by Silvana de Soissons•15th August 2011
As I am sitting in Xanthe Clay’s drawing room, waiting for our meeting, I cannot help but notice the sheer number of books displayed. To the left and to the right are Folio Society historical books, then there are novels, biographies, art and travel books. Not to mention the room I passed down the hallway on the left: again wall to wall books. And when Xanthe guides me down the stairs into the kitchen, the cookery section begins, and, believe me, there is no end to it.
“I used to work as a book seller, in Dillons, specialising in cookery books. I have always been drawn to books,” she tells me. To one corner of the downstairs sitting room there is a pile awaiting categorising. “I file my cookery books according to three categories: by country, or by author name or by technique,” Xanthe reveals. What a clever idea, I think to myself, mentally envisioning the amount of hours I would need to spend to turn my own huge collection of cookbooks into the neat and labelled library that is before me.
Xanthe and her GP husband Richard live with their teenage children, son Hector and daughter Campaspe, in a terraced house right in the middle of Bristol, a stone’s throw from restaurants, cafes, food shops and delicatessens.
The family have lived in this house for a decade and the main thing that strikes me is that Xanthe’s kitchen is not a show room. It is a working, practical, functional space for the preparation and serving of family meals: it is a real cook’s kitchen. To the far right there is a walk-in larder, shelves lined with Kilner jars filled with herbs, spices, grains and pulses, and a big, stainless steel fridge. In the centre of the back kitchen wall is a Mercury gas oven and stove, and there is a stainless steel central island work bench. All over the walls are hung enough knives, pots, pans, colanders and batterie de cuisine for any professional chef to run a small restaurant brigade. There is also a very beautiful glass fronted cabinet filled with lovely hand painted crockery that catches my eye, and I am told that Xanthe found it in an antique shop and had it hung in place of fitted cupboards.
Xanthe Clay grew up with good food, but her mother, who lived in London, had little money. “Cooking was my mother’s creative outlet and her intellectual outlet also. She cooked with good ingredients, but because she was short of money food was too precious to be made by a child, in case it got wasted. I was not allowed to play around with food or experiment with it. I do remember, however, that I was allowed to make the salad dressing. This was very good taste bud training, because as a child you do need to understand how one taste goes with another, whether something should have more salt or more sweetness,” she explained.
After school in Marlborough, Xanthe enrolled on an Economics and Japanese degree course at Sheffield University. She caught the travel bug soon after that and backpacked her way through China, Arabia, Egypt, Sudan and South America. It certainly opened up her appetite for international food and widened her perspective on life. Some of the time she travelled with friends, but at other times she was alone. The thought of fear did not seem to cross her mind, and maybe this intrepid trait has followed her throughout her life.
After Dillons booksellers closed down she did a professional cookery course at Leiths School of Food and Wine and soon after that ran the kitchens of The Raincheck Bar in Bath. She also established her own private catering business, but she confesses that she wishes she had worked in other, bigger kitchens during her career. The hands of fate intervened, however, and her big break into food writing came in June 1999, when, encouraged by a friend, she submitted an article to The Telegraph newspaper. She was commissioned to start a “Readers’ Recipes” column for The Telegraph, and she has been one of their leading food writers ever since. That column went on to create the foundation for “It’s Raining Plums”, a cookbook collection of the readers' recipes, published by Simon and Schuster, which Waitrose Food Magazine voted to be one of the most useful cookery books of all time.
In 2008 Mitchell Beazley published her book “Recipes to Know by Heart” and in 2009 “Ten Minutes to Table” was released, showing how home cooking is cheaper, and often faster, than ready meals. She is now working on her next cookbook, entitled “Simple” which is going to be published by Kyle Cathie later on this year. It showcases the food that she cooks for her own family, in the very kitchen we are sitting in. "Take a typical Sunday roast, " she tells me, "it is so much better done at home than eaten in a restaurant. Home cooks should play to their strengths. And food is all about conviviality, not showing off."
“I think it is extremely important for food writers to remember, at the core of their work, the life of real, working people. We need to write about cooking for everyday life. Food writers cannot live in, what I call, “The Borough Market Bubble”, whereby they envision their readers to be wealthy, living in London, with lots of time on their hands and the ability to access the top food shops. This, quite simply, is not reality,” she says.
Xanthe is convinced that the decade of molecular gastronomy, celebrity chefs and Michelin star obsession has done a great deal to harm home cooking. “We need a much more softly, softly approach. If we make people feel inadequate, by telling them they should be cooking like professionals in their own kitchens, they will feel alienated. Readers should be encouraged, not bullied.”
“I also, very consciously, try not to write too much about London, because I feel that we need to focus on the rest of the country. I do go to London, obviously, because that is part of my job, but I try to champion all the growers and artisans outside the capital as well,” she continues. She shops within walking distance, raving about the new butchery that has just opened in Bristol, Ruby and White, as well as Papadeli and Earthbound. “I also shop at Sainsbury’s,” she tells me unapologetically, “and that is because everyone in the country goes to the supermarket and I have to look at the prices, compare the stock and cook with the same ingredients every other working mother has to cook with in order to put the family meal on the table.”
We both agree that the Internet has enabled real food enthusiasts and home cooks to create communities right across the globe, where everyone from kitchen gardeners to bakers, jam makers and wine lovers can all come together, communicate and share ideas. “I really love food blogs, and I love Twitter,” she tells me. “They give you such an insightful view of what people are cooking at home, and they provide you a sense of immediacy and rapport. For that very same reason I also love doing cookery demonstrations: it gives me a close connection to real cooks.”
Xanthe does not drive a car and she takes public transport on all her research assignments. At The Telegraph she pitches ideas of what articles she would like to write and her editor then sees what the overall schedule looks like for the forthcoming weeks in terms of what the other food writers are contributing to the paper.
“I am really inspired by the real foodies out there who are digging their allotments, growing fruit and vegetables, producing good food and cooking great meals for their families. They are the real heroes in the food pyramid, and they are the people I want to write about and celebrate,” she tells me.
I ask her how it feels to have and to hold on to, quite possibly, the best job in food journalism. “I know I am very lucky,” she confesses, “but I do work very hard and I do realise what an enormous privilege it is. Behind the scenes, I get to see inside people’s kitchens, I get to look through their larders or read through other people’s recipes. It shows me the very best of British cooking, which is very good indeed, and I think that is a priceless honour.”
Within her immense reference library there is one food writer who Xanthe rates head and shoulders above all others, and that is Jane Grigson, whose vegetable book she was proselytising on BBC Radio 4 a few weeks ago. She reads a great deal of older cookbooks, from the 18th and 19th Century, many of them now splattered with oil and butter through many years’ of loyal use. She highly recommends the Phaidon Silver Spoon children’s cookery book, Simon Hopkinson and the Scandinavian food writer Trina Hahnemann’s work.
Ever the adventurous traveller, Xanthe is off with her daughter to stay on a gypsy caravan site and fish for signal crayfish. She has just obtained her crayfish fishing license from Defra, and is astonished at how simple and efficient the whole process was.
Devon may not be as exciting as North Africa or the Sudan, but she is looking forward to it nonetheless. No doubt, if the trip is interesting and the food tasty, we will be reading all about it in The Telegraph’s online Blog.
To read Xanthe’s online Blog: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodandrink
To follow Xanthe on Twitter: @XantheClay
For future details of Xanthe’s new cookbook “Simple”: www.kylecathie.co.uk