A chat with Sophie Grigson

00:41, Jul 25 2012

Last week, after a message from someone at the Sky network, I arranged to have a chat with British cook, travel and food writer Sophie Grigson. It's always a bit weird talking to someone you don't know on the other side of the world as you are having breakfast and they are having dinner, let alone someone who has written around 20 bestselling cookbooks and fronted a number of food related television shows, the latest of which, Sophie Grigson in Jordan, airs next month in New Zealand on the Travel Network. Crikey. Game face!

She has been active, alongside Jamie Oliver, in promoting a better standard of food for kids in schools, many of her cookbooks are kitchen staples the world over, and she is the daughter of genuine UK food royalty - her Mum being the legendary cook and food writer Jane Grigson.

To this end I asked Sophie if she felt she was always destined to follow in her mother's footsteps. "Not really," she replies, "I just sort of... fell into it. I started doing it, and just found I really enjoyed it." This makes a refreshing change from those who claim becoming a cook or chef to be some sort of divine calling. She agrees with my assertion that the combination of being a food and travel writer would have to be close to the ultimate job, certainly preferable to slaving away, working long hours in a hot, cramped, busy commercial or restaurant kitchen.

I asked her how she sees what she does - to what extent is she a cook, as opposed to a writer? "Oh, definitely a cook. And, at the risk of sounding pretentious, a communicator about food." I tell her I don't think seems pretentious at all, that I think it seems a perfectly noble thing to aspire to - and that one of my chief objectives in this forum is to achieve a dialogue about food with readers and commenters - to share thoughts and ideas about food with like-minded souls - to be a trusted source for opinions on food, and I think this is sort of what Sophie is alluding to. She doesn't see herself as a "writer" in the constant sense, but says she gets a great deal of satisfaction from teaching directly, and refers to a real sense of "the joy of discovery", from which I got the impression that she meant herself just as much as those she is teaching.

I was curious as to how the new series had come about - why Jordan? It turns out her friend and travel companion Hanan Samara had grown up in the region, after being born Iraqi in Palestine, and was able to escort her on her journey, making connections for her to try the local food.

So, just what is Jordanian food? Well, naturally, it shares much with food from its surrounding neigbours - there are aspects of it that are similar to dishes served in Turkish cuisine - variations on falafel, kofta, lots of mezze - small plates for sharing (a kind of Middle Eastern tapas, if you will). And then there's the Jordanian national dish, mansaf, as pictured above - but more about that later.

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The series also ties in neatly with Sophie's new cookbook, entitled Spices. I suggest to her that the series and the book seem to be a more personal quest, compared to some of her earlier books and shows which seem quite functional (a student cookbook, Food for Friends, and so on), and I ask her what the particular appeal is with spices.

"I think just claiming them back from just being brown stuff in packets - getting back to what they are, and where they come from. Seeing fresh cloves, on their tree - most people wouldn't know what they were - I didn't!" She describes her love for the "big, robust flavours" of Jordanian food, even if the heavy use of cardamom - even in coffee ("as much cardamom as coffee!") - took a bit of getting used to. Olive oil, rose water and a whole lot of aromatics are also used heavily in the cuisine - all flavours that I am familiar with and fond of and, perhaps thanks to British/Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi, quite in vogue these days.

I ask Sophie whether people are intimidated by the thought of cooking for her, and she unflinchingly responds in the affirmative. "Yes! But I will eat pretty much anything!" She describes an amusing incident where a friend served her baked beans on toast - under a silver cloche! She then qualifies the "I'll eat anything" protestation with an avowed dislike of margarine (agreed) and licorice (which I find unfathomable...!)

I have to ask her about the national dish. "Ahhh, mansaf..." she sighs. I explain to her that it contains a whole bunch of my food phobias. It is, basically, pieces of lamb cooked in dried yoghurt with water, and served on a large flatbread with bulgur wheat or rice, dressed with almonds and pine nuts. Wet bread. Grey, boiled meat. LAMB. My God, it looks revolting. Sophie describes the dried yoghurt as having an almost blue cheese-like funk to it, and says it was "interesting... but I can't imagine cooking it myself".

Our time pretty much up, I thank her for the chat, which was rather more like a chinwag with a knowledgeable and well-travelled food-loving friend than an interview with a renowned food writer and food television presenter. She is a cheery and engaging conversationalist, and I have very much enjoyed our chat. Given that it is early morning NZ time, and evening in the UK, I ask her what she is having for dinner (I imagine probably not mansaf). She says that she hasn't had it yet, but that she made it earlier, and hopes that her children have left her some - "a gooseberry fool - won't that be lovely!"

Dessert?! For dinner?! My respect for her increases sevenfold...

Are you a fan of Sophie Grigson's cookbooks and television shows? What do you know of Jordanian cuisine? And - has anyone actually eaten the dreaded mansaf?!

Sophie Grigson in Jordan premieres on Sunday, August 12, on Sky's Travel Channel at 7.30pm 

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