Sophie Grigson’s kitchen

Sophie Grigson
Sophie Grigson portrait by Mark Fairhurst.

She’s a self-confessed cook rather than a chef and champions local food production.

Sophie Grigson explains what’s going on in her kitchen.

COOK Sophie Grigson has a personal sense of style more in keeping with an Eighties pop star than a chef. With her spiky haircut, dangly earrings and elfin features she could so easily have bagged a record deal or presented the cult programme The Tube during that era, you can’t help but feel as you talk to her.
Her lovely Oxfordshire farmhouse also has a slightly whacky feel. There’s the new dog, Ben, recently adopted, who currently has to be kept in one side of it while the cat, Spice, rather put out by the usurper, has taken refuge in the kitchen. The door between Ben’s and Spice’s territories remains firmly closed and it’s not clear, if it came to a bun fight, which pet would come off the victor.

Sophie is all smiles, welcome and hand waves, excusing the chaos and ushering me into the most obvious room for this interview the kitchen – or rather, Spice’s space.
It’s just the kind of kitchen you would expect Sophie to have. Not for her the pristine pans gleaming on a rack beside polished granite work surfaces. Instead, it’s a used, lived in, experimented in, sat in, chatted in creative kitchen. It was hand built by a local joiner and has a range down one end, while jars, bottles and packets line shelves all over the walls. The windows frame views over the valley beyond and the sills are packed with kitchen paraphernalia, including a stylish hand-juicer, which, I note, has dust all over it.
“I take it that’s not used much,” I venture.
Sophie, busy creating coffee for us, is unabashed as she replies that it looks good, which is why it won its place in her kitchen.
Sophie herself has lived an interesting life. Her late mother Jane Grigson was a highly acclaimed author, translator and one of the pioneers of the Sixties culinary revolution and her father Geoffrey Grigson was a poet and critic. Hardly surprisingly, Sophie has a string of books to her name and is a regular contributor to Waitrose Magazine. Easy to talk to and passionate about food, she regularly pops up on hit TV cookery shows and spent the run-up to Christmas cooking in Sri Lanka. She was one of the judges of the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme Food and Farming awards and uses her not inconsiderable influence and profile to champion local food producers, farmers’ markets and small food-related businesses. Indeed, it was at a local food producers’ festival that I first met her.

Such a good cooking pedigree

With so many strings to her bow, so many demands on her time, so many accomplishments and such a good cooking pedigree, it’s refreshing, if a little surprising, to her that she was slightly daunted on her Sri Lankan trip to discover she was cooking for around 50 guests.
“I’m a cook, not a chef,” she says, adding in the same breath that she really enjoyed the experience. “It made me realise how hard chefs work every day, especially in that heat. In the course of preparation we had several power cuts, the fuse box went up in flames and not all the staff spoke English – but we got it done on time and it was a really good evening,” she says.
I ask her if her children can cook and she assures me that they can, a bit, though se reveals that they think what Mum does is a bit boring.
“They can both cook their favourite dishes,” she says. Favourite means a Thai coconut vegetable and fish noodle soup and pasta with tomato sauce. They’ve also been known to supply peanut butter brownies to local fundraising markets.
“They get the idea and that’s good,” says Sophie.

“It’s important, as a food writer, to give my backing to people who are producing the kind of food I want to use.”

Living with one foot in Oxford and the other in the countryside, it’s perhaps not surprising that Sophie is so passionate about supporting local food producers and retailers.
“I think there are issues that we do need to address… I think it’s important, as a food writer, to give my backing to people who are producing the kind of food I want to use,” she says.
“We are seeing a lot of changes in attitudes to food production. You can have a green hotel, for example, without compromising on quality; in fact by raising your quality. Hotels and restaurants tapping into local food producers get lots of things, not just fresh produce. They can have more say and ask local people to make things for them” she says. And there are so many human interest stories behind the food we eat.”

