when they’re stressed. It’s not a great energy to have around food. I hope no one rolls their eyes that but I truly believe you know what you want. That’s why it’s so important to have a happy, amazing culture in a kitchen in restaurants because and and people growing your food. I promised myself to stop cooking or saying ‘Just pop round. I’ll just whip something up’ unless I could really do it. So the whole chapter called stress free sharing, and that’s where the courgette and feta fritters are really easy. You can do them in advance they’re delicious, hot or cold. Everything’s better with fets or fettle you can get UK grown fettle, but I also just absolutely love Greece and haven’t been in a million years and it’s a taste of sunshine.

Gilly Smith  25:28

Your fourth food moment is all about your mum and I’ve said to you in the past I am one day getting your mum on my podcast because she is the kind of the beating heart of you and Jasmine isn’t she? She she is she is a feeder and so are you two. Your your food food moment though is her Filipino chicken and mango tomato salsa. Yeah hash up of all your favourite Filipino flavours I mean Yeah, she did you eat in terms of Filipino flavours when you were growing up? 

Melissa  25:56

Well, at the time, I didn’t know what was Filipino or not. I mean, I genuinely sometimes would think that was English. Let’s say I would say the smell of ginger was a sort of permeating smell of my childhood. The reason why I call it a hash up of Filipino flavours is because I haven’t quite tasted a chicken dish like this, but it’s got lots of the things I love in it. So there’s and there’s also a fantastic option for mushroom version for plant based eaters or people that just want to eat more mushrooms. Which I do I love my mushrooms. It’s got Star anise, it it’s got garlic you can add ginger to it as well although when I was going through my book I was like this ginger and a lot of this so I took out the ginger in it. It didn’t need the ginger but it is awesome with ginger too. Yeah, tonnes of garlic star anise, soy or tamari. And then I was marinating it at some point in the recipe development. And then one day, I just thought I’d have time to marinate I need to eat my dinner. But I have to recipe test my recipe. And I did it without marinating and it was just awesome. So it’s, it’s this flavour packed little mix that you can stir through your chicken you can put on your fish, you can toss through your mushrooms, you can just drizzle it all over your leftover egg fried rice and whatever veg you’ve got on the bottom, it’s just an awesome, like a little Filipino blast of flavours. And my mum, if I have people around, I generally tend to cook with a Filipino flavour. Because I feel that a lot of my friends just love it. And it’s a little bit different to what they would usually eat. And, you know, desperately I didn’t see my mom that much over locked down, she was in her home, and we were in ours. And she was an absolute legend that helped me recipe tests remotely. She really I mean, she recipe tested almost every recipe. And it was nice, because I then knew that my mom was really looking after herself and cooking a nice meal.

Gilly Smith  27:57

It’s also about grounding, isn’t it? Going back to that kind of treating yourself? What is Feel Good food? How do you feel good about food, it’s about bringing everything that you are to it. So that might be you know, your commitment to zero waste. It might be your commitment to real conscious compassion, in terms of high welfare meet, for example, but it’s also about bringing the upbringing into your home. So yeah, it feels to me, you know, you always use your mom’s recipes, or your mom’s inspiration and it feels like it really gives you a flavour. You know, I know that Jasmine does it too. It is it is so important, isn’t it? How do you bring yourself to your food? Can everybody bring their food memories to their own tables?

Melissa  28:43

It 100% does. And that is an amazing question, Gilly. I also would apply that question. Let me go therapy talk on you. I would bring that because you just really inspiring me actually, with this conversation. You know, the word ‘purpose’ keeps coming woven through, it’s never been more important to show up as our true selves. Because with varying degrees, we were hit in the face with what do I What What does actually make me feel good. And what’s been taken away from me that made me feel so good. And I can’t have and what can I hardly wait to do when I’m allowed to that makes me feel good, or what have I missed about that person or what’s been missing from my life. And if we apply it to food, I so missed eating at restaurants. But I also loved connecting and thinking about how to inspire and entertain myself throughout the week. And one of the things I did was and actually this is where the name of the book came from. I did this Instagram Live series called Feel Good, the Feel Good sessions. And you know, thinking about my mum’s influence on me it didn’t start out like this but what ended up happening was everybody started to talk about their mum or their friend at schools mum or dad or granny who used to put something In their lunch box, or a teacher or a meal or a holiday they had as a kid, and it just kept coming up, it was memories of food that then influenced either the brand of I don’t know, catch up they never had, or the vinegar that they would only ever eat that vinegar, or why they called their restaurant that name or why that cookbook is dedicated to that person. And it all has come from influence. And I think what’s so interesting, and maybe because I didn’t study food, or I wasn’t trained, not that I’m saying this particularly matters, but I’ve really felt my way through my food, and cooking, and I have felt no rules with food. And I constantly will mix a taste of this with a spice of that. And I, you know, like, for example, the book, the flavour thesaurus, one of the best books ever shows you that really, you can’t go wrong. I mean, I’m sort of summing up that, but there’s better there’s better for us. There’s better combinations, and there’s fascinating combinations. But I think that one, one of the amazing things about food, it not being just fuel, not just being a chance to use our spending power to vote for the world we want through our shopping. It’s also a chance to really tap into what makes us feel good. It’s a chance to experience so many people’s cultures, and absorb things and borrow and admire and appreciate other people’s ways of cooking and larders and cupboards and bring it into your own and I think I hope my recipes will always inspire people but then then go free and freestyle however they want on top that’s what that’s the Instagram messages. I will never not be able to go to bed to if someone says I made this of yours, Melissa but then I did this. That’s that’s like, for me, my I feel. That’s my purpose. I’ll go to bed happy that night.

Gilly Smith  31:58Thanks for listening. You can read the transcripts to the show now, actually smith.com Just click on podcast. Please get in touch on social media. I’m @cookingthebookswithGillySmith on Instagram, where you can follow my adventures in cookery as I spend the next six months at Leiths online, and you can check the show notes and on Instagram for full details and to follow the links to get Cooking the Books discounts on this cookery cou

Ella Risbridger: The Year of Miracles

Image by Tim James_Mabel Gray

TRANSCRIPT

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

book, people, write, grief, life, friends, lockdown, feel, recipes, pandemic, live, flatmate, supermarkets, bit, incredible, moment, dying, miracles, wonderful, big

SPEAKERS

Ella, Gilly Smith

Gilly Smith  00:00

Hello and welcome back to Cooking the Books with me, Gilly Smith, the podcast which digs just a little deeper into the minds behind the best of the food books through four food moments. This week we’re talking about one of the most beautiful books I’ve read this year, the year of miracles by Ella RISBRIDGER. Like her first book, Midnight Chicken and other recipes worth living for, it’s part novel, part recipe book. And despite not meaning to be a book about grief, it’s soaked in it, in a good way. She describes grief ‘like an anvil crashing through the floor, revealing a whole new level where you can live’.  And where she lives is a really interesting place which questions our whole way of being,

Ella  00:36

We expect people to make a lot of sacrifices for one, usually heterosexual romantic relationship. We expect that to be the pinnacle on which everything turns, and the kind of the more sacrifices you make for that one relationship and that one person, the more important it is, and the better it is. And I I’ve done that I tried. It made me very unhappy. And I think it makes a lot of people unhappy.

Gilly Smith  00:59

I began by asking her after being dubbed the new Nigella, what she wanted to achieve with this one.

Ella  01:04

I mean, the interesting thing about this book is that I sold it and pitched it as a book about sort of dinner parties. And I sold it just after my then partner died. And it was very much like no, grief won’t define me. I’m gonna write this book about parties and people. And I think the interesting thing about grief is that you can kind of muffle it if you want to with people, you can kind of surround yourself with people who love you and want fun things for you. You know, I don’t know, I think I probably grieved in quite an unorthodox way. Because I went out quite a lot, I did a lot of self distraction. And I think, as with many people, the pandemic kind of forced us to sit with things a little bit more and sit with things differently. I mean, I think people are still kind of sitting with things differently and seeing things differently. And I think one thing I had absolutely loved about surrounding myself with so many people, you know, I have amazing friends, John had wonderful friends, I am lucky enough to have an incredible family, who, you know, when I worked out in 2020, we had 19 people to stay in January and February. So before the pandemic, and that was such a huge thing for me was never being alone. And obviously, in the kind of deep lockdown, which is, this isn’t a book about the pandemic, I feel very strongly that it’s not a book about the pandemic, you will notice the word pandemic never occurs anywhere in it, nor is the word disease, virus, vaccine, lockdown, which is a really conscious choice. But it did make me sit with what I was writing a bit differently. And it made me sit with how I was living a bit differently, because of course, there was only me and my flatmate. And while we are very close, sometimes you do need a bit of time on your own, it was like, Well, we really have spent every single minute together for the last six weeks, perhaps I will go into the kitchen and be on my own. And I think particularly it was a big shift from being a cook and a writer, which is a lot of alone time. So I had to kind of get into a sort of more stable rhythm of learning to kind of be inside and think about what I was thinking about. And I think then it became very clear that the book was always going to be about grief. And that was really interesting for me, as I had decided very firmly that I decided with my publishers that that was not what we were going to do next.

Gilly Smith  03:27

You know, it’s it’s a book that it has a narrative arc, it is called The Year of Miracles. And we’ll talk about those miracles a bit later. But it is a process of recovery. It was it always had to be it’s about starting life again, isn’t it? It’s about feeding yourself from the foods and the fruits that you’re growing yourself. It’s very nourishing Is that how you pitched it? What was what was the 60 word pitch,

Ella  03:51

What happened was I’d written a piece for The Guardian about friendship, after my then partner died and how sustaining I’d found it and how nourishing I’d found it and how I found it to be a family in a way and to be every bit as crucial and satisfying as kind of traditional romantic relationships. And so I think I’ve never written anything that people have responded to more. You know, I know somebody read it out at their wedding. I know lots of people for whom it means an awful lot, that piece of writing. And that really made me think wow, okay, there are a lot of people who are also trying to figure out whether it’s possible to build a life where you don’t put your romantic partner and I kind of mean romance in a very traditional sense. They’re, they’re kind of, you know, hearts and sex and flowers, business. Above all other things. And so that was kind of the heart of the book. I pitched Bloomsbury I think it’s, I hope, sincerely hope it’s still at the heart of this book now.

Gilly Smith  04:53

Well, it is because it I mean, it feels to me. I mean, I think I said my Instagram post about it. It felt quite Bridget Jones, except that you get everything right. But you know that lovely sense of, you know, friends coming in and and of course it was in lockdown, but there’s a point in, and it’s one of your food moments actually where you’re all in this, you know, blow up paddling pool in the brief, you know space between lockdown and you’re just doing that thing that young people do. And that somehow never really happens again in your life. My daughters are 23 and 26. And they’re doing it now. And I’m kind of reliving that with them. And it’s a wonderful time in your life.

Ella  05:30

I don’t know, I think that’s a really interesting point that you say it doesn’t happen again, because I am 30 and the youngest, by quite a long way of people in this book, which, you know, my friends are between 30 and 50. And mostly, I have some younger and some older, they’re not really anyone else who’s listening to this podcast. But I think it is a choice, it is a conscious choice to send a friendship in that way to send a joy in that way. And I, I really kind of push against this idea that it will never come again. Because I tried really hard to be a grown up, I tried really hard to do a very domestic very settled life. And you know, if you’ve read MIdnight Chicken, you’ll see that there’s a very, there was a very settled life. But what Midnight Chicken doesn’t say is how hard that was for me and how much healthier and better I find it to be surrounded by people who love me in lots of different ways. You know, I am lucky enough to be in a wonderful romantic relationship. Now. I love him very much. But also I love my friends. And I love what is important to me in my life. And what I really hope kind of comes through in this book is this sense of kind of being more balanced. Midnight Chicken was very much a love story. And the interesting thing about midnight chicken is of course, I wrote it when John was dying. I wrote it completely basically, in hospital corridors and chapels, and, you know, little church cafes opposite the hospital and parks. And it does to me still have a kind of elegaic quality, it’s almost as vain to say about your own work, isn’t it? But I was writing it very much as a as an epitaph really, as a kind of tribute to that one way of living, which even as I was writing was over. And I think in some ways, that’s a quality I really like about lots of books. You know, I think the best children’s books, for instance, instance have a real sense of that, Oh, childhood fleeting and I’m already out of it. And you know, the best romance novels have the sense of these tiny moments. And I think the premise of this book was kind of what if you expand that out? What if that feeling of joy could be made to last by, by not predicating it so much on one single person on cheering it on. You know, freedom is a big word, but like, I’m making sure everyone’s got the space to blossom. You know, I don’t know if you’re a gardener. But there’s this really brutal thing where you can’t have you can’t put out all the seedlings, if you don’t have space, everything that if you do that everything is going to die, you need to space out the plants you put in the garden, you space out your seeds. And I’m not very good gardener, I suspect a lot of people who listen to this are very keen gardeners and have in fact a a garden rather than a sort of parking space. And I hope that’s I hope that’s what the book is about. It’s about spacing stuff out and having having lots of people rather than just one. Yeah.

Gilly Smith  08:42

And I think that that may have to do with fear as well. putting all your eggs in one basket is not a great idea. It’s

Ella  08:52

not at all linked to fear for me. And that is one of the things that I get most stressed about is the idea that people think that it’s somehow I don’t know, we expect people to make a lot of sacrifices for one, usually heterosexual romantic relationship. We expect that to be the pinnacle on which everything turns and the kind of the more sacrifices you make for that one relationship and that one person, the more important it is, and the better it is. And I have done that I tried. It made me very unhappy. I think it makes a lot of people unhappy. I just I don’t think it’s fair. I think it’s and I find it a little bit. Not quite insulting, but I find it a little bit strange that people think that the reason to love more people is because you are scared to a loved one. It doesn’t get less scary. It’s always a leap of faith. I just think that we can take those leaps of faith with our friends.

Gilly Smith  09:42

I think that you know friendship has become a really interesting talking point. Since lockdown. I think people have made a lot of conscious decisions about who their friends are and how they want to be friends with people. Personally, I’ve stopped sowing my seeds quite so wildly. I’ve been much more I’m conscious about putting more into the few really wonderful friendships that I have and and spending less time kind of going out and having a wilder time and just being much more with my friends. But I know people who don’t completely the opposite and, and all variations of it, it’s very interesting time to go in and I want to just focus a little bit on the inner because there’s a lot of observations that are very profound, obviously about grief, but about a lot of other stuff. Just you talked about filling spaces and, and magical things, you talk about the kaleidoscope of grief, for example, which is about the fragments of, of thoughts and memories and colours and, and things that can only come from a very vivid imagination and that takes a moment to set aside to be by yourself. Can you talk a little bit about that how you wrote them down? You say you were looking through a duel at the world? The the fractals I love that idea.

Ella  11:05

That part I mean, if looking through that is literally how it felt to me I have a very I have a sort of quite unruly mind. And it literally felt like I was looking through a jewel, you know, when I look at my memories, particularly of the first year after John died, I have so few concrete memories of anything I have little flashes, little, little tiny snatches. And also in the year leading up to his death I have, well, I have PTSD, which I don’t really like to talk about very much because it feels very private to me. But that I see and kind of very vivid. And I think the PTSD thing kind of gives you these flashbacks, right? These incredible, traumatising flashbacks, which are totally debilitating or work like I’m pretty great. I’m so great. Now mentally I’m so recovered basically, all of the time. But they were incredibly useful tool for writing about stuff. And what once I learned to lean into them, if this book took me a really long time to write, and it was really hard to do, it really took it out of me writing this book, I would say I finished it a year ago, maybe a little longer longer than a year ago. And I would say it’s only now that I’m really starting to write again, properly. But a lot of that was because I was fighting the way I remembered it. I was trying to make the narrative, more kind of story like more compelling. And I know we said we’re talking a little while about the fact it’s written through a year. But giving into the idea that I wanted to write this as a seasonal as a year. And giving myself the kind of licence to do that was very freeing. There’s a little note at the start of the book, which is probably my favourite bit in the book. I’m just going to grab it, which is this is a memoir, which is to say it’s a kind of fiction is what happened as it happened to me and not as it happened to anyone else. Some events have been compressed, most names have been changed. And once I gave myself permission to use to say that to say it’s fiction, I made it up. You know, I didn’t make it up. It’s what I remember. But I was so consumed with trying to tell the absolute truth in a way that nobody could argue with that. Yeah, it was paralysing. And so once I started being able to write about things, as I saw them through this kind of Kaleidoscope or this jewel or this prison, you know, when I was a kid, my granny had this, you know, the kaleidoscope me like spin the end and the little beads or rattle around. And you can kind of see the different light and shadow that’s happening around but you can’t see, you can’t see things you just see flashes of colour, and kind of looking at stuff through a duel, you know, with the many facets and you kind of catch the light and you get this burst of colour and you catch this face maybe and like weird, sharp relief. And that I think was giving myself permission to write in the way that I had seen the world and continue really to see the world. You know, I don’t think it’s very hard to know if your mind ever really goes back to how it was before and certainly completely changed as a person because of John’s life and John’s death and grieving John. And I think maybe it sort of broke my brain a little bit it broke my brain so that now I find it very difficult to see things not through this kaleidoscope, I would say now I have a much better grasp of what’s going on than I did you know, in the first year, two years really after John’s death, it was a total world of no idea was going on. And the same goes for the years in which he was dying, and I was looking after him. Total Well, total chaos. And I think I hope that I’ve managed to convey the way that grief kind of breaks you and remakes you and I don’t know I I worry sometimes about making it seem like it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s not good and it’s not bad. It just is.

Gilly Smith  14:47

And that comes over very clearly. And one of the other things that you say is that you write to yourself real well you don’t use that phrase but you write it to give yourself edges and it feels like you know that colour I just scopic kind of view, world view is drawn together as you try to make sense of stuff that feels very organic and very, very emotional, actually. And, and you talk about how John was a very visible person. And he wherever he went, he was very sort of overwhelming. And I know from previous relationship, what that was like to feel invisible, compared to your partner. With him gone, your writing is making you visible through midnight chicken, but even more so with this process of writing yourself real. Can you explain that process?

Ella  15:36

I don’t remember a time before I wrote, I’ve never had a backup plan. I found the internet quite early. I was blogging. And I was like, Oh, right. So this is how I’m going to make a living through this. So even from a tiny kid, when I was really little, I used to write blurbs of my own books. I never I didn’t really write stories like other kids unless I had to. But I used to write like blurbs. What I now realise is a proposal. It has always been what I did, I have always written I’ve always written about myself, always, I always got a diary. It’s not like a sit down every night and my leather bound diary, but I always have, I always have a notebook. And I write in it every day. You know, it’s to do less than its shopping. And it’s baking. And it’s, you know, recipes and its ideas and its thoughts and its things I see in like drawings of people I see on the bus, I don’t know what I would do without it. I think when I don’t write, I end up feeling very drifty and unsure. I have an incredibly wonderful long term therapist, and I truly recommend that everyone listening to this, get a therapist, if you don’t think you need to, you’ll have a great time. But I said to my therapist, that one, I’ve realised that the reason I go to therapy is to unlearn telling myself stories about myself, I most people go to therapists learn to trust themselves. And I go, because my instincts can’t be trusted. My instinct is to make a narrative out of everything. And I think so I do write myself real. But that also requires me to kind of constantly be involved in this process of underwriting myself. You know, I’m so proud of what this book is now, and I’m so proud of the shapes it’s taken. But once I gave myself permission to tell a story, not to tell every story not to tell every possible story, and to sit with the possibility that my recollection is fuzzy, or my recollection is wrong. Or I didn’t do the right thing. I don’t know earlier, you said a Bridget Jones, who always gets things right. And I feel that I really have not got the things right, I feel, you know, giving myself permission to write about myself as a person who is sometimes quite horrible, and doesn’t get everything right. You know, there’s another section in the book that I really worry about. And I still worry about, where I talk about in the Turkish eggs chapter, where I talk about how John being dead means that I can choose the cafe. And it was I did a lot about putting that in, I did it I went back and forth. Because it’s, it’s brutal to be like, well, one upside of the person I loved more than anything in the world being dead, is that I don’t have to go to a greasy spoon, I can in fact go and get Turkish eggs and Turkish coffee. And I wanted to kind of show in the book How complicated things are. And that wasn’t probably a nice emotion for me to feel. But also, it was true that he was in a wheelchair and didn’t have a lot of time left to live. So really just suck it up and go to the grocery. And I wanted to convey the complexity of, of getting things wrong and being not always your best self. And how, how being in difficult situations and grieving and pandemics and lock downs. And don’t always bring out the best in people, including me. I worry sometimes that so many cookbooks are so beautiful and glossy that people will think that everything’s nice.

Gilly Smith  18:54

Your first food moment is is sort of a counter to John not being there. It is about corner shops. You do talk about how John when he went into corner shops, everybody knew him everywhere. And so you were sort of dwarfed by him being known everywhere. But you can now go in and claim some spaces that weren’t yours before.

Ella  19:17

I’m just I’m just in love with corner shops. I mean, I think we’ll talk a little bit later about how much I love foreign supermarkets. But I absolutely love corner shops. I love London corner shops. It’s one of the one of the things keeping me and the capital even though it’s crazy expensive and I can’t have a garden or any chickens. It’s corner shops and a massive range of corner shops too and the way there’s this incredible so I live in Lewisham, I absolutely love living I’m I’m real Lewisham evangelist in southeast London. And we’ve got this thing called the Lewisham food world food centre. And you can buy everything and it says on the front, it’s got a massive list of all the countries where the food It comes from you can go get this fresh Turkish pee. I don’t know if rounds it PPD, I don’t know, the soft Turkish bread that comes in big long loaves. Obviously people on the podcast can’t see but I really am gesturing a huge loafer. But also think so it’s like things like that and lots of vegetables that you don’t get no BV at the supermarket, though you do kind of at supermarkets around here, because they’re kind of picked up on the fact there are lots of different cultures and lots of different people buying stuff in Sainsbury’s. But, you know, you can get like, not that I have, but you could buy a whole sheep’s head, which is, you know, it’s a startling to come face to face with the dead sheep. I have always been very aware of where food comes from. And I feel like sometimes in big supermarkets, you can be less aware of that. And one reason I really like going to different kinds of butcher shop, for instance, is because it’s like there’s a sheep’s head, and there’s it’s inside. And there’s structures, it’s real and it’s alive, or it’s not it’s real, but it’s part of the process of living and dying, which is so much a part of kind of coming get kind of getting to grips with the idea that death is part of life and life’s part of death. And they’re the same thing and it just keeps going. And also I love that you can do that. And at the same time you can walk into the corner shop and buy like a big tub of Betty Crocker frosting. I think there’s two really solid recipes for icing for cakes in this book. And am I ever going to use them again, I don’t know. I’ve just discovered Betty Crocker frosting and everyone loves it.

Gilly Smith  21:15

It was also a way for you to travel during the pandemic and for all of us using our corner shops, you know, buying all sorts of wonderful things that we probably wouldn’t have seen the supermarket

Ella  21:24

Totally. We can also, in corner shops, you can buy frozen parathas which are my favourite thing in the world. I mean, I would really struggle being sort of more than 10 minutes away from a frozen paratha

Gilly Smith  21:34

But you were able to write yourself to Paris and you go to your to Paris in your second to food moment the Paris aubergines. Tell us about writing that real.

Ella  21:45

So the thing about the Paris aubergines is that they’re nothing to do with Paris except the my friend who is called Zelda in the book, so everyone’s got a pseudonym, I let everybody choose their favourite name. I said to everyone, basically everyone, there’s some people who’ve got a good tiny cameo par But I kept their names but mostly I was like, What did you want to be called? When you were a kid? What did you want to be called? Three of my friends separately, were like, oh, Zelda for sure. And I was like, right, I’ve already got up because you could have to go over your second choice. But my friend in the who have real name is Fiona. She is a fantastic cook. And eagle eyed listeners will remember that there is her bagel recipe appears in my chicken. She’s a fantastic cook. And I would love her to write a cookbook. But she makes this incredible opening thing. And because she lives in Paris, that’s what we eat in Paris. So this aubergine which is like it’s kind of Vietnamese, maybe it’s called like fish sauce and lime. It’s kind of Southeast Asian and it’s like very bright way and you cook like the cook rice really well. So it’s kind of you know, when you can make the rice and little firm bulk balls of it. What I wanted to do with this recipe was write about my Paris so I lived in Paris for a year when I was in my late teens. And I lived there with my dear friend and we just had a general ball so I got really good at supermarkets and clothes and and then obviously I have friends still in Paris, which means that for me, travelling to France tends to be a thing of will go where they want to go or switch means Chinese restaurants. It means you know, monetary so is a kind of a different way of looking at the world. And what’s nice is that that is how I love to travel best. What I really liked is pretending I lived somewhere. You know, I went to the seaside. I went to Kent this weekend and I spent the entire time on Rightmove for Ken even though as I say, I really like London, just saying to my flatmate. No, but look, look, look at this one, we could just move now we could just we could go to this greengrocer every day. And I had to say, Look, I need you to just tolerate me for the rest of this weekend by the sea. I’m going to be saying things like I always go to this greengrocer

Gilly Smith  23:52

You live in your imagination a lot in this book. And it feels like very often the recipes are where you land. You You know you’re you’re visiting Paris in your imagination, or you might be planning something or but the recipes land you is that what it feels like for you?

Ella  24:09

I don’t know. It’s funny when you say that it’s very imaginative because I don’t think of myself as particularly imaginative. You know, I find it very difficult to imagine, like visual things at all. I guess that’s one reason I write is to kind of imagine stuff,

Gilly Smith  24:21

You go to a completely new town and you imagine yourself there you imagine yourself actually being a part of that grocer’s community. You are totally in your imagination.

Ella  24:32

That’s true. I think that I just find it very difficult to find to see a difference between imagination and reality a lot of the time for me they are one of the same. And I think that the food I cook then kind of ends up with this quality. The things people say to me a lot when they cook my recipes. I didn’t realise you could do that. And it’s like you didn’t know you could do you could definitely have got that. And I wonder whether that’s part of it as well. Is that I might Oh I’ll see you. That seems like that would work that there. These things would go together. There’s a bit a bit in this book, I think, with popping candy, popping candy on a birthday cake, and a number of people who’ve been like, wow, popping candy on a cake, and you knew that you knew you liked both those things. So yeah, I guess there is a kind of imaginative quality to it. I think also, a lot of us were forced to live in our imaginations. For the last couple of years, it’s been a lot of even people who don’t genuinely really think of themselves as imaginative people have kind of had to. And I think that when you deprive people of something so fundamental as human contact, there is, by necessity, a kind of stretching of the imagination, both to imagine what it will be like after and to reimagine a life now, where that’s not there, that’s not going to happen. And I think the same is true of grief. Right? You spend a lot of time imagining what grief is going to be like, when someone’s dying, probably not. If someone dies, suddenly, you don’t do that. If you do that, you probably have an anxiety disorder, I did that. But when someone is you love a lot is dying, you spend a lot of time being like, what’s going to happen next. It’s kind of anxious imagining, and then when it does happen, you’re forced to really imagine what your life might look like, you know, I had a very clear idea of what my life was going to look like, you know, I loved this one man, and I live with him. And I live with him since I was 19. And we’ve moved in together on our third date, we were, you know, very much, very much a unit and that was how it was going to be. And the imaginative nature that was kind of curtailed by this is how life is we’ve and when he was ill, I was like, Well, this is going to be fine. Because I’ve imagined it, that’s my life, you know, I’ve chosen what I’m going to do. And then when he did die What am I supposed to do now? What does life look like? Without that, and I think the last few months of his life were incredibly difficult and traumatic, he had a brain injury that was really hard to predict. And it made everything unpredictable. It made his behaviour unpredictable, it made my reactions unpredictable. You know, it made his treatment, incredibly unpredictable. It made his capacity, very unpredictable. It made what everyone around us was going to do unpredictable. And so I was in this thing was I’ve imagined a whole life for myself. And now it’s not going to happen. And I think we spoke a little bit earlier about fear. And I think I if anything afraid of accidentally falling into that trap again, that trap of deciding what my life is going to look like and then having to live up to it for the rest of my life. Life is so long, life is so long and full of incredible things that happen. And some of those incredible things are great. And some of those incredible things are terrible, but they just keep happening. You know,

Gilly Smith  27:54

They’re the miracles you talk about. 

Ella  27:56

Those are the miracles. Spring for me is this like incredible miracle. And I know how that sounds. I do know, please believe me if you’re listening and thinking Jesus, yeah, okay, we get it. You’re like that. Every year. I’m amazed. I’m looking at these dead trees, like there is simply no way I went out yesterday, as a tiny little bugs on the apple tree, it’s gonna be fine. And I do find that miraculous, I find that absolutely staggering. It’s just things you did nothing to earn. I did nothing to earn the fact that it’s all going to come back. And I think when you’ve lost everything really because when John died for kind of complex reasons, as I don’t really go into in the book, because they’re complicated and emotional. And everyone, I guess, is just always trying their best. I lost loads of other stuff as well. Our flat went and loads of possessions went live our kitchen stuff, knives. And I really was like, Well, I guess I’ve got some things, but not a tonne of things. And starting again, starting again, kind of practically, but also starting again emotionally. And starting again, with this reimagining of the world does give you a real sense of being like, Oh yeah, I’m great. I’m really grateful that this is here.

Gilly Smith  29:13

And you say that miracles are not born; they’re made. And it feels like that, that that narrative art leads to a landing place if grief is about spinning out of time and seeing things in fractals and memories of different time lines. One day, you do land and you become present. And I wonder if that is the essence of the miracle for you becoming present?

Ella  29:39

Yes, I think so. I think you have to shape and create the miracle if you don’t really get given miracles very often. I mean, I can’t think of I can think of very few miraculous events in my life that don’t ultimately come down to somebody somewhere did something Amazing. Yeah, John had a lot of miraculous recoveries, which was incredible. And was kind of a miracle wasn’t miracle. But a lot of that came down to the technology was developed to do this thing. Or think the NHS is an absolute miracle. I couldn’t get into therapy because cancer people wouldn’t the cancer like, Oh, your family members got counselling wouldn’t see me because I had tried to kill myself previously. And they were like, above our pay grade. And the crisis, people who you talked to when you tried to kill yourself wouldn’t see me because they were like, it doesn’t seem like you’re depressed, it seems like your boyfriend’s got cancer, that seems like a reasonable reason to be stressed. And it was kind of like I fell through the gaps a bit. And so my GP did this miraculous thing, where every Monday, she would just come in super early to see me for half an hour. Like I had not met this woman, before she diagnosed my boyfriend with cancer. I cannot fathom how busy she must have been to like, come in early to see me to check I was okay. And then she moved heaven and earth to get me a counsellor. Again, through the NHS. And that counsellor was incredible and wrote me a prescription to have a gin and tonic everyday, which is still the funniest like prescription I’ve ever been written. And he was just that I don’t think you’re gonna get through his word drink. I don’t think you’re gonna go to sleep with it unless you have a drink. And I was like, You’re right. But those are miracles, right? Every single step in that process is because people were making active choices to do stuff to make my life better.

