Many of our readers will know Valentine Warner as a chef who holds a deep-rooted connection with nature, responsible for conjuring up mouthwatering rustic dishes wherever he may be in the world from Scandanavia to Canada. But aside from being an extremely talented cook, Valentine is a scintillating writer, a skill he showcases in his unique and eminently readable new book, The Consolation of Food: Stories about life and death, seasoned with recipes.
Despite the 75 recipes it holds, The Consolation of Food is a million miles away from a cookbook. Instead, it’s a collection of hilarious and poignant stories and anecdotes from Valentine’s life. It’s a true joy, to be devoured with the same pleasure you’d get from tucking into your Sunday morning bacon sarnie.
With Val’s book released today, we spoke to him about the crazy amount of food waste we see in Britain today, the vital link between nature and food and why he believes cooking is an essential life skill. Plus what he really dislikes about contemporary cuisine.
The MALESTROM: The new book is fantastic. It has lots of great recipes in, but as you state quite clearly at the start, it’s not what you’d call a cookbook…
Valentine Warner: Well no, I didn’t want it to be actually. There are a lot of cookbooks around and a lot of recipes. I think what I realised is in the previous books that I’ve written, it was the stories that I was really interested in writing.
The way I cook is my own alphabet so to speak, and, because I don’t write music or work in the finance industry and I can’t draw up an engineering plan, I understand food. I cook in a way that when you have to write recipes it takes that immediacy out of it. What I’ve always enjoyed is the stories, the plate of food is the sum parts… it’s the finale.
For me, it’s really about the people, the place, the smells in the air, what happened that morning… have you got muddy feet? So that’s the book I really wanted to write.
The recipes are here if you want to use them, these are personal recipes that I use a lot, but, I kind of want to talk to you about life and food. So, I like to call it a storybook rather than a cookbook, because the recipes are kind of secondary, it’s the other stuff that the books about, and those are the bits that I enjoyed writing.
TM: One thing that resonates throughout the book is food’s link to nature. How important is that when it comes to understanding the food we eat?
VW: I think if I can widen the focus and then pull it back in? One point I really wanted to come across in the book is that we can’t be here without nature, but, the same cannot be said the other way round. We depend on it, yet, the way we treat it I find extraordinary.
To narrow the focus, food is nature and I guess the way I cook is because… it’s not all about the seasons… my field guides are as important as my cookbooks. So when I’m outside, I view the world as edible or inedible, that’s how I kind of divide the world up. So it’s my love of nature that’s really informed the way I cook.
Walking up in Norway for example, the lambs are on the sealine with the seaweed and they walk back up through the juniper branches, so I’m going to steam the lamb in seaweed and maybe roast it over juniper afterwards. So nature is very important because it writes my menus in effect. My deep understanding of food has only happened through my deep love of nature.
TM: You write about foraging, fishing and hunting. Do you think when you take part in that food journey, that the food tastes better and means more?
VW: I think it means far more. I like, so to speak, to have a hand in every part of my food, whether that’s pulling up a leek or having my hand inside the stomach of a deer. To have a close personal relationship with food teaches you about nature again, but it’s also something personal, that you’re directly responsible for.
I think one thing I mention in the book, is a love of hunting. To some people means a love of killing… how horrible! No, I don’t mean that at all, what I mean is it’s something that’s deep within our bones, it lies in our marrow. To me, I guess it’s just closer to the surface. I do hunt, but then the responsibility for those things I have killed, that gap I’ve left in nature, is to then use that food properly so that it isn’t wasted.
I guess I’m just somebody who likes to have their hand in as much of their food as possible. It’s arguably a skill we’re all becoming very disconnected from and it’s taught me that when the pot noodle factory is a smoking ruin, as the jets stream past, thank god I have that information because I might need it again one day. And, as this mad world goes on, it’s increasingly likely that I will (laughs).
TM: One thing you mention in the book, is that if you can’t cook you’re not a grown-up? Can you expand on that?
