I grew up in MMBA – a colonial acronym for ‘miles and miles of bloody Africa’. My first food memories are of mangoes and paw-paws, avocados, fresh crabs and lobsters at holidays down on the Kenyan Coast, and spicy hot Indian curries – thanks to the large Indian community who lived in Nairobi.
So on my first few visits to Britain to visit family relations in Birmingham, I tasted food that I thought was wonderfully exotic – simply because it seemed so strange to me: fish and chips sprinkled with brown malt vinegar eaten straight out of the newspaper with my aunts; crab paste sandwiches and cut-glass bowls of tinned peaches for Sunday tea with my grandmother; my other grandmother’s favourite pork pies and sausages & mash, accompanied with HP sauce; and everything washed down with cups of tea poured from brown teapots covered in knitted tea-cosies.
Journeys back ‘home’ (well, that’s what my parents called it) involved long sea journeys, which I loved – apart from the meals. As children, we ate our lunch in a separate dining room from the adults. The ship stewards served up English nursery food where everything was either drowned in brown gravy or pale yellow custard. One day I rebelled and insisted on having a proper curry, ‘like the grownups’. I made a tremendous fuss and won the argument – and for the rest of the voyage I had my own curry.
After Kenya my family emigrated to New Zealand. Here, aged nine, I discovered the luxury of real cream. A tight family budget had meant we’d always ‘made do’ with evaporated or condensed milk instead, but here the most heavenly ice-creams and huge dollops of cream on our hot chocolate every night were suddenly affordable. I also discovered Kiwi fruits, used in New Zealand’s national pudding – Pavlova – a fragile confection of meringue, cream, and Kiwis. But after eighteen months we left, this time for Britain. We boarded an Italian ship for the long journey home where I discovered pasta in all its forms, and fell in love with Spaghetti Bolognese. Even better, the ship stopped at Rome and Naples – so pizzas were added to the list of ‘favourites’.
Not surprisingly, I was very conscious of food ‘belonging’ to different countries, so when we finally settled in a rambling old farmhouse in Buckinghamshire and I started learning to cook – with my mother’s help – I was allowed to choose recipes from a 1958 edition of Good Housekeeping’s Around The World Cookbook. I remember making Greek stifado (a beef stew) and loukoumades (honey-soaked doughnuts). By the time I was sixteen, I’d learned to de-bone a chicken and was making French galantine de poulet covered in aspic.
Around the same period, I became friends with the daughter of some friends-of-friends who lived in Paris and had a summer home near Dieppe. For the next decade, I spent a fortnight every summer on the Normandy coast and the autumn half-terms in Paris. Here, I discovered more than just good food.
At home, my mother ran a very efficient household. As soon as the last pudding spoon was placed in an empty bowl – for leaving food was strictly not allowed – we were all given our tasks of clearing, washing, or wiping. But in France, I discovered that meals just continued… sometimes for hours. Conversations about politics or philosophy were prolonged by another slice of ripe brie, or a peach, or maybe some walnuts – and once one subject was exhausted – well, another glass of Bordeaux and perhaps some Roquefort cheese was now needed, before discussing the latest exhibitions in Paris. Here I discovered that interesting conversations were seen to be as important as the food on the table. So began my love affair with French food, the French language, and la vie française.
Later, after university and then a job with the BBC, my partner and I bought a lovely old house on the Welsh Borders. We juggled making documentaries in London and the demands of our new family, with three boys born in quick succession. Being close to Hay-on-Wye and its bookshops, I started collecting old cook books and discovering how wonderful ‘real British food’ could be. So began the phase of proper roasts – shoulders of Welsh salt lamb, loins of succulent Gloucester Old Spot, Dexter beef with Yorkshires. I learned about hanging and plucking game – pigeon, pheasant, venison; grew my own vegetables and fruit; and cooked long-forgotten great British puddings like Lemon Pond Pudding or Queen of Puddings.
Sadly, this all came to an end with the death of my husband – and I ended up moving on again. France called me back. Now I live in the centre of a medieval city in the south-west. I’m only two minutes away from Albi’s covered market where I can buy wonderful cheeses, organic lamb, confit de canard, oysters from the Atlantic coast, locally-grown vegetables and fruit, and Gaillac wine. Over the last twelve years, I’ve learned to hunt for ceps and responchos, prepare my own snails, and have developed a taste for pigs trotters. Here, in the hot sunny south west, olive oil, garlic, and parsley dominate the cooking. If you ask for the best way to cook something, the invariable response is, “Dans la poêle, avec un peu de l’huile, du persil, et l’ail.” But I’ve also succeeded in persuading my French friends that British cooking is far better than they think, and introduced them to steak and kidney pudding, haggis, blackberry and apple crumble, and lemon meringue pie (not all in the same meal!).
Long live the ‘entente culinaire’!
Seafood in Brittany