Gilly Smith  31:29

There’s a moment in the summer, and it feels like a huge breath of fresh air. Lockdown is over. There’s that moment where you can get together and have a party. It’s only in your tiny little parking space in your back garden. But it is a glorious party. I wish I’d been there. Tell us about it.

Ella  31:45

But it’s a three person party, which is me my flatmate and my best friend. So I just bought this unicorn paddling pool, which is I would say big enough for one adult to sit in. If they have over the water come up to their hips. Two adults, if they’re incredibly close friends, I’d say three adult women is really pushing it you probably remember that summer of 2020 was crazy hot. It started in literally April and went on for ever. And we don’t have a house I was filling, filling up and down the stairs from our kitchen to the garden and pulling a gun with buckets of cold water and we just sat there just drinking Prosecco eating big sandwiches, crisps, crisps and anchovies. Focaccia, which is the recipe in the book, which I hope you make because it’s really super easy. It’s so easy. And it’s not that incredible, like puffy for catching up on Instagram with the huge bubbles is kind of richer than that. And it makes better sandwich than that that one tends to kind of crumble and flake this one is you get the flaky crust, but it’s got a structure to it. I was kind of panicking about that. And then I was watching salt, fat acid heat, you know, with salmon Nosrat. I was like my Pikachu looks like that for ketchup. I am fine. Because she’s so wonderful, obviously. Yeah. So it was this wonderful moment of friendship and coming back together. And just being in physical contact with someone was so nice. 

Gilly Smith  33:08

It is euphoric. It’s euphoric. And it and it also kind of, in the narrative of the book, it it plays a part in kind of popping this sort of very kind of it’s, I mean, it’s not a heavyweight book. It’s really not. It’s very funny. It’s beautifully reflected, very vivid. But there’s this wonderful moment where everyone’s just drinking Prosecco and a unicorn paddling pool. It’s it’s very wonderful. The 4th food moment is also very lovely. It’s about you know, you have grown a garden and you’ve grown apples. If this is your apple crumble custom cake, donuts, it’s all the things that we love in one dish.

Ella  33:44

I know.There was a long time where I was trying to make them apple crumble custard cream cake doughnuts, but it simply was too many was too many elements. Although there is a crumb in the book, and I really recommend that crumby crushed up custard creams, because it is absolutely knockout but it was just a step too far and too much sugar for the debt. Actually, in the book, I don’t have an apple tree yet. And I one of the things that one of the reasons I picked this because I wanted to boast about my apple tree as I already have done, maybe we can talk about that. It’s just this this incredible sense that growing apples was something I never thought I’d get to do in London, eating apples off the tree was such a huge part of my childhood in that I felt because I still feel affronted when you want me to pay for an apple, you know, they just grow. You know, you’re how many apples fall off the tree every day. I’ve talked a lot in this product that’s actually about the kind of pull I feel to London and yet this pool to live in other places to this poor of the countryside and so on. And being able to grow apples and being able to grow things generally has been a huge part of being like, Oh, I could do this. There are ways there are compromises. It doesn’t have to be either or I think in some ways that is the message of book really is that it doesn’t have to be either or you don’t have to You don’t have to pin yourself down, you don’t have to say, This is who I am. And this is who I’ll be forever. I think it’s difficult when writing memoir, because the process of writing memoir is, as we’ve said, appraisal kind of shaping yourself and shaping us up into the narrative. But what’s crucial for me is that it is always changing. This is a snapshot of a year in my life. And I can’t promise it will stay that way forever, I would never want to promise that I might completely change my mind about everything I’ve written. That’s the fun part, you get to have this, this beautiful writing memoir, for me is a process of have this beautiful moment, I have made it I’ve kept this thing as it was, or as I saw it. And now what

Gilly Smith  35:46

Yeah, it’s interesting, you describe yourself as queer. And you’ve talked a lot about sort of traditional unconventional narratives, you know, if if my daughter is queer, so should we talk a lot about queer worldviews and how you see things in a very different way? It feels from all the stuff that we’ve been talking about today that you’re saying, you know, don’t define me by any one thing. And then what’s so freeing, and what’s so miraculous, perhaps is about actually choice, being able to make to write your own story. I just wonder, you know, as somebody who’s been defined by the narrative, including, you know, falling in love with two men, what next? How will that queer worldview? reflect in the only expert of writing? I mean,

Ella  36:32

I think the interesting thing is, I don’t really think of either of the books as being a bit I mean, I’ll get to the sort of crux of the question. But I was very surprised that people thought my chicken was a love story about John, it’s about me. It’s about us. And for me, this book is, you know, it’s dedicated to catch my flatmate, because, you know, she is the kind of, she’s the point on which my life spins around, you know, we, we share a house, you know, I can’t imagine not living with her, if I bought a house, I would buy with her. And if we were to stop living together, it’d be like a divorce. In that sense, I don’t think of this book about as being about my current boyfriend, really, he’s, he’s an interesting symbol of life after and moving on, in terms of queerness, you know, I have been in love with a number of people, and two of them have been men, and the rest of them, haven’t. I and I think, I don’t know, it’s difficult, isn’t it, it’s why I don’t really talk about queerness very much, because I feel kind of, like I’m taking up space, that’s meant for somebody else, I can only kind of say that I’ve never felt ever, ever, ever felt like restricting who I was in love with, because of their gender or sexuality, which is, you know, it’s mad to me, it’s absolutely mad. You know, I know a lot of straight people, and they confuse me very much. I don’t understand. But in terms of what’s next, in terms of what I’m writing, I don’t know. I mean, think about writing memoirs, you’ve got to wait and see what happens. I would like to see what we can do to make different kinds of living possible. I am very lucky to have queer friends I feel find ways to film myself totally, totally blessed to have wonderful LGBT Q. People around me and people who model for me alternate ways of loving and living and things like being parents in ways that ways that I think maybe you don’t see if you are in a very straight community and have very straight friends and so on. I find I think probably the queerness is really relevant, in that you already know from being a very small person, or whenever you first figure it out for me, literally my entire life. I can’t imagine not knowing that the world is going to you’re going to have to change some things in order to get what you want. That you are already outside the rules. And I think I really fought against that in my 20s. And I think my my chicken is kind of a fighting against that having had a quick, quick, queer, late teens and you know, having been in love with all sorts of people and I really fought against it. I wanted to be normal. I wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted to play the game and win by the rules that I knew were the rules because I had fallen in love with a man and I think one of the incredible things about where I am now is that I don’t feel that same pressure to live to live necessarily by by that playbook. And that doesn’t mean I won’t, but I would like to go into it with my eyes open. You know, no one knows the future. I don’t know what I’m going to write you know, Cookbook 3, maybe I’ll get married to a man and have some babies and live in a little cottage and get a puppy that’s Sounds nice too. But I would want to go into it, choosing that, and I think that’s the key, isn’t it? You know, we’ve talked about making miracles and that really means making choices means making choices you’re happy with it can live with and knowing that at any point, everything can change.

Gilly Smith  40:17

Thanks for listening. You can read the transcripts to the show at Gillysmith.com and click on Podcasts. Please get in touch on social media. I’m @cookingthebookswithGillySmith on Instagram, where you can follow my adventures in cookery as I spend the next six months at Leiths online. Check the show notes and on Instagram to follow the links to get Cooking the Books discounts on Leith’s cookery courses. See you next week.

Sheila Dillon and Alex Renton: The Food Programme – 13 foods that shape our world


Sheila Dillon

Transcript

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

food, programme, food programme, write, book, butter, world, spice, dairy, people, rice, food hubs, renton, sheila, thought, radio, politics, alex, derek, emperor nero

SPEAKERS

Alex Renton, Gilly Smith, Sheila Dillon

Gilly Smith  00:00

Hello welcome back to Cooking the Books with me, Gilly Smith, the podcast which digs a little deeper into the minds behind the best of the food books through four food moments. This week it’s all about the Food Programme, not just Radio 4’s mighty series, which has been examining our food, its culture and its politics for 43 years but its BBC book by Alex Renton, taking us through 13 foods that shape our world.

Alex Renton  00:23

I’ve been a fan of the programme all my life and that kind of journalism that seeks to inform, entertain and add joy to your life which food should bring and go deep into why we eat and how we eat.

Gilly Smith  00:36

Sheila Dillon, presenter of The Food Programme for much of that time has written the foreword. Now we first met in 2017 for the delicious podcast when the Food Programme was under threat. Mass outpouring of love for the show, new presenters and now the book are just some of the results of that enforced rethink. Before we chat to Alex about his for food moments from the book, she reveals her own existential pondering and a surprising fragility considering her role as doyenne of food in Britain. We began by going back to the moment she heard the show for the first time.

Sheila Dillon  01:08

Well, I had been working at this rather political food magazine in New York. And, you know, that sort of looked at all aspects of food, but but really, you know, sort of the world development, food corporations, I wrote a column called Food Biz, which, you know, looked at all the financial journalism, about food, you know, that, you know, the FT and the Wall Street Journal, and BusinessWeek, etc, etc, and, and came back to Britain.  And then I heard this programme, Derek Cooper, I mean, I didn’t I’ve never heard of the Food Programme, you know, this rich voice came over the airwaves. And he was in this chap was in France. And it was, it was some sort of meeting some sort of arranged event between the winemakers of I don’t remember what area of France and the British console for that area. And that the the British consul was supposedly bringing great cheeses from Britain. Anyway, the cheese’s hadn’t turned up. And what they had was a dyed yellow cheddar is, as Derek Cooper called it from some, you know, from, I don’t know, Dairylea, or something. And it was wonderful, because her majesty’s representative was taken aback by Derek’s very polite comments that maybe these were not the finest products of the British Isles. And it was just a sense, you know, Derek conveyed the difference between our culture where food was embedded and was seen as a, as a great pleasure, but also, as part of life and Britain where food was seen, as you know, it’s just a trivial add on. And I thought, By gum? Or something of the sort. I hadn’t I thought, you know, I’ve never done radio, and I’ve never even thought about it. But I thought, you know, there’s somewhere I’d love to work. The programme then. It wasn’t quite so it didn’t. It didn’t go into the economic underpinnings of the food system quite as much as it has in the years since. But it was, it was remarkable. And it was the only honestly the only thing at the time that was taking food seriously.

Gilly Smith  03:36

You talk about Derek Cooper being one of those Bollinger Bolsheviks last time we chatted, you know, Bolly for all. And it really kind of underpins the the kind of the culture of the food programme that there was this wonderful world of food. But you were a much more radical journalist when you you have a real sort of sense of always had a real sense of social justice. And that’s what you brought to really exploring what the food industry was all about. Would you say that you kind of changed the culture of it

Sheila Dillon  04:14

Sounds immodest, doesn’t it but yes, I think I did. I think we were a good match. Derek Cooper and I, because you know, we used to write what we call the the hymn sheet and sometimes, you know, if we had a programme that delved into the financial elements of the food system, you know, he would say you know, I I don’t I never gonna grasp this. He was this as you say, Bollinger Bolshevik, you know, he came from a working class background just the same way I did. And he had a sense that it should be good bread for all good cheese for all that, you know, there are not to be two food systems, you know, one for the poor and one for every, you know, people with money so we you know, we work together really well and I’m You know, I learned an enormous amount from him, because I was more of a ranty person, you know, being involved in feminist politics.

Gilly Smith  05:07

But it was at a time when the supermarkets were really beginning to change everything since 1979 was the first Food Programme. And it was really the 1980s that the supermarket changed not just what we eat, but the way we eat. And that’s where the politics comes in, doesn’t it? I mean, you say in the foreword to Alex Trenton’s book, which we’ll talk about in a minute, that there are only four supermarkets dominating our entire food culture, everything along the food system from the production through distribution through to the way we eat. And that’s your bit, isn’t it? You know, Derek Cooper comes with that sort of idea that it good food should be available to everybody. Great. That’s what the supermarket’s also wanted, but in doing so, in delivering that promise, it unhinge the entire food system, is that a good way of looking at the last 40 years?

Sheila Dillon  05:58

Well, yes, I think it is, it is a good way of looking at it in the UK. But the bigger context is, you know what that happened to the retail food system, but then you were having a globalised food system behind that in food manufacture, and, you know, food sourcing, but But yes, it did, and, and the way it fitted into the Thatcher era, were, you know, this privatisation of everything. School meals, you know that it’s like the cost of everything, you know, we we decided that the cost of everything was that was the prime thing. You know, there didn’t seem to be an understanding that if you totally screwed up school meals, there might be bigger effects than parents having to pay less. And you know, and the price of all those things is really has, you know, we were aware of the price we’ve had, we’ve paid for allthat. 

Gilly Smith  06:56

Yeah, absolutely. Despite the sort of the, the real core of the Food Programme being about social justice, it did come under fire. When we talked last time, you know, there was a real anxiety about its future. The Food Programme had to be put out to tender and there were lots of Indies coming in with their new sort of millennials and they kind of you know, the radio for seemed very middle class and very out of touch. And the Food Programme had to really pitch itself for its own slot. A lot of food writers, me included, and a lot of food fans wrote to the BBC and demanded that the food it’s not and and we’re very pleased it has but you did take on some younger people, Jaega Wise and Leyla Kazim have changed the kind of the spirit of the Food Programme. How does it feel now after that existential crisis, which made you rethink the whole thing? Not just you, but your producers, obviously. How does it feel now?

Sheila Dillon  07:55

Well, it feels good. I mean, I think Jaega and Leyla are a fantastic addition to the programme. I mean, it’s more all encompassing. Now, I feel no apology for the way the Food Programme was before. Radio 4 was going through a process. It wasn’t just the Food Programme that had to justify itself. But I think it was really good for us to think because, you know, Dan Saladino had been there, you know, quite a long time. Dan is a serious journalist. And it was, it was good to question what we were doing, who we were reaching, where we singing to the choir. And Jaega and Leyla have added enormously to that. And during a lockdown. We haven’t met that much. But our Food Programme meetings online, you know, they just, it’s refreshing. It forces me to consider, you know, our audience. I mean, we thought we did before but I think we’re much better at it now. And, you know, like last week’s programme with Leyla, interviewing Jack Monroe, you know, Bootstrap Cook. You know, Leyla was really the right person to do that.

Gilly Smith  09:02

And it’s Leyla’s programme that has been shortlisted for Fortnum and Mason’s this year.

Sheila Dillon  09:06

Yes. I mean, I have to say that, you know, MSG didn’t interest me at the tiniest bit, I would never have done that programme.

Gilly Smith  09:13

Yes, I mean, everything on every board on every panel in every corner of the world, it’s always better to have a diverse group of people. Of course it is.

Sheila Dillon  09:22

And you argue and you toss ideas around, which is what we do in our Food Programme meeting,

Gilly Smith  09:27

The book, The Food Programme: 13 foods that have that shape our world by Alex Renton, did that come out of this big rethink about what the Food Programme is and to whom?

Sheila Dillon  09:39

I think frankly, it came more out of Radio 4’s rethink about, you know, how they could value and expand the audience already committed to the broadcast in the podcast. You know, I knew Dan was working on a book, Eating to Extinction that I thought was really fascinating. And you know, you’ve had him on Cooking the Books. And this just seemed to me Yeah, fine, you know, Radio 4 came to us came to the programme and said, you know, we want a Food Programme book. You know, I knew Alex Renton. I mean, in recent times, he’s written more about his family and his own experience. But, you know, he’s a very, as you know, of, you know, really good food journalist. So the book was a sort of conjunction of the Food Programme of us the team thinking, okay, yes. Let’s have a Food Programme book. And Dan was busy. I didn’t want to write it. And we thought, you know, wouldn’t Alex be great?

Gilly Smith  10:44

Yes. I mean, it feels to me like a sort of a whisk through the most important issues around food in the world. You know, we go from sugar and slavery, we go into the politics of bread and cocoa and tomatoes. I mean, it is 13 staples, that that change our world. And I’ve just done a wonderful interview with Eleanor Ford, who wrote The Nutme Trail, for example. And that’s a deep dive into spice. Whereas this is a chapter on spice amongst the others. And I wondered if it was an entry point for new people, younger people, perhaps?

Sheila Dillon  11:22

Yeah, no, I actually, of course, I think that’s exactly what it is. It’s to say,

Gilly Smith  11:28

isn’t food interesting?

Sheila Dillon  11:32

Precisely, Gilly, isn’t food interesting. When When Alex and I first talked when this was commissioned, I said, you have to read Carolyn Steel, you have to read Sitopia, the food shaped world, you know, that we all pretend that food is somehow they’re like the air we breathe. And you know, we don’t have to consider it. And what I loved during that little bit of freedom during lockdown is that we made an almost sci fi version of the of the front of my favourite programme, you know, we moved to the future. And I was interviewing Prime Minister Carolyn Steel, you know, they’ve been riots and, and chaos. And, and she’s suddenly at the head of this Sitopia party. She was a prime minister, and my, you know, kitchen turned out to be the greenhouse in number 10. But that programme, it know, it was it captured that and I and, and I think 13 foods that shaped the world, you know, sort of comes out of that. And I think Alex was inspired by by Carolyn, as well as by the Food Programme. You know, we had to how do you boil down 40 odd years of the Food Programme to 13 foods? You know, we’ve Alex has captured so many of the issues? Well, I think so, you know, you’ve you haven’t? I don’t know, what do you think?

Gilly Smith  12:55

I think that this is a great book to have on your shelf if you don’t know very much about food. You know, you mentioned Carolyn Steel, I interviewed her again recently for the Right2Food and she, we were talking about food hubs. And I’d, you know, I asked her to be part of the programme because of that vision that she’d kind of given of what could be possible. And she had mentioned food hubs, you know, after Debenhams, and Top Shop and River Island had all closed and there were the opportunities and there were the food hubs actually moving in, there’s the vision actually happening. And when I was talking to her about where we are now, she was talking about dial up foods, you know, she has a wonderful way of, of sort of, you know, using words to express whole moments that have happened in history. And I would love to see that kind of thing in a in a Food Programme book, which is, you know, I mean, I wonder if there may be more people who have been listening to the Food Programme for a long time, may want to have a deep dive into some of those programmes. So you know, Leyla, for example, did a wonderful programme recently for the food programme about those whizzy grocery bike things, you know, delivered to your door, dial up food is current and still calls it I’d love to see a book about the changing face of deliveries, for example, you know, if anything, I’m Why are you not writing it Sheila? Your forward is absolutely jumping off the page.

Sheila Dillon  14:17

Listen, Gilly, years of therapy have followed from my asking that question. I’m the perfect person to work in radio where you have a short deadline and you know, to write a script. I can’t answer it. Really. I mean, you know, I’m not joking about the therapy. You know, you go Oh, Michael Pollen, Bee Wilson, Joanna Blythman, Felicity Lawrence, they’ve written those books. Why would I write that book?

Gilly Smith  14:47

Because we want to hear your voice. Genuinely. I mean, you know, I talked to Dan about how difficult it was to find his voice. When he was actually writing Eating to Extinction. He really struggled with that he’s been writing for radio for years. And yet he didn’t know what his voice looked like on the page. And I think that that’s the point, isn’t it? But the utter joy when you do find that, and can communicate with an audience that already loves you, and wants, listens to what you think all the time. may well love to read your work. I certainly wish you well

Sheila Dillon  15:25

You’re very nice, Gilly. Um, no, I agree. I mean, I know damn struggled and, and he says, Now, you know, I don’t know how I wrote that book.

Gilly Smith  15:34

If you were to write Sheila, I mean, you’ve clearly thought about it. Even if you are wracked with anxiety at the very thought of it, would you want to write what would you want to say you are in a prime position of being able to look back over an extraordinary period of food history?

Sheila Dillon  15:53

Yeah, I mean, that’s what I want to write that. That’s, you know, the world changed, the world changed rough food, and I was a journalist who was documenting it at the time, I know what it felt like. And that’s what I would like to write to say, look, you know, this is, this was the world, you know, that I grew up in, and it was fairly, you know, it seemed like a stable world. And then it all changed dramatically. And this is, this is, these were the change points. And, you know, I’ve been interested in in doing it, you know, in terms of a kind of memoir, attached to an account of something serious. And, you know, that’s how I’ve thought of writing it. Because, you know, when you asked me that question in 2017, you know, I had a moment where I was, you know, I was a journalist, I was in New York, I was writing about feminist things. I was writing for Conde Nast, I was, and then suddenly, something happened. And I, you know, I’d always been a greedy cook, and liked food. And, you know, I grew up in the countryside, and, and then suddenly, I just thought, bloody hell, you know, food really, really matters politically, it matters, it tells you about the world. And that’s the sort of book I’d like to write, you know, but

Gilly Smith  17:19

What would it take, Sheila? Come on, give us a little glimpse of what you’re finding out in therapy? What would ittake? 

Sheila Dillon  17:25

Well, it requires me to be in a really, you know, I you know, what, you know, you’ve written you know, what it’s like, it’s very exposing, and then you think,  Christ, what can be more exposing and talking on the radio too, you know, nigh on 2 million people, um, except that, you know, I can, I can hide and, and the way I feel when I’m writing, I can’t hide in the same way. And that my, you know, I went to a wonderful course about you know, about life writing at Goldsmiths college. And, and, you know, I got all this positive feedback, you know, because I was, you know, I was trying to write what I’ve just told you about the people that, you know, I was, it was, I wasn’t angry enough, there wasn’t enough anger in my writing, there wasn’t enough. deep emotion, you know, I was still hiding.  I’ll regret saying all this, Gilly.

Gilly Smith  18:27

Couldn’t you just pull back.. as you’re as you know, a radical journalist, that journalist who, you know, has always fought for the underdog, who’s brought out those wonderful stories of the small producers. I mean, you know, Tim Davie, as you say, in the foreword, calls, the Food and Farming Awards, the stories of those small producers, the beating heart of the BBC, and it feels to me that it’s the beating heart of Sheila Dillon too. Surely a beautiful book with your lovely radio voice, running through it telling the story of all these extraordinary people and cut through with this sense of social justice and the underdog against the corporations. I’d love to read something like that. How could that be exposing?

Sheila Dillon  19:11

Gilly, I had no idea this would turn into a therapy session. And I think one of the things that you could do apart from renting out your lovely house for yoga. weekends is you could probably do writing therapy workshops. No, I mean, you know, I’m surrounded by you know, my friends write books and you know, and anyway, yes, I’m trying but you know, I feel like it would be it would be death to the idea to keep to say well, Gilly I am actually trying but you know, I am actually trying.

Gilly Smith  19:43

There you see how tricky this business of writing really is. Happily, Alex Renton is a campaigning journalist whose work on poverty development, the environment, food, culture and food policy, made him the perfect candidate to write the book. I asked him how it felt to be asked.

Alex Renton  19:58

Just incredibly flattering, just so delighted, I’ve been a fan of the programme all my life. I mean, and that kind of journalism that seeks to inform, entertain, you know, add, add joy to your life, which foods should bring and, and go deep into why we eat and how we eat is just the perfect job. I was so chuffed.

Gilly Smith  20:21

I mean, we’ve talked about it as a sort of an entry point for people to get aways through all the politics of food over the last week, God knows how many hundreds of years but particularly how it affects the way we live now whisked me through those four main moments that have really kind of resonated for you, what did you really learn? 

Alex Renton  20:42

Well, Ithink the key was, you know, as you know, from the Food Programme, just how food has and remains intrinsic not not just to our daily lives, but but also the whole world treats and uses food kind of in the same way for pleasure and for sustenance. And that food will always be political. It’s really very hard to get, get out of that, particularly now that politics and economics and the environment have come together to, to this crisis that we’re facing, and putting it all together. Also you go in and the Food Programme has specialised in looking at this over the years is how you really can’t trust big food industry, you really have to go back to basics and remember what our grandparents did and, and, and take the promises of of the corporates with a big pinch of salt, possibly not artisanal sorts, which the Food Programme and I are not very convinced by 

Gilly Smith  21:35

Well, I mean,take that and how does that apply to something like for example, your first food moment is fats and oils, croissants, butteries. You say the lost and refound joy of animal fats. I mean, you know, one of the big impacts of the politics of food and farming is our relationship with animals, and therefore animal fats. Is that why you chose that particular food my

Alex Renton  21:59

thoughts and and honestly, it’s not the the most attractive chapter having it turns out to be incredibly important, not least because it illustrates it massive changes in diet and also some of the bad science that food industry has taken on. Yeah, I grew up with margerine because it was healthier. Now it turns out that the margarine was made was probably more dangerous than the butter that I enjoy today. And, and butter. And oils have always been a really good way of First of all, feeding us giving us the essential essential things we did not add plus things that we now understand like, Omega three, and so on. And using animal fats has always been a good idea. Not just for our health, but also because it cut down on the waist. And then you take all that science, which we’ve now turned on its head and people have begun to understand again, they shouldn’t be frightened of healthy, healthy animal fats. And look at things we kind of ignored. It’s just the cross saw great cross stories up to 40% butter. So is the buttery of the brilliant snack that fishermen in the northeast of Scotland, treasured, and we still treasure up here. I live up here today. And and so running through those things and getting to the buttery recipe, which is kind of a northeast Scottish croissant l pulls all those stories together, so it makes sense. The other thing about butter, which is always fascinated me is a lot of this research tells you stories of women’s labour in making that manufactured products of food before the industrialization of them that women were the butter makers on the farms. There’s an awful lot of the songs and lore and magic associated with butter and at superstition. Women get bullied over the fact that the butter has gone gone wrong or has or hasn’t churned properly.

Gilly Smith  24:01

You know that is your second food moment. I love that and you talk about the the kind of the way that women have been seen as food producers over hundreds of years that I was very interested in what you wrote about the dairy maid

Alex Renton  24:14

So dairy meat is enormous importance in Britain is a society that was built on cheap protein for coming out of the dairies. And then as the time started to grow, shipped into the towns by horse and cart and then on the trains. And this was traditionally women’s work and it might have been the farmer’s wife for or employed, employed local people and the dairy maids. This is labour that women get paid for a bit like bite like herring gutting was in the 19th century bit bit but also a trade it’s very much controlled by the adult men who ran the farms and dairy maids go have a hard time and the beauty of it is is also us as a culture of working women around them. Lovely the rhymes that still exist that were specifically there to get the rhythms right when you were swinging the butter and the barrel; “come butter Come Come butter come Peters standing at the gate waiting for a cake come butter come”.  And because but what they’re doing is crucial labour because butter and cheese is how you turn milk into something that can be, can travel can be sold can be preserved with salt and so on. So you monetize a car and really do quite a lot in the shaping of the way rural England rural Britain that we know looks today.

Gilly Smith  25:37

Absolutely. It’s a lovely picture of a time gone by. There was a lot of stuff in that particular chapter I really loved and I didn’t know.  Your third food moment, whisking us across the world: cooking rice the way rice growers cook it. Much of the research, I have to say does come from the Food Programme. You do actually you kind of reference it a lot. It is very much a Food Programme book. But tell us about what you learned about rice

Alex Renton  26:00

Well that was a happy moment where Food Programme or Food Programmes which I listened to a lot of which was a great joy. It came together with my food journalist life. I lived in Asia for five years working for Oxfam on often on food and poverty and famine stories and got very excited particularly going to Cambodia learning traditional ways of using rice and dealing with rice. And one of the things I realised now, which I think people are getting aware of is that what we do with rice is kind of appalling to people who people who grow rice and eat it every single day. There’s a lovely bit of YouTube somewhere of a Chinese chef, I know going going and then you drain the water off the rice. What’s that about? So I spent some time with a Thai or Thai chef showing me exactly how he did it. And of course, the principle that you the rice should kind of boil dry and then it’s ready. That way you retain all the goodness and the nutrients and the flavour. Well, it’s always worth going back to the first people to use these these things to find out the find out the best way of doing them always need enlightening. And that’s a good food programme principle.

Gilly Smith  27:15

Yeah, absolutely. And your final food moment is about the spices. Why did you pick this one out of the 13 staples that you you go through in the book as one of your food moments.

Alex Renton  27:26

I mean, the chapter is called spice but it is really heat. That’s what we looked at most. And I think we just went but he doesn’t have food and you can well, it’s pretty crucial. So I looked at the hot spices, you know, from pepper and chilli through to turmeric, really because as you know, you can write an entire book about nutmeg. And I didn’t have the chance to do that. So I was fascinated by what hot spice does to us chemically. Why we’ve sorted out about the amazing way that a chilli in fact discovered in the, or dscovered by an European for Europeans in the 1490s gets all the way around the world in about 70 years and then of course becomes known in Asian cuisine. But Sheila Dillon really and a programme she made about turmeric really sparked ..Sheila, you know, had uses it herself for health reasons. And it’s been huge in Ayurvedic medicine. And of course, is this extraordinary colour. That’s really why we know it. What I did stumbled across which absolutely delighted me was the last spices, the great herbs and flavours that our ancestors knew which have now disappeared forever. And I’d made a little list of them. And perhaps one day I’ll try and seek them out. There’s something good silphium of so which appears in Latin and Greek authors again and again. And the Emperor Nero was such of love this, this goal may perfume, North African spice so much that he ate all of it was none left. But when the Emperor Nero, the one who burnt down Rome had finished. And perhaps it’s the first plant that was rendered extinct by by human greed. And there are others particularly in the Middle Ages, where we treasured spices in a different way. Like zeodary and spikenard and hyssop and costus, huge in in in late mediaeval and that sort of 18th century somebody essentially recipes but but you know, who where are they now who uses them? So I’m really determined to track down the Himalayan honeysuckle known as  spikenard which mediaeval cooks loved, and even the Romans did. Lost spices I think, and there may be a book in that.