VW: How do we spend our time? We spend our time looking at screens, we spend our time buying a lot of things, or thinking we need to buy a lot of things. And yet I’ve taught enough about disenfranchised children, or children that have come from hardship, or with learning problems to be quite appalled about how we spend our time.
Kids need to be taught to cook, it’s a life skill, it keeps you alive. I’ve walked into enough rooms where the kids are sat there with their hoodies pulled up, thinking “who’s this posh wanker with the stupid voice called Valentine?” The minute you get past that and you put a dead rabbit on the table or show them some crawling, clicking crayfish and you tell them stories of rustling trees and the nighttime movements of foxes and stuff, they’re yours immediately, they’re listening to you because you’re telling them stories and I feel that stories and food are a great way to get kids to cook.
If you grow up and your idea of cooking is to put something in a microwave and wait for it to go ping, then that’s very tragic. It certainly means that link with nature is going to be more and more broken, and especially with kids if it’s just the smelly, dirty, stinky place that’s going to ruin your brand new trainers, I think that’s incredibly sad.
It’s happened in England very quickly because it’s such a small country, but my children live in the Pyrenees and I work in Norway a lot and travel around Europe, and in bigger countries, it’s happening, just a lot slower because there are still ideas of remote communities out there. The rope’s whizzed through our hands and we’ve lost our grip to the idea of nature and kids cooking, it’s a very strange place we live in right now.
TM: You mention the idea of being forever useful? Once you have that particular life skill of cooking, it gives you real purpose doesn’t it?
VW: It does, and I’ve always said the more you know about food, the more you know about life. It sounds a bit trite, and I’ve been lucky, but follow your nose, follow that smell, go to that place, go to that market, speak to that old lady, and the most wonderful stories come out and you end up being at the receiving end of great information that informs more than just the plate of food you sit down with at seven o’clock in the evening.
TM: You’ve experienced some amazing meals in your life, but what comes across as the best seems to be the most simple rustic affairs?
VW: I think so. I sit down to too many menus where the food looks delicious but the descriptions have got too many ingredients in them. Somebody’s trying to say how clever they are. But what I’ve distilled over forty-seven years is, I do know what I like.
And while I can’t dismiss the great Michelin starred cooking, because some of it I love and adore, I would much rather be talking to a Greek widow about an octopus recipe than I would in my whites standing next to a machine that goes ping and dries out an apricot.
I like provincial food, I like grandmother food, I like food with roots, I like food that is really linked to the direct environment that it is served up in.
TM: What do you dislike about contemporary food and how it’s served?
VW: I’m kind of a full fat or f**k off kind of guy. I have moods, and the moods dictate how I eat, it medicates me. I know when I need a broth or when I’m craving ginger and fennel seeds or whatever the case may be.
It’s become very faddy and I think partly because it’s led by television and what the perception is that people want to watch, I think it’s become, what I have a problem with, which is constant competitions. I have a problem with constant perfection, I have an issue with the fact that where are those stories about a disappearing food world, where we’re just filming a story of something very beautiful going on that probably won’t exist in twenty-five years time.
I’m fed up with the age of the avocado, and while it’s great to be healthy I find it comes from a place of vanity. There’s a huge vanity push about the food we eat and intolerances, I don’t know how to describe it without pushing people away and alienating them. But I find the food world today just very frustrating.
TM: And cooking with foam…
VW: I think that’s on its way out actually. We’ve seen everyone cooking with charcoal, the street food things gone bonkers. With fine dining, the really good ones have stayed because they’re really fantastic cooks, but it’s chopped out a lot of the rubbish. I’m more likely to be found eating in a little Trattoria on the side of a mountain than chasing Michelin starred restaurants.
There is one story in the book called ‘Anonymous’, which I actually left out all the details because I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble, but that was actually rated 5th or 6th in the ’50 Best Awards’ and that was one of the worst meals I’ve ever eaten in my life. So you know, I listen to those that I love and otherwise I follow my own nose.
