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

Reap the rewards of being a media-savvy business

I’m often asked to write about small businesses but I’m amazed at the contrast between those who are media savvy and ready for a journalist’s call and those who miss out on free coverage because they’re ill-prepared.

The very best are ahead of the game, they’re already using Twitter and Facebook and blogging, letting people know what they do on a regular basis. They’re not chatting inanely or describing their lunch – though this too could prove riveting if they’re a food producer – but even a few lines describing what’s planned for the day can be interesting and build up a loyal following. One of the very best proponents I’ve come across is Sarah Pettegree of Bray’s Cottage pork pies.

The worst, sad to say, don’t answer their telephone or pick up messages or they make it clear they’re uncomfortable talking to the press even when I do get through. I’ve written food articles for a coffee table book, for handbooks, magazines and guides, I’ve written business articles for newspapers and produced online features. I know, it’s the tail end of the holidays and everyone deserves a break from their year-round job, but tailor-made marketing opportunities to targeted audiences don’t land in your lap every day – and a piece of well-written editorial in a well-read publication can represent the equivalent of hundreds of pounds-worth of advertising.

So here are my thoughts about how to claim your free coverage and make sure you don’t miss out when a chance arises.

  • Check your voicemail regularly and call back promptly if you want to be included in a feature. Journalists on daily papers often work to the tightest deadlines and will swiftly move on if you don’t get back to them. If you’re helpful and co-operative you could be top of their list next time they need a quick response.
  • Get a website set up – even if it’s just a front page. Make sure it’s optimised for search engines – it can make the difference between someone finding you and being able to contact you – or not. Don’t let your domain name expire – it’s so frustrating to be directed to a site, only to find nothing there.
  • Commission a good photographer to take pictures of your products and key members of your staff and/or family – including you. Make sure the photographer knows you want permissions to use the results for all your marketing and media purposes. Get a shot of your shopfront or premises as well. If your budget is too tight for professional images get a relative, friend or employee with a good eye to do the honours. A picture provides a focal point for an article – and if your product (or your face) is featured it will be the visual prompt to the reader who wants to buy.
  • Learn how to attach images to an email at maximum resolution (you’d be surprised how many people don’t know how to do this, which always gives me a sinking feeling as I attempt an over-the-phone instant lesson).
  • Consider starting a blog, using Twitter and/or facebook. Keep this going with regular updates.
  • Nominate a family or staff member who’s both knowledgeable and comfortable when talking to the press if you don’t like promoting your own business.
  • Ask a specialist marketing company to do the job for you for an annual fee. The best are worth their cost several times over.
  • Do all of the above and you’ll become known as the first port of call to media circles when they want to talk to someone about your line of business.

Christmas in summer

The summer holidays are almost over, the older children have dates for their return to University, school sites have been checked for the start of term and the last of the sunshine is doing its best to warm the river. Down the track, foresters are clearing the fallen chestnut tree robbing the most adventurous local youngsters of this summer’s playground and makeshift bridge across the water. The buzz and whine of a chainsaw is an interruption to the dreamy quiet in our corner of the world, but it’s a change from the all-night harvesting and baling that’s been going on in the surrounding fields for the last couple of weeks.

Not for the first time, I find myself spending the last summer days writing about Christmas food. Today I’m turning my mind to the groaning table, with particular reference to artisan cheeses and their accompaniments. Last year I learnt the word tracklements when I interviewed a local food producer for a Christmas feature – what lies ahead this year? Tomorrow morning, I’ll start an article about the Great British Breakfast before moving on, in the afternoon, to an interview with a Canadian health professional. My list of things to write includes delving into the consequences of a particular heart condition. I’ve yet to find an association between these commissions but they say variety is the spice of life and freelance writing life is nothing if not varied if you want to make it pay.

HEFF and The Great British Blackcurrant

After listening with some pleasure to the news that Tom Archer, of long-running BBC radio soap The Archers, is promoting his organic pork sausages through HEFF – the Heart of England Fine Food Group – I thought I’d post this. I’ve been writing for HEFF and its producers for a couple of years now.

Small and mighty, blackcurrants were credited with health-giving properties long before scientific research could prove they were not only packed with Vitamin C, full of anti-oxidants and bursting with nutrients, but could also promote healthy vision, brain and kidney function, benefit the cardiovascular system and had anti-ageing properties.

On-going research into Alzheimer’s Disease, asthma and post-exercise muscle and joint regeneration ranks the blackcurrant firmly as a super-food. What’s more, they taste delicious! Sandra Kessell spoke to the new generation of Herefordshire blackcurrant growers who are bringing innovation to the fruit market and introducing ranges of blackcurrant-based products to the public.