Gilly Smith  29:41

Thanks for listening. You can read the transcripts to the show at gillysmith.com and just click on podcasts. Please do get in touch on social media. I’m @cookingthbookswithgillySmith on Instagram, where you can also now followed my adventures in cookery. As I spend the next six months at Leiths online. Check the show notes and on Instagram for full details to get your own cooking the books discounts on these cookery courses. And I’ll see you next week when I’m with Joe Woodhouse to talk about his daily veg

The Fortnum and Mason Awards Shortlist

Image by Jaega Wise

Transcript;

F&M shortlist 1

Fri, 4/22 5:48PM • 45:00

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

book, books, shortlist, food, georgie, recipes, podcast, realise, write, won, people, feel, read, lots, clever, cooking, eating, home, award, life

SPEAKERS

Georgina Hayden, Tara Wigley, Gilly Smith, Mark Diacono

Gilly Smith  00:00

Hello and welcome back to Cooking the Books with me, Gilly Smith, the podcast which digs just a little deeper into the minds behind the best of the food books. Now, you must have heard my screams when I found out that Cooking the Books had been shortlisted for the Best Podcast in the Fortnum and Mason Awards. And this week, I’m with the judges themselves to discuss the books also nominated for these Oscars of the food world. Get your shopping list ready for the best books of the year.

Georgina Hayden  00:25

It’s such a beautiful book you feel like you’ve got insight into her world and I love the fact that the recipes aren’t intimidating as they as they shouldn’t be because Mediterranean food is very simple.

Gilly Smith  00:36

The judges this year are three brilliant food writers all of whom have been on Cooking the Books, and with the pick of the best in 2021 Mark Diacono whose book Herb was shortlisted, Georgina Hayden, who won Best Cookery Writer and Tara Wigley, who with Sami Tamimi, won Best Food Book for Falastin. I began by asking Mark what in this busy award season makes a Fortnum and Mason stand out from the crowd

Mark Diacono  00:59

It’s a really interesting thing because I think all of the food the distinctive you know, food awards that are in the UK all have their own identity and somehow the Fortnum and Mason one has gone from a kind of you know, fairly recent start to being really kind of very well loved very well appreciated. And I think one of the things that one of the kinds of pressures I felt was that the judging process is really well respected you know, it’s really solid it’s very thorough everybody you know, even before I kind of got into this  kind of thing you know, it was just it was very aware that it was very well respected and needing to kind of live up to that. And I think that makes it such a there’s something very comforting and very rewarding about just being shortlisted never mind winning the thing. Just being shortlisted is a hell of an achievement. I mean, it’s an extraordinary achievement. I was shortlisted for Herb and you know, there are maybe a few things that I think as a food book writer that make you feel like it wasn’t just you and your lonely room TINKERING AWAY. If one of them is if somebody says I’ve just made your whatever and it was extraordinary, that just makes you go okay, that was all just what totally worth it. But getting shortlisted and getting shortlisted for the  Fortnum and Masons is a big big deal. Never mind winning it just getting shortlisted is an extraordinary thing. And it felt very nice.

Gilly Smith  02:27

Well, we do actually have two winners from last year Georgie Hayden, Cookery Writer and Tara Wigley with Sami Tamimi for Cookery Book for Falastin. I mean what is it? What does it mean to you? Georgie were to get the Cookery Writer award last year.

Georgina Hayden  02:42

Do you know that, I I don’t think I’m someone who’s not often lost for words, which I’m sure you’ll all be laughing at, because you’ll know that be very true. And I was totally blown away. Like Mark said just being shortlisted is a really, really big deal, obviously. And to be in amazing company, you know, Diana Henry, Meera Soda, you know, very, very sort of like, Wow, that’s incredible. And so when it’s life changing, for me, it has been life changing. I’ve been doing this, you know, my whole working life. I’ve been food lighting developing 16,17 years now. And you chip away you chip away, like Mark says, you know, really putting the effort in and to be highly regarded. You know, Fortnums awards are huge. Everyone knows what Fortnum and Mason’s is all around the country. It’s not like a city centric thing. It’s massively widely loved establishment. And and that is just like such an the ultimate accolade isn’t it? It’s just incredible. And for me, it has been life changing as well. You know, I’ve been writing my books, I write my columns. You know, lots of people know me for my sort of Mediterranean Cypriot heritage. But the columns I write, I write about all types of food because I’ve always cooked everything. And I won it for my Waitrose column, which was just really humbling, because that’s something I really loved. I wrote it in lockdown with a tiny I was pregnant and then a very newborn baby and a toddler. You know, it was a really challenging time for everyone and to win it specifically for something that was really quite hard as well. You know, I was very I was emotional and then it led to something very life changing for me; it led to a TV show and the Channel 4 show the Great Cookbook Challenge that’s where my my knowledge was considered worthy as so it’s been life changing on lots of levels for me.

Gilly Smith  04:33

Yeah, yeah. Tara, was it life changing for you?

Tara Wigley  04:36

I mean, for for Sami and I it was just such a joy. We put our absolute heart and soul into Falastin for sort of two years. So it was it was such a great moment to, for it to be recognised. Also, for me, personally, it was amazing validation because my work on Ottolenghi books has always been in collaboration previously, and this was the first book with my name on the cover. So, you know, after the nerves of actually putting my own voice out there and then getting validation for that was hugely exciting. And also it was just a great party. I mean, no one had been out for two years and we were just like kids released in the Sweet Shop. 

Georgina Hayden  05:17

Feral is the word.

Tara Wigley  05:18

The sweets were Fortnum and Mason sweets, so so there were lots of very happy people having a great time. So it was a great night and a great prize and just Yeah, completely, completely incredible. A dream come true.

Gilly Smith  05:33

Mark, let’s talk about the Best Food Book. In the past, that’s gone to Bee Wilson, The Way We Eat in 2020 and James Rebanks’ English Pastoral in  2021. I mean, huge books. These are really important books. This is kind of you know, the big deal. And the first on the shortlist is A Curious Absence of Chickens: a journal of life food and recipes from earlier by Sophie Grigson, one of my favourite of the year. Why do you think that this one was on the shortlist?

Mark Diacono  05:59

It was it was really interesting because I knew sort of back of brain that Sophie had made this move, but I didn’t know anything else about it when the book came through. I just start I just gave it a quick note. I saw it come through I gave it a couple of minutes and then I kind of fell into it and that that was really interesting. It dragged me in I mean, I’m a sucker for food books that are soaked in people in place. You know, I really love to feel like I’m getting a taste of somebody somewhere some time and and the food and drink of that place and it really sucked me in. It’s got great recipes largely kind of unfussy, uncomplicated, but delicious. I loved the writing. It had some things that reminded me of, of Jane Grigson, her mother’s books, in the this is. I feel like I’m with her to have her her voice is there all the way through? There’s no photography, it’s really straightforward. No messing about book. It’s not going to dazzle you with design or anything like that. But I really loved it. The simplicity of it really went with the simplicity of the food. I love that sense of adventure. I mean, I listened also, after I’d read it, I listened to the podcast you did with it. And just that sense of the kids are gone. It’s an empty nest. I’m not going to sit around and wait for life to run out. I’m going to go and strangle the living backside out of it. And it was a real sense of ‘right. I’m off’. And I just loved it. I thought all of that sense of adventure and fun was in the book. The recipes are great. I just loved everything about it. I thought it was really a lovely book that got under the radar somehow. And I was really kind of pleased with it. I really enjoyed it.

Gilly Smith  07:46

Yeah, I absolutely. I think it’s a big book in terms of that sense of adventure. I mean, I’m totally inspired by it, I may well change my life because of it. I think I may well run off to Puglia at some point as well. Second, and this is again, your choice, Mark. Eating to Extinction. Now this is a totally different book. This is Dan Saladino: the world’s rarest foods and why we need to save them. It could have gone in the debut book actually, because bizarrely, it’s his first book. I can’t believe that but it’s huge. Why do you think it deserves to be on the shortlist?

Mark Diacono  08:18

I think this is one of those books that is kind of universally admired and respected and loved. It’s it’s a kind of landmark book, I think it’s it’s about the world’s rarest foods and why we need to save them. Yes, but it could have been dry, it could have been hard work, it could have been important and worthy. It could have been all of that stuff. And what it is, is, as you say it’s kind of its dance first, but which is extraordinary thing, but what he’s done is taken his amazing ability to tell a story on the radio and transferred it to the page, which is just not even doesn’t even relate normally, with most people, they can do one or the other if they’re lucky. But Dan’s written a big important book. With such a lightness of touch and such a beautiful thread sewing all the way through. It’s organised in such a lovely way that you really feel like you understand and feel the issues the people involved, all the all of the all of the involved complicatedness. Dan kind of lays out really nicely through, you know, dozens of food going through the book that are endangered just by our way of living. But the overall thing, the thing that I find really striking is that it’s an optimistic book, even while not ignoring any of the big stuff. I think it’s a real achievement to have done that and it and to have written it in the way he has with such lightness and interest and fascination. It just makes so much better his points and makes it so much more accessible. I think it’s a remarkable book. Yeah,

Gilly Smith  09:51

I do too. I mean, it’s winning all the awards all over the world as well actually. And I remember when I first interviewed him I interviewed him when he was when he won or – he didn’t know that he’d won, but he was shortlisted for the Jane Grigson Trust awards for Debut Book. And he didn’t really know he hadn’t really written it by that time, because the whole point is that you get prize winning money to go and actually write this book. When I interviewed him for Cooking the Books about Eating to Extinction, he said that it had taken him quite a long time to find his voice. And I’m sure that all of you will remember that moment when you first put your fingers on the laptops like, ‘I know what I want to write. But where’s my voice?’ I mean, how hard is that to find? Does anybody remember that moment? like he did when ‘Oh, yeah, that’s why I sound like.’  Georgie.

Georgina Hayden  10:37

I remember that really clearly, actually. Because when I first started working in sort of food publishing, and you know, food styling, whatever, historically, the food world felt quite elitist to me as someone who is, you know, very working class, immigrant family, I sort of felt like I didn’t fit in. And I really remember trying hard to have a voice like Nigella and Nigel who were, you know, the greats and they write so beautifully and so poetically, and it’s a 23 year old Londoner, with parents who bless them, you know, don’t always get phrases or sayings right, I remember being really confused and find it very hard. And you know, at that time, blogging was all the rage. I mean, I’m sure blogs still around. But you know, blogging was the thing, wasn’t it? And I remember everyone kept saying to me, you should write a blog, you should write a blog, and I just remember failing and being like, I can’t write. And I really remember my moment, it was, you know, it was probably good 10 years later, late 20s, early 30s, being like, actually just write how I speak. Because when you try, and it was something very, it was a real epiphany for me. And I just spent years trying to be something I was not, I think, especially when you’re someone who talks a lot. It’s it’s just really hard. And actually, that moment of being like, just, you know, that’s it. It was very simple, but it took me just a while to get there.

Gilly Smith  12:02

Yeah, I know, I mean, I first started writing when a magazine editor said to me, I was working at Radio GLR, ‘Can you write for me?’ And she said, ‘I know you can write because I hear you your words on the radio all the time.’ Like, I’ve never written a word in my life, but she knew I could write for radio. Tara, tell me about Feast your Eyes on Food and the voice in that one. Why do you think this will make the shortlist

Tara Wigley  12:28

I think we all just fell in love with this book, it just felt so relaxing and refreshing to read. It’s a really nostalgic, timeless book, it could have been published in the 50s, or the 70s. So it’s a it’s a visual guide. It’s a food encyclopaedia of more than 1000 delicious things to eat. It’s written by Laura Gladwin. And it’s interesting because we’ve got all these books and obsessed by food at home. And I’ve got three kids. And for that I’m sort of trying to get them intrigued and kind of hungry for all the varieties of food, it’s this book that we keep coming back to just kind of flicking through together and sort of a tomato, it’s not a tomato, you open the page. And then there’s sort of four or 567 different varieties. And it’s, it’s just a book you can dip in and out of, you know, it’s kind of eccentric, it sort of goes from kind of cheese to bread, to citrus, to to pasture, but looks at all the different varieties, these beautiful illustrations by Zoe Barker. And I think for the kind of sort of madness and chaos this book is just a very calming, lovely kind of solid

Georgina Hayden  13:41

I agree. It’s something that I go through with my young daughters. And I just, I remember when we got all the books in and this is the thing with the list as well, it’s very, there’s a real variety, all four books are so different. And that one again, I have a good time, it really stood out for me in a way to think oh, goodness, it’s just so different from Dan’s, you know, like, they couldn’t be more different. But but so important.

Tara Wigley  14:05

And other books where, you know, like Georgie saying, of kind of writing, being about having the actual confidence to be yourself and not worry that you’re not Nigella and Nigel Slater. And to actually get to the point where you can be confident enough to write such a kind of nostalgic and quite old fashioned book, or Dan, you know, this sort of madly ambitious sort of 10 year sort of in the writing book to actually have the confidence to have your own voice.

Gilly Smith  14:32

It does say a lot for the British publishing scene, doesn’t it? It’s there’s such an eclectic variety of books out there. I mean, it’s to me like one of those kind of nerdy books that kids read, you know, everything you need to know About beans and, and you know, you can rattle off facts I can imagine that that would go down with a certain kind of child. Omelette: food, love, chaos and other conversations by Jessie Ware is also on the shortlist. I mean, you couldn’t have more different books on the show. Yes, Georgie, tell us about this one

Georgina Hayden  15:08

I loved Omelette. I, they are so different the books so different and omelette is just something I think is such an easy read. And I don’t mean that is you know, in a way because it’s so wonderful. If people are fans of the Table Manners podcast, there’ll be familiar with Jessie and her love of food. Obviously she’s a singer. But I you know, I’m a big fan of Table Manners. I think it’s fantastic podcast and this is, you know, similar. It’s got Jessie’s humour. It’s a small book. It’s thin. It’s not, it’s not long. I had it on my bedside table and I, you know, mine the pie and I gobbled it up. I just read it very quickly. It’s a series of short stories, and a couple of you know, recipe here and there memories, anecdotes, with Jesse’s, you know, she’s very witty, she’s funny, you know, lots of famous names and people that you’d be familiar with. But not you know, I didn’t think it was like cringingly named Opry or anything like that. And I just loved it. I thought it was such a refreshing change. And also the thing is, I think a lot of food books, they can be intimidating. And obviously we’re all very into food. I don’t use my food, but we are we all love food. We all live it and breathe it. But I think it’s a book that has a mass appeal. Whether you are obsessed with food like we are or you are just a normal person who likes to eat, and your life revolves around the dinner table with your friends and family. I think it’s got a mass appeal. Yeah,

Gilly Smith  16:35

Absolutely. Let’s go into the Debut Food Book. Now this is one of these categories that launches people; in the past Olia Hercules, she won in 2016 from Mamushka. Now look where she is. Gill Meller for Gather in 2017. Samin Nosrat. Well, she did quite well didn’t she? Olivia Potts, who was my very first episode on Cooking the Books with A Half Baked Idea. Wonderful stories. Georgie, you’re going to start with the shortlist on this one; Fibre for Life: live longer and healthier with Nature’s Miracle ingredient by Khosro Ezaz-Nikpay. Tell us tell us about that one. Georgie. I mean, we’re there’s so many books on fibre.

Georgina Hayden  17:13

Yes, there are. But you know what, so like a lot of people obviously I love food, and I want to understand its impact on my body more, you know, I try on I struggle with a lot of sort of very sciency nutritionally food books, I get to the point where I have really good intentions by start them and by about page 2030. i They never see the light of day again. And I just found with Dr. Khosro’s book, I loved it. It was everything from his writing, it didn’t feel intimidating. He wrote in a really personal way. Didn’t use too much jargon. I loved I actually thought the design was really clever. It made it just not scary to read and flick through. You know, the colours. I know that sounds very basic. But I think when you’re writing about something like fibre, which is can probably be seen as quite a dull subject matter, or very sciency. He made it, you know, fun without being silly. And I love it. I think it’s a great book. I think there’s something that we can all take away from it, whether it’s lifestyle changes, little snippets. You know, he’s clearly very passionate about the impacts on fibre in our lives and longevity and how much we need and I probably realistically took away more from his book than many other books I’ve tried to read in the past.

Gilly Smith  18:36

I have to say I did read it from cover to cover and I even wrote a book about fibre back in the day. I still came up with stuff and went out and bought a bag on brown basmati as a result. There you go. If a book can’t deliver like that, I don’t know what can. Tara completely different. The Female Chef: stories and recipes from 31 redefining the British food scene by Clare Finney and Liz Seabrook, why is this one on the shortlist?

Tara Wigley  19:01

You know, I think it’s a book that could have seemed quite sort of dated almost, you know, sort of, do we need to have a book about kind of female chefs, but actually, the minute you open it, you sort of realise actually, that it’s a really necessary book still to have. And Clare opens with this starts with the the conversation about the difference between a chef and a cook. And sort of what makes a what makes a chef and what makes a cook and Is it is it gendered and you start you sort of use it to start with a simple question actually realise it’s, it’s really complicated, nuanced, and then you’ve got these 31 women working in the UK food industry now all over and realise that that even the concept of a female chef is clearly a really complicated, nuanced thing. And there are lots of different ways to do it and to be a woman working in food and there’s just such a sense of community and collaboration. And warrior spirit from these incredible inspiring women. And again, it’s a book you can sort of read cover to cover or just depend on out of. And then with every profile, there’s, there’s a recipe that the the chef Cook has given. So it’s also a bit of a kind of around the world in kind of 31 dishes just feels like a really lovely sort of slice of where we are now, kind of what’s happening in the industry, lots of questions being asked, but also lots of optimism and hope from women who, you know, as always, are getting things done.

Gilly Smith  20:31

Well, exactly. And when I talked to Clare on Cooking the Books, and, you know, we talked actually about you, Tara, as an example of how Ottolenghi has actually changed so many of the conditions for women in hospitality or in the food industry, well, particularly with the Test Kitchen that enables women to be able to work nine to five, for example, and have a family and you’re an example of somebody who, you know, your son didn’t know what to do with you. But, you know, you you are a perfect writer and interpreter of the Ottolenghi world. So there are lots of things to do. But it takes that kind of patience,

Tara Wigley  21:09

Yeah I know, the extent to which your time is accommodating is is, is, is extraordinary, really, and I’m sort of three weeks into some, some other school holiday now and it’s sort of it’s sort of something that would be a complete deal breaker for so many jobs, it just somehow works. And I can kind of cook and write and be engaged from home and I popped in yesterday, but you know, his his flexibility and his trust in, in people not needing to be kind of seemed to be working sort of at that time, he sort of knows that, that everyone is consuming food and thinking and creating and actually you could have your most creative idea kind of, you know, sitting at home so but ya know, it’s a complete game changer to have a have a job that is during during working hours. And in fact, I remember before I went to your time I was cycling up up a street having done a shift at Moro and it was about 1230 at night and it was in the snow and I was skidding along on my bike and I was about to get off about four hours later for these kind of 18 month old twins I had at home and I just had this complete moment thinking What on earth was I thinking that this could kind of this could kind of work or if a kid got sick in a restaurant you can’t just leave a part you know you can’t leave service because it just doesn’t work like that so so yeah, it’s a complete game changer to have a space where you can be obsessed as Georgie says by by food and writing and eating and cooking but also have a family

Gilly Smith  22:41

Exactly, there are lots and lots of dimensions to talk about in that book. Let’s go on to the cookery book category and past winners have been Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich for Honey and Co in 2015, Diana Henry’s Simple,  Sybil Kapoor’s lovely book Sight. Smell, Touch, Taste, Sound: a new way to cook, and Fuchsia Dunlop, obviously big books. Quite sort of, you know, putting again putting new ideas out there. Tara, you wanted to talk about Crave: recipes arranged by flavour to suit your mood and appetite by Ed Smith? Yeah, why did this one make it to the shortlist, do you think?

Tara Wigley  23:16

As with Ed’s previous book On The Side, it’s just a really clever, smart new idea which again, when you’ve got 100 or more cookbooks sitting on your your ping pong table, you realise how novel it is to have a new idea, but it doesn’t feel kind of whimsical. So he’s a really smart guy who can really write really well but he’s also got a good sense of humour and and and so yeah, he the the premise of the food is, is you don’t go home and think oh, I want to eat a cauliflower you sort of you think what am I in the mood for or what do I want to eat tonight and then it comes down to kind of the six different flavour profiles that he’s got. So it’s kind of spicy or tart and sour or rich and savoury or cheesy or fresh and fragrant depending not so much on the season but more the weather because you can have all weathers within different seasons. So for me it feels like you know when you sort of wear the right clothes or the wrong clothes, so you can wear a pair of jeans throughout the week but the way that you wear them is is different depending on on how you feel and whether you’re kind of at home in your slippers or you’re going out so that kind of analogy just really kind of makes a lot of sense for me when it comes to comes to food so is it is this clever pegs round which hang the book and then once he’s got those pegs he just delivers just really great recipes that feel familiar on one hand but they’ve also got a twist to it.

Gilly Smith  24:47

And they’re very recognisable, you know those six flavour profiles: fresh and fragrant tart and sour, chilli and heat, spiced and curried, rich and savoury, cheesy creamy, it’s like yeah,, I know exactly what mood. You’re absolutely right. I know exactly what mood I want to be in for, for those kinds of foods.

Georgina Hayden  25:08

Yeah, I agree with Tara. I just felt I’ve tried to cook from all the cookbooks, I think that’s really important as well, you know, like, we read the books, but, you know, the recipes deliver? And of course they do. And that’s a really great recipe writer. But you know, I it’s, it’s really where you get a book, obviously, the there’ll be cuisines that maybe are, haven’t been written about as much, and we’re excited to see new rights and all that stuff. But actually, to see a book that is done differently, but isn’t a cuisine like that’s really hard. I think nowadays, you know, to have that sort of a concept. It’s quite different. And I was just like, yes, that’s exactly it tonight. I want something cheesy tonight, you know, and it’s just really clever. So yeah, I think it’s a really, really lovely, I think they’re all great books.

Gilly Smith  25:50

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean up against med Claudia Roden. Mark, tell us about, you know, how those two can can possibly compare?

Mark Diacono  25:58

Well, you know what, it’s funny, isn’t it? Because, as Tara was saying something, you know, what it did with Crave was find a new idea that wasn’t wild and crazy. But it was like, why is if that’s really great. And it’s a book that you go back to get more out of all the time, it’s a really wonderful book, at the other end of the scale really, is, you know, and we’ve really valued those books, I think when people have been strong, original, the publishers have backed them, they’ve done something different. And the other end of the scale, what you’ve got is something that feels quite familiar. And it’s just been done really well. And by familiar, you know, what, you can have just the title, it’s called your own at this Med, you know what you’re gonna get, but it’s just been realised absolutely perfectly, every single thing about this book, I think, is just wonderful. I think. I love the voice. I felt like there was a lifetime of experience and of knowledge that had been poured into it. It’s been when I say, beautifully realised, I mean, everybody else who isn’t Claudia Roden has showed up, and that can make such a difference to her. But you know, the design is beautiful. The photography, Susan  Bell’s photography, not just the food photography, but this, again, is a book a little bit like Sophie Grigson. And you know, The Curious Absence of Chickens where I just felt like I was there while I was reading it. While I was looking through it, I felt it felt very Mediterranean, all of the non food photography just works with the food photography really well. So you can’t get it into a shortlist like this, unless everybody involved shows up. And I just felt like it had been beautifully done. The recipes are, for the most part. very uncomplicated, delightfully simple, you could say, that leaves them at the mercy of the quality of ingredients and stuff, but that’s kind of food, isn’t it? You know, whether it’s disguised with another 57 ingredients, or whatever. I just thought it I just thought everything about it had been done perfectly. And this is one of those cases where I think a book in a familiar format that has been done absolutely brilliantly will find itself in the running for an award like this. And I just thought it had been done really, really beautifully. I love everything about it, the feel of it, the paper, all the details, they showed up and they did it. Well.

Georgina Hayden  28:17

I think you’re so right about the photography because Claudia let’s be honest, Queen Claudia as we should have refer to her, she’s just amazing. There’s like literally nothing she doesn’t know. She’s just an Oracle, isn’t she and the most incredible human being. She’s just so clever and gracious and fascinating. And you’re so right, Mark, because it’s a beautiful book, you feel like you’ve got insight into her world. And I love the fact that the recipes aren’t intimidating as they as they shouldn’t be. Because Mediterranean food is very simple, really, you know, I love looking at Claudia’s books through time, like how, you know, all of them change over the years. And it’s just, it’s just a great, great book. It’s just the best version of itself.

Gilly Smith  28:58

But the Cooking the Books episode on this one is just wonderful. I mean, I talked to her for an hour. I couldn’t bear to cut it down so it is an extra long one. And she told me when I met her at the Jane Grigsons and she told me about the next book that she’s going to write and I don’t tell you what it is just in case I mean actually revealed it but I can’t believe that at 85. She is I mean it’s one hell of a book if she writes this in wow I mean no you can’t possibly shortly she would just be an outright winner. I mean there’s no way let’s go to the last one mark this is your choice again. This is Josh Nisland’s book Take One Fish: the new school of scale to tail cooking and eating I mean quite the most beautiful book about fish I’ve ever seen in my life.

Mark Diacono  29:41

Yeah, it was interesting because when I when this came through, I was thinking okay, you’ve got a bit of a deal to do to get shortlisted because the first book, you know wallop. Groundbreaker. Really different to anything that had come before I felt in that kind of field. And it’s really tricky, you know, that second album, what do you do? You know, do you bring in the orchestra to strip it back and have nothing going on? You know, what do you do? And I just think he absolutely nailed it again, you know, this new school of scale to tail cooking and eating. It’s asking us to up our game in terms of the quality of the fish that we use and how we use it. It’s organised kind of, interestingly, by size of fish from kind of smaller to larger, which again, is it’s got something of the sense about it that it does with crave where you’re going, Yeah, of course, I’m either looking for something that I can just, you know, grill for half a minute and get out or that I can bake for two years while I run around the block or something. You know, there’s a lot of kind of sense to that. A lot of stuff about buying and storing. It was there was a lot of discussion about this one. And it wasn’t just the three of us judges around the table. There were the food and drink judges, there was Angela kind of running the thing. Yeah, Angela Hartnett. And she was, you know, she was she was very good at marshalling us into and out of arguments both ways. She’s very good at that. As she said, I’m gonna drop some bombs during this, and she showed it. And it was an interesting one, because there were a number of kind of opinions about it all perfectly valid, you know, maybe this is a book that my mom’s not going to pick up and want to use and all of those things. And that’s, that’s totally great. But I think there has to be space for a book like this, that’s groundbreaking, that not everyone will use, but that will perhaps be a bit like nose to tail was it will become shoulders that other book stand on as well. And I think it’s, I think it has that thing that I think is really important. And because we had so many books through the ones that kind of got shortlisted for the shortlisting, if you see what I mean, you know, made the kind of bigger cut were ones that occupied their space really well, whether they were original, wherever they were cutting new ground, or whether there was something like med that had been done really well or something like this by Josh, it occupied its space with confidence. And there were other books that sat around the periphery that didn’t maybe make that cut, where if I felt like maybe the author hadn’t been confident enough or the publisher or somebody the whole deal wasn’t fully occupying the space and this I think is a book. Take One Fish is a book that absolutely like a car airbag occupies the space that it has. Absolutely, brilliantly, and I think it’s another smasher.

Gilly Smith  32:25

Let’s really briefly whisk through the debuts now. Angela Clutton won for The Vinegar Cupboard. 2020 Callum Franklin for the Pie Room, 2021 This is about emerging talent, isn’t it? Tara, Baked to Perfection: delicious Gluten Free Recipes with a pinch of science by Katarina Cermelj. Why did this one make it to the shortlist for you?

Tara Wigley  32:47

I didn’t know of Katarina before I came across her book she’s got a really popular blog called The Loopy Whisk because if you like Harold McGee then this is the book for you. This is kind of Harold McGee with recipes to literally literally die for so it’s she’s she’s got a PhD in organic chemistry from Oxford. You know her her nerdy chemistry credentials are clear. But she manages to take her madly deep knowledge and create this accessible, really witty fun quite light to read book full of Gluten Free Recipes. They’re not naturally gluten free she’s not interested in kind of that this is actual recipe is for people who want to recreate all the kind of glutinous texture and goofiness of all the cakes and brownies and tarts that that she’s creating. And these are not kind of healthy recipes for for the set. They’re not being pitched as kind of gluten free, healthy kind of clean eating. This is the best of the best. I didn’t realise till last night that she’d done the photography and the illustrations as well. Yeah, I was like, I wanted to credit the photographer because I thought illustrations of kind of the illustrations are a little bit salt, fat acid heat.

Georgina Hayden  34:14

Yeah.

Tara Wigley  34:15

Who did those like oh my god, she did those as well. So it’s just incredible. And I mean, we could have a whole we should have a whole podcast on this book. It’s it’s it’s for geeks and nerds and people who like brownies.

Gilly Smith  34:30

Yeah, she’s up against Dee Rettali. I mean Georgie, Baking with Fortitude has already won the Andre Simon award. She’s a phenomenon, Dee Rettali, isn’t she though? The heft that she brings to her cooking.

Georgina Hayden  34:44

Do you know what, she really is? I mean, I’m a fan of her bakery, Fortitude Bakehouse. And I think this is a really really really amazing book. There’s loads of baking books on the market and actually to have to in the debut is quite a big deal.  You know because it is quite a saturated market, but both the books offer something very different; Tara  obviously Bakes to Perfection is a phenomenal achievement, is really clever. And I think the reason these book is in there is because, you know for me it’s a really unusual baking book. I love baking. I love making cakes. I actually the trend of lots of buttercream and frostings and ice creams and stuff is not my vibe. Dee is someone who bakes for flavour, her use of herbs and spices and fruits and flavours is so beautiful, so subtle and clever. I’ve made in I’ve made cakes in the book, her apple and tarragon cake is one of my favourites. And she has been around you know, she’s been doing this for years, she has been interested in the sort of organic and use, you know, her use of ingredients. And you know, she’s been doing this for over 20 years in London, at least she grew up in Ireland, and learned from her mother and her grandmother. And it’s just really clever. And actually I think if you hear the words like fermented or you know, sourdough it can be a bit off putting as someone who has definitely killed a sourdough starter that is qpparently unkillable. You know, that might put you off. I’m always killing mine, honestly, if we’re gonna say, but don’t let it put you off. Because you can do all so many of the recipes in the book without caring about fermentation because I just don’t have the time. And you know, I’m too scatty. And she makes it really accessible and really easy. And I think they’re just very beautiful, conscientious recipes that are just timeless, quite frankly and gorgeous. I love I love headaches. I really do. So I think it’s a fantastic and very clever book that I haven’t seen before.

Mark Diacono  36:42

No, both I mean, the just extraordinary and extraordinarily different. I think they’re just It’s remarkable that they should both show up in the same year. It’s just, you know,

Gilly Smith  36:51

Yeah, she’s kind of political about it. I mean, the way that she talked about it on Cooking the Books, it was just extraordinary. She, you know, she she comes from that world, as you said from Ireland where it’s real, but it really means something. It’s more than just baking cakes. Georgie you’re going to talk about the Sambal Shiok, Mandy Yin’s Malaysian cookbook, I mean, which is so beautiful. I mean, it looks like the best present you’re ever going to get, doesn’t it?

