Henry catches up with chef, country-man and all round good egg, Valentine Warner…

Henry: 

In the introduction to your most recent book ‘The Good Table’ you say “The more we know about our food, the more we know about life.” Is this philosophy of food what inspires you most: the exploration of what good food is and the impact it has on people’s lives?

Valentine: 
Yes . It’s hard to put in a nutshell and easier to deliver as a lecture. In short food is about so many things: history, who we are, geography, the smell in the air, the seasons, your situation dictating your menu, taste and memory. Great tales are told over food. Food is medicine it is joy; it is survival.
Food communicates love, changes mood, nurtures not only your stomach but your soul. Food is about sharing. Ingredients are nature, nature is fascinating and beautiful. So many different people are met through food.

The more I engage with every part of it, the procurement of produce, the cooking and the eating then the more the more dots join up with surprising things that once may have seemed unconnected… It’s so hard to be succinct – but without food we wouldn’t be here.

H: 

You grew up in a household whose altar was the kitchen table with parents who were keen cooks are you looking forward to passing on that knowledge and love of food to the next generation of Warners?

V: 
Yes. I want them to eat for the joy of eating, celebrate variety and also know their options. I won’t force my children to eat anything provided they’ve tried it first and properly. I may use trickery, partridge becoming a ‘hedge chicken’ although my wife disapproves of tactical fibbing. Cooking is an important life skill; I will teach my kids what I can so they can fix themselves and their loved ones a proper meal. It’s important they know their options and how to make good food from whatever’s to hand. We live in a recession where, even still, people waste so much money by not cooking. I worry that my children will probably live through even more serious food concerns. Good food contributes so much to a great life.

H: 
At what age can you reasonably set your children to work in the kitchen shelling peas or rolling pastry?

V: 
From the minute they could open their first pea and get it into the bowl rather than onto the floor. Although I hope the same cannot be said in regard to your shirt making staff.

I want my kids to explore with all their senses rather than default to a screen. They can make that choice later.

H: 
You worked as a chef in London kitchens – do you miss the frenetic environment of a restaurant?

V: 
Yes I do miss it. I loved the speed and multi tasking: it’s the way I am naturally. I still get a buzz when doing large private dinners. However, the time I used to require to relax post service was too long. I’d still be awake reading or watching TV at 2.00am. I don’t miss that. I enjoy my job as it is now but regret never seeing my training through to the point where I know whether I could have opened a restaurant or not

H: 
Do you still don a chef’s jacket to cook in or an apron? Or do you greet dinner party guests with a shirt front resplendent with ingredients?

V: 
Apron for at home or demos but chef’s jacket on jobs. Apron is my default though. Dark blue and white stripes. Cooking in the wild I’ll probably just be in a pair of shorts with a log as a chopping board. If I’m messy with cooking I wouldn’t dream of confronting the guests covered in flour or sauce.

H: 
You seem a countryman at heart; do you feel more comfortable in some old weather-beaten boots or in a well polished pair of brogues?

V: 
Weather beaten boots definitely because that means I’m outside. I’m never happier than when the rain is flattening my hair to my forehead, or I’m climbing up some misty tor. I’ve never been one for the head to toe country look.

H: 
What’s your ideal pick-me up after a cold day on the hill or river in search of your supper?

V: 
Ideally a snog, but failing that a crumpet with hot butter and jam. Or sardines on toast and tea.

H: 

You seem to travel quite a bit and to draw inspiration from the cuisines of other countries. Do you go specifically for research or do you just gravitate towards market stalls and roadside eateries when on holiday?

V: 
I love it all as there is a time for classic French complication and a time for simpler roadside fare, it really depends on my location, reason for being there or mood. If I get a whiff of anything being cooked over wood though, then I follow my nose immediately.

Holidays for me are about looking around. I get so bored roasting on a lounger. I drive my wife mad in France as all I want to do is cook, go to the market, cook, go to the market…..etc. I love walking or mopeds and subsequently often stumble on some superb little lean-to selling sardines or a wonderful village restaurant. Dad always said ‘if you see an intriguing little road be inquisitive.’

It’s never research; I’m like a sponge I can’t seem to help absorbing all the time. Sometimes I wish I could. Whatever captures my interest, food wise or anything in fact, shapes, colours, music, I’m hyper alert and a magpie. If I like something I’ll make some purchase, note or record and act on it once home

H: 
As a chef you presumably frequently have to roll up your sleeves, but do you prefer those sleeves to be double or single-cuffed?

V: 
Single cuffed. Double seems a bit ostentatious

H: 

The start of 2013 will surely be remembered – certainly in relation to food – for one subject only: what’s your view on the horsemeat fracas? Do you believe it will actually make a difference in terms of bringing consumers back to shopping locally?

V: 
The problem was about the labelling. If I buy beef thinking that’s what it is then it should be so. British farmers have so many hoops to jump through concerning traceability and then it turns out that we are eating horse from other side of the world.

Demand for cheaper food in hospitals, schools and other catering contracts as well as supermarkets constantly squeezing their producers is always going to encourage ‘corner cutting’ and cheating.

Concerning high street or supermarket I would love people to return to the high street but alas it doesn’t seem that way. Supermarket counter staff so often lack the training you’d expect from a specialist trades person and money spent locally keeps a community in prosperity. The death of any high street is a great loss. The supermarkets need’nt take all the blame though. It’s the consumers that have the choice where to shop. It’s just evolution, I guess.

H: 
Have you ever sampled horse?

V: 
Yes, it’s delicious. I had horse cheeks in Italy with a Barolo wine and bay leaf sauce that was exquisite. I had wafer thin slices of sirloin on pizza in Sardinia and I’ve had a steak in Paris. Why cow and not horse? The British have got some odd ideas about animals and food. On holiday in any of the above mentioned destinations many would probably be surprised to know the salami they’d eaten was donkey

H: 
What’s for supper tonight?

V: 
Potted poison arrow frog and melba toast

Bavarois of smoked peacock, with elver remoulade and sea squirt .

A selection of British mouse cheeses

Civet coffee

Sounds pretty damn good to me!

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