I suppose I’d describe myself as an equal mix of country lass and town girl...
I grew up on a tiny smallholding, and from as early as I can remember we had a varying menagerie of livestock, the garden full to bursting with fruit and veg. The smallholding was in the heart of the east Kent countryside, and that magical place was where I fell in love with food, with where it comes from and with using wonderful ingredients to their full potential.
Chickens were a constant presence during my childhood – truly free range hens that laid (and still lay) the best eggs I’ve ever tasted, with rich, creamy, golden yolks. I remain wary of cockerels, though, ever since I got chased (aged 6) by the biggest, toughest bird you can imagine. I tried to kick it with both feet simultaneously and ended up flat on my back, although I did learn to stand my ground after that. The geese that came later were more like naughty children that needed scolding when they got too bossy. We used to love it when there was a clutch of eggs being sat on, listening for the peep peep that meant they had hatched.
For many years there were sheep as well, and even as a small girl I was involved in lambing and bottle-rearing rejected lambs. There were sharp realities to learn, too - realities that have given me a healthy respect for where food comes from. I remember clearly the day Jamie, my pet lamb, was sent away with the others and came back a few days later ready for the freezer and Sunday lunch.
The veg patch was one of my haunts, making camps behind rows of climbing beans, digging up spuds pretending they were hidden treasure and hours spent picking redcurrants and raspberries for pocket money. I’ve never lost the love of the garden and, now I have my own small London plot, I spend endless hours trying to coax fruit and veg to grow, while doing battle with the snails.
My mum is an amazing cook... I know everyone says that, but in my case it really is true! She is tireless in her experiments and it is from her that my passion for cooking comes. She taught me that food should be fun, it doesn’t have to be fancy... If it’s made with love and the best ingredients you can find, that’s what really matters. Sharing something you’ve cooked with loved ones is about as good as life gets.
Food is the biggest part of my day, constant planning and plotting what to eat next, what new flavours to try and who might have something good to share. When my family all get in the kitchen together it’s pretty chaotic. The big occasions are my favourite. Christmas is, without fail, brilliant – everyone chipping in and coming up with new and fun things to try to keep it different. Our bonfire night parties are legendary, with big vats of mulled cider on braziers served alongside hearty stews, baked spuds and sticky apple cakes.
For me, food has a magic about it – how can it be that something as simple and pure as milk can produce so many complex and different cheeses? How can the alchemy between water and flour create a sourdough loaf in just a few days?
I always knew that the only thing I wanted to do was to cook and be around food, but I’m a home cook, not a chef. I’ve worked in professional kitchens and it’s a whirlwind that gives an adrenaline rush like no other. But I like to potter and experiment too much to maintain the stamina of a restaurant chef. Having said that, I do love cooking for private dinners – really getting to know the people you’re cooking for. Being invited into someone’s home to make them a special meal is very personal; it’s a privilege.
I trained formally at Leith’s School of Food and Wine, after which I discovered a world of food I previously knew nothing about – food styling. I became an assistant to several top food stylists, learning the ropes not only of how to make a beautiful recipe but also of how to make a recipe beautiful. I started recipe testing and developing for magazines and papers and quickly realised how much more goes into food writing than meets the eye. I’ve worked for many leading titles, including Ideal home, Essentials, Woman and Home, Country Homes & Interiors and Sainsbury’s Magazine
For the past six years I’ve been on the food team at delicious. Magazine. For the last four of those I’ve headed up the team as food editor, writing and developing seasonal recipes and menus for everyday eating, as well as recipes for entertaining and baking. I’ve also worked closely with a host of top chefs on features for the magazine, helping them develop their recipes into a form that works on the printed page. In my role as food editor, I had great fun letting my creative side loose on the styling and vision for shoots and have a strong sense of what makes a powerful, emotive, beautiful feature, from the recipes to the way the food is shot, to the way it’s styled and how it will appear on the page.
I love presenting and demming and have been lucky enough to try my hand at filming videos for both magazines and clients, demonstrating at food shows around the country and being (a small) part of programmes filmed for TV.
Last year I published my first book – Winter Kitchen for Ebury and the Great British Bake Off – which was an incredible, fast-track, creative learning experience in the art of book-writing and producing. The book was listed as one of the Guardian’s top cookery books of 2013. I have just finished writing my second book for GBBO - Christmas Baking, this time also doing the food styling as well as writing the recipes. I am also extremely proud to have done the food styling for Spice, the debut cookery book by the 2010 MasterChef winner Dhruv Baker. It’s been a whirlwind of a 12 months, and now, at the beginning of a new freelance career, I’m all set for the next chapter...