Georgina Hayden  37:14

Yeah, it’s an amazing book. And so I adore Mandy’s food. I think she’s brilliant. I’m lucky enough to have eaten at her restaurant in North London lots. And this one was really stood out for all of us. I think I find as someone who reads cookbooks, for pleasure, constantly. I often think restaurant cookbooks are a challenge. They’re not often the best books out there, you might buy them because you are a fan of the restaurant or the chef. But they’re not usually the books that are cooked from the most. And that is obviously because when you go to eat in a restaurant, you’re eating there, because it’s probably foods you won’t make at home. And often the very, very cheffy ones as well, you know, they’re probably the less used books on your shelf. However, sanbao shiok, I think is one of those books that will not be that book because Mandy has made Malaysian food through the book really accessible. She’s tried hard to make sure the ingredients are ones that you know, it can be found quite easily. Obviously there’ll be some specialty ingredients. And that is how it should be. However she’s made. I think she writes really well as a restauranteur for the home cook. And that to me is what cookbooks should be about. Of course, there’s a time and a place for cookbooks that are, you know, our pedestal ones have called the Heston and those kind of books are fantastic. But Mandy’s worked really hard on demystifying Malaysian food, you know, its heritage, that sort of Chinese influence Indian influence, her Malay background, Malaysian background and her restaurant recipes, but also done recipes that are her own recipes that have just been influenced by her heritage. I’ve cooked from her book, the recipes I’ve made are incredible. I’m over the moon with them. And she sort of step by step as well. And I think that’s also really important when you’re cooking a cuisine that might be new to us. So I think it’s a really great book, a great restaurant book and a great book for a novice as well.

Mark Diacono  39:14

Yeah. agreed on all fronts. I think it’s one of those that manages to bridge it doesn’t it between come to the restaurant and do this at home and I think that’s that’s quite difficult to pull off.

Gilly Smith  39:23

Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much, everyone. I can’t let you go, of course, without mentioning the podcast category, we’re not going to go through the shortlist. But can I just say thank you. Mark, you mentioned how important that just being on the shortlist is it is validation. Can I just ask just generally when when you come to something like the podcast category, I’m so glad that there are different categories finally between podcasts and broadcasts because there’s no way a podcast can beat up something like the Food Programme. But you know what, what are you looking for for your audience when you’re looking at the podcast?

Mark Diacono  39:59

 Bit like we’ve been talking about the books, it’s got to confidently fill its space. Number one, it’s got to kind of, you know, it’s got to have an identity. And it’s got to kind of live up to that. I’m not sure if this is unusual, but I don’t just want that kind of received wisdom of you shut up and let the guests get on with it. I like to build up a conversation, I like to feel like I’m earwigging on to people having a really interesting conversation, which puts an awful lot of onus on the host, to be driving the bus enough, but not appearing to be driving the bus. It’s a bit like the Food Programme, in that I will show up to the Food Programme on the radio, doesn’t matter what’s on. And that’s what how I feel like with a good podcast, the guest: great, magic, you’ve got so and so on. That’s brilliant. But I want the host and the show itself, the podcast, to have enough of its own identity that I’m going to rock up anyway. And there are a few that do that. And they’re the ones because you feel like it’s a bit like watching TV before the video was invented, is that you’ve got to be there when it’s on. And that’s how I feel about a podcast that I really like. It’s the same thing. Yeah.

Tara Wigley  41:09

So true, actually. Mark, I never thought about it until you’ve articulated like that, because it’s like the appeal of Desert Island Discs, you have the kind of continuity of the same interview every week, which you kind of tune in for but then But then knowing that they’ve got lots of interesting people, but I’ve never really I hadn’t I hadn’t thought about it quite.

Georgina Hayden  41:26

 You’re very clever, Mark. I hadn’t either. Oh, yeah, that’s exactly why exactly, yeah.

Mark Diacono  41:31

You know, what you want some of that person’s life,

Tara Wigley  41:33

But also with podcasts. You know, we listen to a lot of podcasts. And I mean, the difference between podcasts where people actually do the research, put in the work have the kind of setup compared to just, I mean, just guffing on was was quite extraordinary, actually. So, so there was yeah, there are podcasts, there are podcasts, I now realise having listened to a lot. Yeah.

Gilly Smith  41:57

Well, going back to what we were we started, you know, what’s an award for, it’s to up the game, I think, generally of all the categories, isn’t it? You get better books out of a book award, you get better podcasts out of a podcast award. So it is a vast list. There are lots and lots of people who will benefit from this. Georgie, tell us? What did you learn from the process?

Georgina Hayden  42:21

Do you know what, I learned loads as someone who’s been on both sides now of the sort of cookbook writing process, I’ve been behind the scenes, I’ve written my own. And it was fascinating when you get almost 200 books turn up at your house, you know, reading through them and, and it’s an talking about of other people. And we’ve all come we all come to the table with our own ideas and our own insight and what’s important to one, it’s not the other. It’s really, really fascinating to see what people take away but also what’s really fascinating miles we had lots of differences. And actually I saw Angela Hartnett yesterday and we were discussing it and having a laugh about how heated she said it was one of the best awards are the processes she’d seen, because we were all so passionate and we had really done the research. Actually, there was so many common threads. I think that’s the really fascinating thing about an award like this, like the Fortnum award about the way it’s judged. We all came to it with all opinions but there were definitely veins that we all were the same on and they’re the books that really shine at the end of the day because you know, there’s this they’ve got something special and whilst we might come to it from different angles, you know, we get the same, you know, winner and it’s just, it’s really great. It’s a brilliant process very clever.

Gilly Smith  43:39

Thanks for listening, and you can find out who the winners are on May the 12th. And you can read the transcript of Cooking the Books by clicking on the link to podcasts on Gillysmith.com. Please get in touch on social media. I’m @cookingthebookswithgillysmith on Instagram, and @gillySmith on Twitter, and you can sign up for my newsletter at gillysmith.com And I’ll see you next week.

Season 19, Episode 6: Kitty and Al Tait: Breadsong

This week I’m with Al and Kitty Tait, the dad and daughter team behind The Orange Bakery.

Kitty was just 14 years old when crippling depression didn’t just change her life but her family’s too. Baking bread was just one of the many things they tried to get her back, but it worked. And some…Just three years later The Orange Bakery is already a thriving business run by Kitty and her dad, Al , and their beautiful book, Breadsong tells the story.

Transcript

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

kitty, bread, bake, bakery, neighbours, people, story, realise, moment, paris, feel, amazing, gave, lovely, world, talking, brain fog, pesto, happened, dad

SPEAKERS

Gilly Smith, Kitty, Al

Gilly Smith  00:00

Hello and welcome back to Cooking the Books with me Gilly Smith, which has just been shortlisted for the Fortnum and Mason Best Podcast Award, I hope for digging just a little deeper into the minds behind the best of the food books. Each week I asked for four food moments from my guests which help us explore the thinking behind their books. And this week, I’m with Al and Kitty Tait, the dad and daughter team, for whom baking bread has literally changed their lives.

Kitty  00:26

How did you decide to drop out of school? How did you decide to homeschool? All of these things were just survival we were just surviving 

Gilly Smith  00:35

Kitty was only 14 years old when crippling depression didn’t just change her life, but her whole family’s too. Baking bread was just one of the many things they tried to get her back. And it worked. And some; just three years later, the Orange Bakery is already a thriving business run by Kitty and her dad, and their beautiful book Breadsong tells the story. I began by asking kitty, what that darkness felt like

Kitty  01:00

It’s really interesting. It’s something that I am constantly thinking about. But I’m not desperate to find the reason to. I know a lot about what it felt like. And I don’t know why it happened. I know that for whatever reason for the chemicals in my brain, my genetic material for the things that were around me. I just really, really struggled with depression and anxiety. And actually even now, it’s something that it doesn’t just go away, but I learned to live with and I have coping mechanisms that really, really helped me. But back then I didn’t. And I didn’t even know what was wrong with me. So it was like this brain fog. And I just remember just not wanting to get up in the morning not wanting to get have a shower, get dressed, eat anything. I just didn’t want to function anymore. And I couldn’t see why I would. And yeah,

Gilly Smith  02:03

It sounds like pointlessness, you know, you’re not the first person to talk about this kind of feeling that lack of point to life is somebody without like,

Kitty  02:14

It was it was very much it’s a nice way of putting it, it was pointlessness. And I couldn’t work out why that was because I I enjoyed school, I wasn’t being bullied, so many people jump to conclusions like social media, and oh, it’s so hard for young people these days and it is but for me, I had a really lovely childhood, really lovely life. And this was just completely out of the blue. Yeah.

Gilly Smith  02:39

And you do have the most magnificent family out. It turns your whole family upside down. You responded by by supporting her, I mean, in a major, major way. But what did the family do? First of all, when this when Kitty withdrew, it must have been terribly frightening for you. Presumably none of you really knew what to do?

Al  03:00

No, no. Absolutel no idea.  Again, it’s a very, very good question. I think. I think we probably chose not chose but we you know, families are busy, complicated, messy organisms. And there’s a lot going on at any given time. And there was a lot going on at that particular moment in time with Kitty’s older siblings, both doing sort of exams. And so we probably missed some of the obvious warning signs that were there. And then when things did happen. It’s just like being spun round very, very fast and asked to walk in a straight line. You know, you, you, you know what you’re meant to do, but you really struggle to work out which way you are actually moving and is it the right way.

Kitty  03:58

I loved acting, and I would always do school plays and I was very good at acting this smiley, easy, youngest kid who could just fit in very easily. And then when everything did break, when I did just become too exhausted. And it was literally overnight. I went from one day bouncing down the stairs and even though yes, I felt numb and empty inside. I could at least smile and I could at least function and I could lose take care of myself and look normal to the next day where I just couldn’t get out of bed. So for you guys it was overnight.

Gilly Smith  04:35

Yeah, it was only three years ago. I mean it is remarkable how quickly this has happened. Al, you tried all sorts of things. You tried crafts, you tried sewing, you tried poppies, you tried everything. You gave up your job, to be with Kitty and to try and to take her out of school which is a brave thing for a lot of families. It’s certainly worked for you but you know your whole life also turned upside down. You had a very successful job as a, as a teacher, you were working at Oxford with the dyslexic students. I mean, how much did it take for a father to? Well, one of you had to, to give everything up in order to school your daughter

Al  05:18

Well, it wasn’t it simply wasn’t an option. I know, it sounds very basic as a sort of response. But there was no way that Kitty could go to school, absolutely no way that she could sort of function and she was just about functioning in the sort of safest of safe home environments. And and we couldn’t we weren’t going to outsource this. It wasn’t something that’s that’s not how we function. And I don’t really think actually, it was an option. So it just it had to happen. So in a way, an awful lot of them momentum of behind the first sort of few years really of this story. It has been about just doing because we had to or doing because ..

Kitty  06:13

People say: Oh, how did you decide to drop out of school? How did you decide to homeschool? All of these things were just survival. We were just surviving; you’re getting through the day. And when it wasn’t possible for me to go to school. And it wasn’t possible financially. And for so many reasons to get else to get help. Basically. We had you had to stay at home. And for so many reasons that Dad was a stay at home dad when we were growing up. So you were used to that. We just did we just survived and the bakery again. How did you when did you decide to open a bakery? When did you decide to do all this stuff? It was just surviving. We were baking more than we could eat. So we gave it away. And then the more we live in with the more

Gilly Smith  07:03

The bakery came out of just another of those moments. Al, you made some bread one night and you you’d made bread before it’s not like Kitty hadn’t seen you make bread. It wasn’t particularly good bread that you’d made before. Kitty, can you talk about what it felt like to take that top off the no knead bread that your dad had made the night before and see something quite moving.

Al  07:29

I mean, at first, I was definitely definitely making fun of Dad, because he was so determined while mixing this flour, water, salt and yeast. And it just looked like wet concrete. It just looked really sloppy and really unappetizing. And I just could not see how he was going to make this into something edible. But you scooped it out the next morning and you put it into a baking turn and you put it in the oven. And again as I still really like making fun of him that Oh God, here it comes. And then he lifted the lid. And what was this an EPIC gloopy dough was suddenly this golden crusty leaf and the smell. Everything just made me feel safe. And I hadn’t felt safe for a really, really long time.

Gilly Smith  08:20

You write: “When he lifted the lid, there was this beautiful crackling, singing loaf that made the hairs on the back of my neck shoot up.” Just reading it again, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck shoot up. It was a moment; it was alchemy, wasn’t it? And you also say it was like the girl who could spin straw into gold. You know all those wonderful children’s stories that I know that you will read and had read as a child had all kind of come into this moment, Alchemy, turning something into something else. That’s what you needed in your life, even though you probably didn’t even know that at that time. And it was happening right in front of you. It sped you on to the most incredible story and energised you didn’t it? I mean, you do both the one of the things about your book is that you write half of it and your dad writes the other and your dad is watching this suddenly supercharged turbo driven daughter, who you know, only a couple of months ago couldn’t even get out of bed. What happened? What was that alchemy for you

Kitty  09:17

It was what you’re saying at the beginning, I just couldn’t see the point of anything. And when you can’t see the point of anything, everything just feels so dark. I mean, I remember waking up and there’s so much colour in spring, but everything my whole world just seemed grey. And what bread did is just brought back the colour. Suddenly I had purpose. Suddenly there was a point to my day, if that was to wake up to bake the bread or to be there in the evening to mix it for the next day. I had a point that they had a purpose and when you don’t have anything and suddenly have this really simple and pure purpose. It is amazing. It is energising and not only was I able to make something I was able to make some Then which I can give back to people, and they would love it. And that purpose purpose that came from that, too was just extraordinary.

Gilly Smith  10:07

Well, that’s extraordinary. And so yeah, you from your first food moment from that first discovering the overnight white, the first ever loaf and that moment of where you recognise what alchemy can do for you. To the subscriptions, take us through that. So what how did you get the bread to your neighbours in this lovely.. I mean, again, it’s like something out of a little children’s story, your village Watlington near Oxford? Well, we will talk about your neighbours in a minute. But how did you get your bread to the neighbours.

Kitty  10:38

So at this point, Dad had actually gone back to work and was working at Oxford. So often, he would then go early in the morning. So I wouldn’t have a car or anything like that. I had an old bike, and it had very bad brakes, but I had a basket on the back of it. And we bake the bread in the morning. And then I put it into brown paper bags, which we had stamped with half a potato, orange friend. And I would joke around the neighbor’s doors, it’d be fresh and warm on their doorstep.

Gilly Smith  11:10

It’s lovely. It’s very beautiful. But it’s let’s not forget that that was a big leap for you, wasn’t it because part of your depression meant that you literally couldn’t go out of the house, you wouldn’t be able to talk to people, you wouldn’t be able to engage with people and the bread was giving you a connection with people,

Kitty  11:27

It was a mask. And then that I could wear this mask. And even if I went out, I wasn’t thinking about who was looking at me or what was happening or how far away it was from home. I had a purpose to get this life to the next doorstep. And I was giving them something I was giving people a present. And actually, I could hide behind that. And that made me feel safe.

Gilly Smith  11:50

That’s so interesting, isn’t it. The second food moment, presumably took you even further into that area of safety, the comfort loaf,  your first invention. This is where the alchemy becomes part of your process, you’re owning something. Tell us about your comfort life.

Kitty  12:07

So the comfort loaf is a really simple bread, but it’s made with Marmite. I said at the very beginning we add a tablespoon of Marmite to the water. And it is alchemy, it does something to the bread that when you bake it, it doesn’t matter if you’re not a Marmite fan. It doesn’t taste like Marmite on toast. It’s something completely different. So the crust just is this amazing umami and it tastes like twiglets. And the crumb isn’t just soft. It’s pillowy. It’s so incredibly moist. I can’t believe I just said that word, but it is. And it’s just it’s so it’s an incredible bed. And for me it was the first time where I thought okay, see, I’m not just following a recipe here. This is my recipe. This is something that I have created and owned and the smell of it even to this day, if I ever bake it is not just like the smell of freshly baked bread. It doesn’t fill a room it feels a street. You can smell it wherever you are. And it’s just as gorgeous umami. I still remember it coming back from wet miserable walks because all walks were wet and miserable when you’re growing up and and having crumpets, and nothing tasted better than those warm crumpets when you are feeling cold and wet and miserable. And the comfort level does a similar thing doesn’t it gives you this tremendous sense of Kitty: comfort. Yeah, hence the name brilliantly named?

Gilly Smith  13:32

Where was the brain fog at this time, we talked about the total brain fog earlier, then the kind of the the mask was helping you feel better. With that kind of sense of ownership. Where was the fog?

Kitty  13:45

It’s a very good question. Because I think a lot of the time, it’s very easy to just say bread saved me. That’s it, bread cured my depression. And the thing is, there is not a cure to depression, it is not something that you can just shrug off that you can fix that you can take medicine for and it just disappears. It’s something that I still live with the brain fog, and I still live with today. But you just you know how to clear it and you have your mechanisms and you just understand and receptors there. And sometimes it can almost turn into a superpower. But at this point, I was able to leave the house. And that was really helping. And even though it was still really hard to get up. I was getting up because I had this purpose and I had to bake the bread. And I would get these moments in a day more and more where it would clear little and I would see a bit of sun and I could see the colours and spring I could see the yellows and I could see the greens and even laugh or smile or all those tiny things which I thought I had completely lost started to come back and not all at once normally in little waves, but they were there and I noticed them.

Gilly Smith  14:57

One of the things that really grabbed me was the going to Paris. You know, you’d become really into bread by now you’d read every book on bread you made friends with Instagramers as well, people were really engaging with your story. You wanted to go to Paris, but it meant going on the Eurostar and Al, you write about watching Kitty deal, you could you could hear her breathing you’re so attuned as her father, you could hear the difference in her breathing when she was on the train. How did it feel taking her away from everything that she knew into something that was so completely alien.

Kitty  15:38

Very scary. Very scary, because that that sort of comfort and security and safety, all these words that we sort of, have been using where they’re the bottom layer, basically, of being able to function. It’s the whole sort of Maslow’s pyramid foundation and, and going away travelling for sort of three hours when she’d only really sort of be able to manage maybe an hour at the most in a sort of small space, going to a foreign place and setting off really early in the morning and not knowing that we had a train back really late. Leave it Yeah, I was. Expectations were very low. But it was amazing. It was we had a brilliant time. And yeah, and visited some sort of fantastic bakeries, one of which Kitty has gone back to Yeah, a couple weeks ago. Yeah. 

Gilly Smith  16:38

But it was actuallythe kindness of strangers that that Paris trip was all about for you wasn’t it was about, you know, just immersing yourself in luxury. But tell us about what happened with Jess. Is it 10 Bells?

Kitty  16:51

Yeah, it was just so that was amazing. We, we went to Paris, and it was incredibly nerve racking. And it was incredibly stressful. But with things like depression and anxiety, for me, it was just about building up a history. And if I could do it once, then I could do it again. And it might be easier. And I knew that I just had to make this first step to build up that history and to do more. So at the end of a very long day. And we’ve done at least seven bakeries, we are quite full. I mean, we have an amazing ability to eat carbs, both of us. So it is not 100%. And we walked in. And most of the time we were just babbling and what we did a lot of thumbs up or thumbs down to people in French to try and like get across our language as our communication method. And it was just amazing feeling on walking in, you just feel at home. And we just felt really at home there. We couldn’t really work out why. And we saw these stacks of English bread books on the table. So it was quite surreal thing Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood in Paris. And we went to the counter. And then these are like the astonishing looking, dark crusted loads, the loads that you see on the cover of Tartine, which is my favourite bread book. And completely different to what you see in normal prison bakeries. It’s very, almost anaemic. They’re very, very golden, and they’re very light. This is a really heavy dark crested laaves. And we got to the counter. And Dad started to do a very primitive French, right, I need to turn around and this very speaker turned around, instead of talking back to us in a slightly better in French English. She was from where she from Manchester, Manchester, and just on pure Manchester, Basically sort of saying, can you be wondering, do you reckon I could go behind and just see how they do it? And I’d be thinking, Well, gosh, that’s, that’s, you know, my French goes about to the extent of a baguette. So I was trying to think how do I ask to see if my 15 year old daughter could actually go behind the counter to go and see how the bread is made and everything else and and then Jess, this sort of girl just sort of said, oh, yeah, she can go, I’ll see what if I can sort out. I’m sure they’ll let her and suddenly for a moment I did think actually I could understand French before I then realised she was she was talking in Mancunian and that’s exactly what happened with you know, she you were whisked behind for sort of half an hour against the exactly how we work, and that you talked about that kindness of strangers. That’s been what has punctuated our story all the way through has been just these little and sometimes big acts of kindness and empathy It’s a very small act of kindness but to us, it just feels enormous because it is inviting us round to see for them. It’s just half an hour talking to a very nerdy, geeky bread teenager. But to me that then shapes the next couple months and shapes, years, it shapes my life slightly. Yeah,

Gilly Smith  20:19

There were two things that I kind of noticed about that one was that it gave you a vision. I love the vision of you living with Jess and riding around Paris on a Vespa. That’s one fantasy maybe, but it’s good to have a vision, isn’t it that gives us sort of a future to somebody who’s suffering from the now. It’s really wonderful to have a sense of the future. Isn’t it?

Kitty  20:43

 I didn’t realise it and I still don’t I still have to be really aware of it. But with depression it Isn’t this like fog stay away. It can be tiny little signs, and I still am really aware of it. Now, if I stopped thinking about the future, if I stopped having these little dreams and fantasies, you might be fine. But that is it’s a little hint. It’s a little inkling. It’s a little.

Gilly Smith  21:06

Yeah, the light comes in. Yeah. The other thing that I’ve noticed, and I’ve spoken to a lot, I’ve interviewed a lot of bakers, and they all seem to be people who, for some reason have kind of jettisoned the kind of the, the world outside they are people who like to work with their hands, they are people who are very present. And I imagine that your story, or even just a young girl so fascinated with bread, I don’t need to know your story. It can it’s a connection, isn’t it? It’s it’s about something that’s very real, compared with so much of the nonsense of consumer world. And I wonder if, if you noticed, did you ever? Did anybody ever say anything like that to you? Did you was that a reality? 

Kitty  21:51

It’s really interesting, when you say it’s very present it that’s exactly what it is as as a life style lifestyle, but as as something that you do. It is it’s very, very hands on, it’s very well designed, it’s very nicely presented, but it’s very, very mundane. And there’s a lot of repetition, and it’s quite hard work. And then you get this 10% of magic, sort of 5% overside 5%. When you’re you’re thinking up a new idea. And 5% When you’re seeing someone eat that idea. And it is I think it’s extraordinary, actually as as a way of sort of operating, because you do have to live in the moment because you that’s that’s that’s where 90% of of the process fits. And then they would you feel

Al  22:43

it’s it’s an amazing career, actually. Because no matter what if you know how to bake, and especially if you know how to bake bread, you will never be homeless, and you’ll never be hungry, because you can go anywhere in the world, and now will be bread and there will be a need for bread. And there’ll be therefore a need for a baker. And that is this amazing. very unifying universality. Yeah, universality.

Gilly Smith  23:11

Well, it’s funny, you should use the word universe there. I was just about to say that. Carolyn Steel said something to me when I interviewed her about her book Sitopia, which you must read. It’s absolutely wonderful. It’s about how we lost our connection with food, but how her vision of how we could find it again. And she ends the book by talking about the mundane. And she says that she looked at the etymology of the word mundane. And it is Windows, the world, the universe, it’s everything. And it’s what’s right under our nose. And the fact that we have dismissed the mundane kind of sums up everything about where we’ve gone wrong. I thought that was really very beautiful. And I always think about that when I’m thinking about, you know, just needing or just putting your hands in dough. Let’s go into your third food moment. Grass pesto, one of the many disasters but it also connected you with the local ingredients. What I love about this is it tells you tell a lot about this wonderful little village Watlington which as I said, feels to me like some children’s story book. But outside of Watlington is Oxford and the Cowley road where there’s a lot of immigrant food and so you’ve got lots of people bringing the fields and the smells from home you’ve got Mizo and kimchi and all sorts of wonderful things, haven’t you and chilies and when you start kind of looking at how to put these into your baking I mean it expands your repertoire massively and Kitty you suddenly start being a superior cook. But it also kind of connects you with your own ingredients Pete things that you’ve grown yourself and that your neighbours have grown and people start giving you ingredients. I love this story. It’s it kind of comes full circle. It’s about really rooting and grounding. Yeah,

Kitty  24:57

I mean, it’s what makes me so excited. about bread. So many bakers is different for everyone, so many bakers. It’s about the flour and being very puritanical about the ingredients and simple for others, it’s about being able to make as much as you can to feed as many as you can. For me, it’s a mixture of everything, but a big one is to just really explore the world of flavour through the platform of bread, and being able to go to Cali road, and just explore and learn about so many cultures, but through something so simple as bread and flavour, and food. And the wild garlic pesto came from not only outsourcing to like you said, Callie road, but also looking around when we were on our dog walks and talking about what we wanted to bake that week, actually looking around us and saying, Okay, so while garlic season is coming up, why don’t we use something with that. And we still do now, like we get really excited, we’re very aware of the seasons, and we never were

Al  26:00

 and the best thing came about because basically, I mean, we said it’s one of our many failures. One of the things brilliant things about baking, is that you particularly when you’re baking a lot is you get to fail a lot a lot. And we are we have we have we have failed big time. And still do but each time you come away with a little lesson and the pesto, we knew about wild garlic being something that could make fantastic pesto and someone had told us where to find it. We just had no idea what it looked like. And so we found

Kitty  26:32

so excited. First try and I guess definitely they this person had told us almost in sort of, you know, whispered hushed tones where this little patch was because you know you don’t want to reveal your source. And so she told us where it was we got to the place where we convinced ourselves that we could smell garlic place and convinced ourselves that this this lush green stalks work was with wild garlic so we filled our baskets full of it came back made up a beautiful pesto, beautiful green, green, green. And then and then we tasted it and it was it was grass. Grass pesto. Absolutely disgusting.

Gilly Smith  27:21

Always good to find the disasters as you say because you can only learn from them. You know the way that you’re connecting with the land is also through the gifts of your neighbours Susan Fotherby’s rhubarb from her garden. Joe opposite brought Rosemary for your focacia. Paul gave you selection of his pears somebody else gave you hot chilli, somebody else decided also to start selling their duck eggs and their honey and their walnuts. So you’re opening up this world of hobbyists and bringing them into the Orange Bakery and getting people to see what’s under their nose again, this mundane you’re bringing out in in a very magical way. Did it feel like that?

Kitty  28:02

Yeah, a lot of it was is why we loved it in the back, actually, because at the time, we didn’t realise that we didn’t have that time to reflect. So we were doing what excited us. But we weren’t thinking about how it was going full circle, how we were really immersed in the community, we just thought oh, great move up. And now looking back, we were able to really take pride in that actually to go wow, that was really cool that it’s really cool and that we continue to do it. I think it’s this extraordinary moment as well of just realising where you fit in all that you do fit in to a sort of web of of connections and relationships and some of those are based on friendship with our neighbours some of them are based on the fact that you know we’re we’re we have other shopkeepers in the town or we use their products or even did just recently, we the one restaurant that we supplies is lovely restaurant in nearby town and they’ve just had a review in the paper in the guardian for their restaurant. And we’ve been brilliant and we love the fact that we’re a tiny part of their success. Yeah gives us a extraordinary sense of privilege to be involved in there much more impressive story. But it’s this, this web of connections that makes you feel grounded. Yeah, partly sunny and grounded. But it also makes you feel excited.

Gilly Smith  29:33

And Instagram has been a fantastic way of opening you up and connecting you and being able to tell your story again that wonderful ability to reflect I mean, you mainly post pictures of wonderful bakery products, but you know, people were really kind of getting your story and when you launched a Kickstarter, I mean now you’ve you’ve felt terrified at that point, didn’t you a Kickstarter to set up your own bakery? Oh my god, am I gonna

Al  29:59

make As much as terrified Yeah, absolutely. It was a bit it was an idea that was probably another six to seven years down the line.

Gilly Smith  30:07

But not for kitty. No, well, six or seven. Yeah, exactly. Supercharged Kitty was suddenly a huge sense of purpose. The result of the Kickstarter was phenomenal, wasn’t it? You raise the money and some, and you realised how validated you were by all sorts of people from your neighbours to pop stars like Sophie Ellis Baxter. Like orange bakery was born, Kitty, you right, the bakery soothed my brain and made me feel safe. I knew what I was doing there. And my anxiety never rode away, it was just a really happy place. It’s not the end of your story by any means. Could you have envisioned that in any way when you first started baking bread?

Kitty  30:49

No at all. I still have slight impostor syndrome now. And on a Saturday, and we bake everything. And I can see this line of people caring to buy the things that we have baked. And a little part of me just goes really today, cleaning. I’m not, I’m not a trained Baker, they know that. We are just doing this all off the host slightly. But it is a dream. And it’s more than a dream because we have worked really, really hard for it. And we still do. I mean, we love the baking side. And that’s what we show on Instagram. But we don’t show the cleaning, or the ordering or the endless paperwork.

Gilly Smith  31:31

Well, the book is just about to come out as as we’re talking to each other. And the press have already come running your full food moment is about one of those extraordinary results of the press coming running. A Danish journalists got in touch with you a bit after his girlfriend did see the orange bakery and Instagram and he put something out on Danish radio. And a little boy called Nicholas invited you to come over to Denmark to see how his granny Allah made her bread. It this is a lovely story, you and your dad went to Denmark and met granny

Kitty  32:07

Ulla, the granny. She looked a little bit like Tinkerbell like 70 She was this tiny little woman with white short cropped hair. And she didn’t know anything really knowing knowing this, and I knew no Danish. But we actually we understood each other pay very well, because all she had to do is plunge my hands into the dough and show me how she mixed it. And then show me how long she would put it in the oven for and how long it needed to be proved. And all of it just made me realise that I could do this I could, I could travel, I can meet people, it doesn’t matter if I don’t know the language, because bread is our language. And I understand that. So it should have been a horrible, horrible what not to do online catfish story of getting just as one anonymous message on Instagram saying, come and stay with me get into my house come to my house in the Danish suburbs. We can bake bread together. But it ended up in this really magical weekend. And because I had done Paris, I felt confident enough that I could leave home and go over the water. And we did any when we came back Do we realise how lucky and how amazing that we like the story was and how lucky and lovely that family had been to us.

