When you stand in the middle of Tamasin Day-Lewis’ garden all you see around you for miles and miles is beautiful, unspoiled Somerset countryside: a patchwork quilt of wide hedgerows, small fields, narrow tracks and tall trees. I spy a very well kept fruit orchard and fruit cage, rows of fresh vegetables and pots of herbs, lined up on the patio outside her handsome, isolated stone farmhouse and barns.
“A wild wind rushes in from the Bristol Channel,” she tells me. “It is so difficult to grow anything here, which is why the people who lived here before me erected a wall all the way around the kitchen garden, it is so exposed to all the elements. We are 300 feet above sea level here.”
It is now seven years since she moved to this house, having heard through the local grapevine that it was coming up for auction. Three of those years were taken up by building work. Though big and imposing on the outside, once inside you are enveloped by the warmth of a huge Aga taking up almost one whole side of the kitchen's wall. There are original flagstone floors, bare brick work, wooden boards, antique furniture and natural colours in both paints and textiles. Dotted everywhere are old family photographs, brightly coloured bowls, kitchen utensils, tapestry cushions and rows of books. Used to rural life, from visiting her grandmother in Sussex to summer holidays in County Mayo in Ireland, Tamasin only visits London to visit friends or when work or media engagements beckon.
This very afternoon she is off for the filming of the Alan Titchmarsh show, to talk about her new book “Food You Can’t Say No To”, published by Quadrille. Despite her many successful cook books, newspaper columns and television programmes, selling new books is hard work in these competitive times and the hours need to be put in on the marketing side. She has just appeared in The Saturday Telegraph Magazine and has appointments back-to-back for other interviews. Yet she patiently makes me cafetieres of freshly brewed coffee and homemade seeded wholemeal toast, served with Seville orange marmalade and she worries that she has just washed the chair cushions and I might not be completely comfortable.
Having just returned from an excercise class, she moves around the kitchen in her black lycra gym clothes, her famous long black hair tied in a plait behind her, no make-up and no time for pretension. She is svelte and lithe, with a very up front, candid sort of aristocratic confidence about her.
When two cooks get together in a country kitchen it's straight down to food talk: we discuss the merits of soft-set, hand chopped Seville orange peel marmalade, the dried beans she buys from her favourite delicatessen, Murray’s of Clevedon, the seeds she mixes in her bread dough, Provence pottery, homemade Granola and shooting with food photographer Simon Wheeler.
“I worked with him before, when I wrote the “West of Ireland Summers” cook book: he totally understood County Mayo and the life there. He is an intuitive photographer, we work really well together. For my new book I did all the cooking in the kitchen here and he set up his digital camera and computer in the room next door. He has a very good eye.”
When I ask her whether a food-stylist assisted she looked at me shaking her head: "Food styling? There was none."
From the pages of “Food You Can’t Say No To” tumble jewel coloured Persian mezze, homemade red onion gnocchi with garden fresh asparagus, olives and tomatoes, primavera and prosciutto pie, skirt beef with Chimichurri sauce and fresh figs slathered in garnet raspberry sauce with speckled orbs of hazelnut ice-cream. In the last section, the Christmas feast, sits a triumphal, decadent trifle, described by her son as "this epicurean Golgotha of a trifle".
I suppose one of the reasons why I collect her work, along with many friends who are keen cooks, is because Tamasin Day-Lewis selects her recipes very tightly to create those sorts of dishes we would like to eat every day, not just on special occasions. For my everyday life “Tarts with Tops On”, “Weekend Food”, “Good Tempered Food”, “Simply the Best” and “Supper For a Song” all deliver the goods. If you are pressed for time and are pragmatic, greedy and impatient, it is natural to refer to authors whose works consistently contain a repertoire of simple but impressive food that is going to work, without risk. Tamasin is a magpie of international food history, culture, heritage and farming and weaves stories of her travel and finds within her books.
“First and foremost my stance is never to alientate people. I really do not like “cheffy” food or complicated recipes. I always start at the kitchen table. If you look through my “Kitchen Bible” book you will see that I go through all the stages, really simply, so that people can understand the breakdown of the recipes. If you can read, you can follow me and you can cook that dish.”
Her greatest concern is that in Britain we have lost the sense of regional pride for local cookery: whereas Italians from, say, Puglia, Piemonte or Abruzzo would know exactly what the signature dishes of their regions are, how they are made and what ingredients underline their authenticity, the same cannot be said for the British.
“I do believe that the British are very good at assimilating and experimenting from other cultures. We have lost, however, the sense of regional specialities and also many do not know what to do with left overs because we have lost two generations of women who have not focussed on cooking. We have been de-skilled and the supermarkets have taken advantage of that. I think there is hope for the future for those people who are interested in good food. These cookery programmes on television that show cooking as entertainment, as a spectator sport, are not teaching anyone anything useful. We need to go right back to basics and we need to show people, step by step, how to cook good food. You cannot afford not to know how to cook, obesity is spiralling and people cannot spend money on ready meals. They are a false economy.”
Tamasin puts her money where her mouth is by teaching groups of young mothers on benefits how to put together simple, frugal meals from very few ingredients. Her own travels across Italy have stood her in good stead for transferring her knowledge of “cucina povera”.
