Come, sit at my table and I’ll tell you a story. A story made up of kitchens, dishes, mixes, baking, sharing and eating. With love, sorrows, yearning, passion, wonder, hope, change, curiosity and joy in every mouthful. It’s my life and I’m honoured to share it with you.
We start off with a young girl sticking out her tongue. She always does it when she’s concentrating. In her hands she’s gingerly holding the edge of a sheet of chocolate sponge. It’s smothered in a rich brown buttercream. Holding her breath, she rolls, rolls, rolls the layer up, saying a silent prayer that it won’t break. A few cracks are OK – those could be covered up with the yet more buttercream that is going to coat the roll – but if it breaks her chocolate log will be ruined.
Chocolate logs, marble cakes, easter egg cornflake nests, brownies, flapjacks… her early kitchen creativity was all about the cake. Underneath the ‘ta-dah’ of presenting a beautiful creation was the fact that it was really all about sugar. Too young to understand what was happening to her, she’d become well and truly addicted to the comfort, escape and pleasure it offered. Sugar in the cakes and biscuits, sugar in the sweets and chocolate, heck, even heaps of the white stuff stirred into yogurt.
Then, one day, aged 20 and over 20 stone (280lb), she came to a fork in the road. Marking it were chocolate covered raisins. She looked ahead to see the next decade of her life. She knew what she wanted; laughing, flirting, dressing beautifully, and she also knew that to stand a chance of getting these she had to choose differently. So as the packet of cacao-wrapped sweet treats was offered to her, she said one of the hardest ‘no’s of her life. She was no longer going to be the ‘fat’ girl.
A few months later we see a very different-looking girl, clothes baggy from the weight she’s spriting away, back at work creating with food. Like a flower pushing through the crack in a pavement, without sugar, her creativity finds another way. She’s there crunching slabs of the Nordic-style rye crispbread, known as Ryvita, into a pizza-base. Toppings come straight out of the 1980s-aligned, fat-be-the-enemy diet: a popular lo-cal brand of ‘cheese’, plenty of tomato paste along with onions and mushrooms. Other ‘highlights’ of this time include packets of dried ‘Slim-a-Soup’, lashings of cottage cheese, meringues, brandy snaps and boil-in-the-bag, less the 500 calorie, meals. None of this seems to phase her, the empowerment she was living by watching weight fall off was enough of a high. She’d never known anything other than being fat; seeing a beautiful new girl emerging was breath-taking.
Now we’d need to do some scene-changing. It’s 5 years later. You see her, half her previous size, in a kitchen of her own, wedding ring on her finger. His name is Paul and he loves the good things in life. Early dates saw shellfish, champagne and steak. She revelled in it. For so long her world had had a gaping hole where sensuality should have lived; there’d been none of that and she longed to feel. And so you see her joy, setting a table for friends, oysters, steak and Verve Cliquot. You see her smelling, tasting, loving the delights her upwardly-mobile life is allowing her to choose, to get her fill of. She travelled, scooping noodles out of bowls with locals at plastic table-clothed restaurants in Hong Kong and eating freshly made-for-her smoothies for breakfast on the beach in Jamaica.
But there’s something missing: surprisingly often, she’s giving her love of creating over; to professionals or to her louder, showier husband, letting him do his style of recipe-following. This life indulged her Dionysian longings but was far away from the simple, homely cook that lived in her heart.
It took a few years until she was desperate to break out. Out of this life of money, to step off of the corporate ladder she was successfully climbing, to get away from the marriage she’d thought was for keeps. But she did it.
