Anyone who’s had the pleasure of listening to Cerys Matthews’ cosy 6 Music show on Sunday mornings will know she has a habit of taking you on a three-hour global journey with the sounds of Indian music, blues from the deep South, and Celtic folk transporting you to different places while you sit in the comfort of your kitchen cradling a cuppa.
She’s brought the same eclectic vibe found in her radio shows to her soon to be released book Where the Wild Cooks Go. Here Cerys focuses on her love for food, serving up recipes from around the globe, unsurprisingly paired with suitable sounds. She also mixes these delectable dishes with her travel memories and poems from each country.
We sat down with Cerys to grill her on where her love of cooking comes from, the recipes she holds dear and the ethos behind her brilliant upcoming festival The Good Life Experience.
The MALESTROM: What was the idea behind your book Where the Wild Cooks Go?
Cerys Matthews: It’s not a normal cookbook. Basically, it’s kind of a folk cookbook. I feel like a great night is not just about one good recipe.
It’s about the stories being told, the history of the food, the music being played, the company, the wine you drink with it, the vibe, the weather that day, the history of the place, the ghosts, everything. In that sense, I tried to distill essences.
I offer a music playlist that you can access from a streaming platform which runs along the entire book like a radio dial. It also gives you poetry from new voices like Kei Miller from Jamaica, through to Ancient stories from the Mabinogi to a Middle Eastern saint from Persia, now Iran.
It’s just jam-packed full of proverbs from iconic figures like Confuscious. He came up with pearls like,
“If the meat smells, probably don’t eat it”.
Or there’s the best one from Luxembourg where you can call a turkey a Schnuddelhong, which translates as snot hen. So it’s sort of a journey through fifteen countries via recipes, poetry, music, stories, proverbs, curiosities, my personal anecdotes and also my photo album as well.
TM: Where did your love of food first come from?
CM: Well, my Mum was a rubbish cook. I’ve asked her if she minds me being honest like this and she said it’s fine. She only ate chicken and chips. And I spent my childhood eating Findus Crispy Pancakes and Fish Fingers.
We had a deep fat fryer and we ate from that for about ten years. We were a proper 70s/80s family. We had Vol au Vents if we were trying to be posh.
My interest in food got going when I got so sick of eating Findus that I started going out into the garden and seeing what I could make or find that I could eat.
And so I started making nettle soup from a recipe in a great book called Wild Food by Roger Phillips, which I fell in love with and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him since and I’ve become friends with Rodger.
All these years later he comes to my Good Life Festival and takes groups of people, for free, from babies to pensioners and beyond, into the woods in Chester where they go foraging for mushrooms and edibles.
Then he comes back tells us all about them, the dangers and the ones we can cook with and we all taste them. Talk about the circle of life. To have been so influenced by somebody and then to work with them and become friends with them, it’s been really quite an incredible cycle to be part of.
So from a really young age, I was really interested in plant life, especially edible plants with a view to enhance my independence actually, for if I wanted to run away. Or, if a world war broke out, I know it sounds dramatic, but that’s the brain of a child for you.
It was a survival tactic in a way. But I still find it incredibly interesting and I still do, in terms of the miracle of the life cycles of the edibles on earth. Plantlife especially. A lot of that is in the book.
TM: You’ve obviously been away on tour a lot in your life. Was that part of finding that passion for food, with travelling to all these different countries and experiencing different tastes and sensations?
CM: Oh absolutely. So, I had a pretty strange upbringing. There was my mother who only ate chicken and chips. And then my father was the polar opposite, he was a cave rescue potholer for his hobby, who would try anything. Anything (laughs)! He had tripe and he loved offal.
While writing this book I found out I had two strands of professional faggot makers in the family, so I had to include a hundred-year-old recipe for faggots. Like many of us, I’m interested in reducing my usage of plastics and eating and living more sustainably.
So, there’s a ton of recipes in there to enable you to up your plant intake and reduce your packaging and in terms of eating less takeaways, and lessening your salts and sugars, and chemicals which is good for your body, as well as less packaging which is good for the planet.
So, instead of saying, “oh, should we go eat a Chinese tonight? Or have an Indian takeaway, or get some pizza?” You can look up an Indian recipe in the book and rustle up a dhal or paneer.
TM: You’re making me hungry now. In terms of your musical tastes, you’re not as interested in the mainstream, I suppose mass-produced music. That seems similar when it comes to the sort of food you eat and like to cook yourself?
CM: I always think the best music and the best food have spent less time in a factory and more time in the hands of someone who loves what they’re doing and they’re speaking directly to you.
I love the modern world. Love the internet, absolutely adore it. And I love the ease of life that we’re privy to, to go into a shop and grab what we want.
But I’m also very, very aware that a lot of the products around us are there entirely to make profit. They don’t care about our health, they don’t care about the planet’s health.
And the more I am independent from them, from the noise of their adverts and marketing, then the more options I have, and that’s it really.
I hand on heart think the best food is made in people’s homes across the world. In the smaller restaurants, the holes in the walls and the street stalls. And I think some of the world’s best wisdom trickles down through ordinary communities and people.
So that’s why it’s a folk cookbook in a way, it’s my tribute to normal, ordinary, gorgeous people, us. And not the mass-producing companies and corporations that are now, unfortunately, ruling the world.
TM: With your connection with nature do you prefer to cook outside when you can?
CM: There are a few reasons I’ve put wild in the title. Wild in that the type of cooking is easy and super fast and foolproof. I tend not to want to go shopping for every last ingredient so most all of the recipes in the book are pretty foolproof.
With whatever you’ve got in your kitchen you can provide great, delicious, fast results. Because that’s how I cook, I’m not fussy. I’ve got a short amount of time and I just want to get on with it and feed the family well so they have full bellies. So that’s one wild kind of cooking.