Gilly Smith  33:32

You make reference to this book that you used to read as a child come over to my house, where a little boy with red hair goes into all houses of all shapes and sizes. And he meets all sorts of children. And he is out in the world. And it’s just such it really struck me as such a wonderful image, you know, there’s little kitty before the brain fog, dreaming of travelling all over the world with your red hair, and seeing all houses of all shapes and sizes. And then you know, the catastrophe happens. And then through this brain fog, you find your way to that exact story. It just feels incredibly magical. Did it to you?

Kitty  34:15

Yeah, it still still does all of this is. I mean, it’s fine writing the book. We enjoyed it so much. As big as we’re able to look back and go wow, that we have gone full circle. And we continue to go full circle even now. So like talking about Paris and going there two, maybe even three years ago and then two weeks ago being able to go back to that same bakery 10 Bells and work there for a couple of weeks. That was the really lovely full circle. Same thing in Copenhagen. Yeah. And during the same thing given me in Copenhagen. We randomly visited the family. It was so lovely. And we went to one bakery called Hart which was amazing. And then a couple months ago I went and I worked there for A couple months, and being able to do then everything going full circle is really lovely. And it’s really unexpected. But we also, I’m incredibly appreciative of everyone from the Danish family, to the journalists to the Australian Instagramers who helped us crowdfund everyone,

Gilly Smith  35:19

Kitty, you have no doubt that you’re going to be a baker for the rest of your life. Al, going back to teaching ever?

Al  35:26

I don’t know, I don’t know. It’s really sad. I you know, the the other side and much less exciting side to the sort of story really is been the fact that I have as a sort of middle aged man, I’ve had this chance to completely reinvent where I am going. So actually, I’m loving having the second chapter as as a baker. And it’s brilliant. And we’re, we’re we’re going to be starting some teaching. So that sort of brings the world together.

Kitty  36:01

 I mean, we will have people from our local school, which is the one that I used to go to, and for whatever reason, they might be struggling in classes, and then we’ll have them over for a day and we’ll teach them. And then we’re currently working on a pipeline gene, setting up a micro bakery in a prison. And you may not be teaching history or maths or English, but you are constantly teaching is a skill that you’re amazing at. And equally,

Al  36:30

I think, I think the interesting thing for Kitty will be that I think you’re right, I think she always will bake because it’s the most amazing currency, as she said, to sort of have around the world. But I think there will be lots of skills that she is developing now, which may not take the form of baking in the sort of future that you know, will lie ahead for for her and that’ll be the really interesting thing is to see. Yeah, how she builds on that platform of skill and, and technique and experience. Where it takes

Gilly Smith  37:05

absolutely, it’s a fantastic story of taking a left turn and just following where it goes. I’m convinced it’s a feature film in the making. Has anybody approached you yet?

Kitty  37:18

Actually know anywhere that we have got a film deal? 

Gilly Smith  37:22

Of course you have.

Al  37:23

There may be something happening, but I’ve got to make sure that you know that Stanley Tucci is free to play me. Got to negotiate card. Yeah,

Gilly Smith  37:37

so kitty kitty, who would play you?

Kitty  37:39

Oh, I think it would be like an anonymous person, like how I refer to go into the schools.

Gilly Smith  37:48

Thanks for listening. You can now read the transcript or cooking the books by clicking on the link to podcasts or Julie smith.com. Please get in touch on social media. I’m at cooking books with Julie Smith on Instagram, and actually Smith on Twitter. And you can sign up for my newsletter actually smith.com and I’ll see you next week.

Season 19, Episode 5: Nicole Pisani and Joanna Weinberg: Feed your Family

This week, a subject very close to my heart and the work I do on the Food Foundation’s award-winning podcast, Right2Food – how to change British food culture through children. Chefs in Schools is a charity which teaches kids from the very youngest age to love food by growing it school gardens and eating the kind of dishes that makes most kids run screaming.

Co-founder, Nicole Pisani is a chef who has worked in top kitchens around the world from Rene Redzpei’s Noma to Ottolenghi’s Nopi and, with food writer Joanna Weinberg, has written the book, Feed Your Family which tells its story and shares the recipes which are feeding tens of thousands of British children a whole new way.

Transcript

Feed your family

Wed, 4/6 1:31PM • 32:57

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

food, eat, fish, children, schools, kids, cooking, school, flavour, nicole, bit, kitchen, moment, primary school, teams, chefs, hake, produce, fire, cook

SPEAKERS

Jo, Gilly Smith, Nicole

Gilly Smith  00:00

Hello and welcome back to Cooking the Books with me, Gilly Smith the podcast which digs a little deeper into the best of the food books to find the stories behind the recipes. This week, a subject very close to my heart and the work I do on the Food Foundation’s award-winning, podcast Right2Food, how to change British food culture through kids, Chefs in Schools is a charity which teaches children from the very youngest age to love food by growing it in school gardens and eating the kind of dishes that makes most kids run screaming,

Nicole  00:28

We then took the crumns away from the fish and we called it  naked fish. And because we use a bit of humour and then you know, stand in a queue going ‘Oh my God, we’re having a naked fish’, then that was fine as well, because it wasn’t this sort of tug of war that you have with kids like eat it don’t I don’t want to eat it. You know, it was funny. So they went with it. 

Gilly Smith  00:47

Co Founder Nicole Pisani is a chef who’s worked in top kitchens around the world, from Rene Redzepi’s Noma to Ottolenghi’s Nopi. And with food writer, Joanna Weinberg, they’ve written the book, which tells the story of Chefs in Schools and shares the recipes which are feeding 10s of 1000s of British children a whole new way of understanding. I asked Nicole, how such an amazing charity started with a tweet.

Nicole  01:12

So I read a tweet by Henry Dimbleby, who wrote the School Food Plan, and the tweet was to be a chef in his children’s primary school in Hackney called Gayhurst. So I answered the tweet and said it would be great to be be put forward for the job. And before I knew it, I was in a school kitchen in Hackney.

Gilly Smith  01:34

So you were a top chef, you’re working with Ottolenghi, and it is difficult for women, isn’t it to work in hospitality, I mean, Ottolenghi is one of the the front runners and making it a lot easier by actually creating the test kitchen to so that women can actually work nine to five. But that’s pretty rare. Is that one of the reasons why you wanted to do something that you could actually manage your own time and have your family and, and live a life?

Nicole  02:00

Definitely. And I would have never left Ottolenghi to go and work in another restaurant. It was a perfect job. And it’s just that I, apart from the work life balance, I also felt that I was coming to the end of doing what I did for a really long time and wanted to do something different. But I didn’t know what that different was. But I think I had done. I’d been in restaurants for over 20 years. And I just felt, you know, the reason the love of, you know, service and the love of produce and the love of forming, you know, a family. I just felt that there was something I wanted that was different to that.

Gilly Smith  02:38

So fast forward, you actually offered your services to Gayhurst Primary School in Hackney and you began what has become a revolution in school food. 10s of 1000s of children have now benefited from the Chefs in Schools in 80 different schools across London now, and it’s led to the writing of the book. We’ll go into a lot more detail about what Chefs in Schools is all about, because that is what the book is about. Joanna,  I just want to bring you in here? At what point did you get involved in the project?

Jo  03:11

Actually quite near the beginning. Nicole had been working as head chef at Gayhurst for a couple of years. And she had this vision that if it could work in one school, it could work in many. And I got involved through Thomasina Miers, who is a patron who is the trustee and a patron and a huge supporter. She’d met Nicole and decided that she wanted more than anything to bring a version of that to her own children’s school over in West London. So we had this sort of coffee in one of the Wahacas just north of Oxford Street at sort of this epic moment where we sat around thinking, Well, you know, Can we can we do this? How can we do this? And we just said, Well, you do that Nicole you write the plan. And Tommie, you talk to the your head teacher, and I’ll see if I can get some language down around it and let’s just give it a go. And Henry Dimbleby, who we all knew for, in different ways, agreed to be chair which is absolutely brilliant once he put his energy behind it. He’s a co founder and it just kind of took flight and came together around this idea of just getting to as many children as we could to instil a love of good fresh food made from real ingredients.

Gilly Smith  04:32

And you’ve got some real heavyweights now in the kind of the whole food system which is so much more than just cooking nice food. I mean, Henry has since written the National Food Strategy for the Government and set up Leon with with John Vincent, who also wrote the School Food Plan with him. Anna Jones, you know, who’s a real campaigner for sustainability and food. Ottolenghi, he’s lent his his support. You’ve got some real heavyweights supporting what you do, and therefore it is literally from field to fork, isn’t it spade to spoon.  Let’s go through the book Feed your Family, which really contains the recipes that you use in the schools. And through those recipes and those food moments that you’ve chosen, we can really kind of unpack what Chefs in Schools is all about. You know, you set out really deliberately to blow the minds of the kids didn’t you, Nicole, you were using, you know, Moroccan spices and kimchi and pickles and Mizo and, and all sorts of the other foods any parent would normally associate with sending kids screaming, but you deliberately chose ‘The Journey’, and you capitalised the T and J to really sort of emphasise how important it is to take kids with you from A to B in terms of those foods. Tell us about your first food moment and The Journey of Fish.

Nicole  05:55

So I always love that I’m going to be known for The Journey of Fish, but we so from from day one, and I just want to kind of point out that I always taught that the child is the customer, so therefore, why would they not want flavour? Why would they not want to experiment with kimchi or Mizo? Like, why are we not giving them what we would find satisfying and food ourselves. So that was, for me, that was key.  I didn’t think that I was feeding kids, I thought I was feeding customers and wanted, you know, do my best at doing that. So, you know, first day, we wanted to provide exactly the same food that they were having, but making it from scratch. And we thought that that’s the way that we’re going to be successful.  So we took things like fish fingers, chicken nuggets, we took sausage and mash, and we just made everything in house. But obviously if you would, you know have something like a standard, you know, bought in fish finger versus fish from, you know, Brixham, which comes out of the water on a Wednesday and is onto a plate on a Friday, the flavour profile and that is going to be so different. So kids went from, you know, eating fish fingers to getting this, you know, freshly baked Hake in breadcrumbs. So that took a long time. So the journey was getting them used to the flavour, you know, understanding that, and I always say the be like, well, it just tasted fish, like exactly. And that that was the first step then we realised, you know, we were kind of not pushing boundaries anymore by serving fish fingers.  So the next step was like, What can we do to get them more engaged with produce, and we then took the crumbs away from the fish, and we called it naked fish. And because we use a bit of humour, and then you know, stand in a queue going, Oh, my God, we’re gonna have naked fish, then that was fine as well, because it wasn’t, you know, this sort of idea of sort of this tug of war that you have with kids, like eat it, though, I don’t want to eat it. You know, it was funny. So they went with it. And then the kind of last bit of the journey was that the fish delivery didn’t come in. And we always ordered big portions of hake. So we were waiting on a Friday morning, Friday at 10 o’clock, we’re like, you know, there was nothing in the freezer, no backup, where me and a friend of mine were like, well, this is it, we’re losing our job, and the fish arrived. And the whole fillets of Hake arrived. And we’re like, let’s just make tomato sauce, put them whole in the oven. Serve them to the kids, hide ourselves in the office, lock the door and then just you know, resign because there’s no way the children are going to come up to the service counter and see these huge fillets of fish like skin on. And lo and behold, we still had a job and the kids loved it. So we now the recipe which is baked hake on tomato sauce is coming from the fact that we didn’t have a fish delivery, we had to cook the fish whole. And the kids go up to the service counter and have this whole scoop of sort of with with a pair of tongs, they just grabbed a bit of this whole fillet and they loved it. So we kind of got known out of purely a mistake for the baked hake recipe.

Gilly Smith  09:21

And do they get a sense of where the fish comes from? It’s a British product. I mean, you know, I’m constantly doing stuff about why we don’t eat fish. I you know, I do the Right2Food podcast for the Food Foundation. I work with children living in food insecurity and constantly trying to work out why can’t we eat food from the land? And part of that is fear of fish. And it’s also about procurement. It’s about how you get hold of the food from the land. How are you getting fish from Brixham into a school in Hackney?

Nicole  09:54

I mean, we were doing a lot of work around it. I mean, the easiest solution and the answer to your question was that, you know, the importance of produce was key. And realising that, you know, the more you sort of brought in produce in its raw form, the cheaper fundamentally it is, when you’ve skilled the team, and you’re putting most of your budget into labour cost, and that fundamentally was a winning solution to us. One, the teams were happier, they were more invested, they were getting paid a regular normal salary for the job they were doing. They were feeling passionate, and they were getting inspired by the fact that they were cooking this food, you know, this, that skills levels increased, and the kids were getting a product that one was, you know, brought from the land around them, but to with as little, you know, intervention as possible. So literally, the fish is on tomato sauce and in the oven. And that is it.

Jo  10:56

I think one of the exciting things about the Chefs in Schools project is that there are lots of wins that you don’t necessarily expect. So whilst at the heart of it, it is about inspiring children to eat really fresh, delicious, natural, real food around the edge of that is drawing together produce from the land around the schools, there are so many producers, farmers, fisheries, who really want to support their local schools and want to get their food to local projects that really work. Then there’s also skilling up the kitchen teams. And previously, there are very little skills involved or required in the school kitchen systems. But actually, we have such an exciting opportunity to train more people into hospitality. And in this Chefs in Schools kitchens, the teams are actually trained in restaurant skills. So if it is possible that they can transfer into different areas of hospitality. That’s a massive win for everybody at the moment as well. Yeah,

Gilly Smith  12:02

Absolutely. And we’ll talk a little bit about the people in the kitchens and that, that really important family feel so that the kids are actually trusting the people who are feeding them. We’ll talk about that in a next food moment. It’s interesting, I’m literally editing a Rght2Food episode right now about Levelling Up. And the infrastructure in the North is just impossible. Transport Systems are just not there to support the infrastructure of getting food from the land to schools, or anyone actually, the vanishing high streets is a big Issue. Listen to Right2Food when it comes out in a couple of weeks time. Jo, we were just talking about you know, produce. And the second food moment that you’ve chosen is the edible garden. I read I remember interviewing Alice Waters back in the mid 2000s, about her Edible Schoolyard. And it made so much sense the whole slow food movement starting from growing food in school yards, learning through produce and eating the food that you grow. What a joy seems so obvious why doesn’t everybody do it?

Jo  13:05

I think one of the one of the essential things is getting children to get involved with growing produce from scratch. And in every school, even if there’s almost no outside area there are there’s the possibility of growing something if it’s just an a planter, if it’s some herbes I remember Nicole telling me once that she’d seen a little sort of preschooler in the playground, I think it was a Gayhurst chewing on something and the teacher who was in charge, went up to the child and said, What are you eating? And this sort of huge, big eyes looked up and said, it’s only a piece of fennel, Miss. And just the idea that they were picking herbs from the planters and having a good old chew on what’s actually quite challenging flavour was just really exciting to us. But that really came Nicole talk a bit about the edible garden at Nopi because it all comes together in this specific recipe.

Nicole  14:12

Orignially it’s actually a dish from Noma and the idea was that you did an edible soil. So you take olives and you dehydrate them and then you blitz the olives up with some breadcrumbs and you flavour the breadcrumbs with, you know, a bit of cumin and coriander. But you’re sort of creating this sense of intrigue and, you know, theatrical way of sort of engaging the kids and we like it as well. You know, Heston is known for this. And I guess for us when we go out to eat, it’s an experience as well as you know, eating food for sustenance. So, the recipe did come around originally from Noma and then we used to do it at Nopi as a crudite, so you get it on the table with it a little bowl, there’d normally be a dip underneath. The soil will cover the dip. And then you’d have baby veg which are nicely prepped in the soil coming out of the soil. And when you pull the baby veg out, you’d obviously get a bit of the dip with the soil but we thought what a great way to put these on the tables so that kids could you know. It’s a way of once again, getting them to eat vegetables, so they’re pulling out the little baby veg and in scores obviously, we do it with cucumber sticks and you know, maybe less of the sort of baby beetroot but more more of the baby carrots and you know, the kids pull it out of the soil, and they love it, they find it really funny. And I think one of the funniest bits was that then the midday supervisors have to go around the really young children and be like, you can’t eat the soil outside the school. You can only eat this soil. I mean, as much as I think they love, you know, the crazy experimental stuff we did there was this side there was always like you can’t you know, like, you know, building the fire pit in in the in the playground, you know, these kind of moments where, but it’s all about the engagement of food. It’s all about making food, you know, exciting and making, you know, food sort of yeah, just part of the conversation

Gilly Smith  16:26

Awe and Wonder. Awe and Wonder is actually in the curriculum. Did you know that? I remember when really Yeah, I was on the PTA when my kids were at primary school. And I was charged with kind of talking to the kids about the spirituality that they were getting and it was a great school. They did meditation first thing in the morning. The kids love just being really quiet and it was really sweet. The subject I had to talk to them about what or and wonder did they feel or and wonder in their spirituality lessons. And I thought then that’s what we need in the canteen, awe and wonder around food. And your third food moment is all about that, isn’t it, it’s about the pizza on the fire of the fire pit and the outside playground, mackerel on the fire, teaching children about real cooking flames heat. Tell us about that.

Jo  17:13

It is really exciting. I think one of the aspects, I think that awe and wonder idea is really cuts right through the heart of so many different things that Chefs in Schools set out to do. One of which is cooking over fire and just removing the barriers, because I think a lot of our culture, particularly around children has become very much health and safety and engenders a lot more fear than it does engender wonder and, you know, making all of that possible. Again, by giving access to children to knives to, to fire to the real essential tools of cooking, it is possible to do that without them hurting themselves. They don’t want to burn themselves or cut themselves. But they do want to really engage with it. And you need to get your hands on, on those implements and utensils to do that. So taking a fire pit outside, talking about cavemen talking about the purpose of fire and the purpose of cooking and, you know, the transfer the transformative effect of fire on the way that we’ve evolved as humans that it allows us to spend much less time digesting and much more time thinking and changing the world.  And they get so excited about that. And of course, then there is the sheer flavour of it, which has become threaded through the current moment in cooking. I mean, over the last decade, the greatest chefs have chosen to cook over fire, whether that’s outside and the kind of foraging environment in Scandinavia or whether it’s in the heart of the most fashionable restaurants in London, building fires and cooking into fierce ovens. And the flavour profile of that is just so exciting and enthralling, but also does just connect us straight back to our most essential selves. But I think on so many levels, it’s about removing that all the different processes that have gone into food one, some of them are about cooking, taking away the complexity of it and take it back to its essential elements. And I think in different areas, that’s the same thing removing as much process so that the children not eating processed food so that they are understanding what Ultra Processing means what it does to you and why you should choose. Real Food is absolutely at the heart of it and that and that cuts right through different elements of the project.

Gilly Smith  19:51

Yeah, there are so many things that I could take apart in that. It’s just so completely fascinating and right. Of all of those, let me just pick you up on one of them. You said that it was about health and safety and being too safe. And I was very moved by one of our teenage food ambassadors at the right to the Food Foundation on one of the episodes I did recently on right to food. And they said, she’s 14. And she said, we know from cookery classes at school, what we have to put in food, protein, carbohydrates, you know, we know all the parts of it, but we don’t know what good food looks like. And I thought that was so interesting. It’s like, there’s no picture on the front of the jigsaw puzzle, you know, they’ve got all the pieces of the puzzle, but they don’t know what it looks like. And actually, as we go into your third food moment, which is full of the variety and the wonderful, eclectic nature of the way we live in, particularly in London, but in Britain, how do you tell children what food looks like?

Nicole  20:53

I mean, we say that you eat first with your eyes. So I think if food looks colourful, well, that this is, in general, if it looks colourful, it, you know, it looks pretty, if it looks like it tastes good, then you’re going to eat it. But I also don’t ever want to underestimate I think we eat with all our senses. So we’re saying recently on how smell is also really important. So as much as we’re eating with our eyes, we’re also smelling stuff and wanting and getting intrigued by the smell of garlic of a specific dish, or the smell, you know, sometimes you could smell that it’s actually spicy. So I think apart from us eating with our eyes, and, you know, going back to the question of what does real food look like? I’m not sure entirely, that we know what it looks like. But when we look at it, we know it’s whatever

Gilly Smith  21:51

It is. It’s just amazing. It’s going back to that awe and wonder. It’s a wow factor.

Nicole  21:58

Yeah. And then sometimes you can have a simple tomato salad that you you look at it, and you think this is the simplicity is also stunning. So, you know, I mean, obviously produce go back to produce in sourcing. But also, I think, you know, food made, which is one of the main things that we say at Chefs in Schools is that we don’t do healthy food. We don’t you know, we just correct food. Yeah, we’d love whoever that is. Yeah, whoever that’s cooking it if it’s done with care, and with a passion and you love what you’re actually doing, then that is good.

Gilly Smith  22:34

Yeah, absolutely. Which leads us nicely onto that that fourth food moment, which is Tony’s Jollof rice, and SouSou’s Moroccan chicken and Sara’s Ethiopian casserole, the importance of the kitchen teams, this is really bringing out the family element of all these cook teams, because there are 80 of these schools now under the Chefs in Schools charity, isn’t that right?

Nicole  22:56

There’s so there’s a total of 58. But then we work with Enfield Catering Services, and the collaboration is with another 40 schools. So that’s okay, that’s the exact so

Gilly Smith  23:08

That’s so there’s even more than 80. But the same principle is in each of that, that the kitchen teams are people with names and personalities and backgrounds, and they serve up the meals that they might cook at home.

Nicole  23:21

Correct. And Jo, I know that I guess it was Jo witnessing and obviously putting it down in words. But we always say there is this sort of invisible glass that falls between the kitchen and the rest of the school. When you have this, you know skilling of the teams,

Jo  23:42

But the kitchen teams are such an integral part of a school and they are not always celebrated as such. But the people in who tirelessly cook for our children are off, they are feeding them. And often in many of the schools, the only hot meal that children are eating and the majority of our schools are 40 to 60% free school meals. And that’s only going to increase with the current economic environment and outlook. So the people feeding our children are absolutely crucial. And it’s very important that we know their names that the children learn to trust what is coming out of their dishes that they are human that they are characters because we’re trying to build a family into every school.  So so why wouldn’t you want the chef at a parent teacher meeting talking to you about what your children are eating? Why wouldn’t you want your chef to know that? Johnny is a bit frightened of peas and to be able to take five extra seconds to crouch down to head height, look at a plate of food together and say, ‘Hey, how about just having a go at three of them today’, because that’s all it takes, it takes a few seconds. And if you do that three or four times a day to different kids, they’re going to, they just, they remember it, those those formative moments around food are so massive, and as an adult you don’t, particularly an adult who loves food, or you don’t really think about the fear that some children have or anxiety, the the environment of a school, dining hall, all of that, the more negative aspects of it can be completely dissipated or dissolved by just having real people who know each other and building this family with food at the heart of it that smells good, that looks good, that tastes good. And that brings tremendous joy as well as sort of nourishment into the centre of every school day.

Gilly Smith  25:58

Yeah, it is probably the most important thing that we can do for our children, is to raise them eating food, that they grow themselves, and they learn to understand and take that journey, and learn to cook themselves, using your book and lots of other books and you know, and Google and YouTube and, and love food. And Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy hits at the heart of the way that we have to change everything, the whole fabric of life, and food is essential to health pocket and planet. Do you feel that these children will be leaving school? Understanding how important it is to eat healthily to have access to healthy food for everyone to cook with food that is sustainable, and that is inexpensive.

Nicole  26:50

Yes, definitely. I think as we know, the food system is currently, you know, broken. And I have always believed that it’s the education and it’s teaching. You know, it’s not it’s teaching choices, it’s giving the information to make the right choice, this idea that, you know, having an avocado flown in is more sustainable than eating what’s outside your window, is what we’re trying to teach kids on a daily basis.

Gilly Smith  27:18

A lot of the teenage food ambassadors, I work with at the Food Foundation say that at primary school, the food was better. There are more initiatives at primary schools. By the time they get to secondary schools, it’s much more complicated. First of all, procurement is a much bigger issue for bigger schools. But also you’ve got all sorts of issues like stigma around free school meals, and so children will avoid eating at school. There’s lots of fads staff, there’s lots of food insecurities. I mean, there’s lots of body issues. There’s lots of tribal behaviour. How could something like Chefs in Schools work in secondary schools?

Nicole  27:57

We do, we work in eight secondary schools. And I don’t think any of the schools actually have the same model. So it’s trying to find out what actually works in that school. We have one very successful model, which is family style, dining. All the kids eat all together. There’s one person who is allocated to serving the table, there’s another person allocated to clearing the table, those jobs actually get rotated, all the kids eat together, you get, you know, so I think that’s a model that really works. They have a breakfast, but they don’t have a snack, which I think is another really good choice simply because they’re hungry enough at lunchtime to eat everything that’s put on their plate. You know, the school doesn’t have a lot of waste in the dining hall. So there’s a lot of elements with, you know, secondary schools that do make it harder, it’s much more of a restaurant model. You know, kids come down, and they’re able to choose what they want to eat. So therefore, it has to be something that it’s not what we want them to be eating. It’s actually you know, something that is competitive to the high street or what they’re grabbing at lunchtime, and that’s quite hard to make sure that then that kind of does fit the school food standards and what you know, you’re not serving deep fried food every day. You are serving vegetables, you know, so it is really hard to get that balance. Right. And that menu, right?

Gilly Smith  29:22

And what about the stigma of free school meals? How do you get around that one?

Nicole  29:29

To be honest, I think that the school will have to just continuously work with the children outside the dining hall. You know, I think making sure that a child who is entitled to free school meals is taking them and if not then asking why. But I think it’s the whole school approach rather than it just being you know, it’s not a problem that should be tackled in the dining hall. Because at the end of the day, there is a sad you know, statistic that a lot of the children in secondaries who are entitled to free school meals aren’t taken.

Gilly Smith  30:03

This has been going on eight years now. So you will have seen kids go into secondary school from the primary school that you started from. Are you still in touch with them?

Nicole  30:12

That’s so funny. I was at Joe’s birthday party over the weekend and I met a student that I used to cook for at Gayhurst, and the first thing he told me he said, ‘the food of my secondary school is not as good as Gayhurst’. So that’s actually happened last weekend. But you know, eventually hopefully, we’ll be in enough schools that it you know, a good school meal becomes a norm. That’s what we’re aiming for.

Gilly Smith  30:57

Thanks for listening. You can now read the transcripts of cooking the books by clicking on the link to podcasts on gillysmith.com. Please get in touch on social media. I’m @cookingthebookswithGillySmith on Instagram and @GillySmith on Twitter. And you can sign up for the newsletter at gillysmith.com. I’ll see you next week when I’m with Al and Kitty Tait, the dad and daughter team for whom baking bread has literally changed their lives.

Season 19, Episode 4: Georgina Hayden: Nistisima

Image by Kristin Perers

This week as it’s Lent, we’re off to fast in Cyprus with Georgina Hayden, and to find a host of vegan gems in the traditional fasting food from religions and cultures of the Eastern Med, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Her book, Nistisima borrows the vegan dishes from the Greek Orthodox Church which frames her family life, as well as the rituals around Ukraine, Russia and Serbia where fasting is a rich vein of inspiration for meat and dairy free recipes. But it’s about much more than food; it’s how family, festival and ritual creates a food culture which connects us with where food comes from and why, as Socrates says, we eat to live. We began by discussing just how hard it is to find a gap in the book shelves these days, and what it takes to get a book deal.

Transcript

Gilly Smith  0:00  

Hello, and welcome back to Cooking the Books with me, Gilly Smith, the podcast which takes us through four food moments from the books of our favourite A-lister food writers. It’s about life, culture and politics all through the prism of food. And this week, as it’s Lent, we’re off to fast in Cyprus with Georgina Hayden,

Georgina Hayden  0:16  

The way we do Lent over here, which is, ‘oh, I might give up chocolate’, or ‘I might give up cheese’. No, these meat eating carnivores who love a grill have given up all animal products for almost 50 days. That’s a really, really big deal. They’ve gone hardcore

Gilly Smith  0:29  

Her book Nistisima borrows the vegan dishes from the Greek Orthodox Church, which frames her family life, and looks deeply at fasting as a rich vein of inspiration for meat and dairy free recipes.

But it’s about much more than food. It’s about how family, festival and ritual creates a rich food culture, which connects us with where food comes from. And why as, Socrates says, we eat to live. We began by discussing just how hard it is to find a gap in those bookshelves these days, and what it takes to get a book deal.

Georgina Hayden  1:00  

You’re so right, it is really hard to write a cookbook. Now you know that it’s quite, there are a lot of amazing food writers out there. And it’s such a, it’s such an honour to actually get a book deal. I think there was a time when actually they felt like it was very saturated, was now it’s quite hard, isn’t it? And I think the key thing is if if you’ve got you know, there’s lots of things at play in terms of getting a book deal out there, you’ve got to have a really original idea. If you’ve got an idea that no one’s seen before, it doesn’t matter about your profile, it doesn’t matter about things like social media so much, you’re going to get a book deal. But then if you’ve got an idea that has maybe been seen before, because that’s okay, right? Like there’s, you don’t only have one veg book, you don’t have one roasting tin book, there were many. So if you’ve got an idea that’s been seen before, I think the thing that helps you there is your profile, things like social media, things like television, radio X, Y Zed, so there’s lots of things at play, but it definitely feels like it’s harder than ever to get a book deal. So I do feel really honoured to have written this book, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s really been done before and not, you know, anything recently at all, you know, in that sense, so it’s, you know, I’m really chuffed.

Gilly Smith  2:10  

Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, I did a series recently for the Andre Simon shortlist. And at the beginning of each of the episodes, Yesimi Aribisala, the food assessor, kind of gave us this masterclass in what it takes to be an award winning food book. And it is originality, and it is voice. And actually, I think that has to come from something very personal. And that’s what you do, isn’t it? I mean, this book is all about your childhood. Again, it’s about your family. It’s full of your yiayias, both of them. But it’s also about a real piece of that childhood. It’s about fasting. That feels quite original to me, how did you kind of land on that particular idea of it tell us the Eureka lightbulb moment?

Georgina Hayden  2:55  

You know what, there really was a unique a light bulb moment. It was when I was writing the book before Taverna, and Taverna is all about my heritage. So really personal Greek Cypriots all about my family. And I’d written that and it’s a well rounded book, there’s everything in there, meat, veg, fish, everything. And I was writing and I was doing all the publicity. And every time I was talking to people about it, you know, you’d get the question: is there any vegetarian food in there? Are there vegan dishes XYZ, and I found myself repeating myself a lot, saying actually, the thing is about Greek and Cypriot food is we eat predominantly vegan and veg. However, everyone associates it with things like souvla, and grills, whatnot, because that’s what we’re famous for. But the reality is, because of our orthodoxy and our faith, we actually don’t eat meat most of the year. You know, if you’re doing it really strictly like a yiayia or, you know, like older generations, you can do around 200 days a year where you’re not eating any dairy or animal products. 

