How do you like to relax when you're not writing? I love watching the cookery programmes on telly. Masterchef has just started again, James Martin's Saturday Morning programme gets recorded so I can watch it at some point on a Sunday; and the Great British Bake Off and the Great British Menu are all compelling programmes as far as I'm concerned.
The amount of cooking programmes I watch you'd think would be turning me into a super adventurous cook, but no, I just like watching and seeing how the experts can mess up just like me.
But watching these programmes has certainly improved my knowledge of food and ingredients, which is pretty important if you're going to write about food. My 13 years at the Coventry Telegraph as a feature writer included being the Food and Drink writer. This really used to make friends and family laugh, because there was a saying in my house that you knew when dinner was ready because the smoke alarm would go off. And at work they'd laugh because I'd be off out talking about fancy food with skilled chefs and come back to my favourite lunch of cheese and crisp sandwiches.
When I first got the job of being the food and drink writer I admit to not knowing very much at all about culinary matters. My lack of knowledge at the time led to one or two awkward situations which I thought I'd share with you.
These days I know that scallops are a shellfish delicacy which, when lightly pan fried are raved about. However, my introduction to them was whilst doing my first ever restaurant review. It was quite an exclusive restaurant and I as scanned the menu for something I understood, I saw scallops. Great! I love potato scallops in batter from the chippy, so having them at a posh restaurant, they'd be ultra delicious! But then out came what looked to me like white chunks of fat! I didn't fancy them at all. No doubt the poor chef wondered what he'd done wrong when the expensive scallops I'd asked for went back untouched. Sorry chef!
Sadly, it gets worse. Writing about a small restaurant another time, the very lovely restaurant owner brought my companion and I two plates of fresh smoked salmon – a real mountain of it. She'd asked if I liked smoked salmon. Never having tasted it, but liking tinned salmon I told her that I loved it. So she kindly heaped loads of this expensive fish onto our plates.
My friend did like it, and did his best to eat mine as well as his own, but there was so much left on my plate it was embarrassing, and I didn't want to upset our generous hostess. So I did what any grateful diner would do rather than offend the host. I hid it in my handbag!
So I left with a handbag full of smoked salmon. My dog thought it was her birthday when I got home. And the handbag was okay once it had been thoroughly washed and left to air on the washing line for a few days.
Funnily enough I was served a little piece of smoked salmon on a tiny Scotch pancake last week as an amuse bouche, and it was really nice. One day I'm going to order scallops again – and eat them!
I've been fortunate enough to go on a few foodie press trips. In my early naive (dumb) days at the Coventry Telegraph they sent me on my very first press trip. It was for Lunch in Lille. So off I went all on my own, meeting up with other journalists from other newspapers. We were flown to Lille, picked up from the airport, taken all around the quaint old streets of Lille in France, had a lovely lunch, talked to chefs and food growers and flown home. Fab!
A week or two later, my features editor said, “So when are we having your copy (article) on Lille?”
“Oh!” I remember gasping. “You want me to write about it as well?”
Well how was I to know?
I'd got the hang of press trip by the time I went to the Champagne region, and I really did my utmost to sample every type of champagne that was put before me. It was a hard job but it was my duty! And at least I wrote lots about that trip. In fact I got a romantic novel out of it as well. Champagne Harvest, published by People's Friend in a Pocket Novel and then in large print as a Lindford Romance.
But champagne went to my head at the Good Food Show at the NEC one year. I'd gone along with a colleague from the Cov Telegraph, and it was in the days when the show was a lot more generous with giving away freebies and samples than they are now. We'd been sampling a whole lot of drinks and nibbles as we wandered around the stalls. And then we spotted a champagne stall with two champagne flutes filled with champagne, so we simply picked them up and raised them to our lips. Suddenly two women standing nearby got all irate. Seems they'd just paid £6 each for them. Woops sorry ladies!
There have been a few interviews with well known chefs too. Such as the Hairy Bikers, who are as nice and down to earth as they seem when you see them on TV. James Martin was part of a press trip to Coors Brewery when he cooked a 5 or 7 course meal (can't quite remember) for a group of us, matching the food with different beers. The chap I sat next to loved me, as I'm not a beer drinker, so he had double helpings every time.
Forgive the name dropping but a year or two later I got the chance to interview James Martin at the Good Food Show and he was lovely. Then there was Lloyd Grossman – a real gentleman and so easy to talk to. Greg Wallace who I interviewed over the phone, and he had me in stitches from start to finish. Raymond Blanc was another interesting chef I had chance to interview. I write in shorthand – based on the sounds of words, rather than spelling. And as I was transcribing my notes later, I saw that I'd written the shorthand with a French accent!
And then came Gordon Ramsay – whose cookery programmes I'm not so keen on. All that shouting and upset would give you indigestion. But invited to interview him, well who wouldn't jump at the chance? Another writer and I sat at the Birmingham College of Food, where he was presenting an award to a winner of his Gordon Ramsay Scholarship Award. Our time slot was booked. We waited like a couple of nervous school kids, and when he finally arrived with his entourage, the charisma just surrounded him like an aura. He was amazing to talk to, very honest and yes, he did use a bit of that language that he's famous for, but not with any anger, and he really had got the charm and charisma to get away with it.
One of my most recent foodie jobs was a trip to York, where I discovered York's Sweet Story, and of all the rotten jobs I had to do was make my own chocolate lollipop. I don't know, it's a hard life!
So have you found that writing has brought you any nice perks of the job that you can share?
Please visit my website: http://www.annevansbooks.co.uk
Thank you Rob Tysall of Tysall's Photography for the photos.