I was lucky enough to speak to Fiona Beckett, a local food writer whose writing includes the Beyond Baked Beans series aimed at students, her latest book about cheese and a blog about, er, cheese. You can see why I like her. Here’s what she said:
I did lots of other things when I was younger. This was actually a sort of mid-life career switch. I kind of suddenly realised that I would like to have been a journalist, and I wished I had been.
You have to work hard and you have to look for opportunities but you also have to be lucky, and I was lucky. Sainsbury’s Magazine wanted a piece on organic food, with a couple of recipes. They just said ‘Well you write recipes don’t you?’ And I just said yes, as you do.
I taught myself to cook; I’m not a trained cook at all. I have to say I taught myself to cook largely from Delia Smith. She is very good. Her recipes work. I worked subsequently for Sainsbury’s Magazine which she and her husband then owned, and there was a tremendous ethos of having very clear recipes with exact quantities, and that recipes must work.
There’s no shortage of inspiration, and I am an inveterate cookbook collector, I cannot resist them. Even though I’ve got hundreds, literally, I’m always acquiring more one way or the other.
Italy is always inspiring. It is so true to its own traditions. Apart from Milan, where they’re much more experimental, most Italian towns and restaurants serve the same sort of dishes they probably served 30 years ago, and the Italians like it that way. The Italians get quite disorientated when they leave their home country and can’t have a meal that includes pasta as a second course. It’s the most unspoilt, unadulterated cuisine.
I have eaten in bad restaurants, definitely. A restaurant is more than just the food is the main thing I’ve learnt. Food can be wonderful but if all the other things are not in place you can actually have quite a miserable experience.
The standard in restaurants is far, far higher than it was when I started. There are some fantastic restaurants all over the country now.
People are less and less wanting to cook from scratch. Though we talk a lot about food, and we read cookery books, and watch food programmes, it hasn’t actually resulted in a nation which is passionate about cooking. I’d say cooking skills were probably worse than when I started 20 years ago. There are a lot of people who don’t know how to cook still.
Publishing is certainly in a state of some turmoil. I think a lot of publishers are being more cautious about the titles they publish, because of the economic situation, and because of what’s happening on the internet. So they are tending to stick with the big names, the celebrity chefs.
I think I am most pleased to have written the student series Beyond Baked Beans. I think if I’ve actually managed to teach a few students to cook, and they’ve become confident cooks as a result, that feels like a worthwhile thing to have done. That’s worth writing a book for.
Although there were cookbooks for students they were sort of stuck in the dark ages. They all had dishes like casseroles made with tinned tuna, or condensed mushroom soup with sprinkled crisps on the top. I just thought the world has moved on, students typically have travelled quite a lot, may well have eaten out.
Students are more resistant to the kind of ingredients I might have written about for The Frugal Cook. I wouldn’t say students as a body were fantastically keen on offal, for example. I think there are some ingredients that I think would turn students off a bit.
After a while, if you have a blog or column on a particular subject, you kind of think, ‘Well, I’ve said everything.’ I’ve given up regular slots in the past partly because I think I’ve kind of run out of steam on it and wanted to do other things
The internet has also opened up the possibility for people to become a food writer if they want. They can also publish a book. In fact, I’ve just done that with a local chef in Bristol. We worked together on it, we found a designer, we found a printer, and we’ve done it in a slightly unusual way. The internet creates possibilities, I think; it opens doors as well as possibly closing them.