So, as a result, our diet is very vegan centric. And that just, I found myself talking about so much. I thought, hold on, hold on, if I’m boring people about this, I need to put my money where my mouth is, and I need to write about it and look into it. So it started from there. And I spoke to my editor, and I said, Look, I think there’s something in this, you know, it’s fascinating. It’s not a book, I don’t envision this being a book that is preachy at all. I want it to be factual and historical, and I want to look into why we eat so many vegan dishes. But at the same time, I want it to be a celebration of the fact that you can eat a plant based diet without any effort or trying to convert existing recipes into vegan recipes. You know, if you look beyond your, your own repertoire of dishes, you looked at other cultures, you’ll find that there were like, there’s so many dishes and recipes that just happened to be vegan and I think that’s what interested me, things that just happen to be vegan, not things that are made vegan things that just already are. 

So when I started looking at the Greek church, I looked at our dishes and then it stemmed from there and I thought, hold on, I need to go a bit further. So the Orthodox Church was like, let’s look at the surrounding countries that are affected as well. So you know, topically Russia, Ukraine, I spoke to Alissa Timoshkina and Olia Hercules, I went spoke to people  in Serbia, Syria, Lebanon, and down to Egypt. And all these countries are sort of, you know, they’re all neighbours at the end of the day. So the dishes are, there’s lots of familiarity between the dishes, you know, you get a variation of dolma,  koupepia, dolmades, stuffed vine leaves, they, you know, travel throughout the countries in one form or another.

Gilly Smith  4:56  

I mean, that’s what I love about it. It is deep. I love the feeling of travelling when I’m reading about food I but you know, don’t just want to kind of skim the surface and do a city break version of it. I want to go deep and I want to find out about the religion I really do. I’m fasincated, as we all are, and you know, it’s all around talking to Saliha Mahmood Ahmed when she was talking about Foodology on the show, and she was talking about fasting as part of her upbringing. And every weekend, you know, they didn’t just they were, they were taught to fast by just having brunch a little bit later on a Saturday. And it was just about not eating sort of, you know, just because you do, but  actually is part of a ritual and it trains you to really understand and love food and appreciate food. And and I also talked to the Natural Flava guys, and they went back to Jamaica when they got this their first, you know, published book deal, or they self published their first one. And they bumped into this rich Rasta tradition that was all part of their family, all of which is vegan. So, you know, they are really, these ideas are not sort of being brought out just to tick a box of a trend. This is digging deep into all of our heritage here. This is a very eclectic food culture we live in now, let’s find out more about it. It’s fantastically interesting. One of the things I wanted to ask you about Georgie Socrates. Is that your maiden name?

Georgina Hayden  7:09  

Yeah, Socrates is the first but it’s a first name so Socrates is when it’s your first name and Socratus is when it’s your surname.  So for me I was Georgia Socratous. So it’s my surname. That was a that was a belter. I don’t know why I got to that. I don’t my husband can hear.

Gilly Smith  7:23  

You are Georgie Socrates? 

Georgina Hayden  7:25  

I know. I know. 

Gilly Smith  7:26  

It reminded me of Epicurus. Carolyn Steel writes about this in Sitopia. She says, you know, Epicurus is one of the most misunderstood philosophers of the last 2000 years. Because you know, we think of Epicurean as gluttony and feasting, but actually what Epicurus was all about, he was like, the king of fasting wasn’t Yeah, he was, you know, everything in moderation and really love it. So if you’re going for a long walk a glass of water on a really hot day is absolutely delicious. 

Georgina Hayden  7:54  

Exactly. 

And and that’s what fasting teaches you. 

Exactly so the first quote in the book is, is Socrates. So it’s, you know, ‘Eat to live, not live to eat’. And when I first heard that, quote, however, many decades, years ago, I’m remember being horrified because I was like, Well, my namesake, how can we be so different? You know, I definitely live to eat, I just didn’t understand it at all. Whereas, as I sort of researched, fasting more and understood more, I genuinely think what Socrates is saying is, is about an appreciation, and about fueling ourselves and nourishing ourselves, I don’t think what he’s saying is, oh, I’m someone who doesn’t want to eat, I just need it, you know, the calories to get by in a day. I think it’s more a case of listen to what your body is saying, and fuel it. And I think that’s the thing that fasting has taught me. It’s about, you know, so nowadays, we have things like Veganuary or meat free Monday, these are not new ideas, it doesn’t matter how clever we think we are, we are not this has been going on for centuries. And I think this is precisely what he means is the idea of, of course, indulgence is fantastic. And we all have to have moments of it. But at the same time to really appreciate those moments, you have to have a sense of balance, there has to be the times when you’re not indulging and when you are listening to your body. And for me as someone writing a vegan book as a non vegan, I think it’s actually been a really fascinating process. You know, there are so many there are a lot of vegan books out now. And that’s a brilliant thing. But I would say the majority are written by people who live that way. And actually, for me, it’s a sense of balance. It’s a sense of listening to myself and understanding my body. And I think that’s exactly what those very, very clever gentlemen were referring to.

Gilly Smith  9:34  

Yeah, absolutely. And in order to save the planet, we need to eat 30% less meat anyway. 

Georgina Hayden  9:39  

Totally. 

Gilly Smith  9:40  

And the National Food strategy is certainly suggesting that. It’s a it’s a great way to find some balance in our lives for sure, appreciate things and come alive a little bit more. The book’s coming out at this time of year which is Lent, in time for Easter. As you say, you know, you’ve talked to Alissa and Olia about Ukraine and Russia and you you know you You’ve talked to all sorts of people from all over the world who celebrate Easter. Easter is really important part, of the calenda to so many people tell us what it was like when you were growing up, London that you were going back to Cyprus all the time, but what was your Easter like?

Georgina Hayden  10:18  

Oh my gosh, like Easter, for me is way bigger than Christmas. It trumps Christmas in every way. I love it. It’s such a big deal. And, you know, people celebrate different holidays for different reasons. You know, not everyone who celebrates Christmas. Most you know, a lot of people don’t go to church and that’s totally fine. You celebrate it for whatever reason you want. I’m never going to judge. But for people that are religious, especially the Orthodox faith, Easter is a huge deal. You know, it’s a four day celebration. When I’ve been in Cyprus for Easter you know, you’re getting up at five o’clock. Going to church, drinking ouzo at 7am. 

As a child??

Yes, as a child. It’s, yeah, it’s a really big deal. You know, so on Easter Sunday, so you’ve essentially fasted for 40 to 50 days depending on how calendar falls. You haven’t eaten any animal products. Forget the way we do Lent over here, which is, oh, I might give up chocolate. I might go about cheese. No, these meat eating carnivores who love a grill have given up all animal products for almost 50 days. That’s a really, really big deal. They’ve gone hardcore. Then the week before Easter is spent, so you know you’ve got Easter on Sunday. So that week is spent making really traditional breads. There’s there’s even a type of cheese that is created just for Easter Sunday called Flauna cheese. And this cheese is made just to make one type of bread. Like it’s that big a deal. So you spend two or three days making the flaunes. You get up at 5am and go to church. You have your also you have your Ivania and then on Easter Sunday, so my favourite Easter of all time was spent in the mountains in Cyprus where my granddad, my paternal granddad’s from, and you get up at seven to go to church, and then in the village, they’ve got whole lambs on spits. They get put on in the morning, they’re basted in red wine oregano. This, you know, it’s really basic stuff. We’re not talking like high end stuff. It’s really simple food. The wood ovens, the communal wood ovens are lit, the school, the village School has got games in the courtyard. And the whole street is just lined with plastic tables and chairs. And the villagers just feast and party all day. And it’s like, the best Big Fat Greek Wedding you’ve ever been to in your life. It’s amazing. You know, you can keep your turkey and your cranberry sauce for I couldn’t concerned; a slow cooked lamb on a spit after 40 odd days of not eating anything. It’s just like the way to go is brilliant. So fun.

Gilly Smith  12:35  

God I’m salivating. Your first food moment takes us just to before that amazing feast. It’s when the fasting is still happening. So your first food moment is lagana it’s the Clean Monday. It’s a bread you make on Clean Monday. Tell us about that? 

Yes. So um, so over, you know, in the UK, at least you have your pancake day and then you have Ash Wednesday, don’t you and that’s when Lent starts. So for us, you have, you have to really gear up because it is such a big deal to gear up for this period of fasting. So we start fasting on a Monday and that Monday is called Kathara Deftera which literally translates as kathara means clean and deftera means Monday. Clean Monday. The week before Kathara Deftera you have cheese week cheese fair week, which is the week when you have to eat all the dairy in your fridge. And before that a few days beforehand you have something called Smokey Thursday which is when you start to finish all the meat in your fridge and freezer.  So you that you know the build up is well to get to that other data is a big deal. You’ve got Smoky Thursday, you’ve got you know Cheese Week, eating up your dairy. And then bam, you’ve prepared for week and a half eaten all your animal products and it’s Clean Monday.

Georgina Hayden  13:52  

 Clean Monday is a bank holiday in Cyprus and Greece at all the schools and all everything shuts. And people traditionally would have almost like picnics, they would fly kites to be closer to the divine. And there is one bread that is only really should be made on this day. It’s called lagana and it’s a bit like what we like Italian foccacia. It’s a thin bread. Traditionally it wasn’t it wasn’t leaven, it didn’t have any yeast in it. That was you know, it was made in a biblical times and in the situation it was made there wasn’t any yeast, but now we put yeast in. It just that bit more delicious. And it’s olive oil. It’s got sesame on top. And it’s a very simple but in the way that focaccia is one of those breads that you just when you start and you can’t stop, I sort of feel like I k now you don’t need to on KatharaI Deftera, I kind of like making all year round because it’s so tasty. And actually you know,  that’s the one is a really significant addition. And it’s it was really conscious to start the book with that recipe. That was a really conscious decision. You know, we fast all year round. Every Wednesday every Friday. There’s lots of periods of fasting. It isn’t just Easter however, it the Easter fast is the big one. It’s called Great Lent. So that was a conscious decision to put it first. And I think it’s a great recipe.

Gilly Smith  15:08  

it is a great recipe. And it’s, you know, it’s a real celebration of sensible grandmother behaviour, you know, clean out the back of the fridge and use it cooking, you know, it’s about zero waste, it’s about, you know, not spending money on nonsense consumer products, you know, in shrink wrap trays. It’s so, how come there are so many cultures all around the world that really celebrate and makejoy out of being sensible we’ve so lost in white, middle England.

Georgina Hayden  15:44  

Oh, honestly, you’re so right. And I think this is the thing. I keep looking back to all these things, I’m like, why is it the grannies, the yiayias the nonnas, all these like, you know, the older generations, that they all just got it right. And I’m, it’s the women, let’s be honest with ourselves, it is the wome.  They know what they’re doing. They knew what they’re doing, like, I still look to, I still lucky that I’ve  got one of my yiayias with me. You know, and I just think it’s, and unfortunately, I think obviously, there’s a you know, it comes to things like money, you know, now everyone has a lot more money, we’re richer, but we’re time poor. And it’s that really boring thing, which is why all the kind of popular cookbooks that are out in the world always like speedy or less washing up, you know, they will tick those boxes, because unfortunately, that’s kind of when the majority of us are right? We have more money, but we don’t have time. When it’s when you look to the older generations, the ones that we like, you know, like the Pasta Grannies, that sort of vibe, they have time. You know, my yiayia is she there’s never a day where she’s not cooking for the entire family. And she’s 83 You know, and she’s like, she’s smashing it still, she still cooks, absolute feasts. And that’s because she has the time, she’ll sit there and pod her peas, she’ll do what she does. It’ll take her two days, but she loves it. And unfortunately, that’s just not necessarily realistic. But I think we still need to tap into that mentality, to like to really appreciate stuff to really understand where our food comes from and, and connect with our food as opposed to just being this quick fix thing. You know, I really believe that.

Gilly Smith  17:13  

Yeah, no. So do I. And you know, you live in North London, but it’s the little Mediterranean. It’s like growing up in Cyprus and London, and all that surrounded by yiayias, it’s the perfect place.

Georgina Hayden  17:24  

 Totally.

Gilly Smith  17:25  

I was talking to Yasmin Khan about living in North London in Little Istanbul, and she’s just surrounded by lovely smells of, you know, her mixed culture or background as well. In your North London, are those granny skills still around? You talk about Erene in your second food moment, you know, what’s  she got that Joan down the road in West London hasn’t got? What is going on?

Georgina Hayden  17:54  

I think Do you know what it is? I think you’ve nailed it there. I think it’s having and this is, I don’t think this is a London centric viewpoint. I think you have this all around the country. I’m married to a northerner, you know, and whilst the village he’s from is predominantly English, you know, I know having spent time up there. Now, I know there’s pockets everywhere you go from different ethnicities. I think the reason people congregate is for this reason, right? So I actually do live in quite ironically, a Cypriot area. I didn’t grow up here. I grew up more central in London, and I’ve just ended up living in an area that is quite Cypriot. And I actually really like it. And that’s not the reason we came here. We came here for different reasons, but it is, there’s a loveliness to the fact that I can go to my local shop which is Erene’s deli, which is literally the closest shop to my house, and the the items, the food items, the smells are familiar. And I can imagine if you’re someone you know, I’m a second generation Greek Cypriot, but imagine if you’re first generation or you’ve moved from a different country, being connected, you know, like we’re looking, you know, there’s we’ve obviously got, you know, Ukrainians hopefully come into the UK now and, and trying to make sure they sort of congregates there in with people they know or familiarity and I think that’s a really important thing. 

So when people first came here for whatever reason they came, they want to stick with people and vibes and smells and sounds they know so around me for sure,  like I don’t live that far from Yasmin, on the other side of Green Lanes. And I, we nicknamed this side of Green Lanes Greek Lanes because it is so Greek. And it’s brilliant. And it’s just, it’s amazing. And there is something lovely about that. And so without Erene, the deli is is fantastic. You know, they’ve all they’ve all been born and raised in up in the UK like me, but you go in there and again, there’s no and this, I don’t mean this in a sexist way at all, but it’s all women that work there. So Erene’s mum owns it withi Erene’s sister. She cooks, their cousin works there and they’ve got an older lady who works there. And it’s just this lovely vibe. It feels like you’re going into someone’s home. It feels very maternal. You know, at any given point, we went in yesterday someone was podding some broard beans or peas or soemthign,  you know. There’s always, it just feels very homely. And I think that’s the thing. Especially when you live in a city. I think that’s rare because there’s lots of glitz and glamour. You go in central London, what’s the new hottest dish? What’s everyone Instagramming? Let’s, let’s go there. The thing is, you go there, that’s great. But then you’ve moved on to the next thing. They’re not the places that you return back to because you’ve had that wicked dish. Let’s try the next wicked dish that is fashionable at the moment. But it’s places like Erene’s deli and like that, that make you feel a sense of home. And that’s priceless.

Yeah, but if you say that she sits in a small courtyard, rolling vine leaves, you are going to get the whole of London going to Erene’s, she’s going to be in the next book of cool places to find in London. 

And so they should 

Gilly Smith  19:47  

Well, exactly. But it’ll be spoiled in a way. You know, isn’t that what happened? 

Georgina Hayden  19:56  

Yeah, it does. But then, you know, we don’t live on a tube line. And I can’t imagine it ever becoming like, I mean, it might and they deserve it if they do, but they’re just that what they make is just the best versions of themselves. I think that’s the other thing. You know, there’s lots of people doing clever things with recipes. And there’s a there’s a complete place for that as well. You know, I think there’s a place for all types of cheffing,  all types of cooking. But there’s there’s something just so lovely about cooks and people that unashamedly just keeps tradition and don’t you know, there’s there’s room for everyone, I think, yeah,

Gilly Smith  21:25  

Feeders, I think they’re feeders. That’s where the joy comes from. You know, you can spot a feeder, and they’re the people who are not frightened of getting it wrong. And they’re the people who just do it for the love of it. And so they don’t get a bad back from rolling vine leaves. They just do it because they want to feed. Tell us about the vegan keftedes that she makes

Georgina Hayden  21:44  

Oh my goodness. So keftedes are, you know, all over Greece and Cyprus. So in Greece  different places have different things you could Santorini, you need to have tomato keftedes. If you go to different islands have chickpea ones and have wild greens. In Cyprus, our keftedes are meat based, and they’re made with pork. And they’re really, really delicious. They’re deep fried meatballs, essentially, with grated potato, lots of meat, spices, lots of herbs, onion, and they’re sort of made into little patties, and they’re deep fried, and they’re the dark brown. 

And I have over the years because obviously we fast a lot. I’ve over the years tried so many different people’s attempts at a vegan keftede, even my own yiayias, both of them right, have tried it. And then I tried Erene’s and honestly they are incredible. I’ve never ever had, not only are they incredible, I would guarantee you that most people wouldn’t clock straight away that they’re vegan. They taste so meaty. So the thing for me is, I was vegetarian for a very long time. I even dabbled with veganism. I was younger. It wasn’t for me. However, I never wanted to replicate the taste of meat. That’s not something that appeals to me. When I didn’t eat meat, I didn’t want to eat meat. So and now I fast as well. I’m not looking to replicate a meatiness. And I know that’s my next dish as well. But there’s something about these keftedes. They’re just..  it’s just vegetables. It’s just you know, standard supermarket things. Tomatoes, potatoes, carrot. It’s nothing fancy. She doesn’t put anything weird in it that is not from the veg aisle. And yet she’s created this recipe that is just phenomenal. And people, no joke, not even just Cypriots, everyone in the area knows about these keftedes. People come far and wide for them. And when she said she agreed to put them in the book, I was just like, I literally had tears in my eyes. I was like, Are you sure about this? This is game changing. So I was really honoured. They’re amazing.

Gilly Smith  23:41  

And you and your third food moment, it kind of is on the same theme, isn’t it? You know, if you if you talk about a Greek classic stifado, you know, slow cooked beef and red wine and spices. Oh my god it you know, again, salivating madly, but you’ve done it with mushroom to replace meat. But where does this idea come from?

Georgina Hayden  24:00  

 So we had a restaurant for almost 30 years. My paternal grandparents had a restaurant for 30 years. My dad worked there growing up, it was all my childhood was based around the restaurant. And when I was about eight, eight or nine, someone, a regular customer said to my dad, I bet you can’t go for a month without eating meat. Now, my dad is a stereotypical Cypriot man. He looks like Al Pacino. He’s slightly terrifying. He ate meat three meals a day, chain smokes, only drinks coffee, is an absolute legend, right? He’s wicked. And you can imagine this very, very sort of typical Greek man, someone saying to him, bet you can’t give up meat for a month. And my dad was like, alright, I’ll prove it to you. So this is the late 80s. Now, dad gives up meat for a month. 32 years later, he still hasn’t touched meat. 

Gilly Smith  24:53  

Wow. 

Georgina Hayden  24:53  

So that was absolutely, everyone was like gob smacked. He just has, he eats fish in fairness, but he just hasn’t touched meat since. He felt so great, and I’m not vegetarian. Again, I just want to be just want to point this out, I’m not preaching anything on anyone because I’m not vegetarian. I’m just telling you the story of my dad. But he just felt so great. He was like, I’m just not gonna eat meat. And unlike maybe people that do, vegetarianism, for other reasons, he’s always said, ‘listen, George, if I want a steak, I’ll have a steak’. He’s never had a steak. But he has that mentality. He doesn’t, he’s not doing this anyone himself. He’s just, it’s just his life now. So anyway, so my yiayia, obviously was horrified. Because Oh, my goodness, Cypriots at that point as well just did not understand vegetarianism. So she was horrified. So we’ve spent the best part of 30 years Yiayia, making dishes vegetarian for my dad, and now my sister who don’t eat me. And Manitaria Stifado is using mushrooms in Stifado came from her. I mean, I’m sure there are lots of people that do it; I don’t think she’s probably the first person because obviously texturally mushrooms have got that meatiness, haven’t they? But it was always something she did for my dad. So when he stopped eating meat, all those years ago, she did it with mushrooms. And I’ve just grown up eating Stifado predominantly, I can’t actually remember the last time I had it with beef, other than when I cook it now as an adult. Growing up, I don’t think I ever had it with beef, it was always with mushrooms. And it’s just so delicious. And again, I think they’re the two recipes in the book that, like I said, I never went about with the intention of making anything meaty. I just want to celebrate all these incredible dishes in their own right. But if you’re looking for something that is like a Sunday situation, you want to make something impressive that is slow cooked very little effort, leave it in the oven  but with maximum impact, that’s kind of the recipe I would suggest. You know, I mean, it’s like, it’s going to appeal to everyone you put at the table and your carnivore friends won’t care or miss meat. That’s what I think.

Gilly Smith  26:52  

You know what I mean? It’s nothing new. I hear it all the time. Whenever I talk to people who come from the richer food cultures from around the world, but you’re talking about family, you’re talking about ritual, you’re talking about festivals. And over the last few decades, it feels that British food culture has become very empty, of family, of tradition of ritual, of religion. And I wonder when you’re talking about this rich story of people at the table every Sunday and growing up around big family, and, you know, the year being punctuated by festivals and saints days and ritual, I wonder if British food culture which is so eclectic, and so inspired by such a varied mix, and wonderful sort of immigrant cultures coming in and spicing us up, without religion, without family at the centre of it, can it really be a food culture of its own?

Georgina Hayden  27:48  

Gosh, that’s a really, really interesting question. I mean, it’s, that’s a really hard one to answer. And I think, again, being sort of, for me, you know, like living in a city, which is super multicultural, I guess I’ve never really had that, you know, I’ve never really had that. And actually, you know what, , I’m probably going off on a tangent here. It’s just the way my brain thinks. I’ve obviously grown up with a very, very rich heritage in food having grown up in a restaurant and being obviously from where I’m from, like Cyprus and whatnot. But even my husband who, who is the first to say that his mother is maybe not the best cook in the world. Sorry, Heather. But you know, he’s the first one says his mum wasn’t the best cook. They had the same weekly menu their whole life, you know, every Monday was Bangers and Mash. However, isn’t there something lovely about that? And I used to tease Heather, my mother in law about the fact that, you know, she had the same thing every Monday, every Tuesday, didn’t you get bored?  But now I look at that with so much respect, in a way, because of what you’re saying, because of this sort of so there’s so much going on. 

Actually, I look at my own daughters, and I’m like,  do I need to start making things regularly, so you have nostalgia, so you have heritage with your food? I mean, they’re going to get it inevitably because I’m Cyrpriot and cook Cypriot foods. So I, you know, they’re not gonna exactly be, like they’re fine at the end of the day. But because I cook so much food for my job, because every day I’m cooking different dishes constantly, I became really aware recently that these girls aren’t regularly getting the same dish twice. And whilst that’s probably not a bad thing; people like Oh, firstworldproblems not really an issue, isn’t there something lovely about nostalgia and heritage with food, whether it comes from religion, whether it comes from your family, whatever the reason is? I think there’s something really beautiful about that, and I think  that connection with food is what grounds us. Otherwise, you’re just always chasing new things. And there’s no.. and I think for a lot of people where food’s important. Well, actually, not even my foods important. I think everyone has an associational memory with food. You know, and I don’t think even have to be what we consider a foodie or a chef or whatever, like everyone does, right? And I think that’s something that we need to really focus on. And that’s, you know, you know this about me, that’s something that all my writing, all my books is for me is super personal in that in that nostalgic way. And I just think that’s lovely.

Gilly Smith  30:14  

Yeah, absolutely. But it’s the world that you paint around the food that is so important. And your fourth food moment is about play and fun. And you know, you’re talking about nostalgia. You’re talking about a childhood memory here. But there are kids who are growing up within your culture who are still experiencing this. Now. This is the meat which is the meat of food culture, I think across the globe. Tell us about this one.

Georgina Hayden  30:42  

Oh, it’s so true. So Oh, my goodness. Okay, now, I can appreciate this. But I’m telling you something as a child, being dragged to church fetes in 45 degree heat in Cyprus in August was not my idea of a good time. Right? So we got sent to Cyprus almost every summer, summer holidays, six weeks long. What do you do with children? I’m starting to appreciate why my parents did this. They would often send us to Cyprus with our grandparents. Off you go. Bye bye. And because they weren’t always there, it meant we were left at the hands of my grandmother. My paternal one, particularly not so much my maternal one. She didn’t really drive. But that meant lots of church visits. So while me and my sister were there just wanting to hit the beach, Yiayia had other ideas. 

And that meant every weekend, there was a church fete. So on the island, almost every weekend, it’s someone’s Saints Day, right. There’s a saint day, almost every day of the year. So that meant every weekend, we’re going to go to one part of the island, there’s a church  somewhere, and they’re having a fete to celebrate Saint So and So, and I’m like, this is brilliant. Thanks so much. And these church fetes, they were super basic. You know, I remember there not being toilets, there being holes in the ground. You know, we’re talking, you know, the 80s.  Not much money, but there was so much charm, and they were so beautiful. And I look back and I think gosh, how lucky to have gone through that. You know, there was like a very basic tombola, a little like, is it like bagatelle? Is that the word like when you have like the ball the game? I think that’s what they call over here. And you win these big teddy bears and these retro style toys. And then you know, there would be a few stalls of souvla, so meat cooked over charcoal. And then there was the sweet store. And they would have all the different sweets. And there was always someone deep frying loukoumades, which are essentially like tiny little round doughnuts that had been drenched in a sugar syrup. And something called Shiamishi 

So Shiamishi  is not like.. loukoumades lots of people seem to know nowadays. They’ve sort of become quite popular. You get lots of loukoumades stalls over here. You get them in bakeries is not just Cypriots and Greeks that know about them. Whereas Shiamishi is something that still feels quite unknown about because they’re quite laborious, and you have to eat them almost instantly. You can’t buy them in bakeries and whatnot. And what they are, they are deep fried parcels of, of custard, essentially. So you make a custard of semolina, orange blossom really delicately floral, and that custard is set. And then it’s set, and then it’s cut into little cubes. And it’s enrobed and filo pastry which is then deep fried and drenched in a cinnamon icing sugar. It is so ludicrously delicious, you know, in the way that only a deep fried pastry filled with custard can be, which sounds ridiculous, but I can even tell you that is vegan, but it’s vegan, right because the custard is made of water, but it gets its creaminess from the semolina. It gets its perfume from orange blossom. If you don’t like that you can add orange zest, that’s cool. I won’t judge. And you know, I say making filo, but actually making filo’s actually very easy. And then you deep fry them and end the response when people eat these parcels of joy. They just, it’s insane. It makes people so happy. There’s so much nostalgia there. And I love the fact that this recipe kind of still is unknown about you know. I don’t really know anyone other than Cypriots that have heard of it. And, and it’s something that has to be eaten instantly. So there’s just this lovely instant joy. And it’s one of my strongest memories of my childhood and it was probably the only thing that kept me going to those panayiri, these fetes because, you know, they were really quite boring for a seven year old other than the Shiamishi. That was where I headed, every time straight there.

Gilly Smith  34:31  

Little parcels of joy. How gorgeous. Nistisima means fasting food and you have tapped into this rich vein of your own heritage. But actually, you know, we talked about the depth before but you did speak to a lot of priests as part of your research. It’s about more than food, isn’t it? It’s about the spiritual in the food. You know, nostalgia is a kind of spirituality, isn’t it? It’s also about resilience as well and self sufficiency and you talk about  the priests who you interviewed, you know, being very self sufficient, growing their own food as, as a lot monks and priests have always done. Did it really connect you with your spiritual self?

Georgina Hayden  34:38  

Do you know what? It really did? I’m, I’m the first person, you know, I’m not. I’m not as religious as some people and probably more religious than others. I’m not. I’m very sort of, I’d say middle. But I found whatever it is, however, you come to the book, whether it’s because you are Orthodox, and you want to have more of a repertoire for when you fast, or you are someone who is vegan, and you just want more vegan recipes, or you are just a normal Joe carnivore who just wants to up your vegan intake, I genuinely think that regardless of your faith, there is a spirituality that comes from sort of connecting this way.  And the book feels it feels so calm. And there’s such, and that’s not me blowing my own trumpet here, because it’s 100% team effort. You know, there’s photographers, stylists, all of those people involved, that have really created this thing of beauty that I think it reflects the calmness that comes through the cooking. 

None of the recipes, I would say are particularly challenging or taxing. And that’s the way I think, really Nistisimal food should be. You know, when I was talking to the monks I spoke to, I’ve got a lovely monk in Lebanon on WhatsApp called Father Augustine. He’s wonderful. He’s been very helpful. You know , I’ve been talking to the monks in Mount Athos, on email. That’s been quite sporadic. But again, they’ve been fantastic. And then my local priest at a local church. And so I’ve been speaking to different people. And I think the key thing that I’ve learned by speaking.. and also nuns, I’ve visited some wonderful nuns in Cyprus. And I think the thing is, the simplicity of their food is where the beauty is. And I think that’s, we’re taught you know, everyone has quite stressful lives. Nowadays, I talk about everyone being time poor. We are time poor, there’s a lot of anxiety. And that’s something to really, I think, taken into account. So I think regardless of your faith, a book like this connecting to the food connecting to the recipes, it’s just calming. And I think that’s a really important thing to focus on. Because regardless of what you believe, for me when I was cooking a lot of the dishes, they just sort of made me feel,.. the way of risotto slowly cooking and risotto sort of calms you there’s a similar vibe. 

One of my favourite recipes in the book is a Serbian dish. And it’s these very simple beans, hardly any ingredients, you’re talking hefty  amount of onions, eight onions, garlic, and they’re just slowly cooked in oil for a good 30,40 minutes and that sweetness. And it was a monk in Mount Athos who said you know the key thing when you’re not having animal products and foods is the time and the sweetness that comes from your ingredients. You think how can something so simple be so delicious. You then add the beans, you add some paprika or bayleaf and you leave in the oven for literally two hours. And I made them recently for a group of fellow food writers and they were all just gobsmacked at these beans and how delicious they were. And I think that’s the key thing, isn’t it? We just need to connect and that feeling insid,  yeah, it made me feel more spiritual. And that sounds very cheesy, and I really don’t want it to be, but there’s it’s at a time when we were going through a pandemic. You know, I’d had a newborn baby. Things were stressful. I really felt the book was for me at least very timely and and it did what it said on the tin in a lot of ways.

