Our relationship with food says so much about who we are. In this new series, famous food lovers talk to YOU restaurant critic Tom Parker Bowles about all things culinary, from earliest memories and favourite dishes to things they can’t bear. We begin with the woman who has fed Tom for most of his life – his mother.
I grew up in a very happy home, with good food at its heart. I still just about remember rationing, but we grew everything from tomatoes and melons to peas, beans, carrots and new potatoes. One of my earliest memories is podding those peas and beans with my mother, an accomplished cook.
We always had to finish what was on our plate before we ate pudding. That wasn’t such a problem when it was rice pudding as I hated the stuff.
At my first school, Dumbrells in Ditchling, East Sussex, the food was, surprisingly, excellent. Lots of steamed puddings and we were allowed to help the cook once a week in getting lunch ready. I still dream of their potato and cheese cake.
Every year, we went on holiday to the island of Ischia, just off Naples. There were endless lunches of vitello al limone [veal escalope with lemon], fried zucchini, lots of fresh fish and pasta. It instilled a lifelong passion for Italian food.
On Friday nights, at home, we were allowed to choose our dinner. I always went for Findus frozen chicken pie, much to my mother’s despair. Food at my grandmother’s house was more formal French, which was very much the smart thing in those days. What I remembered most there, though, was the brown bread ice cream.
When it came to restaurants, there wasn’t as much choice in 60s London as there is now. But at the time, we didn’t know any better. I always preferred the food at home anyway. But I remember how excited I was when I first ate prawn and avocado, at Alexander’s in Chelsea. The combination seemed impossibly exotic. I’d eaten avocados at home and hated them at first. But I now eat them most days. Daphne’s was another favourite, along with La Poule au Pot in Pimlico, which is still about. Best of all was The Causerie at Claridge’s, where there was a great round table with the most incredible buffet. Everyone dressed up and it seemed very glamorous.
I always cooked for the children growing up, and they were good eaters, but I was never the most adventurous of cooks. I was sent on a cooking course in Sussex when I was young but, really, I learnt from my mother. I’ve never followed a recipe in my life.
My cooking is about good ingredients. Nothing too mucked about, or fussy or fiddly. Lots of tarragon chicken, scrambled eggs and bacon, and chicken casserole. There were always roasts on Sunday – pork and lamb chops, roast chicken. The children ate a lot of cheese on toast. We had a kitchen garden and lots of chickens, for the eggs, so we ate seasonally before it became en vogue. Because that’s just what you did in the country back then. We used Love & Sons, the butchers, in Chippenham, Wiltshire. There was also a very good fishmonger but that’s long gone, which is sad. Britain has so much incredible produce, and our farmers do a magnificent job. We should always support them.
When Sainsbury’s opened in Chippenham at the start of the 80s, it was rather exciting. So much choice. We ate a lot of chicken kievs.
I could fill a book with all my cooking disasters. I’m not a natural baker, to say the least. As for baked potatoes… many a poor, incinerated specimen has been found in the bottom of the Aga, put in, then forgotten about.
I do still cook for myself when at home. Simple things like fish en papillote with butter and herbs. And vegetables from the garden: kale, purple sprouting broccoli, carrots, courgettes, and lots of peas and beans because they freeze so well. I love the vegetable garden, and summer in particular. I’m very proud of my white peaches. My husband is an excellent gardener, and we’re quite competitive about our fruit and vegetables.
These days, restaurants are a way to see my children. They pick the restaurants, I pay the bill. I don’t like too much noise but we tend to go to the same places.
One of my favourite foods is baked beans on toast. Always Heinz. And freshly cooked fish and chips, wrapped in paper. That smell. You cannot beat proper fish and chips.
I can’t bear peppers, raw or cooked. I’m not a fan of offal either, aside from very good liver. And I avoid chilli and garlic too, unlike my son.
My last supper would probably involve my own asparagus, with lots of butter. Angela Hartnett’s risotto. I love her cooking. Dover sole meunière, with ratte potatoes and fresh broad beans and peas from the garden. Some bitter chocolate ice cream. Plus strawberries and raspberries and lots of clotted cream. Along with a really good glass of red claret. And, seeing it’s my last supper, probably two.
Her Royal Highness is Patron of UKHarvest, a charity on a mission to eliminate hunger and reduce food waste through the redistribution of quality food and by educating everyone on how to reduce household food waste. By collecting surplus food from providers, and delivering it directly to charities, they support people living with food insecurity to live well and to age well. Their ‘Nourish Hubs’ also combat social isolation by providing meals and a meeting place for local communities. More details at ukharvest.org.uk