Chef Gill Meller on why we should all devote more Time to our kitchens
River Cottage chef Gill Meller tells Ella Walker why we ought to celebrate the places we cook in more
FOR most of us, the kitchen is where it all happens. From quickly grabbed slices of toast and last-minute snatches of homework, to the lazy chaos of prepping and dishing up Sunday lunch, and drunken late-night arguments over who ate the last of the crisps and dip.
"It is the kitchen, for most people, where interaction and life takes place," explains food writer Gill Meller, best known for his work with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at River Cottage. "Our kitchen, when we were growing up, was fairly lively. My parents were quite sociable, everything just happened there – friends would come, people would stay, food would be cooked."
From his childhood in his parents' kitchen, he went on to spend his adulthood in commercial kitchens: "So as a space and a place, it's always had a real significance and poignance – more so than the other rooms in one's house."
As such, he has peppered his latest cookbook, Time, with photographs of kitchens that belong to people he loves – "to make some noise" about these fundamental rooms that underpin what we eat, how we eat it, and who we eat with.
Meller (37) says his kitchen now isn't packed with gadgets ("I'm not overly mad on electrical kit") and instead he relies on a couple of good sharp knives and "sentimental things", like his pestle and mortar, his wooden spoons, and an old silver fork: "They're far more important to me than kit."
The collision between memory and cooking is a thread he tugs on throughout Time, be it through the impact of a specific utensil, the joy of a borrowed recipe, or in trying to recreate a childhood meal from memory and taste alone.
"Memory is all we really have as people, in the sense that we don't really know what tomorrow's going to bring," says Meller. "The present is an instant, so everything that shapes us and moulds us and gives us what we know, is in our memory. Anyone who writes a cookbook, they're only pulling on memories, even if they're creating a new recipe."
He believes food memories are particularly significant. Even something as simple as fish fingers can take you back, he notes with a laugh.
Meller's mother died last year, and her food and influence can be felt throughout Time, be it in the seasonal nature of his recipes ("My mum was a good cook, ingredients were important to her"), recollections of her "old turquoise, crank-handled runner-bean slicer", or in sharing her recipe for spaghetti with tomato and fried chicken, a dish everyone in his family makes.
The book is split into three parts – Morning, Day, Night – but essentially mirrors, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and includes recipes from across the seasons in each section. "Breaking it into times of day felt more poetic and romantic."
And the food itself, says Meller, is straightforward and achievable too. Time, he admits, is a touch more accessible than his debut cookbook from 2016, Gather – for instance, there's no squirrel meat in this one, but he's all for encouraging people to consider different ingredients. "It's only that our society sees that as an unconventional meat to eat," he says of squirrel. "It's actually really tasty.
"We live in a fairly sheltered culinary society, in that we're not that adventurous," he adds. "You only need to go to France and take a quick trip into the butcher's shop and you'll see things the majority of people in the UK wouldn't dream of eating on a regular basis; intestines and brains, all sorts of unusual offaly pieces."
"I love liver and bacon," he continues. "I don't see why we should be nervous of it, it's just another part of the animal. It might be an organ but it's still flesh."
He extends this attitude to where he cooks too. Take a quick glance at Meller's annoyingly idyllic Instagram feed and you'll see envy-inducing pictures of him cooking over hot coals on West Dorset beaches (he lives near Lyme Regis with his wife and two daughters).
"I just love being outside, I love cooking; if you combine the two, it makes for a pretty good day," he says with a grin. As much as Time reveals his love of them, "it's good for us to get out of our conventional kitchens," notes Meller, "not only because cooking over fire, charcoal, wood, produces delicious food, but it's a very natural thing to do for us as people, and we've forgotten that."
He laments the loss of understanding around food and fire, brought on by the availability of electricity and gas.
"Tune out for a bit, go outside, make a fire, cook something nice to eat – there's nothing more primal or simple or basic than that," he says.
:: Time: A Year And A Day In The Kitchen by Gill Meller, photography by Andrew Montgomery, is published by Quadrille, priced £25. Below are two recipes from the book for you to try.
STEW OF PORK, BACON AND MUSHROOMS WITH CREAM, CIDER AND PARSLEY
Dash of extra-virgin olive oil
1 piece of cured pork belly (streaky bacon; about 350g), cut into 4-5cm cubes
500g fresh pork belly, cut into 4-5cm cubes
1 large or 2 small leeks, halved and sliced
2 or 3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
4-6 bay leaves
2-3 rosemary sprigs
2-3 thyme sprigs
2tbsp plain flour
450ml pork, chicken or vegetable stock
Knob of butter
250g wild or cultivated mushrooms, cut into large pieces
200ml double cream
Small bunch of parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 150C/gas mark 3. Start by heating the oil in a large heavy-based casserole set over a medium-high heat. Add the cured and fresh pork belly pieces and cook the meat for six to eight minutes, or until well browned on all sides.
Lift the pieces out of the pan using a spatula or slotted spoon and set aside. Add the leeks to the same pan, along with the sliced garlic, all the herbs and a little seasoning. Sweat the leeks gently for about 10 minutes, then return the browned pork pieces to the pan, sprinkle over the plain flour and stir well.
Cook for a further three to four minutes, then pour in the cider and stock and bring to a simmer. Stir well, then place a tight-fitting lid on the pan and place in the oven for two hours, until the pork is fork tender.
Meanwhile, set a large frying pan over a high heat and add the butter. When it's bubbling, add the mushrooms, season them lightly and saute, turning them regularly, for six to eight minutes, until cooked through. Set aside.
When the casserole is ready, remove it from the oven and add the fried mushrooms and double cream. Stir well, then return the pan to the oven for 15 minutes without its lid.
Stir in the chopped parsley and check the seasoning before bringing to the table with a sharply dressed green salad and some good bread.
FIGS WITH YOGHURT, HONEY AND ROASTED BARLEY CRUMBLE
400ml thick Greek yoghurt
6 perfectly ripe figs
2-3tbsp runny honey and honeycomb
Few thyme sprigs (optional)
For the barley crumble:
100g plain flour
Pinch of fine salt
100g butter, cubed and chilled
75g golden caster sugar
75g barley flakes
First, make the barley crumble. Heat the oven to 175C/gas mark 51/2. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. Mix and rub the ingredients thoroughly together until you have formed clumps and lumps.
Line a large baking tray with a piece of baking parchment. Tip out the mixture onto the tray and distribute evenly. Place in the oven for 20-30 minutes, turning the crumble over three or four times during baking, until it is evenly golden all over. Remove from the oven.
To construct the dish, spoon the yoghurt out onto a large serving plate or platter and spread it evenly over the base. Halve the figs, or quarter them if they are large, and scatter the pieces over the yoghurt. Cut the honeycomb up into small sticky bits and distribute this, along with the runny honey, in, around and over the figs.
Scatter over a few generous handfuls of the barley crumble, and finish off with a little shake of leaves from the thyme sprig, if using.