Gilly Smith  38:38  

Fasting to slow down should have been the subtitle. Why didn’t you do that one?

Georgina Hayden  38:42  

I mean, because you weren’t there to tell me. I should call you next time. I’ll give you a call. Yeah, Book 4. Speed dial.

Gilly Smith  38:51  

Thanks for listening. Please do get in touch on social media. I’m @cookingthebookswithGillySmith on Instagram and @gillysmith on Twitter. And you can sign up for my newsletter @gillysmith.com. I’ll be back next week with the authors of Feed your Family, Nicole Pisani and Joanna Weinberg to talk about the brilliant charity Chefs for Schools.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai


Season 19, Episode 3: Eleanor Ford: The Nutmeg Trail

Image from The Nutmeg Trail by Ola O. Smit

Multi-award winning food writer and explorer, Eleanor Ford takes us on an adventure to exotic islands and across trade routes to show how the intoxicating power of spice has changed the world in her latest book The Nutmeg Trail  

Eleanor is also the author of Fire Islands which won The Guild of Food Writers’ Best International or Regional Cookbook 2020, the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award for best Food or Drink Book 2020 and two Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2020. Her first book, Samarkand with Caroline Eden won the Guild of Food Writers Award for Food and Travel in 2017. In short, settle yourself in for some top quality listening.


Transcript

Gilly Smith  00:00

Hello and welcome back to Cooking the Books with me Gilly Smith, the podcast which digs a little deeper into the best of food books. This week I’m ignoring the COVID and talking to multi award winning food writer and culinary explorer Eleanor Ford, whose latest book The Nutmeg Trail, takes us on an adventure to exotic islands and across trade routes to show how the intoxicating power of spice has changed the world.

Eleanor Ford  00:23

The Arabs who were bringing Cassia and cinnamon to the West would kind of weave stories around them. So you know, from the very beginning, there was a sort of layers of mystery and magic woven into them.

Gilly Smith  00:38

She has been called a culinary detective and a gastronomic archaeologist. I asked her how she approached this vast project

Eleanor Ford  00:45

I started off by thinking about the region of spice, and how its journey has travelled. But the more I delved into it, the more I realised that this is a history, and that there’s so much to explore over millennia. And in doing so, you don’t have .. the spice route being a maritime route of a sea there’s not obvious markers to follow. It’s all told more in stories and a great way to trace what’s happened is through flavours. So slowly as I was sort of unpicking things you can begin to make links by the flavours that you can see that have travelled from one culture to another. And really cultural exchange gives great clues to the history that I’ve been exploring.

Gilly Smith  01:34

And it is a fantastic story in terms of the flavour I love Yotam Ottalenghi’s quote, he calls the book a spice library. ‘And then the recipes,’ he says, ‘recipes which allow the reader to travel from Asia to the Middle East along the spice route, taking in so much flavour and so much context on the way. It’s the green coconut hot sauce from Somalia first up for me, followed by the green peppercorn asparagus from Thailand. I also love the flavours but I have to say it’s the depth and the history. It’s a very, it’s a very heady blend, isn’t it exotic islands and delicious recipes. But for me, I love the the gastronomical archaeology, let’s say. It’s digging deep into the stories of spice. And it feels to me like that film, Blood Diamond. You know, because you open up a rich vein of history and a lot of that history is not great. Can you tell us a little bit about the story of humanity that had some very, very dark edges.

Eleanor Ford  02:35

There are certainly dark edges. And that really comes to the fore in the 17th century, the 16th 17th century when Europeans got a taste for spice. And these spices became something so sort of exotic, they were tied up with status. And whenever something becomes a display of power and status, you get people who are hungry for more. And that caused, well, it really sparked off a period of colonisation. It sparked the age of discovery. And it started a period where lands across other sides of the world were being traded for each other with huge bloody battles. And the sort of masters were not taking into account the peoples that were involved. It was really a horrifying process that was started by spice. But I think what’s very important is one can get swept up in that period of the spice route, those sort of bloody centuries, when actually this is a trade that has gone back for millennia before that. We can go back to 2000 BC, when Arab merchants were conducting a far more peaceful trade along the spice routes. And so I think it’s important to see those hugely powerful centuries, but also to see what’s gone before that and the kind of quieter power that that’s had, in the exchange of ideas, the globalisation that has tied the East and West together for centuries,

Gilly Smith  04:08

yes. Why do you think it was that spices had such power to I mean, you know, you’re right to talk about them, you know, millennia ago, but spices were used as rents and ransoms, bribes and offerings. You know, that we used an ancient burials to and to use ward off plagues, to ignite carnal desire as well as you know, wars. What is it about spice that has such incredible power? 

Eleanor Ford  04:36

Well, I think the starting point for spice is it has to involve a journey. There isn’t one place where spices come from spices are dotted around with different starting points, mainly across Asia. And so to combine spices you have to have given an exotic journey. It’s this, it’s the sense of the other the something a bit mysterious. And e arly spice traders were masters of this, the Arabs who were bringing Cassia and cinnamon to the West would kind of weave stories around them that there was cynomolgus bird who would make its nests on high cliffs out of cinnamon sticks, and they would have to scale up mountains to fight off this fearsome bird. So, you know, from the very beginning, there was this mystique. And therefore the spices when they got to they were already expensive commodities, and could be used to demonstrate power. And therefore they got tied into religion into Burial Rites, they got used as medicine, there was a sort of layers of mystery and magic woven into them.

Gilly Smith  05:49

Yeah, and, you know, I was just reading some of the quotes on the back of the book and, you know, ‘mesmerising’ and ‘intoxicating’ and that those words are used and it really is a story of weaving magic around people,. It makes life better in a very simple way. You know, the food tastes better. In terms of the ransoms, tell us a little bit about what you know about the ransoms. That’s quite extraordinary, isn’t it?

Eleanor Ford  06:14

Well, really, you got spices at certain points in history, holding such value that they could be used as currency. And so we’ve got phrases like peppercorn rent, which still exists, which, which demonstrates the times where people could be paid, and debts could be paid off. And particularly when you had warring nations battling with each other, you know, very often, the coffers would be filled with something like cloves or nutmeg. And these could be used to pay off debt.

Gilly Smith  06:50

It’s interesting, isn’t it because it feels very generous and very feminine to add, beauty and charm and flavour to a ransom. It’s a sweetener.

Eleanor Ford  07:05

There’s been different approaches throughout history towards flavour and the flavours that a different culture will adopt. So you get periods where you have incredibly spiced pervasive food that’s brought into banquets as displays of power. So the Roman Empire, that was a time when food was incredibly highly spiced and often with peppercorns, and then you’ve and you would use it as a kind of display of wealth and of masculinity. You know, great emperors would have  banquet halls where flower petals would rain down from the ceilings and you know, that scent was so evocative of power that it had perhaps a different connotation to what it has now. Yeah, you’re right, it’s the COVID talking, I know all that. Of course, it’s a show of masculine power, as wealth, as it’s always been. Let’s just talk about what spice actually is. Well, if we take a kind of most basic definition, we are looking at the parts of plants that are really intense in flavour. So they have got the kind of oils, the oleoresins, the terpenes, that are there that provide a real intensity. But then you can slightly cloud it with what is the difference between a spice and a herb, which also has those intense flavours, more so than a vegetable. But usually spice comes with a historical element as well. It’s involved a journey, a travel. And if we look at the origin of the word, it is species, which means a sort of exotic produce that has come and has travelled and made a journey. And so throughout different centuries, we’ve had different foods that fall under the category of spice. And at times, you know, even things like tea and sugar have been classed as spices or going back further things like ivory might have fallen into that category. 

Gilly Smith  09:02

Really, why?

Eleanor Ford  09:04

 Because of it being this item of special value. And it’s really that specialness that’s inherent in the word spice in the theory of spice being something that should be treasured.

Gilly Smith  09:16

This is your third book and each time you go to the same area of the world, don’t you? You feel drawn back to Java to Bali to Sumatra, in your last book in Fire Islands, which was the winner of multiple awards? What what is it about that part of the world is just keeps bringing you back?

Eleanor Ford  09:36

I think I’ve got a very personal connection to Asia. I’ve lived there at various parts of my life. And my book on Indonesian food was a revisit for me from a place that I’d lived as a child and then gone back as an adult and taken my family to live there for a period. But really, it’s it’s more than that. It’s the stories of food. And I’ve become so fascinated across all my books about the movement of flavours, and how you can see the different influences of history, of peoples, of movement coming through in food that we eat today. And it’s really a way to sort of taste culture. It kind of is.. I use food as a lens into which to explore culture and history.

Gilly Smith  10:25

My absolute favourite subject. It’s what Cooking the Books is all about. Let’s go to Bali with your first food moment. The Balinese Green Bean Urap.

Eleanor Ford  10:36

Well, I wanted to talk about this urap because the spices here are fresh spices rather than dried. And it’s kind of curious to me that we have Indonesia the absolute heartland of some of the dried spices that we use so much in the West, nutmeg and clove particularly, but in Indonesia itself, so often the spices used are fresh. It will be about creating a fresh spice paste called a bumbu. And this typically will have garlic, shallot, ginger, galangal and fresh turmeric, and chilies pounded together to make a very fragrant base. And then that can be taken in different directions with small tweaks. Sometimes some dried spices will be added, perhaps coriander seeds or a little bit of nutmeg. But then this paste is fried until it’s incredibly fresh and fragrant. And one of the dishes I’ve used it here is an urap. So the fried spice paste is mixed with grated coconut and lime leaves. And then that kind of fresh fragrant  mixture is used as a dressing for green vegetables in large quantities. So rather than dressing with an oil or with citrus, you are dressing it with a large amount of this spiced grated coconut. And it really demonstrates for me the fragrance of the cuisine.

Gilly Smith  12:05

What’s the difference then between sambal and a bumbu? 

Eleanor Ford  12:08

Well, a bumbu and a sambal are slightly different.  A sambal always has a chilly base. So a sambal is a form of chilli sauce that’s blended together and very often will have a cooked element of bumbu in it. But a bumbu is the cooking base that you use for food so it’s kind of laying the foundations. And then a sambal is often used at the end. So it’s almost like the starter and then the finisher of a dish both with spices used in a slightly different way.

Gilly Smith  12:36

Of course the spice that everyone has an opinion about is chilli.

Eleanor Ford  12:42

Well I think that as humans we’re sort of drawn to things that give us an adrenaline boost, slight pain tinged with pleasure. And whether it’s going on a roller coaster, watching a scary movie, or adding a little bit of chilli to our food, it’s giving us just that little edge, that something which is slightly uncomfortable but can bring us so much pleasure. 

Gilly Smith  13:08

Of course we see it all ever dude food programmes on telly. You know daring people to eat as much chilli as they can.  When you see those programmes, what do you think?

Eleanor Ford  13:19

Well, I think it’s a different thing it’s taking away from the subtle joy that can be had with chinny because chilli really when it’s used gently will elevate all the other tastes. It’s there as an enhancer. You know, it tickles the palate in a different way. And it can be used to bring out flavours when you’re taking it to the extreme you’re you’re moving to a different challenge entirely. And you’re obliterating flavour and I don’t think that’s how chilli is used in most of the world. 

Gilly Smith  13:51

No of course it’s not losing the point completely. You do give a wonderful sweeping history of it though. Tell us how it started off as the Portuguese sea trade which ignited a fire in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, southeast China and South West Indian cooking.

Eleanor Ford  14:08

Well what’s so interesting to me is  chilli for so long was confined to central South America where they’re native to. And so Asia is fairly new to chilli as a spice in culinary terms. Before then there was definitely a taste for heat for ginger for peppercorns. But it was the Portuguese, er Columbus coming and so-called ‘discovering’  chilli and taking it West with him that very quickly sparked a spread around the rest of the world. Within about 50 years of the early 16th century, chilli had completely taken over Asia as the lead hot spice. Because unlike peppercorns, which would require a bit of a process, chillis are something people could grow in their gardens. It is a quick, easy source of heat. And so didn’t become part of this fabled spice trade, it didn’t have a value associated with it. It was a plant rather like ginger had millennia before that could just spread naturally and inherently.

Gilly Smith  15:23

And of course, you say that Korea now has the highest per capita consumption of chilli on earth. How did that happen?

Eleanor Ford  15:31

It is kimchi that fires it really, the pervasive use of kimchi means that chilli has really taken off. And it’s interesting seeing some countries now, which chilli is escalating in use, like Japan like Germany, where chilli hasn’t been used so much traditionally, but I think that once countries get a taste for heat, you can really see the use escalate.

Gilly Smith  15:56

Yeah, absolutely. And you talk about how it’s just spreading into other countries like Germany and and the Arab world, I would have thought I mean, we know that a lot of the Middle Eastern countries use a lot more sort of fragrant spices, don’t know, they don’t tend to use chilli in that way, but that’s it, but that’s changing.

Eleanor Ford  16:14

I think that’s changing. I think chilli use is changing everywhere, just as it had earlier and it can change flavour palettes. But yes, traditionally, the Arab world has relied far more on floral and fragrant and the sweet spices.

Gilly Smith  16:29

Yeah. I mean, the whole story is about culinary exchange, we’re talking about the movement of spice through empires through peoples, influencing the way we all eat. Your third food moment is kebabs. Really interesting story of where kebabs have come from and where they go to and how they pick up the spices along the way.

Eleanor Ford  16:51

I think kebabs is the perfect food to be able to trace a movement. They started it’s likely in Turkey. And then it was the Arab spice traders who spread kebabs across the globe, the Arabs had a real hold over the spice trade for millennia. And so the traders would travel to new ports, they would stay there while they waited for the winds to change. And when they’re staying, gathering new spices and commodities to take, they would also stop and share ideas. And so these sort of spicy morsels travelled across the Indian Ocean and took on very different forms in their new homes. So when they travelled overland and we go through Central Asia, they perhaps stayed closest to the simple roots of food on sticks, by far you know, a great meal for soldiers. But then as you take them across to Southeast Asia you have the evolution to things like satay with completely different flavours and different adaptations different ingredients being brought in. But still the origins of a common theme and a common people who have moved these ideas around with them.

Gilly Smith  18:10

Soldiers have have much to say. In order to keep your soldiers happy you have to feed them very well. And a lot of really interesting ideas have come through soldiers over the many hundreds of years.  Your fourth food moment blending and layering spices now Misir Wat. I don’t know about this Tell me tell me about this. 

Eleanor Ford  18:29

Misir Wat  is a lentil dish from Ethiopia. And the reason I wanted to talk about it is I think shows so beautifully has spices can be used in layers of cooking. And what you have here at the base is a spiced butter called niter kibbeh which you make by cooking down an Ethiopian cardamom and other spice dried spices in the butter to infuse the flavour into that butter. That is then used to lay the foundations of the lentil dish. You start with a spice butter and a base of onions. You then add the next base which is berbere which is a dried spice blend, full, really heady blend filled with so many different spices as well as chilies and that is used in generous quantity. You cook it out to really bring out those flavours, add the lentils. Towards the end you add in garlic and ginger so that their flavours are still quite fresh and strong. And then when you finish cooking the whole dish, when the lentils are soft, everything’s aromatic, you finish it again with a spiced butter, which you might drizzle over at the table. So there you’re getting the idea that the same spices or different spices can be built up and you can get these base notes, the mid notes and the top notes of spices through your cooking

Gilly Smith  19:58

And you say that a friend of yours, an acclaimed musician and talented cook Zewditu Yohannes..

Eleanor Ford  20:05

She came and she taught me this recipe. And it was wonderful watching her cook. I so enjoy learning from people because she turns the heat up far higher than I would and she sort of throws things in with, you know, a real flair, not measuring but waiting to smell the aromas to know the exact point to move on to the next date of a recipe. 

Gilly Smith  20:30

Yeah,and you say that you ate it with a sour honeycombed flatbread, injera. I mean, all these wonderful flavours are coming our way, not least because we are so open to the food of immigrants. You know, we are a fantastically open food culture, aren’t we, in Britain, despite Brexit and all the awful things that make us look like we are a divided nation, we actually love food from all over the world. And like many, many of the Mediterranean countries that are very, and most places in the world are very loyal to their national food. As these flavours have hit our homelands, we just can’t get enough of them. I think

Eleanor Ford  21:09

That is so right. And I think that you get that not just in Britain, but in all kind of hubs of trade and of people. You get huge immigrant populations and with them amazing new food cultures developing, because it’s not just appreciating the food from somewhere else. It’s watching how those foods adapt to their new home. And, you know, with immigrants, people will come holding the recipes of their home country in their mind. But then they will have new ingredients and new ideas as well. And very often it immigrant communities a wonderful hotbeds of kind of creating new ideas and taking cuisines in different directions.

Gilly Smith  21:53

I mean, that’s very interesting in itself. I was talking to Sophie Grigson about the Middle Eastern community that have emigrated to Italy. And I said, ‘Do you think it’ll have an influence on Italian food culture?’ And she said ‘absolutely not. Not in a million years’.

Eleanor Ford  22:07

Well, I think that there are cuisines that feel like they’re so embedded and it feels like there is an authentic cuisine. But if one looks back, even over a few 100 years, you can see so many changes and how ideas have always been adopted, and shared. And so many things that feel inherent to one country actually have roots somewhere far away. 

Gilly Smith  22:30

It feels to me.. i I’m always very optimistic about the influence of different food cultures on our own. At this time where all the borders are being ripped up again, and war is dominating our headlines, you’ve you know, you’ve written such a complex and deep history of food, what can we learn about the endless changing borders and invasions and influences of other people on our own?

Eleanor Ford  22:57

That’s a very good question. I think that globalisation has always been there. And that, although we have had wars, we have had battles, we still see people pushing against each other. There is a respect of other cultures and nations and ideas that we can see through cuisine, through the sharing and blending of ideas, really kind of creates a network of humanity, of peoples around the world, just respecting each other. And that’s what I love about watchinga food travel, because it just shows humans being bound together.

Gilly Smith  23:42

I mean, it’s very interesting watching what’s happening with Cook for Ukraine, Olia Hercules and Alissa Timoshkina’s initiative to use food to get beyond the grey headlines, to look beyond the rubble and remember a country of colour and depth and flavour. And it’s a very powerful message, isn’t it? You know, Cook for Syria did the same. I wonder if elevating that national cuisine plays into an idea of nationalism that isn’t such a great idea, but helps to paint a picture of a country that’s under stress.

Eleanor Ford  24:21

I certainly think it helps remind us of the humanity behind the headlines. It shows us that these are the people. These are the things that have carried on the tradition, and we can all relate to food. We can all relate to eating and the stories that come with it, the lineage. There’s so much sort of power to that reminding us that these are people and that they are there beyond the layers of politics that go above them.

Gilly Smith  24:52

Thanks for listening. You can also find me on Food FM, the online radio station and global podcast platform which aims to change the world through food. Please get In Touch on social media; I’m @cookingbookswithGillySmith on Instagram and @GillySmith on Twitter. And you can sign up for my newsletter at GillySmith.com. I’ll see you next week.

Eleanor Ford  00:23

The Arabs who were bringing Cassia and cinnamon to the West would kind of weave stories around them. So you know, from the very beginning, there was a sort of layers of mystery and magic woven into them.

Gilly Smith  00:38

She has been called a culinary detective and a gastronomic archaeologist. I asked her how she approached this vast project

Eleanor Ford  00:45

I started off by thinking about the region of spice, and how its journey has travelled. But the more I delved into it, the more I realised that this is a history, and that there’s so much to explore over millennia. And in doing so, you don’t have .. the spice route being a maritime route of a sea there’s not obvious markers to follow. It’s all told more in stories and a great way to trace what’s happened is through flavours. So slowly as I was sort of unpicking things you can begin to make links by the flavours that you can see that have travelled from one culture to another. And really cultural exchange gives great clues to the history that I’ve been exploring.

Gilly Smith  01:34

And it is a fantastic story in terms of the flavour I love Yotam Ottalenghi’s quote, he calls the book a spice library. ‘And then the recipes,’ he says, ‘recipes which allow the reader to travel from Asia to the Middle East along the spice route, taking in so much flavour and so much context on the way. It’s the green coconut hot sauce from Somalia first up for me, followed by the green peppercorn asparagus from Thailand. I also love the flavours but I have to say it’s the depth and the history. It’s a very, it’s a very heady blend, isn’t it exotic islands and delicious recipes. But for me, I love the the gastronomical archaeology, let’s say. It’s digging deep into the stories of spice. And it feels to me like that film, Blood Diamond. You know, because you open up a rich vein of history and a lot of that history is not great. Can you tell us a little bit about the story of humanity that had some very, very dark edges.

Eleanor Ford  02:35

There are certainly dark edges. And that really comes to the fore in the 17th century, the 16th 17th century when Europeans got a taste for spice. And these spices became something so sort of exotic, they were tied up with status. And whenever something becomes a display of power and status, you get people who are hungry for more. And that caused, well, it really sparked off a period of colonisation. It sparked the age of discovery. And it started a period where lands across other sides of the world were being traded for each other with huge bloody battles. And the sort of masters were not taking into account the peoples that were involved. It was really a horrifying process that was started by spice. But I think what’s very important is one can get swept up in that period of the spice route, those sort of bloody centuries, when actually this is a trade that has gone back for millennia before that. We can go back to 2000 BC, when Arab merchants were conducting a far more peaceful trade along the spice routes. And so I think it’s important to see those hugely powerful centuries, but also to see what’s gone before that and the kind of quieter power that that’s had, in the exchange of ideas, the globalisation that has tied the East and West together for centuries,

Gilly Smith  04:08

yes. Why do you think it was that spices had such power to I mean, you know, you’re right to talk about them, you know, millennia ago, but spices were used as rents and ransoms, bribes and offerings. You know, that we used an ancient burials to and to use ward off plagues, to ignite carnal desire as well as you know, wars. What is it about spice that has such incredible power? 

Eleanor Ford  04:36

Well, I think the starting point for spice is it has to involve a journey. There isn’t one place where spices come from spices are dotted around with different starting points, mainly across Asia. And so to combine spices you have to have given an exotic journey. It’s this, it’s the sense of the other the something a bit mysterious. And early spice traders were masters of this, the Arabs who were bringing Cassia and cinnamon to the West would kind of weave stories around them that there was cynomolgus bird who would make its nests on high cliffs out of cinnamon sticks, and they would have to scale up mountains to fight off this fearsome bird. So, you know, from the very beginning, there was this mystique. And therefore the spices when they got to they were already expensive commodities, and could be used to demonstrate power. And therefore they got tied into religion into Burial Rites, they got used as medicine, there was a sort of layers of mystery and magic woven into them.

Gilly Smith  05:49

Yeah, and, you know, I was just reading some of the quotes on the back of the book and, you know, ‘mesmerising’ and ‘intoxicating’ and that those words are used and it really is a story of weaving magic around people,. It makes life better in a very simple way. You know, the food tastes better. In terms of the ransoms, tell us a little bit about what you know about the ransoms. That’s quite extraordinary, isn’t it?

Eleanor Ford  06:14

Well, really, you got spices at certain points in history, holding such value that they could be used as currency. And so we’ve got phrases like peppercorn rent, which still exists, which, which demonstrates the times where people could be paid, and debts could be paid off. And particularly when you had warring nations battling with each other, you know, very often, the coffers would be filled with something like cloves or nutmeg. And these could be used to pay off debt.

Gilly Smith  06:50

It’s interesting, isn’t it because it feels very generous and very feminine to add, beauty and charm and flavour to a ransom. It’s a sweetener.

Eleanor Ford  07:05

There’s been different approaches throughout history towards flavour and the flavours that a different culture will adopt. So you get periods where you have incredibly spiced pervasive food that’s brought into banquets as displays of power. So the Roman Empire, that was a time when food was incredibly highly spiced and often with peppercorns, and then you’ve and you would use it as a kind of display of wealth and of masculinity. You know, great emperors would have  banquet halls where flower petals would rain down from the ceilings and you know, that scent was so evocative of power that it had perhaps a different connotation to what it has now. Yeah, you’re right, it’s the COVID talking, I know all that. Of course, it’s a show of masculine power, as wealth, as it’s always been. Let’s just talk about what spice actually is.

Well, if we take a kind of most basic definition, we are looking at the parts of plants that are really intense in flavour. So they have got the kind of oils, the oleoresins, the terpenes, that are there that provide a real intensity. But then you can slightly cloud it with what is the difference between a spice and a herb, which also has those intense flavours, more so than a vegetable. But usually spice comes with a historical element as well. It’s involved a journey, a travel. And if we look at the origin of the word, it is species, which means a sort of exotic produce that has come and has travelled and made a journey. And so throughout different centuries, we’ve had different foods that fall under the category of spice. And at times, you know, even things like tea and sugar have been classed as spices or going back further things like ivory might have fallen into that category. 

Gilly Smith  09:02

Really, why?

Eleanor Ford  09:04

 Because of it being this item of special value. And it’s really that specialness that’s inherent in the word spice in the theory of spice being something that should be treasured.

Gilly Smith  09:16

This is your third book and each time you go to the same area of the world, don’t you? You feel drawn back to Java to Bali to Sumatra, in your last book in Fire Islands, which was the winner of multiple awards? What what is it about that part of the world is just keeps bringing you back?

Eleanor Ford  09:36

I think I’ve got a very personal connection to Asia. I’ve lived there at various parts of my life. And my book on Indonesian food was a revisit for me from a place that I’d lived as a child and then gone back as an adult and taken my family to live there for a period. But really, it’s it’s more than that. It’s the stories of food. And I’ve become so fascinated across all my books about the movement of flavours, and how you can see the different influences of history, of peoples, of movement coming through in food that we eat today. And it’s really a way to sort of taste culture. It kind of is.. I use food as a lens into which to explore culture and history.

Gilly Smith  10:25

My absolute favourite subject. It’s what Cooking the Books is all about. Let’s go to Bali with your first food moment. The Balinese Green Bean Urap.

Eleanor Ford  10:36

Well, I wanted to talk about this urap because the spices here are fresh spices rather than dried. And it’s kind of curious to me that we have Indonesia the absolute heartland of some of the dried spices that we use so much in the West, nutmeg and clove particularly, but in Indonesia itself, so often the spices used are fresh. It will be about creating a fresh spice paste called a bumbu. And this typically will have garlic, shallot, ginger, galangal and fresh turmeric, and chilies pounded together to make a very fragrant base. And then that can be taken in different directions with small tweaks. Sometimes some dried spices will be added, perhaps coriander seeds or a little bit of nutmeg. But then this paste is fried until it’s incredibly fresh and fragrant. And one of the dishes I’ve used it here is an urap. So the fried spice paste is mixed with grated coconut and lime leaves. And then that kind of fresh fragrant  mixture is used as a dressing for green vegetables in large quantities. So rather than dressing with an oil or with citrus, you are dressing it with a large amount of this spiced grated coconut. And it really demonstrates for me the fragrance of the cuisine.

Gilly Smith  12:05

What’s the difference then between sambal and a booboo? 

Eleanor Ford  12:08

Well, a bumbu and a sambal are slightly different.  A sambal always has a chilly base. So a sambal is a form of chilli sauce that’s blended together and very often will have a cooked element of bumbu in it. But a bumbu is the cooking base that you use for food so it’s kind of laying the foundations. And then a sambal is often used at the end. So it’s almost like the starter and then the finisher of a dish both with spices used in a slightly different way.

Gilly Smith  12:36

Of course the spice that everyone has an opinion about is chilli.

Eleanor Ford  12:42

Well I think that as humans we’re sort of drawn to things that give us an adrenaline boost, slight pain tinged with pleasure. And whether it’s going on a roller coaster, watching a scary movie, or adding a little bit of chilli to our food, it’s giving us just that little edge, that something which is slightly uncomfortable but can bring us so much pleasure. 

Gilly Smith  13:08

Of course we see it all ever dude food programmes on telly. You know daring people to eat as much chilli as they can.  When you see those programmes, what do you think?

Eleanor Ford  13:19

Well, I think it’s a different thing it’s taking away from the subtle joy that can be had with chinny because chilli really when it’s used gently will elevate all the other tastes. It’s there as an enhancer. You know, it tickles the palate in a different way. And it can be used to bring out flavours when you’re taking it to the extreme you’re you’re moving to a different challenge entirely. And you’re obliterating flavour and I don’t think that’s how chilli is used in most of the world. 

Gilly Smith  13:51

No of course it’s not losing the point completely. You do give a wonderful sweeping history of it though. Tell us how it started off as the Portuguese sea trade which ignited a fire in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, southeast China and South West Indian cooking.

Eleanor Ford  14:08

Well what’s so interesting to me is  chilli for so long was confined to central South America where they’re native to. And so Asia is fairly new to chilli as a spice in culinary terms. Before then there was definitely a taste for heat for ginger for peppercorns. But it was the Portuguese, er Columbus coming and so-called ‘discovering’  chilli and taking it West with him that very quickly sparked a spread around the rest of the world. Within about 50 years of the early 16th century, chilli had completely taken over Asia as the lead hot spice. Because unlike peppercorns, which would require a bit of a process, chillis are something people could grow in their gardens. It is a quick, easy source of heat. And so didn’t become part of this fabled spice trade, it didn’t have a value associated with it. It was a plant rather like ginger had millennia before that could just spread naturally and inherently.

Gilly Smith  15:23

And of course, you say that Korea now has the highest per capita consumption of chilli on earth. How did that happen?

Eleanor Ford  15:31

It is kimchi that fires it really, the pervasive use of kimchi means that chilli has really taken off. And it’s interesting seeing some countries now, which chilli is escalating in use, like Japan like Germany, where chilli hasn’t been used so much traditionally, but I think that once countries get a taste for heat, you can really see the use escalate.

Gilly Smith  15:56

Yeah, absolutely. And you talk about how it’s just spreading into other countries like Germany and and the Arab world, I would have thought I mean, we know that a lot of the Middle Eastern countries use a lot more sort of fragrant spices, don’t know, they don’t tend to use chilli in that way, but that’s it, but that’s changing.

Eleanor Ford  16:14

I think that’s changing. I think chilli use is changing everywhere, just as it had earlier and it can change flavour palettes. But yes, traditionally, the Arab world has relied far more on floral and fragrant and the sweet spices.

Gilly Smith  16:29

Yeah. I mean, the whole story is about culinary exchange, we’re talking about the movement of spice through empires through peoples, influencing the way we all eat. Your third food moment is kebabs. Really interesting story of where kebabs have come from and where they go to and how they pick up the spices along the way.