TM: In terms of seasonal food, assuming you eat seasonally, what are your recommendations for Autumn?
VW: I’m glad you mention seasonal because we all get bashed over the head with that. Seasonal keeps me in with a direct understanding of what’s best, that’s the point. Also what it does, is it says to me if I’m going to have to eat asparagus as much as I possibly can for six weeks, I don’t want to cook it the same way, but I want to eat a lot of it.
So seasonal cooking requires me to be inventive and not always serve it with hollandaise sauce or boil it and put butter on it. So you have these passionate little affairs with the vegetables, the meats and the fishes and in order to keep the affair interesting, you do different things. Then that disappears and another one comes along.
But, I’m certainly not going to eat jet-lagged asparagus in Winter, I’ll wait. In Winter let’s get into quinces wrapped up in paper and your root vegetables and eat tons of brassica and game, stuff like that. Because that’s what I need at that time of year and in that kind of weather. And then Spring comes along and with it a whole load of new things, and here we go again. I don’t want to make too much of a big thing about it because I know people do. But, I know what belongs here.
TM: Do you have a guilty pleasure?
VW: I don’t feel guilty about anything. There’s a requirement to feel bad. I do eat prawn mayonnaise sandwiches on the M25 in shitty brown bread because I like them (laughs), and I’m not prepared to say I feel bad about it because I don’t.
I love Monster Munch pickled onion flavour crisps, but I don’t feel guilty about it. At the same time, there are things from other countries that are in season and a little box of Alphonso mangoes, I can just sit there with a sticky orange face and keep going until I can’t eat anymore.
TM: Let’s just quickly talk about food waste?
VW: I’m pretty blessed, I had two parents who were brilliant, brilliant cooks. And growing up in seventies Dorset my Mum never wasted anything, my Father didn’t and they always had a way of reinventing stuff and I think it goes back to the question you asked earlier.
In the country now, our links to food are very broken. We might have all the recipe books in the world, all the television programmes, but we don’t understand our food here. We have this astronomical waste which is mind-boggling and I think part of it is that people simply don’t know what they can do with those bits that get thrown away.
Look at half of the famous nursery puddings of England, let’s say a Queen of Puddings, which is made of breadcrumbs and a few eggs with some jam in the bottom. But, we chuck stuff away. If you’ve got a load of fresh peas or you’ve got asparagus stalks, you can make a soup with the stalks, pea soup with the shells, use all these things! Again, because we’ve lost the language of food in the UK, I think these things aren’t known anymore so it ends up in the bin.
You also have these crazy 3 for 1 [offers] and so fridges get full because it’s a bargain. And then a week later it’s been pushed to the back of the fridge and has now gone off. There’s just this crazy cycle of waste that happens. We’ve just been through the corn season and there’s this madness with corn on the cob. The corn gets taken out of the best packaging in the world, which is its husk and then put into a plastic packet.
Actually it would keep better if you kept it in its green husk. It’s nuts and I don’t understand. I love travelling and have been to lots of places, whether it’s Italy, or seeing my children in the Pyrennees or wherever the case may be, and you don’t see that. You can see the start of it, but you don’t see that madness as much.
TM: Is that part of the hope for the book, that it will reconnect people, give them a better understanding of food waste and fresh produce?
VW: I hope so, but it’s hard because I’m hopeful in the book, but I didn’t want to wag my finger at any anyone and rant because it doesn’t work and it’s not joyful. But at the same time, I hope there’s enough of a sense that I’m pretty pissed off. The book is an example of somebody who walks around talking to themselves.
I look pretty mad if you saw me on the street because I’m having a constant argument with myself about what’s happening. But ultimately, what I care about is the welfare of my children and their future. The one thing that we have to look after more than anything else is nature because without it we simply can’t be here.
Valentine Warner’s The Consolation of Food published by Pavilion Books is out to buy now.
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