This is a Sponsored Post in association with Stoves
It would be difficult to underestimate just how popular the BBC One television show CountryFile actually is, but one simple way to find out just how much people love it is to attend the annual CountryFile Live event, held in the grounds of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire (the largest non-royal residence in the country).
As the gates open at 0930hrs hordes of people stream across the sun-bleached grass; they are multi-generational and multi-cultural – patriarchs holding firmly onto toddler collars, mothers waving sheaves of tickets and programmes, couples holding hands, and dogs, so many dogs, all straining at their leashes, keen to pick up dropped snacks from the numerous food stands.
(Whilst we’re on the subject of food these are not your quotidian hot dog and burger stalls. Oh no, we’re talking southern fried pheasant wraps, handmade pasta, and artisan breads amongst the many types of sustenance on offer.)
I was there with Lettice to meet with the venerable chef Brian Turner, who was hosting the CountryFile Kitchen Theatre, fitted with the latest integral oven and grill, and gas hob from Stoves.
For chefs working in front of a live audience in a demo kitchen Stoves appliances are perfect; they need an oven, grill and hob that is guaranteed not to let them down. And, as I can testify myself from years of cooking on my mother’s range, they are always an absolute pleasure to use.
Turner, who was born in Halifax, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, is now seventy-two, and has a resume which would be impressive at a quarter of its length. Trained at various hotels and restaurants including Simpson’s in the Strand and the Savoy Grill, he then went to Switzerland to work at the Beau Rivage Palace in Lausanne, before returning to Britain to work at Claridge’s and then the Capital Hotel where Turner and Richard Shepherd earned a Michelin star.
He’s had his own eponymous restaurant in Knightsbridge, and launched Brian Turner Mayfair at the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square. (He told me that seeing his name flying on the four flags over the hotel in the heart of Mayfair remains one of his proudest moments – he still has one of the flags at home.)
Sitting in a tent at a show celebrating the British countryside meant I was curious to know what place it holds in Brian’s heart. He told me that whilst he has lived most of his life in big cities, he was brought up in a suburban area on the edge of the countryside in Yorkshire in the 1950s.
“We’d go down into the valley and into the rhubarb fields to play. Every Saturday morning we’d feed the animals on the local farm, and spend all our spare time there. It gave me an intrinsic love of the countryside, and there are no two ways about it: what we learned was the value of food and how to look after it, along with the importance of good animal husbandry and the awareness of the seasons.”
Talking to Brian it becomes clear that the restaurant industry has changed beyond recognition in the years he’s been involved: “The publicity side of being a chef has heightened by 1000%. Funny to think that my mother and wife both thought that the cooking game wasn’t high profile enough in the beginning.”
“Over the past fifty years we’ve taken a fairly demeaning industry into a pretty respectable profession where chefs and restaurateurs are often looked on as rock and roll. And what’s great is that we treat people a lot better. We engage with schools, we create apprenticeships. The kickstarter was teaching people that you destroy your own line of inheritance by behaving badly in the kitchen.”
We move on to talking about ingredients and home cooking. It turns out that he wasn’t the only person cooking professionally in his family: “My dad had a transport café, so we used to eat pretty well. He made sure he always cooked Sunday lunch for ten. And then at about six o’clock we used to have a fry up with a proper bubble and squeak, along with with onion gravy. There’d be bits of beef, cabbage and mashed and roast potatoes.’
When asked what advice he would give a home cook he tells me, “My view is buy the best product you can, treat it simply and let the produce do the talking. Don’t try to be too clever, but if you want to impress always have a run through for the family first – never cook recipes for guests for the first time.”
It’s always illuminating to ask chefs what they cook themselves, especially given his previous answer, so I asked Brian to give me his idea of pure comfort food.
“My mother used to make cottage pie with mash with cheese in it, and then cheese grated on top. The kind of dish anyone can make. It just takes pre-roasted meat from a good leg of lamb or rib of beef. You use all the bits and pieces and make yourself a nice pie. Stick it in the oven, pour a G&T, and it’s so easy to eat.”
