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. 

One Month With a Small-Scale Organic Farmer

“We never have to leave because everyone comes here.” This was Lauro, one of the two farmer-carpenters with whom I lived this past September. He was speaking about the home and land he shares with his brother Alfredo just out of earshot of Nieva, a small village in Castilla y León, Spain.

La VeguillaLauro and Alfredo are brothers and have lived on this cattle barn-turned-carpentry workshop (slash kitchen slash bedroom) for the past 15 years. Their home is called La Veguilla, meaning a small meadow, and from the terrace you can see the church steeple in Nieva, where the brothers and their four other siblings grew up and where their parents still live. The two hectares of land provide them with a vegetable garden for commercialization and personal consumption, a chicken coop, a donkey named Paris (due to his uncanny resemblance to Paris Hilton), a rescued grey-hound with a previous life named Garabato (Scribble), a tree nursery and various carpentry workshops. At this moment they are extending the home to the north to include more workshop space and a sauna. In nearly every room there is a massage table, which Alfredo uses to help the friends and various clients who come through.

The two brothers essentially have a “puertas abiertas” (open doors) policy here. On any given day, friends of theirs come by to borrow tools, their parents come by for a chat and to pick figs, a winemaking friend drops off a bottle and shares some news, and clients come in to specify measurements for furniture they ordered. Sometimes people just stop for lunch. Many of their friends and project partners are people with whom they went to grade school who live in neighboring towns. Others, like the mosaicist, are newer friends.

The open doors are, as Lauro says, a convenience of their lifestyle: he doesn’t have to go out, because everyone else comes here. Alfredo adds, however, that much of the challenge (and the beauty) of creating this home has been finding a balance and harmony between all those who pass through and the amount of activity they bring with the brothers’ private lives and occasional need for solitude. 

Sometimes Lauro just wishes he had a BUSY sign to hang on the door.

The open doors also welcome many, many volunteers by way of the WWOOF program. Alfredo is positive that volunteers are a large part of what brings life to this place. Volunteers from the world over revive La Veguilla. Just during the month I spent there, I shared a roof with volunteers from China, Wales, Estonia and Australia.

So like many before me, I went to La Veguilla as a volunteer. My specific purpose, however (in addition to getting my hands in the dirt again) was to learn about the distribution of organic produce from the perspective of a small farmer in the vicinity of Madrid, my current home. In their invitation email, Alfredo and Lauro wrote “Come for a month and we’ll show you our vegetable box system.” From spring until the summer produce runs out, Lauro (the brother with a greener thumb) works nearly full time gardening and distributing produce boxes. The vegetable boxes (“las cajas”) are plastic crates filled to the brim with fruit and vegetables picked from the garden and then sold for between 10€ and 20€, depending on the contents, to friends and acquaintances as far as Segovia, a 30 minute car ride from the farm.

My first week there we included the following in each 20€ box: 2 kilos of potatoes, 1.5 kilos of green beans, about 4 tomatoes, 1 melon, 3 turnips, 1 big beet, 1 kohlrabi, 2 large green peppers, some chard, a bunch of basel and a bunch of parsley. 

Immediately inviting

Colorful and immediately inviting CSA boxes

On Fridays and Mondays we harvested produce and kept it cool in the storage building, where we would later add it to 20 to 25 boxes. We also prepared some boxes full of specific produce destined for herbolarios, which are small organic goods shops in Spain. On Tuesday morning, just before the truck took off, we picked the leafy goods – chard, kale, herbs – so they were as fresh as possible when they arrived to their destination. Lauro bought himself a white pick-up truck after his time in Alaska, inspired by its utility. Once we’d sorted the tetris puzzle of fitting and stacking all the boxes into the truck, we headed into town to deliver.

Preparing the delivery

Preparing the delivery

I wasn’t expecting anything in particular when Alfredo and Lauro first told me they’d show me their vegetable box “distribution system,” but it was quickly apparent that the processes they have are based on providing a quality product at a very relaxed pace. “I prefer quality over quantity,” Lauro would say when we harvested or packed the boxes. Or, “It’s better to do it slowly and well than in a rush” when we swept the storage room.