Community and rapport

Sophie is keen that we should be aware of what is available at farmers’ markets and in farm shops. She also points out that shopping regularly that way establishes a sense of community and rapport between buyer and seller or producer.
Other cooks are also lending their weight and voices to highlighting the way we produce food – recent programmes with Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall about the lives of British-reared chickens have had an impact on supermarkets and customers.
“The demand for free range chickens has gone up, which is also good for British producers – it’s very exciting,” says Sophie, pointing out that the ultimate aim was to improve the way that chickens were raised.
“Good for Channel 4 for being brave enough to do that. When I first started appearing on television programmes 15 or 16 years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that sort of thing,” she says.
Sophie would like to do a series on meat and follow the progress and lives of beef cattle, because she feels that if we are going to eat meat we should know the process of getting it on to our plates.
“I love meat, as long as I know it has had a good life,” she says.
So, food apart, how does Sophie spend her time?
“I do a lot with the children. I like reading novels. I’ve been reading a Barbara Trapido book – I really enjoy her novels. I had this strange experience of sitting in bed one night, reading one of her books and there was my name. It was a conversation someone was having – it felt lovely!” says Sophie, adding that she has been a volunteer at Oxford Literary Festival. She enjoys amateur dramatics, recently playing the fairy godmother in her local village panto and taking part in the The Vagina Monologues in Abingdon.
Sophie makes regular visits to France and loves the way the French have remained so connected to their food production. She would like to travel more, especially if she could combine her journeys with discovering food. She was enchanted by Sri Lanka and would like to travel through South America.

“One of the good things about having an interest in food is it’s a common language.”

“I’d love to take six months out and go from top to bottom, or the other way round,” says Sophie. “One of the good things about having an interest in food is it’s a common language.”
It’s a language that Sophie has proved fluent in and our local food producers are lucky to have such an eloquent and dedicated champion for their cause. She’s not just another personality dreaming up recipes in the kitchen. Sophie’s choice to be hands-on in the food world is Oxfordshire’s – and the nation’s – gain.

This interview first appeared in Oxfordshire Life magazine on June 2008 under my former name, Sandra Fraser. ©SandraKessell
Image ©Mark Fairhurst

The magic of Val Doonican: what a wonderful singing star

I was lucky enough to meet Val Doonican five years ago when his autobiography was republished under the title, My Story, My Life. He was as gentlemanly as you might imagine the soft-spoken Irish crooner to be and I left his home feeling richer for having met him. After hearing that his death was announced I re-posted this interview as a tribute to him.

Ever since this interview was arranged I’ve had Val Doonican’s music in my head – a curious combination of O’Rafferty’s Motor Car, Delaney’s Donkey and Walk Tall. Val’s music was a mainstay of BBC radio’s Family Favourites and his must-see television show ran for 24 years – a combination of chat, music and other stars’ guest appearances. So it’s with some trepidation I find myself ringing the doorbell on Mr Doonican’s Chilterns home, looking at his name on the brass mailbox, and trying not to blurt out: “Oh what a wonderful motor car, the greatest ever seen…”

Stylish and shy

Val himself calls down the stairs once I’m in the hallway and suddenly, there he is, easily recognisable as the star of my youth. A little older, true, but still with that lovely Irish lilt to his voice, the same slightly shy, ready smile and crooked teeth. He looks in fine fettle I tell him, and he laughs, pleased, and ushers me into the stylish duplex apartment he shares with his wife Lynn on the outskirts of Beaconsfield.

Stars on the sideboard

Now in his early eighties, Val is dressed in smart corduroys and a fine-knit smoky-blue jumper. Most of all, he’s very welcoming and kindly just as you would imagine he might be. It could be the home of any successful retired businessman and grandfather, there’s so little to hint at his professional life. Only close inspection reveals that former prime minister John Major is in one of the photos and comedian Jimmy Tarbuck is in another. The rest are family snaps – albeit Val and Lynn make a very glamorous couple – a collection of weddings, parties and smiling babies. But while I’m admiring a picture of a bouncing baby girl, Val becomes very sombre. Before we’ve been acquainted five minutes he’s explaining that the child is the couple’s first-born daughter, Siobhan, a cot-death victim who died just hours after the photo was taken, and it seems as if the interview isn’t going to go so well after all.

Pre-war Ireland, where Michael Valentine Doonican was born and grew up, was a tough enough experience. Val was one of eight children and when a sister contracted tuberculosis Val’s father moved into a garden shed to allow his mother to nurse her. Shortly afterwards, his father died of cancer of the mouth and throat. With his father’s admonishment to “always be yourself” ringing in his ears, Val left school and started work making boxes, never guessing music would become his full-time occupation. His career started slowly enough, touring Ireland, before touring England.