“Some of the ladies on the Home Start programme do not even have cooking equipment beyond a couple of pots, but I show them how, through slow cooking, you can create, say a lentil and pasta soup, in just a few minutes. You then leave it to simmer while you get on with something else. We talk about flavours: I ask what they would like me to teach them and they tell me their likes and dislikes. I show how you can roast a chicken and use the left overs the next day for a pie. When I get my Yorkshire rhubarb and poach it with blood oranges and honey and serve it with custard, the next day I can use the leftovers to make ice-cream. It’s all about teaching how to cook one recipe in order to have several days’ worth of meals.
Unlike patisserie there are lots of savoury dishes where you can make things without even measuring. I teach how to taste as you go along, we use the senses, so everyone knows what to add to make that dish their own. At the end, when the ladies take the results home in a Tupperware container, all the portions taste different but exactly as they like it. I think it is far more important to teach people skills rather than just throw money at a situation.”
Tamasin’s own mother and grandmother provided her with the knowledge which she now shares with others. The daughter of the poet and writer Cecil Day-Lewis and the actress Jill Balcon, she remembers going to stay with her brother, actor Daniel Day-Lewis, at her grandmother’s house in Sussex where the cook, Rhoda Fletcher, prepared wonderful meals with the ingredients that were prepared on the estate.
“It was a bit like Downton Abbey, with servants looking after the house, walled gardens and greenhouses , bringing in the eggs, cream, asparagus, strawberries, tomatoes and meat from the estate.”
When Tamasin inititally started working in London, after graduating from Cambridge, she worked in television and film production, working long hours and travelling to far flung places. She wrote her first cookbook fifteen years ago, the start of a career change, finding it very difficult to juggle such challenging work schedules while filming and being on the road with motherhood, her three children then being small. She says all three, Miranda, Harry and Charissa, were brought up loving great food and appreciating the importance of good provenance. Miranda, her eldest, is herself the author of a cookery book that helps show students how to cook their own meals and not rely on take away boxes and frozen pizza. Her crystallised rose petal strewn "Lucious Lemon Cake" is one of the centrepieces of the book. She is also Tamasin’s note taker and loyal assistant during photo shoots.
“I find it much easier to show and tell someone how to prepare a dish, so Miranda is my eyes and ears when I am writing down the steps of the recipe. If she can understand it and follow the process, then so can the readers. I have always thought it very important to teach my children how to use every part of their brain. Instead of spending time on the computer or using social media, why not learn a craft or a skill? I remember when I was at Bedales School we used to do weaving, jewellery making, book binding and sewing. It makes you very resourceful and also gets you using all of the brain. If I have been writing all day long, then I need a break and I go and make a cake, I go and do something in the kitchen garden.”
In her career Tamasin has carved a mixed and varied portfolio for herself, from features in Vanity Fair and Vogue magazine one month to doing demonstrations and book signings in Waitrose or creating a “Delicious Jewels” book with Munich jewellers Hemmerle the next. She writes about all her many interests, from film to theatre, the countryside and travel and she is an avid reader also.
“I love the works of Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David because they were really very good writers. I also read Anna del Conte and Claudia Roden’s work, as well as Rowley Leigh and Dan Lepard. I do get all the papers to try to keep up to date with what everybody is doing, but I always make my work my own. I have thirty years of experience in the kitchen and I think it is important to pass that on: sometimes I just tinker with a recipe to give it my own slant and method, using my memories of childhood or the experience I gained through my travels.”
Her daily life here in this rambling house is busy and fulfilled, with many projects on the go. Although part of a famous dynasty and mindful of her privacy and the unwanted attention this might attract, her house is open to friends and she frequently has people over to stay. “It’s the Irish side of me, if people come and stay I love to entertain and prepare a full table.” She shops nearby, at the farmers’ market in Taunton, the small farm shop in the village next door, buys her meat from rare breeds farmer Richard Vaughan and she enthuses about John and Reuben Murray’s burrata, anchovies, olives, lardo di Colonna and cannellini beans, opening her kitchen cupboard door and showing me all her recently bought delicacies. When she is in London she likes to eat at Yalla Yalla, the Lebanese restaurant in Soho, or the Indian restaurant Malabar, at Richard Corrigan’s in Mayfair and she is also a fan of Manicomio, the Italian restaurant in both Chelsea and the City.
“I always prefer neighbourhood restaurants, where there is generosity of spirit and a homely, welcoming atmosphere. I do love Le Gavroche and Michel Roux is a wonderful Chef. But in general I am not a Michelin star follower: it’s the homecooking I love. Even when I travel I always ask the taxi driver or the cleaner where they love to go and eat. Or better still, I like to go to private houses. When I went to stay in Madrid with cookery teacher Gabriela Llamas, she cooked this wonderful meal for all her guests, we stayed up till two in the morning and every plate was home cooked. Then the next day she showed me what she would prepare with all the left overs.”
As she writes in the book,
“The home kitchen, I believe….is the place to comfort and restore, to sustain and nourish. Where all should appear artless. Where the simple is made special, easily.”
“Food You Can’t Say No To” by Tamasin Day-Lewis, published by Quadrille at www.quadrille.co.uk
Follow Quadrille on Twitter: @QuadrilleFood
Food photography by Simon Wheeler: www.simonwheeler.eu