I blithely put my hand up to be interviewed by Johanna, of A Passionate Cook, in this interview meme that is doing the rounds. She writes a wonderful food blog and is also blending cultures as an Austrian living in London and travelling lots. She put five questions to me to be answered on my blog and, to pass on the meme, if anyone would like five questions from me in return, just sign up in the comments. I got so into her first question that it has made a post all by itself and I could have written more but I'll save the book version for another time!
The whole world is slagging off British food – you’ve grown up with it, but also travelled widely. What is the food of your home country: wheat or chaff? And do you cook it for your children now?
Wheat! I think that British food has never really recovered its reputation since the war and rationing made it a pale shadow of its former self. People had got used to doing without, using substitutes instead of fresh ingredients, boiling up vegetables and scraggy meat together and calling it stew. When the economy recovered people looked to Elizabeth David and Europe to revive their cooking skills and palate, and British food became the dire province of institutions, in people's minds at least.
That said British cooking is actually alive and well, but is best sampled in the home of a good cook rather than in a restaurant or pub. In fact I can only really speak for English food, as Scottish and Welsh food have their own traditions and I'm not all that knowledgeable about them.
My mother brought us up on a mixture of English cooking and French inspired dishes and is a very good cook, so I grew up eating English food as it should be. I absorbed English recipes at home, many Italian and French ones on my travels and these days my culinary repertoire is a mixture of them all. I try to feed my children a wide range of food styles including stir-fries and spicy Indian dishes but what they really like best are the English staples.
The best of English food is comfort food, nursery food, food that kids like, simple and unfussy. A Sunday roast of lamb, beef, pork or chicken, roasted with some herbs and an onion in the tin, golden crispy roast potatoes, vegetables steamed just long enough, gravy made from the meat juices and a slosh of wine, this is pure culinary poetry and is the star of the English food brigade holding its own against its European rivals!
Cottage or Shepherd's Pie is another classic that is pure comfort food for the family, maybe not impressive enough to serve to guests but one that features every other week on our menu here in winter, in fact I'm cooking it tonight. Sometimes I get moans of "I don't like Shepherd's Pie". But when the plates come back for seconds and thirds I'm not that convinced. Bangers and mash, with good butcher's pork sausages is another, as are baked potatoes alongside any stew. In fact potatoes feature strongly altogether in many forms. My stews and casseroles I can't really claim as English Cooking, they have amalgamated with French cooking, taken to the (wine) bottle and no longer remember their origins!
I haven't even started on the puddings, which is probably where English cooking shows its most creative variety. Summer pudding, made with bread and berries, treacle pudding, fruit crumbles with custard, milk puddings, fruit fools, mince pies, apple pies - there is an endless succession of ways to end a meal. When I was growing up every main meal finished with a pudding. Nowadays I only make them on Sunday, when we have guests, or for special celebrations, when as a family we make several rather than just one because it is just too hard to choose between all our favourites!
What has been the best part of emigrating to South Africa – and what are the worst bits?
The space and views that we have here on our small farm, together with the South African sunshine are an amazing contrast to living in a small terraced house in London. We share the farm with several of my husband's family and have a safe little community where our children can run between the houses and have a freedom that hardly exists in city living. Something about our view of the mountains feeds the spirit too.
We have landed up just down the road from a multi-cultural Waldorf school, which is great for our children as they get to learn about the whole variety of South African culture and are in an educational environment that suits them too.
On the food front we get wonderful fresh fruits in season, that are plentiful, ripe and cheap and have never seen cold storage. We are in the middle of the Cape Winelands, so can drive across country and have a wonderful meal at a wine estate, when we have visitors. There are loads of beaches, Table Mountain and loads of outdoor activities.
On the minus side - when I first arrived I looked in vain for the vast array of organic products that I was used to in London supermarkets. There is far less consumer choice here, as it is a smaller society and far from other countries so that imports are expensive. I adapted of course and being out in the country, where I do just one weekly grocery shop, have got used to making and baking most of our treats at home, also baking our own bread, making jams and generally being a farm housewife!
The other infuriating thing for us computer-dependant business people is that communications technology is way behind Europe and the US, still hardly shifting from the monopoly of one company, so we have to put up with slow connections, connections falling over regularly etc.
Every one of us copes differently with living abroad and as cultures mix, do you immerse yourself in the culture(s) of SA or do you strive to maintain your own, for yourself or maybe for the sake of your children?
I think we've evolved our own family culture, blending a bit of South African, a bit of English and a bit of our own invention. My husband's family is South African but his parents came here from England after the war, so there is a strong strain of English culture adapted to South African life. We've fully embraced the braai as a summer weekend activity and my son supports South Africa in the rugby and cricket. The children learn Afrikaans and Xhosa at school and come home singing songs in those languages, though I have yet to learn either language, despite being a linguist in European languages. We have cut and pasted the English traditions of bonfire night and Christmas mulled wine and mince pies into a Midwinter Celebration here and our Christmas is a summer version of my English Christmasses.
Given the choice, who would you employ as your personal (celebrity or not) chef?
Nigella Lawson. My personal chef would need to be at home in a house full of children and dogs, produce delicious meals without too much formality and be good company. She would be just right. Nigella if you would like a busman's holiday in South Africa, you'd be very welcome here!
Which memory of a food moment do you cherish the most?
For the first few days after our first child was born all my senses seemed to be enhanced. I don't know whether it was the after-effects of the epidural or just hormones, but colours were brighter, Battersea Park looked fresh and lush and food tasted fantastic. I can still remember the flavour of a goats' cheese from Sainsbury's, with bread and tomatoes, as if it were the best thing I'd ever eaten. I even gave a rave review in the hospital questionnaire for their food…so it must have been an altered sensory state!
There are lots of other more gourmet moments from restaurants around Italy, but this was the first thought that leapt to the page.
DIRECTIONS FOR THE INTERVIEW MEME
1. Leave a comment saying, "Interview me."
2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. Please make sure I have your email address.
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment, asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.