Interview with a Chef

Nicky and I met in September while we were both working on a small organic farm in Castile y León, Spain. She has been cooking elaborate dishes since she was five years old and today works as a chef in Wales. On a sunny morning before lunch, she told me about seasonal produce of the UK, why food waste makes her fume, and how to cook a hedgehog.

Picking beans together

Picking beans together

ON FOOD AND COOKING

The Farmer’s Grandchild: Let me start with a rather vague question: what is food to you?

Nicky Williams: It’s lovely [laughs]. It’s my passion, it’s been my life, it’s been something I’ve been very interested in since I was very young.

TFG: Can you tell me how you started cooking professionally?

NW: Professionally, I went to the Glastonbury Festival 17 years ago, working on a food stall there called Glender’s Blenders making smoothies and funky spicy chicken. And then I left there and started working in Totnes [England], and that was my first job in an Italian restaurant called Amalfi’s. And I was also picking grapes from a vineyard, and yea, that’s how I got into it professionally.

TFG: Did you cook when you were young?

NW: Yea, I was always helping mum in the kitchen. I used to do fish en papillote when I was five. My sister couldn’t make jelly, she used to burn water. My mum is a good cook. And all our food when we were growing up was pretty much home-cooked. Mum didn’t ever use to buy processed foods, it was all home-cooked: stews, or like roast dinners or boiled hams, or traditional stuff. Whereas a lot of my friends were [eating] fish fingers, beans and chips, turkey twizlers and crap, really.

TFG: So the way you were raised eating was different than your friends? Why do you think that was?

NW: My friends used to come to my house and go “Woah, you always have the best food!” and I would go to their houses and go “Oh my god, chicken nuggets!” just for something different. But if I had children, they wouldn’t be eating chicken nuggets [laughs].

ON SEAFOOD

TFG: Why do you like seafood?

NW: Being brought up on the coast, it’s just available. And when I lived and worked on the Isle of Man it was nice being able to phone the fishmongers in the morning to ask what they’d caught and knowing that what you were going to put on the specials board in the evening was caught fresh that day.

TFG: So, when a restaurant puts “catch of the day” it normally is the catch of the day?

NW: Yea, generally.

TFG: And do you as a chef like cooking the catch of the day? 

NW: Yea, love it.

TFG: Why’s that?

NW: Well, the fishmonger used to come in [to the restaurant] on the weekend. It was really nice watching him come in in the evening and knowing that he’d caught the fish and the queenies [scallops], that we’d cooked it, and that we were both as excited about it.

FOOD STORIES FROM HER CHILDHOOD

TFG: Do you think that when your mom was your age she got, prepared and ate her food similarly or differently than you do?

NW: Quite similarly. On a low budget. Again, back then, you didn’t have so many types of cuisine. It was more stereotypically British. Meats, veg, soups. You know, traditional food. But she was also doing it on a shoestring.

My mum used to go to the local butchers to buy our meat and she used to say to the butcher “Could we have some bones for the dog?” and the butcher would throw in a load of bones. And my gran went in there one day and the butcher said to my gran, “Oh you know, I saw your daughter the other day. She always comes in and I always give her bones for the dog.” And my gran said “She doesn’t have a dog…”

So what she was doing was taking the bones home, boiling them up and making soup for us. Because she was poor. And then after that she used to go in there and ask for bones for the dog, and the butcher then started giving her bones with loads and loads of meat on them because he knew she didn’t have a dog, it was for the kids [laughing]. It was quite sweet. So yea, I think we do have a same cooking style where we use everything that we can.

TFG: I know a little bit about your grandfather. What about him?

NW: He was Romani gypsy. And obviously their food was what they picked off the land at the farms where they stopped, where they settled for a little while. And my grandfather, the times he did manage to get to schools, it would be his job when he was really young, I mean under the age of ten, to set the rabbit snares to catch rabbits on the way home from school to take home to eat.

They also used to eat hedgehog. So they’d catch hedgehog, kill it, and then the way you cook hedgehog is you wrap it in clay and then you put it on the fire. When the clay cracks, it’s cooked. And then you crack the clay open, the spines come away with the clay and you’re left with a cooked hedgehog.

TFG: Is it good?

NW: It’s lovely. It’s very gamey. It’s a strong meat, there’s not much meat to it. They’d eat anything. Squirrel, rabbit, hedgehog. Whatever they could catch they’d eat it.

ON FOOD WASTE

TFG: According to a report from 2011 from the Government Office For Science in London on the future of food and farming, some of the biggest issues regarding our current global food systems are firstly, hunger, malnutrition and overconsumption. And secondly, the fact that many of our food production systems are unsustainable. For you, what are some problems with the food system where you live that you are aware of?