Eleanor Ford  16:51

I think kebabs is the perfect food to be able to trace a movement. They started it’s likely in Turkey. And then it was the Arab spice traders who spread kebabs across the globe, the Arabs had a real hold over the spice trade for millennia. And so the traders would travel to new ports, they would stay there while they waited for the winds to change. And when they’re staying, gathering new spices and commodities to take, they would also stop and share ideas. And so these sort of spicy morsels travelled across the Indian Ocean and took on very different forms in their new homes. So when they travelled overland and we go through Central Asia, they perhaps stayed closest to the simple roots of food on sticks, by far you know, a great meal for soldiers. But then as you take them across to Southeast Asia you have the evolution to things like satay with completely different flavours and different adaptations different ingredients being brought in. But still the origins of a common theme and a common people who have moved these ideas around with them.

Gilly Smith  18:10

Soldiers have have much to say. In order to keep your soldiers happy you have to feed them very well. And a lot of really interesting ideas have come through soldiers over the many hundreds of years.  Your fourth food moment blending and layering spices now Misir Wat. I don’t know about this Tell me tell me about this. 

Eleanor Ford  18:29

Misir Wat  is a lentil dish from Ethiopia. And the reason I wanted to talk about it is I think shows so beautifully has spices can be used in layers of cooking. And what you have here at the base is a spiced butter called niter kibbeh which you make by cooking down an Ethiopian cardamom and other spice dried spices in the butter to infuse the flavour into that butter. That is then used to lay the foundations of the lentil dish. You start with a spice butter and a base of onions. You then add the next base which is berbere which is a dried spice blend, full, really heady blend filled with so many different spices as well as chilies and that is used in generous quantity. You cook it out to really bring out those flavours, add the lentils. Towards the end you add in garlic and ginger so that their flavours are still quite fresh and strong. And then when you finish cooking the whole dish, when the lentils are soft, everything’s aromatic, you finish it again with a spiced butter, which you might drizzle over at the table. So there you’re getting the idea that the same spices or different spices can be built up and you can get these base notes, the mid notes and the top notes of spices through your cooking

Gilly Smith  19:58

And you say that a friend of yours, an acclaimed musician and talented cook Zewditu Yohannes..

Eleanor Ford  20:05

She came and she taught me this recipe. And it was wonderful watching her cook. I so enjoy learning from people because she turns the heat up far higher than I would and she sort of throws things in with, you know, a real flair, not measuring but waiting to smell the aromas to know the exact point to move on to the next date of a recipe. 

Gilly Smith  20:30

Yeah,and you say that you ate it with a sour honeycombed flatbread, injera. I mean, all these wonderful flavours are coming our way, not least because we are so open to the food of immigrants. You know, we are a fantastically open food culture, aren’t we, in Britain, despite Brexit and all the awful things that make us look like we are a divided nation, we actually love food from all over the world. And like many, many of the Mediterranean countries that are very, and most places in the world are very loyal to their national food. As these flavours have hit our homelands, we just can’t get enough of them. I think

Eleanor Ford  21:09

That is so right. And I think that you get that not just in Britain, but in all kind of hubs of trade and of people. You get huge immigrant populations and with them amazing new food cultures developing, because it’s not just appreciating the food from somewhere else. It’s watching how those foods adapt to their new home. And, you know, with immigrants, people will come holding the recipes of their home country in their mind. But then they will have new ingredients and new ideas as well. And very often it immigrant communities a wonderful hotbeds of kind of creating new ideas and taking cuisines in different directions.

Gilly Smith  21:53

I mean, that’s very interesting in itself. I was talking to Sophie Grigson about the Middle Eastern community that have emigrated to Italy. And I said, ‘Do you think it’ll have an influence on Italian food culture?’ And she said ‘absolutely not. Not in a million years’.

Eleanor Ford  22:07

Well, I think that there are cuisines that feel like they’re so embedded and it feels like there is an authentic cuisine. But if one looks back, even over a few 100 years, you can see so many changes and how ideas have always been adopted, and shared. And so many things that feel inherent to one country actually have roots somewhere far away. 

Gilly Smith  22:30

It feels to me.. i I’m always very optimistic about the influence of different food cultures on our own. At this time where all the borders are being ripped up again, and war is dominating our headlines, you’ve you know, you’ve written such a complex and deep history of food, what can we learn about the endless changing borders and invasions and influences of other people on our own?

Eleanor Ford  22:57

That’s a very good question. I think that globalisation has always been there. And that, although we have had wars, we have had battles, we still see people pushing against each other. There is a respect of other cultures and nations and ideas that we can see through cuisine, through the sharing and blending of ideas, really kind of creates a network of humanity, of peoples around the world, just respecting each other. And that’s what I love about watchinga food travel, because it just shows humans being bound together.

Gilly Smith  23:42

I mean, it’s very interesting watching what’s happening with Cook for Ukraine, Olia Hercules and Alissa Timoshkina’s initiative to use food to get beyond the grey headlines, to look beyond the rubble and remember a country of colour and depth and flavour. And it’s a very powerful message, isn’t it? You know, Cook for Syria did the same. I wonder if elevating that national cuisine plays into an idea of nationalism that isn’t such a great idea, but helps to paint a picture of a country that’s under stress.

Eleanor Ford  24:21

I certainly think it helps remind us of the humanity behind the headlines. It shows us that these are the people. These are the things that have carried on the tradition, and we can all relate to food. We can all relate to eating and the stories that come with it, the lineage. There’s so much sort of power to that reminding us that these are people and that they are there beyond the layers of politics that go above them.

Gilly Smith  24:52

Thanks for listening. You can also find me on Food FM, the online radio station and global podcast platform which aims to change the world through food. Please get In Touch on social media; I’m @cookingbookswithGillySmith on Instagram and @GillySmith on Twitter. And you can sign up for my newsletter at GillySmith.com. I’ll see you next week.

Season 19, Episode 2: Kalpna Woolf: Eat, Share, Love

Kalpna Woolf, author of Eat, Share, Love and founder of 91 Ways

Click to listen to Kalpna Woolf, founder of the Bristol charity 91 Ways which brings together the 91 languages spoken in her hometown of Bristol in a series of pop up peace cafés. 

Her book Eat Share Love features the recipes shared over the supper clubs where back story is the main ingredient.

You can buy the book directly from 91 Ways here

Transcript

Gilly Smith  0:00  

Hello and welcome back to Cooking the Books with me Gilly Smith, the podcast which digs a little deeper into the best of the food books. This week I’m with Kalpna Woolf, founder of the Bristol charity, 91 Ways which brings together the 91 languages spoken in her hometown to eat together at a series of pop up peace cafes.

Kalpna Woolf  0:17  

We have 91 language communities. We want every one of them to know about each other so we’ll take Somali women or women from Eritrea and people from India, Muslims and Hindus to another part of Bristol to meet  the Jewish group or Palestinian and that is the idea. 

Gilly Smith  0:37  

She holds the Guild of Food Writers Inspiration Award, BBC’s Food and Farming Food Hero Award and the Asian Woman of Achievement Award. Her book, Eat, Share, Love features just some of the recipes from the cultures from all over the world which share the tables at 91 Ways, and for her is the most important thing she’s ever done. 

Which is really saying something; before she retired and became one of the 20 people listed by Waitrose Food Magazine’s Making the World a Better Place to Live and Eat in 2020, she was head of production for Factual and Natural History at the BBC, overseeing all the best in TV storytelling, including Frozen Planet, Planet Earth, and TV chefs from Rick Stein and Nigel Slater to the Hairy Bikers. Now, this is a story of storytelling that I argue in my book, Taste and the TV Chef, is one of the most powerful TV ever told, and created British food culture in the 1990s. I asked her if she sees it that way.

Kalpna Woolf  1:29  

I think what we’ve had from Nigella and Nigel Slater and the Hairy Bikers is that we’ve we’ve seen new trends in food. And they’ve taught us a lot about food, actually. You know Nigella, she brings her lovely Italian food, her love of you know, really sumptuous food. That’s what she is, isn’t she? Everything’s very rich, and it’s very giving. And I think that and that dinner party spirit that she brings, it’s definitely, I think it’s influenced how we eat, and how we share food. And with Nigel Slater, there’s a real simplicity there. And we will, he thinks such a lot about food. So he makes us think, before we eat, and also think about what we use where the food comes from. And with the Hairy Bikers, you know, they’re fun. They’re fun. They’re very good with people. They’re always back to basics in terms of food, but also who we are. And I and I think we’ve learned a lot from those chefs. Yeah.

Gilly Smith  2:33  

What I particularly love about British food culture is that it is so full of story. And that’s what your book is all about. It’s the stories of immigrants. And they come from their lands, often through, you know, very difficult circumstances, but they hold their food close. And it’s that that I think, has made British food so interesting. Why don’t we see that on the BBC?

Kalpna Woolf  2:56  

I think we need to see Britain as it is. You’re right.  British food culture isn’t just what we often see, it is all of the cultures that we have. You know, Britain, we’re so lucky in, in Britain, you know, it’s such a diverse country. And not only is it diverse, but it’s embraced so many food cultures. I mean, if you go to other countries, it’s not always the same. But here, you know, you’ve got Indian food, you know, our high streets are stuffed full of different food cultures, and we love it. We don’t see that so much on the TV, we see that more as a side thing, which is a bit of a shame, because I think that doesn’t represent who we are. It doesn’t represent how we eat either, because our homes also are full of spices. They’re full of different types of foods from different parts of the world. And you know, we love eating it. And we love talking about it too, and sharing it.

Gilly Smith  3:55  

Yeah. And we do. And of course, the thing about global food is that it shows the stories behind the headlines. So you know, we’re right in the middle of an unfolding story of Ukraine. It’s so important, isn’t it to remember what the food and the music and the people are like in these countries and food is a fantastic way in. This is what your book is all about. You know, we hear about Somali refugees, we hear about Syrian refugees, we hear about the Kurdish Turks. All of those are headlines, but what you’ve done is you’ve you work with the people, you break bread with them. Tell us what you were trying to do with the book.

Kalpna Woolf  4:34  

What I wanted to do with Eat, Share Love is to tell the stories behind the people that we may see in our in our cities, but we don’t know anything about really. You’re absolutely right is about we may only know about the headlines. We might also only know a little bit about them. But actually everybody has a story to tell. And that story tells you not just about them, but it tells you about their entire culture, their heritage, their identity, and often their country’s history. And I really wanted to find a way of sharing that, because I believe when we share that, we share who we are, but we also share, we make connections, and for me, it’s making those connections, I believe the world will be a better place if we understand each other. So how do we understand each other. Food is such a great gateway to understanding each other. And the stories around our food, the memories, the moments of either of joy, or the moments of sadness and moments of struggle, the moments of ritual, the moments of feasting, all those moments are associated with our food. Those moments put together are who we are,

Gilly Smith  5:56  

Yeah, and, you know, it sounds a bit flip sometimes to say, oh, let’s just sit down and break bread and forget all our differences. And you know, the different languages, different cultures, but actually, you know, I was talking to Yasmin Khan recently for her book, Ripe Figs and she was going to refugee camps in Lesbos, and and talking to people who have been through hell and back, but sitting down and eating, and telling stories of not necessarily of the hell, but of the old country and life and memories, you know, it brings them back to life, it is what they do. And a lot of the stories that she came across was restaurants and people who are working hard to facilitate that, to make people feel like human beings again, by eating. It’s so far from flip, isn’t it? Is that what you were trying to do with 91 ways?

Kalpna Woolf  6:50  

It’s absolutely what we’re trying to do with 91 Ways. It’s such a great catalyst, food is, I believe that, you know, sharing a plate of food with somebody is such a great act of kindness. When you offer a plate of food to someone, they will always take it. And when they take it and enjoy it, they’re actually opening their heart to you. And then once you they open their heart to you, they start talking. The catalyst of food is what can open and trigger up those memories as well. And then also, that’s when people start speaking. So you offer a plate of food to somebody, it’s a great act of kindness.  That kindness leads to people opening their hearts to you. And that’s when you hear the real stories. That’s when people tell you who they are and what  means the most to them.

Gilly Smith  7:46  

Yeah. I mean, they started off with you realising that there were 91 languages spoken in your home city of Bristol. That’s astonishing. That’s mind blowing. Obviously, a lot of those people had just come to Bristol and didn’t speak enough English. How were you able to communicate? How were you able to get those stories? Presumably, there wasn’t an interpreter around. How did it work?

Kalpna Woolf  8:13  

There are 91 languages spoken in Bristol. Yes, I couldn’t believe it. Because although there are, you know, Bristol is a diverse city, you wouldn’t always know that. People live in their own areas. They’re quite siloed. Like most cities, and people are just getting on with their everyday work. Yeah, we don’t speak 91 languages. But I really wanted to find a way of bridging divides. I wanted to find a way of making connections. So I chose the thing that is a universal language. And that’s food. We all eat. We all understand it. We do it every day. And also, it means so much to us. It means who we are. But it also means life to us too, doesn’t it? 

Gilly Smith  8:54  

Absolutely. Physically, it was at peace cafes that people would come together. Tell us about the first one when you decided to set that up? How many people came? Where do they come from? What did it look like? Where was it?

Kalpna Woolf  9:08  

I wanted to create a space for people to come and just sit together and make genuine connections. So I thought okay, let’s have a peace cafe. So I set up  Bristol’s first International Peace Cafe. And basically what that meant was we opened the doors and we said here is a Peace Cafe. Come and eat. Free food. We just put long tables out everybody and we put lots of food and everybody just shared food. They passed big platters of food around. They came and talked. It’s a safe space for people to to come and chat. There is nothing, we don’t want anything from people. We’re not expecting anything. We care for people. We create an atmosphere for them to feel welcome. And they can chat or they can just sit and eat, and just feel like they’re part of something. 

So the first one we did was at the station in Bristol, and we thought maybe, you know, 20, 30 people will come through the doors because we weren’t sure if people wanted this. We weren’t sure, actually, is this what people wanted. But actually 185 people came through the doors. I couldn’t believe it. And for me what that meant was actually, I was right. People do want this; they want to find ways of connecting. They want to find ways of telling their story, because they feel that maybe nobody’s interested in their story. But if they could voice their story, if they could share it, they know that they can make connections, they can make friendships. That’s so important. But it’s also a small city. And it’s so important that people feel part of it. And this is a great way of feeling part of it.

Gilly Smith  10:55  

Yeah, I wonder how much of that has to do with Bristol. Bristol is quite an extraordinary city, isn’t it? I’m I came to the Mazi Project last night, which is a fundraiser for homeless people to be dignified through food boxes containing excellent local produce, given, you know, freely by the local suppliers. That’s a really extraordinary thing. But it’s very typical of what happens here. Do you think there’s something special about Bristol I mean, could The Mazi Project, could 91 Ways happen anywhere else?

Kalpna Woolf  11:26  

I think Bristol is an amazing city, I think we really think about what sort of city we want to live in. So 91 Ways, the full title is 91 Ways to Build a Global City. That’s my ambition for it. Bristol has got such a great potential. And you know, we’ve got fantastic people here thinking about each other. And food seems to be the central theme. And there are people sort of thinking about food as a connector, but also, you know, food as health, you know, where does our food come from? How can we think differently? How can we do things better? I think that, you know, Bristol is fantastic. But I absolutely believe that the things that we do here, and I absolutely believe this about 91 Ways, can be a template for how the other cities can work. Bristol can be a real model. Yes, this can happen anywhere. We’re just got we’re just a bit ahead of the game. We’re like that we’re very distinctive.

Gilly Smith  12:23  

What could it look like? What is that vision? Your global city? What would you love Bristol to be, say 10 years time? What does it look like?

Kalpna Woolf  12:31  

I want I want every single person in Bristol to feel part of Bristol to have an equal opportunity to have a voice to see themselves represented in every part of the city. I want everybody to be healthy. I want them to know where to access good food. I want them to know where to access friendship. I want them to feel really that they belong in this city.

Gilly Smith  12:56  

Let’s go through some of your food moments. Let’s start with your father’s Indian baked beans, which I have just heard. You’ve made them for me for breakfast.  Oh my goodness, I will be making these forever.

Kalpna Woolf  13:05  

Well, these, my father’s Indian baked beans means such a lot to me, and we still eat them. And you know the grandchildren and our families still make them. It’s such an important dish for me because it reminds me of the sacrifices my father made. So my father came to this country in the late 50s, early 60s at a time where actually there weren’t many immigrants here. He had fought for the British Army. So there was a connection. He had five small children, he had arrived in New Delhi from Pakistan as a refugee. And he really wanted us five children, his family to have the best opportunity. So he made the long journey. And it was a long journey in those days on his own. He left my mum behind with the small children. And he got a job in a factory because there wasn’t there were no other jobs. 

And at that time, you could only live you know, in a house with five or six other people. And he lived with five or six other Indian men who were all working really hard, who’d made similar journeys. And they were trying to recreate the food that they had in India. And at that time, you couldn’t really get very much either here. He longed for that food because that was such a great connection back, you know, to his homeland. So I don’t know they found these beans, you know, they look like beans that we make and lentils and pulses because that’s what we eat. Having opened the can and tasted them thought oh my goodness it’s so sweet. We just don’t have that. Yeah, they set about being really creative. You’ve got to hand it to them. And they added spices and onions and tomatoes and turmeric and coriander and they made this amazing dish and it is delicious. So for me it’s delicious.  I really think well, it’s very, it’s very wholesome as well, because you’ve got this, you know, the extra spice in it, and it feels very warming. And when I eat it, I enjoy it. But I just, I think back to him, my father and all those men who made those sacrifices, and were alone in those, you know, homes, looking after each other, nourishing each other, you know, trying to create the dishes from their homeland, but really working as hard as they could to make our lives better. And you know, so I feel grateful every time I eat that dish.

Gilly Smith  15:39  

That’s it’s a wonderful story. And I hear it so many times. I remember talking to somebody who had emigrated to Australia from Italy. And he said that in the immigration camps, people were growing tomatoes and basil, just so that it could smell of home. It’s very powerful, isn’t it? I’m wondering about the availability of some of the more exotic ingredients. Kiki Paddy writes about ogiri and she’s replaced it with bitter leaves. It’s a fermented seed, isn’t it? It’s only really available in Nigeria, a lot of these recipes, do use replacements. And I wonder if there’s some kind of ache that happens, did anybody tell you what it feels like to replace ingredients?

Kalpna Woolf  16:24  

And I think, you know, we’re all trying to recreate the dishes from my childhood or from our, you know, grandmother’s are from our homeland, you know. You know, food is a cultural touchstone. So we’re, we’re always trying to touch that stone if you like, you know, and so, and sometimes we can’t get the ingredients. So we have to, we’re trying to find something that feels feel similar. And, you know, even that is something, it’s about, you know, we may not get the whole feeling, but we get some of it. 

Because also Gilly, yes, we want the taste to be the same, but sometimes it is the mere act of cooking it and, and remembering how it was cooked. So it doesn’t have to be identical;  my mother, you know, the daI make, it will never taste like when my mom cooked it. Or in the book, there’s a green chicken that my elder sister used to make, I could make that 100 times it will never ever taste the same. But I make it I make it and I I relive the memory of being with her by her side when she made it. And also the times of happiness, you know, the laughter inside. 

And for me, that’s, that’s enough.  I’d love it to taste exactly the same, but it’s also the love that’s attached to that recipe. So, you know, we can’t get everything all of the time. I have to say that you know, when when my mother came to this country, you couldn’t get quite a lot of the spices. But she used to go back to India regularly and she used to smuggle those spices and I hate to say it and I don’t want the police knocking on my door now, it’s a bit belated. But you know literally she used to. She used to wrap the spices in her clothes and sew them in. She couldn’t get them; she must have smelled like turmeric and and garam masala all the time, you know, but she did because you couldn’t she didn’t know if it was I think it was probably legitimate but she didn’t know but she just desperately wanted to bring those spices home and she used to bring things like you know whole pine nuts and we used to love it. When she opened her suitcase and you know it should go clothes off we like yeah you know it’s our Christmas again you know it’s wonderful. So you try and recreate it and part of it is the taste but so much of it is a story that goes with it and that memory

Gilly Smith  18:53  

Yeah, and I suppose a loss as well that you know loss has a flavour doesn’t it? Something else that you made for me this morning is Hanna Ahmed’s crispy fried bhajiya. Oh my goodness. Absolutely delicious. This is a really sad story. Tell us about this as your second food moment.

Kalpna Woolf  19:12  

Yes, I dedicated this Pajia to Hanna. And I think when I first started 91 Ways, one of the first communities I met towards the Somali community. And because we have a lot of as probably the highest language spoken in Bristol is Somali. So I went to meet these Somali ladies and they took me straightaway into a cafe you know. Hospitality, food, that’s the first thing you know. And they said ‘Come on, let’s go and eat together’. And they took me to this cafe that was really behind this shop that was selling clothes which was very interesting, and there was a lady making food, and she was making get what I thought will look like samosa and they called it some Sambusa  firstly and I thought, Whoa, I didn’t really realise that there was a connection in that way between Indian and Somalia and you got this, you know, you’ve got this actual Somosa that call Sambusa,  and I thought well, it’s exactly the same food and she was making also pajia. So Pajia we have that in India in we have pajia.  We make it with lentils, and spices and coriander and so on. 

Gilly Smith  20:27  

We might know it as bhajis

Kalpna Woolf  20:29  

Yes and pajias. Yeah. We make it with onions and other and vegetables. So different parts of India would have..  Gujarat as pajia, in Punjab, it’s Bahaji India and in Somaliland, it’s Pajia, but it’s made with a black eyed beans. And, and I remember tasting them. And I remember just the word and I felt, I felt immediately connected to this community. I thought, well, we’ve got a connection, not just with food, we must have a heritage that goes back together that, you know, in the past. And I was surrounded by these women who were laughing, eating, and I was just like, Oh, my goodness, these amazing women

 Hanna was just a beautiful woman. She was firstly, she was beautiful. She was physically beautiful. But she was beautiful in the sense that she’d walk into a room and it should light up the room. And she, I remember sitting talking to her, and she said to me, you know, ‘I wear a hijab, and when I walk down the street, I feel really invisible. People don’t know who I am’. And she said, ‘I wish I could tell them’ and I said to her, ‘come in, come and do an event for 91 Ways. Come and talk about who we are, because we do these pop ups. And they are supper clubs, but with a difference’. The difference is that it’s always a member of the community who has cooked and tells their stories. It’s not just a dinner, it’s actually you learn about the community, you get that beautiful food, but you get the beautiful culture and heritage being told there as well. 

And she came with some Somali ladies and she stood up. And she talked about what it’s like to be Somali woman. And then she said, ‘you know, we’re strong. We work hard, we look after our children, we have the same ambitions as any other woman. We want our children to do really well. We want to do well. And we’re here, and we want to be part of the city.’ And everybody just clapped. It was just amazing. And, you know, she just, she left such a lasting impression on me. Sadly, during Lockdown, she passed away. And I was so upset by that, because she was very young, she left young children as well behind. And I thought I have to put something. I have to put her story in the book as a legacy. For everybody to know that you might see people walking down the street, you think you have nothing in common with them. We all have things in common. And the most thing that we have is our common humanity. And Hanna taught me that 

Gilly Smith  23:18  

It’s a bit an incredibly sad story, but a wonderful legacy about the importance of cultural practices. And your third food moment is a big leap. And I’m thinking about the kind of the religious aspects of such a mix of cultures. I mean, we’re talking about, you know, whole pigs cooked over a pit in in Spanish town, Jamaica, in your third food moment. How do the Muslims in your community handle those kind of conversations? Do they come together over food?

Kalpna Woolf  23:54  

Oh, absolutely. The whole thing about 91 Ways is everybody comes and and otherwise we’d be just talking to the same communities and we have 91 language community, we want every one of them to know about each other. So we’ll take Somali women or women from Eritrea, and people from India and Muslims and Hindus to another part of Bristol to meet you know, the Jewish group or Palestinian and so. That is the idea, you know, and although you know, there are religious practices and you know, and some people may not he will only Halal food, they welcome learning about each other. You know, the food is there to enjoy, but it is the catalyst for that. Yeah, conversation is the catalyst to make those connections. And, and, you know, people are so giving, that there’s always alternatives, and people go really out of their way to make the food right for everybody.

 I mean, you know, we’ve, we had an event at the Hindu temple and we have a refugee group of women came and they were all Muslims. And they it was all vegetarian food. Yes, they ate that food and really enjoyed it. But you know, towards the end they stood up and we weren’t sure, we thought well would they want to know about Hinduism. It wasn’t about Hinduism, it was about a space that we had really there for it. And we wanted to share the food that we eat. And they stood up, they said, ‘we would love to look around the temple, because we want to know more about what you believe.’ And I was just like, This is amazing, you know, and so it was the the priest, or the pandit taking Muslim women around the temple and showing them around and saying, ‘Oh, this is Lord Shiva. And this is, you know, Krishna, and this is what we believe’, and they were just loving it. And and, you know, I think if you make those possibilities happen, people are so open. Really want to learn, they want to know aout each other, people want peace as well, you know

Gilly Smith  25:59  

Yes, they really do. So yeah. So tell us about the your third food moment, the jerk marinade. 

Kalpna Woolf  26:06  

Well, who doesn’t love  jerk chicken or pork? You know, I mean, I was introduced it here by Marti.  I’ve never tasted anything like it. I thought I tasted it before. And of course, you know, if you speak to Marti, you know, she, she’s really, really careful, she, she will not share her recipe with anybody. And so I didn’t know how I priced it out of her. It’s in the book. Don’t tell anyone else. Okay, that’s what she said. I think she hasn’t forgiven me for having that weak moment where she shade shared it with me. But I think what is really interesting for me is that, you know, we all know about jerk chicken, we’ve seen it and so on and jerk marinade. But the story behind it is so interesting. You know, every food that we have has a story connected with it. You know, food is not just the sum of ingredients. And I think we need to know that. So with jerk chicken, what’s so interesting is that when she went back to Portland, Jamaica, she found that actually, why is your chicken made in that way? It’s made in that way because when the slaves were trying to flee from slavery, and they, they weren’t, they had to eat. So they used to dig a pit, and they would cook below the ground, so that no smoke would, you know, escape. And so that, you know, nobody would know, soldiers wouldn’t know where they were. And that pit and that way of cooking is the jerk way of cooking. So that whole, you know that incredible food that we love has this historical story, a story of freedom, a story of fleeing oppression, and a story that’s so tied to Jamaican history. And I love knowing that. So now when I eat it, I appreciate it even more. And I’m so grateful, when Marti and her family have have shared this with me, because I know what it means to them.

Gilly Smith  28:02  

Yeah. And I’m just thinking about, you know, so many of the problems of our food culture and our health and the problems with the planet have to do with the opposite of that, not paying attention to where your food comes from, what you’re eating, the time you’re taking to eat it, eating on the run, not eating at a table, eating in front of the telly, all of those are so opposite to that experience of really understanding and, and tasting and, and connecting with your food. Your fourth food moment is as an example of that again, and very fitting for the times that we’re living in right now.

Kalpna Woolf  28:38  

Well, first of all, 91 Ways is about creating those times, that space for people to come and sit and talk. Because we don’t want anything else, we just say to them just come and sit down with us. Recreating those opportunities for people to come and connect when sometimes in their home, they’re running around after the children, or there’s many things to do. You know, when you’re at home, you’re always thinking about what you need to do. So it was really important that we create these opportunities for people to come and just sit.

I  wanted to share a story with you, which I think really resonates right now. Obviously, all stories of war should resonate with us because they should be for us to think about how to stop those things from happening. But I met a Bosnian family, Stela and Dino a few years ago. And Dino is a young man and he loves cooking and he loves food. And somebody said to him ‘You have to make Kalpna’. And and somebody said to me, ‘you have to meet Dino’,  So we went to me and we spent the whole afternoon to my food. I had no idea about Bosnian food, by the way. And what is great about him is that he he did a supper club for us and he stood up and talked about the fact that people don’t know anything about Bosnian food and of course the influences of the Ottoman Empire influences, a Persian food and so on. 

It’s beautiful food; it’s incredibly different. I mean, I could eat that food all the time. What I love about Dino is that he talks about how his food is so connected to where he was born, and connected to those stories. And those stories aren’t all positive. But how he’s turned that into positive. So, he grew up in Mostar just when the more war had broken up. He was only a child then. He grew up to the sound of snipers firing around the town he was born in. He grew up to soldiers coming, and in fact, soldiers came in marched them out of their home. So he and his mother had to flee. 

And what was terrible was that until that moment, they had lived cheek by jowl with their Muslim neighbours, with all the different neighbours, and there were no differences. You know, they were like brothers. But then the war happened. And they managed to come to England. And he says, you know, what that time taught him is actually you have to come together, you have to understand that there are no differences, that actually we are the same. And he uses food and his story to tell people that peace is really important, that we have to remember we are all human beings that we cannot go back. We shouldn’t go back to that time when we’re fighting each other. This is a young man talking about peace is so inspirational. 

And the food that he makes is this beautiful, they are called peach shaped pastries, Breskvice. And that peach shape –  they’ve got no peach in them, and keeps telling us ‘they’ve got no peaches’!  But he remembers that his grandmother used to you know, get them for him. But it was a lady across the road who says Zdenke who used to make the the pastries, Breskvice and when his grandmother’s come and visit he used to say to could you bring some of those? Please could you ask Zdenke to make some more so this poor Zdenke was quite elderly and would spend the whole day making a whole box of these, you know, Tupperware full of these, and they’re quite laborious, but really beautiful. And you know, and the grandmother would bring them to the UK and one day he said to his grandmother look, could you ask the Zdenke for the recipe and Zdenke gave him the recipe and she said, ‘Look, this is how you make the peaches’ and she said, ‘What do you need to do is make them exactly like this. And you need to add in some love and they will be perfect.’ And he said, you know, he’s been making them ever since in his very sad that Zdenke passed away very quickly after she shared the recipe with him. So he’s really grateful. 

But those peach shaped pastries means so much to him. They represent his culture they represent.. because they’re very beautiful, he loves the fact that he can show them to people and say you see you think you know about Bosnian culture and Bosnian food, look at these, and they’re very intricate and lovely. So I think that’s his way of saying look, you know, find out more about us. We’re not all the negative things that you might have heard of them. We are much more than that.

Gilly Smith  33:30  

Thanks for listening. You can also find me on Food FM, the online radio station and global podcast platform, which aims to change the world through food. Do get in touch on social media. I’m @cookingthbookswithGillySmith on Instagram and @GillySmith on Twitter. And you can sign up for my newsletter at Gillysmith.com. I’ll be back next week with Ella RISBRIDGER and her Year of Miracles.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai