February Update

The last weeks have been dominated by two things: trying to get Novel Four - now called Choral Society - finally (well, I hope finally) finished. And the announcement by the Government that cooking will now be compulsory in schools. Hurrah.

My book has 27 chapters and I am now on Chapter 20 or the third re-write. Sometimes I believe it will be my best novel yet, and sometimes I want to dump the whole thing. My new editor, Jane Wood, who is famous in literary circles for being as nice as she is good at her job thinks I should bump the book up from 70 thousand words to 90 thousand and that we need more about my main characters' motivation, more about the men in their lives and slightly slower development of their relations with each other.  I just LOVE being told what to do. I've been struggling with this wretched book for four years, and suddenly it is going well and I am determined to deliver it by Easter. Won't see the light of day for another year however. Publishers these days have to negotiate months in advance with booksellers how much space the book will get, what shelf it will be on... Nightmare.  

But generally I'm pretty upbeat. I have a new agent, Jane Turnbull, who keeps telling me what every author wants to hear, true or false: that I'm a brilliant writer, should write a trilogy, should write my autobiography, and etc. And I have a new publisher in Quercus, a new enterprising company, determined to break the mould of enormous publishers just treating books as commodities and driven by the idea that all the public wants is chick-lit and celebrity biogs.

The more important thing, at least for society, the nation and civilization generally, is that Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has just announced that every child in England and Wales will get eight cooking lessons -- proper cooking, not designing a pizza on computer -- while in secondary school. This will mean, roughly, that they will have one cooking lesson a week for a term (although I trust teachers will give them four two-hour lessons instead so they don't spend more time getting ready and clearing up than they do cooking).

Some of us old campaigners have been badgering successive governments to make hands-on cooking compulsory for years. One of the best campaigners has been the redoubtable Sara Jayne Stanes, who runs the Academy of Culinary Arts (www.academyofculinaryarts.org.uk) an association of top chefs. They have been sending chefs into schools to teach them about food for years, and recently have been banging on the Government’s door.

The sad thing is that we have the obesity crisis to thank for the announcement. With increasing evidence that children who cook are more likely to eat healthily and eat a wider range of foods than non-cooks, the Government have realised that teaching cooking is a key element in their strategy for tackling obesity. Also, the Food Standards Agency have at last come out with confirmation of what many parents and teachers already knew -- that some additives make children hyperactive and impossible to control or teach. Last week I went to a school in Finchley where the Head teacher told me that children who eat school dinners do, on average, 8% better than those who bring packed lunches, which often, sad into say, consist of crisps, sweets and cake. 

At the same time as announcing the compulsory cooking, Ed Balls also announced his intention that schools should try to control what goes into lunch boxes. I was amazed, and of course delighted, that the press concentrated on the compulsory cooking, which was widely welcomed and ignored the lunch box issue, which I had expected a lot of flak about. I thought we'd have cries of Nanny State from the Tories and "Our kids will eat what they like" from the left wing press. My own, view, for what its worth, is that schools have an obligation to educate the whole child and teaching him or her to like and to eat a healthy diet is as much a part of the preparation for life as learning how to read, add and write.  And you cannot persuade children to try a vegetable curry or a fruit salad, or even a shepherd's pie, if they are full of chocolate.

Another great food campaigner is Henrietta Green, who has a new Food Lover's website, (www.FoodLoversBritain.com) which is worth a trawl. Henrietta and I share a desperate desire to be slim and elegant with an equally strong (in my case too strong) desire to eat what's put in front of us. Both our jobs (she is the champion of farmer's markets and small producers) and I spend a lot of time eating top quality nosh on television.  

Last week she came to dinner at my London flat and proved she can stick to one small glass of wine, even at a party. I could not. The occasion was a dinner cooked by my favourite caterers, Vincent and Estelle (www.estelleandvincent.com)

They are a young married couple, he French Canadian, she unadulterated French, and I had them cook, not just for Henrietta, but for Matthew Fort, Guardian Food Editor and Judge with me on the BBC Great British Menu telly series; Fay Maschler, Evening Standard Restaurant Critic; Tom Sitwell, Editor of Waitrose Food Illustrated, and Tom Parker Bowles who hosts the TV series Market Kitchen with Matthew.  

Vincent is the cook and Estelle the waitress and they do really top-food in your own home, and for rather less than it would cost in a restaurant serving that kind of food. Here's the menu! 

Canapés:

-Pickled cepes on a crouton

-Hiramasa sashimi (family of the Kampachi which is a white tuna from Japan), Jerusalem artichoke crisp & pineapple ketchup

- Braised sea-bass, verjus beurre blanc

- Kumamoto oyster, tarragon water & pomegranate foam

 

Starter

- Roasted turbot, sweet onion tart, "Neal's Yard" crême fraîche, minus

8 vinegar, walnut and ice lettuce

Main

Côte de veau from Aubrac, roast salsify, hedgehog mushroom, Swiss chard and raw kohlrabi, roasting juices with beurre noisette.

Aligot (Laguiole cheese tomme fraîche with mash potato)

Dessert

Apple and frangipane tart, vanilla ice-cream

Maple syrup caramel

Poor Vincent! He had to cook with a photographer from the Evening Standard  (click here to see the pics and Fay's article) clicking away and making them pause and pose at every turn, and having to step over his cables, duck under his lighting umbrellas and etc.  But all in a good cause, as the whole point of the dinner was to promote the pair of them. They have the sort of dedication who see from only the most obsessed cooks, and they are amazing. And most impressive to me, a caterer, cook and employer of kitchen staff for decades, they clear up beautifully. Vincent works like a dream, washing up as he goes, letting nothing pile up in the sink. I abandoned them to it at midnight and went to bed. Next morning the place was cleaner than they'd found it!   

I'm writing this on the way to Lanzerote, where Ernest (who I've decided to call my "sous chef" rather than something embarrassing and unsuitable for a pair of OAPs like boyfriend, partner, mate, new best friend, significant other) has a lovely Moroccan style house far from any lager louts or hen parties.  It is just lovely as a winter writing retreat. No so hot that you are tempted to go to the beach or lie at the pool, and yet warm enough for a walk along the rocks or to eat breakfast outside. 

We eat breakfast in a little covered courtyard off the kitchen, and lunch at a sunny table in a Moroccan courtyard with fishpond, palm trees and fountain.  There's another Egyptian style courtyard with more fish in a pond with a rill, and faded frescoes on the sun-soaked walls, and two lead sphinxes guarding the steps to the exterior garden and swimming pool.