NW: I challenged Tesco’s, which is a big supermarket in the UK. I went down there one day, it was about nine o’clock at night and they shut at eleven. So I went to the back of the store where they have the bakery section, where it’s all freshly baked on the premises. And there was one of the members of staff there with huge bin bags taking all the breads, the donuts, the pastries off the shelves and putting them into these bin bags, just to be thrown away.

So I went up to him and I said “Are you throwing all that away?” And he’s like “Yea, yea, yea.” So I said, “Can I take some, then, if you’re going to throw it, to save it being wasted.” “No we’re not allowed to, it’s company policy,” he said. “I’m not even allowed to take it home as a member of staff. We’re just not allowed to do it.” So I asked “Well, can I take some for the birds, I’ll throw some out for the birds, if it’s not good for human consumption.” “No, we’re not allowed to give it away”. Which I thought was absolutely ridiculous. So the next day I went down and spoke to the manager and said “Can I suggest to you that you bake less in the day, to save throwing all this food away?” And he said “No, we have to have the shelves full, because it looks better for the customer…”

It was ridiculous. So I got in touch with Tesco’s online and I complained to them and they’ve blocked me on Facebook. Any comment that I make on Facebook is now taken straight down. And it’s crazy. And they still do it to this day.

TFG: What about as your role as a chef – do you think there’s something you could do, or something you could be involved with regarding food waste? 

NW: I did try, when I was on the Isle of Man working on the Cherry Orchard, my favorite kitchen. At the end of the meals, the waitresses would go out and clear the plates and if there was any leftovers they would go into a bucket to be disposed of properly. And you know, people waste a lot of food, whether it’s just rinds of fat or bits of bread or bits of vegetables. And we’d end up at the end of the night with bucketloads of food that’d been left over.

So there was this guy up the road who had like a farm museum and he had a couple of pigs there as petting animals, so I suggested, “Why don’t you come down at the end of each evening and take these buckets for the pigs?” Makes sense, it’s not going to waste. But we weren’t allowed to do that because the laws on pig food are so tight, it has to be prepared in a sterile area, and you’re not allowed to feed them certain things. So we couldn’t even do that, we couldn’t even give it to the animals.

ON SEASONALITY

TFG: What is the role of restaurants in educating the public about the seasonality of foods? Do you think there is an issue with getting tomatoes in the middle of winter in England, for example, or is that OK?

NW: Well, no. There’s two issues, really. I mean, one is if you’re buying in from different countries then you’ve got your carbon footprint, which is not good, we’re all trying to keep that down. And the other reason I don’t like buying tomatoes in the middle of winter is because they taste like crap. They’re just forced. If they’re grown in the UK, they’re just force-grown, so they’re not ready to be tomatoes.

We’ve got so much going in the UK, seasonal-wise, you know in the autumn and winter you’ve got pumpkins, and you’ve got your brassicas, and you’ve got your broccoli and your cabbages. And it’s nice to eat those things in the winter, anyway, cause that’s sort of your bulky food, your comfort food. 

So yea, restaurants do have a bit of responsibility there because they can show people. You know, the menu will change every two to three months, so it’s what’s in season. So you are educating people, whereas someone might not really realize what’s around at that time of year, they go to a restaurant, look at a menu and “Oh, right, OK. That’s in season, that’s in season.” We’ve [in restaurants in the UK] got berries, we’ve got nuts. In the summer we’ve got salads, we’ve got strawberries, we’ve got whatever. So yea, I think restaurants do educate people.

ON THE FARM 

TFG: Looking back on seven weeks as on this farm, what have been some memorable experiences, food related or otherwise?

NW: My nice memory is getting up when everybody is still in bed and going into the field and “doing the groceries.” I guess, like grocery shopping in the field! And going out with a basket and picking everything and having it from the field onto the plate in a space of three hours, that’s really nice. And also, because I [normally] live on my own and eating on your own is pretty boring, just having everybody sitting down together three times a day is probably one of the nicest things here.

After several months of work at La Veguilla, Nicky moved back to the UK and has recently and excitedly begun a new position as a chef in Wales. 


For more interviews, please visit the Interviews page. 

Sea Lettuce

There is a stall in the market in my neighborhood of Madrid, Spain selling exclusively seaweed products. Among the products the attendant showed me when I passed by last month was salted seaweed leaves, wet and shiny and overflowing in their Styrofoam box. The box had traveled from Brittany, France. Though along Spainsh coasts you can find seaweed to eat, the woman explained she was hoping to specialize in seaweed from France.

