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Sowing the Seeds

nigella bookWatching the ghastly events at Isleworth Court this week, it was pretty much a forgone conclusion I’d be Team Nigella since it would take a lot for me to back a man who throttled his wife. But it was also because Nigella has probably been the biggest influence on my cooking career of anyone.

It was her columns in Vogue in the very late 90s that turned me from being able to make food to being able to cook and understanding the power of writing and talking about food. Prior to that, most of my food influence had been from family or watching people like Keith Floyd on TV, but Nigella introduced me to food writing. Her columns seemed incredibly grown up and very cosmopolitan. I felt so very adult cooking things she wrote about while friends made baked potatoes and Old El Paso kits when we went round for dinner before a big night out.

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A taste of home?

The Christmas I discovered duck…

I have read a lot in the past few months about culinary heritage, from articles about the attempts to save English apples to the eternal debate about food and class and discussions of regionalism in British food. I find this fascinating, but also wonder how much a lot of people can relate to this wider food heritage? Is it not the case that most people’s relationship with food is much more influenced by their immediate surroundings with the wider social aspects playing a less obvious role?

I grew up in a house engaged in food. My parents cooked almost everything from scratch, partly because that’s what they grew up on and partly because it was much cheaper and in 1980s Belfast where we didn’t didn’t have any national supermarket chains or McDonalds, it was pretty much the norm. My parents did have a slightly crunchy streak, making their own yoghurt and whipping up vats of dahl, but mainly we ate a mixture of traditional British and Irish dishes and slightly unusually for the time, real pasta (not the tinned stuff), rice and other meals influenced by my parents’ interest in travel. We ate well, but weren’t strangers to a fry or chips. Fussiness was not tolerated, although I was allowed to indulge in a teenage dalliance with vegetarianism. I spent a lot of time in kitchens as a child, watching people cook, both at home and at my granny’s farmhouse where a Esse cooker provided constant warmth and a never ending stream of excellent baked goods. Yet until I was nineteen, I couldn’t cook. In fact I could barely make toast and I couldn’t care less.

I had rebelled in my late teens, craving lurid foods from packets and cereals so sweet just looking at the box caused dental erosion. I was just about to leave home and unashamedly I was feeding myself a diet that a five year old would baulk at. Something needed to happen to stop me leaving my entire food heritage behind and hailing Pot Noodles as haute cuisine. And it did. It was an odd salvation, but one that would shepherd me back toward the path my parents had put me on. I discovered Ainsley Harriott.

Laid low by serious ill health, I watched a lot of daytime TV and the jewel in the crown of afternoon scheduling in the late 90s was Ready Steady Cook. It almost always featured Britain’s most exuberant cook and slowly and awakened an interest in cooking. I learned more about the technical side of making food than any Home Economics class had shown me and slowly but surely, it piqued my interest and I moved from sofa to kitchen. I’d like to tell you Ainsley’s easy inexpensive dishes were the motivation, but I think it was just as much as an urge to get away from his endless bellowing. I began cooking simple things, mainly pasta and couscous based, while I gained confidence in prepping ingredients and understanding timings. I’m sure there were some gastronomic horrors that my poor mother ate to be supportive, but I’ve blocked those memories out.

By the time I went to university, clutching the first ever cookbook I bought, a copy of Nigella’s How to Eat, I was pretty confident in the kitchen and unlike my flatmates who relied heavily on processed meals and parcels from home, I cooked everything from scratch, including making my own yeast free bread. Broke, bored and marooned on an out of town campus at night, I re-lived a childhood cooking interest and made apple crumble almost nightly for something to do, resulting in block wide ‘crumble offs’ and custard making competitions. Moving to London and starting a job in fashion stunted my fledgling interest in food slightly, living off Ryvita and cream cheese most of the time, but when money and parties were thin on the ground, happy to partake of ‘Goulash Night’ and slightly obsessive onion ring making with my housemates. I did also construct a (now sadly lost and much missed) recipe book of Vogue recipes, food article cuttings and Lindsey Bareham‘s brilliant after work recipes from the Evening Standard.

But it wasn’t til I moved into my current flat about five years ago that I really started to challenge myself culinararily. Living on a very restricted budget led me away from the trendier world of the celebrity cooks to a certain extent and back toward the skills and loves my parents instilled in me from an early age. I still rarely buy anything ready made (unless I can’t do it myself) and I am a demon with leftovers. Somewhere my granny’s love of baking has come back to me and I still whip everything up in her mixing bowl. The confidence and independence these skills offer me is worth its weight in gold (and the money it saves me) and I find it hard to believe that I didn’t pay more attention when I was younger, although thank god, I’ve got my mum’s potato salad recipe to hand!

I’m still very much developing as a cook. I’m a little bit nervous of doughs, pastries, batters and things involving yeast. My childhood love of oddly bland things such as Marie biscuits has never left me and despite being a food lover, I could happily eat plain brown rice, Ryvita and porridge five times a week. I’m not very cheffy in my presentation and Mister North is much more adventurous with his techniques and ingredients. My favourite childhood comfort food dish is still mince and potatoes, preferably cooked by my mum. But I’m enjoying following a path that my childhood set me on where I’ll try just about anything once, even if it also involves rather a lot of baking fails along with a revived love of lentils.

What about you? Who shaped your foodie path? Have you bucked childhood trends and tastes? Do the people around you influence your food feelings or do the TV chefs have more sway these days? Are bloggers your new inspiration? And have you ever successfully re-created those things other people cooked for to show you their love?