Now imagine her absolute delight at sitting at a long wooden table in the garden of a Russian family’s in-the-middle-of-nowhere home on a warm evening. There’s a jaw-dropping spread laid out in front of her: pork fat cut into little cubes, home-made flavoured vodka in plastic bottles, ceramic bowls overflowing with tiny, dark berries. She’s passed a dish with fist-sized golden bread rolls and bites into one to find that marinated mushrooms dance on her tongue. Kraut, preserved tomatoes, potato salads, dark rye bread. Her hosts grew, foraged or caught everything that carpeted her vision – nose to tail and seed-in-the-garden to vegetable-on-the-plate, fresh, marinated, cooked, fermented. She’s never been part of anything like it. It blows her mind seeing how these joyful, healthful people live and love. After the feast, and tea from the samovar, she’s led into the garden to dance to the sound of accordions as the sun sets over the Russian steppe. Returning from this mammoth trip, which also included a month-long work stay in Brazil, she can’t believe how impoverished ‘advanced’ western culture seems compared to the life she’s lived on her travels the previous few months; how much has been lost in our ‘moving forward’. She visits the supermarket and is paralysed, unable to process the sea of polystyrene-wrapped cuts of meat and kenyan-grown vegetables. She wants to go back; back to the place where there was sense, joy, where everything was precious, where food mattered.
Cemented inside her is the knowledge that she can no longer continue working a job for Microsoft that leaves her feeling dead inside. Passion-filled moments and people exist in the world and she has to do something she loves.
So, a 50% pay cut and a brave jump to a junior job for a music charity and we find her next kitchen on the second floor of a drafty victorian terrace house in Brixton, south London. There’s a sash window you can prop open using a bit of thick card. The sun comes round about 3pm and if it’s a good day you might even want to scramble out of the window onto the roof which covers the extension on the flat below. This kitchen sees many beautiful creations. If you were there at 7am on a Saturday you’d be irresistibly drawn to it by the scent of freshly baking bread, from her new machine. It was here she learnt how to grow and juice wheatgrass, how to sprout nuts and seeds, here she discovered couscous and buckwheat whilst rediscovering the blessed joyful economy of a steaming bowl of oatmeal. She worked the other side of the river and, for joy and to help her pocket, she’d make her lunch every day: huge doorstops of the fresh bread layered with oily, salty tuna and crisp green lettuce, couscous salads with sprouts and creamy dressing, wraps with home-made hummus. And there was chocolate again, dark, with orange oil – her daily 10 mile commute across London on her beloved bicycle meant it vaporised in a cloud of pedal power.
The leap in the dark to this new life she’d taken seemed to be going to plan, but there was something deeper inside her growing, watching and waiting. What she’d learn was that it was no good just being brave once and thinking it was done. Being brave opens things up, pushes you on, requires you to be even braver. And so from this little renaissance, her life led her on to heart-break and illness. She pieced herself back together, with the help of a long trip to Italy to study Yoga. Here, she fell in love with all things Italian, feeling more herself in the mediterranean world than her native UK. Back home, she bent her body into invigorating positions, studied to be an alternative therapist and went to language classes at the Italian Cultural Institute in London once a week. Another serious bout of illness found her leaving college and back at her childhood home, virtually unable to leave her bed for 6 months. In this period of deep fear and uncertainty came an unwavering commitment from somewhere deep in her gut that said, “if I can just get better, I’ll move to Italy, that’s what I really want to do.”
Now there’s another man. This one is called Rob. And, standing in front of a spiraliser with a sweet potato in his hand, he has already proved himself. She’d told him back in the UK, when he was falling for her, that she wanted out of the country, and, knowing it might mean the end of their relationship he did everything he could to help her. Their courtship has been full of words, music, dreams and food. They do everything together, including eating first vegetarian, then vegan, then, just after the move to Italy, deciding to eat raw vegan – hence the spiraliser and the poised sweet potato. Turning the handle, ribbons of orange flesh pour out. He catches them in a bowl. She riffs, adding red peppers, ripened by the Italian sun, sliced mushrooms, fresh coriander and then coats it in a unctuous dressing made of tahini whizzed up with dates, garlic, dried coriander and sometimes a touch of smoked paprika or chilli. It is creamy, sweet, crunchy, gloopy and fresh – satisfying in a way that no other dish she creates as a raw vegan will be – and she loves it. It is something she always includes when feeding curious Italians a raw food dinner. In between teaching English classes she meets Rob in the sunny squares of her adopted home and they share smoothies with banana, celery and spinach, salads of sprouted chickpeas and crunchy apple, whilst back at the flat she dehydrates sprouted buckwheat to make raw pizza and juices copious amounts of fresh produce every day.