Brian tell me that his favourite ‘just get in the house and do something’ meal also involves cheese. Specifically, cheese on toast. “My father used to put a bit of butter in the pan, chop and sweat onions. He’d add the top of the milk into the onions and let it cook a bit, then take it off the heat, add in chopped up good cheddar cheese, and let it melt. Toast a slice of bread, and pour it on top. It was delicious.
“I think either of those two dishes are my idea of pure comfort food. Along with a big lump of bread and butter to wipe around when you’ve finished.”
I’m currently creating a ‘Staying In In’ recipe for Stoves, so I was interested to hear what Brian’s would be:
“Oh a good old stew – a traditional beef stew with Worcester sauce, brown sauce, carrots, dumplings onions and swedes, and made with really good stewing meat. There would probably be cheese dumplings, possibly with a bit of horseradish. I used to have a a lunch club in Walton Street and chefs would come for a networking lunch, play cards and drink champagne. I’d serve up the stew in a big copper pot and give them a spoon.”
He then makes me laugh when he tells me his most over-rated ingredient is basil – “Over rated and over used. It’s got a nice perfume but frankly it’s much ado about nothing.”
It becomes clear as we chat that cheese has been a constant factor in Brian’s life, and he describes himself as a cheese man who is very happy if he can incorporate it into his dishes. “There’s always cheese in the fridge. It doesn’t have to be exotic cheese: My favourite has always been an aged Wensleydale – the sweetness, the nuttiness just works. And yes, I do eat it with Christmas cake and apple pie. I’ve always loved that saying: An apple pie without the cheese is like a kiss without the squeeze!”
I ask if there are any other cheeses he rates from the United Kingdom: “Of the British cheeses, I think we should be proud of Stinking Bishop, and Old Winchester, an aged sort of Parmesan-style, is a fantastic grating cheese with a good bouquet”.
The public at large will probably know Brian best for his years of television work – he was the resident chef on This Morning for many years, a regular guest cook on Ready Steady Cook and a stalwart of Saturday Kitchen, so I asked Brian what the biggest challenges that cooking on television presents.
” When I first started on the telly I went to see Derek Cooper, (the regular presenter of The Food Programme from 1979 until 2001) in the studio to see how he did it. I asked him what was easy or difficult about cooking for broadcast. He said there’s only one thing to understand: that it’s all about the ability to talk to the camera simultaneously with cooking, so that the audience can see the whole picture, and it’s not a skill that everyone has. I do prefer cooking live on television, but that does mean that it eliminates certain dishes because they take too long, so the challenge for me now is more in the timing of the dishes so they work on television.”
I was curious to know what might be the one kitchen gadget Brian can’t do without; I wasn’t expecting the simplicity of his answer:
“If you walk out on the stage now you’ll see that I have a wooden chopping board that is very heavy. We take it wherever we go. I love that board and I’ve had it for a lot of years. It gives me stability when I’m working on TV because the board is the point you always return to when you’re cooking.”
My final question for Brian was the obvious one to a man in his seventies (even if he does look at least ten years younger) – Do you ever plan on retiring? Or is cooking and presenting about food for you a pleasure that just keeps on rewarding?
“I’m very lucky being in the hospitality business. Why would I retire? I do everything I love, make a living and get paid for it. I hope to die at the table.”
Chatting done, Lettice and I went to sit in the audience and watch Brian wrap the audience around his little finger.
Afterwards we went to walk around the show. With a huge amount to take in, it was all a little overwhelming, so we headed first to a lovely flower and plant stall run by a farming family, and I bought three scabious (without the bees who were having a splendid time.)
Lettice would definitely have liked to explore the pheasant opportunities further but I was keen to see what else CountryFile Live had to offer. We checked out the chainsaw carving and the British Chainsaw Championships arena.
and took a look in at the Dog Arena, before being transfixed by the maypole and Scottish dancing. I was tempted by the croquet, but the wooden balls were a bit big for Lettice.
We had a brilliant time accosting every Dachshund in sight, and were particularly taken with these two Standard Wire-Hairs.
And then it was home before we frazzled in the heatwave.
A huge thank you to two great products from the North of England – Mr Turner for being so charming and interesting, and to Stoves for hosting us at CountryFile Live.