A turning point

After years touring separately, Val and Lynn, another star of the music scene, had married in the early 60s. Lynn had been persuaded to go back on stage after the birth of Siobhan, so the couple both had careers and earned a living. Val had been working in a live show with an orchestra.
Val’s response to Siobhan’s tragic death was to go to work at the Maida Vale studios the next day – a reaction born out of shock.
“Because of my working life in the business, I thought, ‘I’ve got to go in’.”
At that point, Val was well-enough known in the music business, but he’d never been able to secure a record deal or get a break into the big time. So often he’d felt he might be close, but the life-changing phone call had never come.
“Yet from that day on, everything went right for me,” says Val, wondering if God had a greater plan for the couple. “It was like a miracle,” he says, in spite of the tragedy.

Performing on Sunday Night at the London Palladium

If you’d rather believe in curious twists of fate than a higher power, at exactly that time the legendary impresario and star-maker Val Parnell heard of him from three different people, including superstar Dickie Henderson, and looked him up. Within weeks of Siobhan’s untimely death, Val had performed on Sunday Night at the London Palladium after which, his agent, Evelyn Taylor, started getting calls from the BBC, ITV and record companies trying to secure deals. You’d have forgiven Val for leaping at the first opportunity.
“But having been around for so long I was not fascinated by being famous,” he says. Eve, the shrewdest person in showbusiness, as Val calls her, suggested he chose his next move carefully. As a result, Val plotted a slow-burn, long-term career. For nearly 25 years he hosted his own television show and at the same time produced some 50 albums. His was the voice of the era, and a plethora of big names joined him on the show.

“I was getting 19 million viewers a week”

Though today’s come-and-go stars seem to make a lot of money in their short careers, Val’s satisfaction lies in having had the most amazing time, and despite the show’s understated charm and its rocking chair finale, it remains one of the BBC’s most enduring productions.
“When I think back to the mid-Sixties, I was getting 19 million viewers a week,” he says modestly.
Val’s star quality was undeniable, The Beatles were blasting their way through the charts, yet Val managed to knock them off the number one slot. He met and performed with singers who had been his boyhood idols, such as Perry Como, to whom he was often likened, yet he always appeared to remain down-to-earth. Behind the scenes he finally started to enjoy all the trappings of success. Lynn and Val were able to move to Rickmansworth because of its good road links and proximity to airports and London. Once their daughters, Sarah and Fiona, started school, the family jumped the Buckinghamshire border to a house in Seer Green that completed the show-biz lifestyle. It was bought from Jon Anderson of rock supergroup Yes fame, and had seven bedrooms, a swimming pool and kitchen garden.

A natural raconteur

“It’s all explained in my biography, how it all gradually happened,” says Val, talking like a favourite uncle or grandfather rather than a former household name. Tellingly though, it has been Lynn and Val’s friends and neighbours who have kept them living in the Beaconsfield area for decades, rather than its proximity to London, neighbouring show-biz stars or the beautiful countryside that surrounds them. The couple feel they are part of the community, hosting residents’ association meetings in their home and enjoying parties with friends.
“This is where our life is. It’s a lovely place to live, a lovely part of the world – you couldn’t ask for more. I do a lot of painting – I’m a member of Chiltern Painters – and I’ve been a member of Beaconsfield Golf Club since 1977,” says Val, who is a natural raconteur and has a charm that puts guests at their ease.

A certain modesty

Yet for all his past fame and fortune, it’s not until I’m leaving and ask to visit the cloakroom that I discover walls lined with photos and old posters – Lynn performing with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise; Val being presented to the Queen Mother; Val at a charity golf match with a myriad of stars. It’s a Who’s Who of show business legends. I linger a little longer than I need to, seeing who I recognise from their glory days, when they wanted to be on Val’s show and part of the Doonican scene. Getting into my silver people-carrier car a few minutes later, I can’t help thinking that it should be at least one of 40 shades of green, just like O’Rafferty’s, and that if today’s television producers could recapture the magic of Val Doonican, a quiet understated modesty and charm, they’d be on to something massive. Val welcomed everyone into what became his big family. Those of us who watched him in his heyday, however young we were, or however old, retain the warm fuzzy feeling and, it seems, those quirky lyrics.

Val Doonican 1927-2015