Two hours on a train south from this kitchen and you’d be on the shores of a vast, piercingly blue, lake. One that sits nestled in the smooth green hills that form the border between Tuscany and Umbria. She finds a new kitchen here and in it discovers chestnut flour. Its natural sweetness sparks her creativity. Mixed with sweet potato, she bakes it into muffins and now sits opposite Rob, at the beautiful chestnut wood table that is the heart of the kitchen. The muffins, having filled the room with nutty, sweet smells, steam as they break, and she watches as a river of butter melts its way down the cakey inside before scooping the mix onto her tongue. Rob licks his fingers. At 35 she can’t deny that, finally, her body is asking for a child. That yearning, and 5 years without a menstrual cycle, has pushed her on, to look for answers in food, answers that’d show that the doctor who told her she wouldn’t be able to concieve without drugs was wrong, answers that would, in the end, give her the baby she wanted, naturally. Researching traditional cultures’ fertility foods has led her back to animal produce and cooking food. Around her now you’ll find raw milk fermenting into kefir, cabbage transforming slowly into sauerkraut, soaking whole Italian-grown oats, millet, buckwheat and pulses that will be blended, fermented and cooked into a myriad of different breads and pancakes. As always, these foods signal hope; belief that the future can hold the things dreamt of. Each meal becomes a celebration of the possible; a way to be with the things she dares to dream about, but isn’t able to say out loud too often for fear that they’ll not come to pass.
A year and a half later we look down on a round wooden table. Light falls across it from a wooden-framed window that leads the eye onto communal allotments and, beyond them, the rolling green, English hills. There’s a baby boy, in a bouncer. nearby. On the table an array of bottles and packets surround a blender. She carefully portions out measurements into the jug, checking and checking again. Then she goes to the fridge and takes out a large container of raw goat’s milk – raw milk from a farmer she met before she gave birth, a farmer who delivers pints of it to fill up the freezer.
There have been a lot of shocks since the Italian kitchen on the lake. The shock of realising she and Rob needed to leave Italy in order to secure the best possibility of a natural birth. The shock of living back in England with Rob’s Mum. The shock of becoming a first-time Mum herself, aged almost 40. The shock of not being able to easily feed her baby with her own milk. The shock of so little sleep, pumping milk all through the night, that she started to crack at the seams. The shock of finally admitting she must stop and find another way.
The blender is the other way: the Weston Price Foundation baby formula made with unpasteurised milk. Making this fresh every day is her lifeline; the thing she can still do for her son, Gabriel, even if she can no longer supply the milk he needs herself. And the same blender continues to earn its keep as the months roll on. She cooks chicken and mackerel, blending them with unpasteurised jersey cream. She bakes sweet potato and carrot; whizzes them with raw butter. Collected apples from the laden tree in the front garden are stewed them and mixed with more cream for the little man’s delight.
From the gentle garden-of-England hills, we now move to a kitchen surrounded by salt spray, wind and the racous caw of seagulls. And let’s swap the blender for two slow cookers. And now watch her as she works the slow cooker just as hard as that blender, the world of the Gut and Psychology Syndrome diet pushing her kitchen creativity in a new direction. Because there was one more shock before she left her mother-in-law’s home in Kent: a terrifying ride in an ambulance to St Thomas’ hospital in London, where one-and-a-half-year-old Gabriel had emergency bowel surgery. Here, modern science saved her son’s life and then delivered him, and his exhausted parents home to try and pick a way to recovery. They have started a new life on the coast of Cornwall, south-west England. A family decision to embark on the meat-focused, complex-carb-free, GAPS diet (which they will do for nearly 2 years) sees bone broth, meat stock and imaginative stews the central part of her creating. The local farmers’ market staff love playing with Gabriel as she and Rob stuff the buggy and his 60-litre rucksack with local produce, preparing themselves for the, usually rainy, coastal walk home. Back home, and dried off, she sets one slow cooker to work on stock from the bones of chickens raised on Louise’s farm, overlooking the rough Cornish waves, whilst the other one awaits scrubbed local onions, kale and beets, along with long-cook economical cuts of beef from cattle raised at Ian’s small-holding just a few miles north.