Ulva lactucaI’d known the shores of Brittany to provide a seabed of entrees, such as oysters, clams, and shrimp. But seaweed? One of our family friends living there semi-jokingly claims that if seaweed were made to be edible, it would have a solid presence in Breton cuisine. But it doesn’t.

A few weeks after my visit to the Madrid market, as luck would have it, I was on the shores of southern Brittany and with a coastline of seaweed at my culinary disposal. Along this coast you can find a seaweed which is classified as edible by the association Ocealg. Scouring magazines and cookbooks from my French grandmother’s kitchen, I did find recipes for seaweed found in Brittany. My mother also remembers her grandmother using seaweed to thicken milk pudding. But it’s true that seaweed recipes do not have a strong presence here.


Seaweed picking

Foraging

The slippery green, brown and red leaves full of vitamins enticed me, so I took out my scissors and waded into the low tide. We’d read a recommendation online to only gather seaweed that is attached to rocks rather than that floating, o make sure it was fresh. Having trouble finding most of the types listed on Brittany seaweed websites, we stuck to ulva lactuca, or simply sea lettuce, which we found in great abundance.

At home, we cleaned the leaves in fresh water and dried them on a tray in the sun. We tasted the seaweed, and found (surprise!) it had a very marine taste. We made seaweed chips by salting and oiling the leaves and crisping them up in the oven. I paraded my invented hors d’oeuvre through the house, but there were few takers. In a final, sacrilegious attempt, we ended our trials with seaweed galettes, altering a truly Breton dish. There was only one taker.

Galettes aux algues

Cooking seaweed galettes

The seaweed snacks were mostly met with hesitation and doubt. In a region so thriving with seaweed, what would it take for seaweed dishes to be the norm? Perhaps a bit more experimenting, or scrupulous recipe
researching and following? I clearly had little idea what I was doing this week in the kitchen. But the food was at our doorsteps. We were being local foragers. I had to try! Upon return to Madrid I will take a few steps back, visit that lady in the market stall, and ask for some recipes. 

Nose-to-Tail

Do you ever consider the ”ingenuity” and resourcefulness you can practice by engaging in ”nose-to-tail” eating? What old recipes or food traditions around eating animals does your family share?

Before reading this article on indiefarmer.com, I didn’t know there was a term for what my mom’s family does on a weekly basis at their table. ”Nose-to-tail.” Finally, I have a term I can use when describing my family’s odd tradition of, after a meal of hunted bird, putting the bird’s head on a fork, sticking it in an empty wine bottle and swiveling it around. Whomever the beak settles on must eat the head.

Though I stopped buying and eating conventional meat almost a year ago mainly for environmental reasons, my family heritage is strongly connected to the raising, hunting and preparation of all sorts of animals and their parts, and I have respect for the time and consideration my French family, for example, takes in their approach to eating animal products. I remember joining my grandfather on a once-in-a-blue-moon type hunting picnic where he and his buds roasted an entire boar on an open spit, and then invited their families to join in on the feast. My grandmother taught me how to make duck liver paté from scratch. My mother savours the trickiest parts of the animals she eats – the heads of birds, as you’ve read, and sucking the bones of rabbit carcasses. 

If you get squimish by the thought of having, say, pig brains, cow tongue or fried blood for lunch then perhaps you should reconsider why you eat any meat at all.

For those of you who do eat meat, why do you like the certain parts of the certain animals you do eat? Is it tradition, the taste, the norm?

Parts of the pig. Image Credit: North Carolina's Indy Week.

Before my 2012 visit to North Carolina, I had no idea there were so many ways to BBQ a pig.
Image Credit: North Carolina’s Indy Week.

Grand-mère's Crab Egg Dip

Grand-mère’s Crab Egg Dip, a “pincer-to-feeler” approach.

How much time do you spend on food?

“In order to eat well we need to invest more time, effort and resources in providing for our sustenance … than most of us do today. … Americans spend less than 10 percent of their income on food; they also spend less than an hour a day preparing meals and little more than an hour enjoying them. For most people for most of history gathering and preparing food has been an occupation at the very heart of daily life.” – Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food

…and perhaps at the heart of a healthy life as well? 

In the same year that my income has been close to the lowest it ever has in my adult life, I’ve also spent more evenings cooking, more of my time learning how to grow food, and a higher percentage of my earnings on quality, local products. I suppose this is one type of “work-life balance”.

Thanks to the My New Roots blog, we’re ready for dinner with ”The Best Lentil Salad Ever.” Even though I have more time to cook this year, you’ll notice we haven’t found the time to get measuring spoons!

The Best Lentil Salad Ever - My New Roots

Prepping the delicious lentil salad by the My New Roots blog.

How much time do you spend on food?