The relaxed pace of their approach was apparent on delivery days. Lauro knows who his regular customers are and would always prepare them boxes unless they’d called in advance to say “no.” Any extra boxes would go to friends he’d remember while we were driving into town or see walking on the sidewalk. For instance, one Tuesday while we waited for the light to change at an intersection in downtown Segovia, Lauro saw an old friend of his walking about 100 meters away. He honked the horn to get his friend’s attention, but to no avail. I asked him if he needed to speak to this friend. “No. I just want to sell him a box!”

Lauro does little marketing for his produce boxes. It’s all through word-of-mouth (or drive-by honkings). He says he doesn’t want to do explicit marketing because what he currently does is “enough.” I asked him what he meant by enough, if that meant it covered his costs. He laughed and replied that he hardly covers any costs with his boxes, after the food he buys for the volunteers and other outputs.

So, you may wonder, why does he do it?

I think it’s because gardening is worth it to him in and of itself. And he can (financially) afford to garden because he and Alfredo receive other income through their carpentry workshops and a tree nursery on the property.

Someone once asked Lauro when he was going to get rich. He looked at them and replied, seriously: “I am already rich.”

La vendimia - grape harvest

La vendimia – grape harvest

I agree with him, and this is why: the garden produces more than he and his brother can eat alone, they enjoy warm weather many months of the year, the chickens provide eggs nearly every day, their vigneron friends freely share bottles of top-notch wine from organic grapes, fruit trees in town provide figs for jam in the winter, the pine forest next door fills the air with bird songs, there’s an effortless cycle of reusing and recycling material and organic waste on their farm, the stars are bright at night, their friends are very good friends, their bodies are strong, the air is clean(er than the city), books line the walls, they know how to make their own furniture and they eat a high percentage of fresh, nutritious food day in and day out.

Additionally, due to the fact that their work space is also their living and leisure space, they avoid lengthy commutes and what Lauro might call “wasted time.” Perhaps that’s how they can afford a siesta most days! While others may seem to separate work and play, (or work and “life”?) as much as possible, at La Veguilla work and play have found a notable, but almost unnoticeable, flow. Lauro says he likes this because when he wakes up, his work is right there. Only someone who really values their life’s dedication would value the fact that it was always so physically close. All of this is not to say that their work isn’t cut out for them. Lauro and Alfredo always have something to do in and around the house.

Making rosemary cuttings

Making rosemary bush cuttings

They are accustomed to working many hours. “Our father sold our labor for income” Lauro once said, remembering the summers that he and his siblings worked on farms instead of going to the local pool as, it seemed, all the other kids did. He remembers picking weeds out of endless rows of beets and that when he started one row he couldn’t see the end of it. He and his siblings didn’t get any of that money directly, but it all came back to them somehow as it all was used for family expenses. “Kids in big families were kids who worked,” he remembers. While it was difficult work, it was still OK. “We always looked forward to school starting in the fall,” he laughed. Attending grade-school was much easier than working in the fields, it turns out.

Perhaps these many hours of harvest when he was under 15 years old are what led to his love of agriculture and gardening, and to his brother Alfredo’s appreciation of the outdoors. It could easily have gone the other way, though; these brothers could have joined the trend of younger generations leaving rural towns for the big cities. 

But, like I noted, there’s something about living on the edge of a small town, between pine forests and fields, where the pace is slow and the work is steady, that fits better with their goals, personalities and lifestyles. And even if the distribution system of their weekly summer vegetable boxes seems very (almost too) casual, it works for them.

I’d like to finish with a quote from Alfredo: “Every day, I appreciate the opportunity that life has given us to live in a place with such free movement and exchange of people and experiences. If we look at the history of the world and where we’re going, I can only hope that our space lasts a long time, and that this and other alternative ways of living become more widespread.”


Visit the Farm and Project Profiles page for more people and programs dedicated to keeping our food systems sustainable, healthy and just.