Actress Anna Friel talks to Tom Parker Bowles about starry late-night dinner companions, different ends of the on-set catering spectrum and nostalgia for baguettes
Some of my earliest food memories are related to bad experiences. I remember being starving on a French exchange, and looking at the plate of meat in front of me. ‘De boeuf, oui?’ I asked. ‘Non, non, non,’ they replied, ‘Le cheval.’ I really wasn’t happy at the idea of eating horse. So I refused, and remained hungry.
School meals were not great, to say the least. My memories of liver at Crompton House School [in Oldham] were so bad – it was like cardboard. It wasn’t until I was about 21 and doing Closer on Broadway that I was introduced to calf’s liver, beautifully cooked at Joe Allen’s.
Growing up, my brother Michael and I always had a healthy, balanced diet. We weren’t allowed sugary cereals or fizzy drinks – breakfast was porridge or Weetabix. Dad does most of the cooking these days but as my parents were both teachers – he taught French while my mother looked after kids with special needs – they both had the same work schedules so they shared it. But Dad is a better cook than my mum. Although Mum’s good too.
My diet as a child consisted of a lot of fish. Daddy is a keen fisherman, so we were lucky enough to have fresh sea trout or salmon every week.
Every Friday we were allowed to have ten sweets, the ‘tenpenny mix-up’, instead of pudding. I loved the white chocolate mice and the fizzy cola bottles. Even though I don’t really have a sweet tooth, my mum does the most excellent trifle with peach jelly, mandarins and homemade custard. I still make it to this day.
We had dinner together at home every night. That was very important. We’d get home, do our homework then all sit down to eat. We had a lot of Irish stew, but I was a very fussy eater and wouldn’t eat many vegetables. For a whole year, I’d only eat mushrooms and Marmite. That was it! I’m not sure how I survived.
Every year, we travelled to Brittany in northwest France for a month. I remember eating frogs’ legs for the first time aged four, but I refused to try the snails. I was very spoilt by the crusty baguettes and warm croissants, because when I came back to England they never quite tasted the same.
If it were down to me, I’d have homemade food every day of the week. But my job means I have to survive on on-set food quite a lot so it’s always a luxury to get home, cook and know exactly what’s going into my dishes.
My first port of call, though, when I’m just back from a long time working in the US, is The Two Brewers, an old-fashioned pub at the entrance to the Long Walk in Windsor Great Park. America doesn’t have a pub culture and, if I can’t face cooking myself, it does a great roast dinner.
There’s a huge difference between food on a small British production and a lavish American one. For the latter it’s like having a tuck shop. If visitors came to see me, they couldn’t believe that there was so much choice. On some sets, there are open grills where you get swordfish and fillet steak. As opposed to a few curled-up sandwiches and a packet of biscuits on the British one.
Joe Allen’s was my go-to in New York. I love it. When I was doing Closer, Dame Judi Dench was on Broadway at the same time and was very kind and supportive. On a few occasions, she saved me a seat at her and Dame Maggie Smith’s table. I liked the late-night dining experience after the show – something I discovered in America.
I remember my brother coming to the set when I was doing Pushing Daisies. ‘I don’t know how you’re doing 16 hours on a diet like this,’ he said, and he created a healthy shake for me. It has everything from kefir and frozen berries to walnuts, matcha powder and fish oil. Perhaps he added that last ingredient knowing I was missing my dad’s fish. I still have it every single morning. Because if you’re in a make-up chair you can’t really eat, and you end up skipping meals, then you’re starving at seven or eight at night and eat the wrong things.
My eating habits have changed hugely as I’ve got older. I was one of those annoying people who could eat whatever I wanted and my weight would never change. But as I hit 40, the hormones kicked in. So now I eat very healthily.
I have an Aga at home in Windsor, which I absolutely love. It makes life so much easier – just chuck a stew in the oven, go for a walk, come back and it’s all done. People think you’re a much better cook than you actually are. They’re great for roasts too.
I love tomatoes but I hate tomato ketchup. I also hate brussels sprouts. I think it’s because they were always overcooked as a child and that smell put me off.
When we go back home to my parents in Rochdale, they always cook for us. My dad does ‘Granddad’ burgers for Gracie – my daughter, who is 16 – and he makes the best cranberry sauce. Every Christmas, he makes her a load that will last for the year. She has it with everything.
I always travel with Fortnum & Mason teabags and Marmite.
My last meal would be my Nana’s roast. She’s a great cook. Last Christmas, I asked her to write all her recipes down. She’s 96 years old and I wanted to be able to cook her ginger biscuits, shortbread biscuits, treacle toffee and all the rest. She makes the best gravy in the world. And no matter how hard I try, it never quite tastes like hers.
Charming The Hearts of Men is on Sky Cinema Premiere now. Monarch will be on our screens later this year