Sauerkraut, kefirs in abundance, sour cream; they are all still regulars on her work surfaces – she has amassed a huge collection of glass jars to house these and will soon be making them for others. On Sundays there’s often roast rare-breed pork, lard rendering and her son’s favourite, squash pankakes – a mammouth affair, where even two cast iron pans on the go at the same time can’t make dinner in less than 2 hours. And the cast iron sees a surprise ‘meatza’, with a convincingly sturdy base made from beef mince, to celebrate her and Rob’s first wedding anniversary.
Between this and when we next see her wares, a new kitchen is created. A kitchen pieced together consciously, more out of love than any she has inhabited yet. She and Rob buy a house and for the first time ever get to work out their own cooking space. At its heart is a table. A table she fell in love with when she first spied it, in pieces, in a garage housing second-hand furniture. Rob had seen it too, and they were soon finding a local carpenter to piece it back together and fashion some wooden benches so they could sit. This table will make their kitchen and their home. It is the thing she will most cry over when, unbeknownst to her now, she closes the front door of their home for the last time, 18 months hence, when Rob and her, hastened on by Brexit, finally let go into her yearning to be back in Italy and move their family to Tuscany.
But before that, there is much more food adventure to tell. Because now comes the sourdough. It’s like it has been waiting for her her whole life. At first, they just flirt – a book from the library, a few online searches. And then, slowly but ever so deeply she feels herself unstoppably heading towards it – like a ball of snow amassing more and more impetus as it rolls. There’s a point where she can feel that it is going to take over her life and she panics, sending books back to the library and telling Rob it’s too much work, but it’s fruitless, and before she knows it she is wrist-deep in flours and starters and fermenting dough. She reads, she bakes, she steams the oven, she slashes the dough. She finds an online mentor, an experienced baker, who tempers her frustration at imperfect loaves, telling her that new bakers don’t usually dive straight into sourdough, let alone the 100% wholegrain, UK flour loaves she’s set her heart on. Practise, practise, practise – as time goes on the happy moments where she catches her breath in surprise at the beautiful loaves start to outweight the flat pancakes.
She cultivates this magic, this alchemy, this joy. This simple creation. She feels Hesta, the Greek God of the hearth, with her in her kitchen; quiet, always sustaining, always there at the stove, the centre of the home.
Two months before she’ll say goodbye to her family home, you see her looking down at the shared meal she’s created for friends that’s spread on the beautiful table’s well-loved wood. Three loaves of 100% whole-grain sourdough breads. Each made, to a recipe she honed, using UK grown and milled organic flour. The first, wholemeal English wheat, made into a sourdough boule and cooked on a terracotta stone, is deep, crusty and filling. The second, wholemeal English spelt, fermented solely using raw goat’s milk kefir has a delicate, sweet, creamy taste. The third, a Russian-style Borodinsky wholemeal sourdough rye, is dark and soft, full of roasted caraway seeds and toasted malt. Next to these loaves, you’ll also see fermented cabbage and a fermented pear chutney, a local salad with specks of purple velvet petals of the edible viola she’s been growing, spicy sausage from the farm of one of the guests, avocado and local cheese. To the side there’s water kefir, fermented with rose water and petals or ginger, cardamom and lemon.
Finally, she’s starting to see that what she does, what she’s done in every kitchen she’s lived, isn’t ‘nothing special’. Finally, she’s starting to see that cooking is creativity. Finally she’s witnessing how fundamentally she feels about local, honest, real food.
With these new perspectives, and her sourdough starter in a jar in her hand luggage, she, Rob and Gabriel say goodbye to their life and their home in the UK and get on a plane to Italy.
And here she is. Here I am. With you. At my new Italian table. I’ll be cooking and sharing what I create as I and my family navigate a fresh start in this county. An education and friends for Gabriel, a legal business structure and new music career for Rob and hopefully some good food and a bit of sun through the kitchen window for me.