Jo Hilditch

Jo Hilditch took over her family’s fruit farm after her brother Johnny was killed in a car accident. She has blended her upbringing with her former PR and marketing career to develop new products for the twenty-first century whilst still growing the crops and managing the activities traditionally found at a family farm. It’s one of her newer ventures, however, that is enjoying some time in the spotlight. Around five years ago, after selling the usual blackcurrant harvest to Ribena, the farm had an excess of the fruit and Jo decided to make the French-associated drink cassis. Now her name is synonymous with British cassis. Though the first year’s techniques were rather rudimentary, the results were delicious and Jo and her team have refined the process and their know-how. Rather than distil the juice, Jo Hilditch British Cassis is made in a similar way to wine, resulting in a less cloying flavour and less syrupy consistency than its continental counterpart. “It’s much easier to use our cassis in recipes and savoury dishes,” says Jo, explaining that it can add a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ to venison stews or gravy, for example. Now they are set to offer a whole fruit product preserved in cassis, capitalising on the fact blackcurrants’ thick skin makes them less absorbent, less alcohol-infused and full of fruity flavour. “It’s really exciting. This can be used as an ingredient in cocktails and you’ll get the berries in the bottom of the glass – a bit like a Pimms. You can top it up with a fizzy wine – it looks great – and obviously you can still use it in cooking,” says Jo. “We think it’s a British innovation – we don’t think it’s been done before.”

Click here to find out more about Jo Hilditch British Cassis

Anthony Snell

Though their family’s been farming for three generations Anthony and Christine Snell’s business started when they bought their own land to grow vegetables and salad crops. Over the years, they switched their expertise into fruit growing and now their blackcurrants not only go to Glaxo Smith Kline for Ribena, but also to Marks & Spencer. Anthony emphasises the benefits of buying British, traceable, sustainably managed and environmentally friendly fruit with fewer transportation costs and carbon emissions. In addition to their other fruit crops, 120 acres are earmarked for organic blackcurrants. “We take our very best fruit, very carefully harvest it when it’s at the right stage of ripening and within hours of harvesting it’s blast frozen,” says Anthony, revealing that the high-tech and very sensitive equipment processing individually quick frozen (IQF) blackcurrants cost the farm £70,000. It’s all far more delicate – and sophisticated – than pick-your-own to freeze at home – the fruit doesn’t go watery when defrosted and is perfect to use in yoghurt, jam and fruit-juice making. The blackcurrants are also sold under the Windmill Hill Fruits brand, marketed by HEFF, and there’s an online ordering service for next-day delivery. “They’re fantastic in a pie or cooked and served with crème fraiche but we’d like to find a new variety you really want to eat fresh and completely raw. That’s the ultimate but we haven’t got to that yet,” says Anthony.

Click here to discover more about the Snells’ British Blackcurrants

Edward Thompson

Edward Thompson didn’t join the family hop farm at Pixley Court straight from school – he studied mechanical sciences at Cambridge, travelled and returned to Herefordshire in the Seventies. New products, new processes and even new varieties of blackcurrant have ensued as Edward has gathered a dedicated team around him. Pixley Berries superfruit cordials are just part of the story. They contain a massive 60 per cent fruit juice, not from concentrate, capturing that quintessential summer flavour lacking in more sugary standard drinks and cordials. Edward emphasises the “not from concentrate,” a key requisite for brands like Innocent drinks and some Marks & Spencer products, provides flavour and aroma best served by local production. Careful analysis of taste profiles ensures the right bushes are planted including a new blackcurrant variety, Pixley Black, which Edward sought out to counter the effects of climate change and our warmer, wetter winters. Thankfully, it has also proved hardy in the last two, trend-bucking, very cold winters. Unsurprisingly, given his background, Edward has invested in new machinery enabling Pixley to do all its processing at its own pressoir. “It was a huge decision in 2003 – massive,” says Edward, hinting at the cost. “But now we can control the quality, which we wouldn’t be able to do if we outsourced. Most of the fruit is processed on the day it is harvested.” It’s a testament to Pixley’s products that one of their largest overseas customers, on spotting Edward in the audience at the spring International Food & Drink Event, introduced him by announcing: “This man makes the best blackcurrant juice in the world.”

Click here to find out more about Pixley Berries

To find out about HEFF and the producers it supports, please click to visit the HEFF website.

Mr Dale’s Dairy

I recently wrote this piece for the Local Flavours Food and Drink Guide – published by the BBO Food Group and free from independent good food outlets and farmers’ markets.