There’s also the wild type of cooking that’s actually going out into the wild and cooking, so there are lots of tips on that. For instance, if you’ve got a barbecue you can completely up your versatility and flexibility in terms of what you can cook if you get yourself your iron griddle from the kitchen and put it on your grill.
It’s as simple as that. It then that means you can cook small things like garlic, tomatoes. Prawns, spinach, fish. You won’t lose them through the grills. You don’t have to go out and buy a new contraption, you just need a griddle or a Welsh baking stone on your grill.
There’s also the Hungarian tripod system that I love. Which is cooking over real flames rather than charcoal with wood burning. It’s a cauldron so you can cook soups and curries, paellas and all sorts of risottos if that’s what you want to do.
In fact with polenta, this is one of the facts in the book, if cooked it the traditional way it would be in the North of Italy on a wood fire in a copper pan and you had to be male. There are all these folkloric things running through the book.
TM: So a lot of it is the history behind the food?
CM: Yes. So, the Kiwi fruit is not from New Zealand, it’s from China. It was the New Zealand farmers who named it Kiwi fruit so they could market it. Schnitzel is probably from Italy.
Croissants are probably from Austria. Chillies are not indigenous to India and tomatoes only arrived in Italy in the 16th Century. So it’s a mixture of reasons like migration and all sorts.
TM: Have you got a favourite recipe from the book?
CM: All of them are my favourites. I do cook every day and I have for many, many years. So they’re all my go-to recipes from fried green tomatoes to grits with poached eggs or shrimp in my Southern American chapter.
To the dhal of South India, to the black beans and my cheese in Mexico, and two to the vegan welsh cakes to the Scottish shortbread to the death by chocolate cocktail that Ian Brown from The Stone Roses gave to me.
Then there’s the Japanese hotpots to the tahini sauce and the falafel in the Middle East. I mean, they’re all totally doable. And totally cheap, so value for money.
A lot of the meat recipes in there are things like easy haggis, just using liver and offal and offcuts which are cheap. You’re using the whole animal, therefore it’s better in terms of sustainably. All these kind of things.
TM: And obviously you cook to music as you have that playlist. Do you change genres dependent on dishes?
CM: When I’m doing my radio shows every Sunday I’m very aware that lots of people are cooking to the radio. When I cook in my little kitchen I’ve got a radio right by the cooker and I just love the company of it.
So, there’s always that relationship between the cook and the music or the radio and the cook and so it made sense to me when I was going to put out this book to integrate music into it.
You can access all the playlists on streaming platforms on the 14th of September, across Spotify at the same time as a book is released.
TM: Can we talk about the Good Life Festival, how it initially came about and the ethos behind it…
CM: It’s all the same really. The book launches on the 14th and I’ll be there talking about it and signing copies. The book is all the same ethos, whether it’s my radio show, my book or the festival, it’s about sharing knowledge and enjoying the cultural treasures of the world.
Being physical, loving nature and the outside world. Crafts, poetry, literature, authors, fires, chefs, pit cooking. Havana Nights, Norman Jay DJing, brilliant music across the genres and allowing children space as well.
One of the biggest impetuses for me for starting the festival seven years ago now, was seeing my children growing up in the modern world in a city environment and not being able to offer them that freedom I had, and the farm memories that I have and cherish.
So it’s basically a weekend, where of course it’s up to you as a parent, but if your child is capable, you can let them will grow free, because it’s only a small festival between 3000 and 5000.
So you can leave 5/6/7 year olds off and they go round in packs. A lot of the activities like whittling, or axe throwing, fire walking, trapezing, archery, a lot of the stuff is free. They don’t need to hang around with the parents because they don’t need the money.
They just wander around and the faces on the children, they’re given this freedom and the chance to take responsibility and to learn and to become confident and to be emancipated it’s just precious beyond. To be honest that’s what we’re doing it for really.
It’s a platform to share some of the great world’s greatest wonders in a weekend in a field. It’s not for profit, it’s for that reason and because there’s an awful lot of great stuff going on and I just wanted to share it with people.
TM: It’s great, you’re actively getting people to reconnect with nature and having something of a digital detox which can only be a good thing…
CM: It’s all about balance and it’s about emancipation and feeling confident and not worrying about what you look like when your dirty and dusty and the kids have straw in their hair. Of course, there are people on phones taking photos and putting them on Instagram.
But again it’s the balance, you can smell the fresh air, you can go out foraging or cook on a fire with Anna Jones, learn about beekeeping and whiskey making or taste all these different foods, like trying smoked cauliflower. It’s definitely about reconnecting and sharing information.
TM: From your radio shows, I know you’re essentially fascinated with people. It sounds like your festival is full of fascinating people…
CM: Absolutely, It’s all about that for sure. I was born curious and I remain curious. And I distrust a lot of the headlines and the ethos behind big companies. They make such a big noise today that I just want to go into a field and be around wonderful things and wonderful people.
TM: And is the secret to a good life? The simple things?
CM: I think so. Of course, it’s going to be different for different people. For me a £900 bag or pair of shoes makes me feel a bit sick.
Whereas a warm hand in mine or a child’s smile, or an adult even that hasn’t had much company that comes out and tries a festival for the first time.
Or we’ve got Havana Nights on Thursday where roll your own Cuban cigar while watching a Cuban band play, things like this are precious beyond.
TM: We always close by asking for a piece of wisdom…
CM: There’s a Chinese proverb that goes,
“You have to wait a long time with your mouth open before a roasted duck flies in”.
Cerys’ book Where the Wild Cooks Go is out 5th September. Pre-order your copy HERE
Catch her on a book tour around the country from 3rd – 26th September
The Good Life Experience at Hawarden Estate, Wales runs from 12th – 15th September. Get tickets HERE
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