Becoming a food writer crept up on me, really. I never set out to do it. I learned to cook in my mother’s kitchen but was also heavily influenced by my grandmother Mary Kapnist’s French household. I wasn’t an outdoors type so spent many school holiday afternoons making slightly wonky cakes and the kind of toffee that makes dentists rich. Then when I left school I worked in a great food shop and bakery. Justin de Blank was ahead of his time. In the seventies and eighties his London outlets sold wonderful food, made on the premises with the best ingredients. We cooks had our own butcher working especially for the kitchen, our own dedicated vegetable buyer who shopped for us daily, at the crack of dawn at Covent Garden. We used the best French butter, free range eggs and flour from a water mill. We baked bread in a brick oven. You never forget those things. Justin spawned a family of like-minded people, many still involved in food, including the writer Nigel Slater and chefs Martin and Vanessa Lam whose wonderful Ransome’s Dock restaurant is just round the corner from my home.
I abandoned cooking professionally. Too poorly paid, too tough, too much slaving when others were sitting at the table – I was not chef material and at the time kitchens seemed very male and not geared towards cooking with the best raw materials. But I carried on cooking enthusiastically at home while I tried another career. I still obsessively bought the best meat, vegetables and other ingredients; I sought out the great ethnic spice shops and most authentic Italian pasta and cured meats. I indulged in London’s burgeoning 1990’s restaurant scene with fascination. I met chefs and soaked up any information I could. In 1992 Heidi Lascelles offered me the job of running her test kitchen in Books for Cooks. Each day I cooked about 20 covers, bought all the food locally in Portobello Road and cooked it in chaotic circumstances in the famous West London cookery bookshop. I tested recipes from new books, old books; met more chefs, food writers, fellow enthusiasts... The shop manager was Clarissa Dixon Wright. Working with Clarissa was like being an undergraduate at the world’s finest university of food. I had over 4000 new and used books at my disposal. I have many things for which to thank Clarissa and Heidi Lascelles.
I met my husband the journalist Dominic Prince in my late twenties. He said, “you should write about what you know.” I said, “don’t be silly.” But after we married I found myself in a long conversation with the wife of a colleague of his on the Independent on Sunday. I was complaining about the sad demise of great butchers’ shops and the reasons for it. She was Sheila Dillon, then editor of the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme. She suggested I make a short radio report about my favourite butcher, John Robinson & Son in Stockbridge. I protested that I had no idea how to begin. She said that frankly it would take less time to train me to use digital audio recording equipment than it would a BBC reporter to learn what I knew then about the meat industry.
So, that is how it began. I wasn’t a great radio reporter – the machinery continued to terrify me - but the experiences I had working for Sheila were essential. The Food Programme was the only place in the media that was truly forensic when it came to food. Its approach then is now my mantra: have a go at the bad, and celebrate the good.
But I wanted to write. I read a lot and the good food writing I pored over gave me an appetite for it equal to the desire to cook and eat the food it so lyrically described. Rosie Boycott, then the editor of the Independent on Sunday, gave me my first real break asking me to write 4000 words on the food writer Elizabeth David. No problem, I said at the Canary Wharf meeting, while inside my intestines twisted interestingly with fearful dread. But that was the start, and after ten years I feel just hugely lucky. Publishing my first book in 2005 was the next great step. I was approached by Louise Haines from Fourth Estate in 2002. She had been tipped off by Nigel Slater that there was a column in the Daily Express of all places that covered food issues. She took me through the whole process of writing what was a difficult book with true patience and stern direction. She made me re-write, correct, check, test recipes, check, correct, re-write. She is a remarkable editor and when the book began to sell I can not express how good and rewarding it felt. The New English Kitchen: Changing the way you Shop, Cook and Eat has gone into four reprints, and now is in paperback. Since then I have published The Savvy Shopper (Fourth Estate, 2006), The New English Table: Over 200 Recipes That Will Not Cost The Earth (Fourth Estate, 2008) and The Good Food Producers Guide (Hardie Grant, 2009) – an updated edition of the Guide is under construction and will be published in 2011. The newest addition, Kitchenella was published by Fourth Estate in September 2010.