It takes dedication to keep up a regime of early mornings, twice-daily milking and caring for your “girls” no matter what the weather, or the season. You’re unlikely to make your fortune, either – so why would anyone take up small-scale dairy farming?

That’s a question Matt Dale, the man behind the celebrated North Aston Dairy, admits he’s asked himself on many a cold winter’s day, but he wouldn’t swap what he’s doing for life in an office. He’s been on Radio 4’s Food Programme and some of his principles will be familiar to followers of the long-running radio soap, The Archers. Now, inspired by eco-pioneers Pam and Nick Rodway, of Findhorn in Scotland, Matt is offering cow bonds – shares in his herd, to people who want to invest in his vision.

“The idea is a local person actually finances the purchase of a cow. So, for instance, a cow might cost £1200 or £1300 to buy, they provide that money and they are supporting a local enterprise and it’s a secure and ethical investment which provides us with finance and avoids going through a middle man or a bank,” explains Matt.

The investor receives a return on their money and gets to name their cow – or cows, which, in turn are all known individually to Matt and are monitored through his close daily contact with the small herd.

There’s plenty of demand for North Aston Dairy products. Those lucky enough to live within two-and-a-half miles get a doorstep delivery while other customers receive their milk with North Aston Organics veg boxes. Some of the milk is sold at Wolvercote Farmers’ Market.

“They are getting milk from the cow that morning. It’s very fresh and totally traceable. I think there are a lot of people interested in buying local produce, organic and non-organic, direct from the producer,” says Matt.

He’s happy to share his knowledge – and mistakes – with anyone wanting to try a similar set-up, but he warns it’s a hard , though rewarding, way of life.

North Aston Dairy can be contacted through North Aston Organics, tel: 01869 347702.

Lotte’s Country Kitchen

When I was asked if I’d like a review copy of Lotte Duncan’s new cookery book Lotte’s Country Kitchen I jumped at the chance. I’m a good enough cook, not passionate, but passable – but I do love good food and if there are two things I know for sure about Lotte, it’s that she has a penchant for pink and for good honest fare.

The first time I met Lotte was at our local gym – being a food fan takes its toll on one’s waistline and we were both keen to keep fit, if not thin. Our now grown-up children were just babes, and we were busy with their lives. Then I moved away, returning to the neighbourhood several years later, and on reconnecting we realised we had more in common than workouts – food, mostly. I write about it (and other things) and eat it; she writes about it, concocts brilliant recipes and is enthusiastic in sharing her love of it.

Since then, besides interviewing Lotte for Oxfordshire Life, I’ve also followed her blog and kept up with her on Twitter and Facebook. So when she announced online that she was writing a recipe book, I was genuinely delighted, and I’ve been watching her progress. We’re not friends, as such, but on friendly terms.

I don’t actually own that many cookbooks, largely because the very thought of throwing a dinner party leaves me feeling exhausted and whilst I might like to leaf through the pretty pictures, I’m not often inspired by them. My husband equates food with love, and enjoys preparing meals for our family and friends as a result. I equate food with pleasure and so I’m very taken with Lotte’s introduction to this book, in which she says:

“I believe that to enjoy your food, you don’t want to be so tired from cooking that you’re unable to lift a fork to eat it…”

Well, a hearty “hear, hear” to that, and there’s more. In fact, Lotte’s whole approach to food is pragmatic. She doesn’t require you to spend hours in your kitchen, only to emerge red-faced and fuming that everyone else has had a good time while you’ve been slaving over a hot stove, minus a staff of sous chef and pot-washer, and she’s chatty in her writing, littering her recipes with anecdotes and asides. Her style is so engaging she makes you want to run into your kitchen and try out a few of her recipes – which is praise indeed from a lazy cook like me.

Lotte’s Country Kitchen features the kind of dishes that range from the sensible – her sausage and bean casserole, for example – to the frivolous – a very conceited syllabub trifle which is pictured complete with flouncy roses – another of Lotte’s passions. The imagery is superb, with photographs taken by Lara Homes at Lotte’s house and garden, just down the road from here.

Reading it is a pleasure, whether you’re swinging in your hammock just flicking, (something Lotte’s partial to herself) or planning for a dinner party and looking to impress. In fact, anyone who owns and uses this book will feel they have Lotte standing at their elbow, encouraging their endeavours – just as if she’d dropped by for a friendly chat and a glass of rosé with a favourite neighbour.

You can share Lotte’s real kitchen by attending one of her cookery days. Visit her website for more information. Lotte’s Country Kitchen is available in bookshops and on Amazon.

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