John Partridge: Making a meal is an act of self-care, and that's what was missing in my life
When I touch the handle of the spoon, because it's been used for so long, it feels like the palm of Mum's hand... and it's a beautiful thing – so comforting
PAYING tribute to your mum when you win a cooking competition would lead most people to believe that the mum in question was something of a tour de force in the kitchen.
But for Celebrity MasterChef 2018 winner, actor John Partridge, it's quite the opposite. And it's something that brings a grin to his face as he talks about his new cookbook There's No Taste Like Home.
"I'm a mummy's boy, I'm proud of it and mum was a huge part of my life. She was a dreadful cook! She hated cooking – it was the one thing she did not enjoy. But she was a grade-A mum.
"I could come home from school and say, 'I need to be a gladiator tomorrow' – and I'd have the most amazing Emperor's costume made, she could knit me a jumper in a week."
Still, the food he grew up with was a massive influence on his winning MasterChef menu – the book is named after it, in fact – and there's a poignancy to the fact that the win came a year to the day after he lost his mum, Bridie, to Alzheimer's.
"When I think of that food now, marrowfat peas, tinned ham, I just love all of that, and it's become a part of my style of cooking now."
He even had Bridie's wooden spoon with him in the studio. "When I touch the handle of the spoon, because it's been used for so long, it feels like the palm of her hand," he says.
Partridge wears his mum's ring, too, a gold ring inscribed with a B. "The spoon's so soft it doesn't even feel like wood. I feel her holding my hand... it's so silly, but it feels like it, and it's a beautiful thing – so comforting."
Would she be proud of the book? "She'd be embarrassed! She was a very quiet lady, quite shy, very reserved in a way," he recalls. "I miss her terribly."
Cooking hasn't just been a way through grief for Partridge, who first trod the boards in Cats, and became a household name thanks to his role as Christian Clarke in EastEnders. It's helped with addiction recovery – but he wasn't always a keen cook.
After going to the Royal Ballet School at a young age, he ate for fuel. Then, during years of alcohol and drug addiction, food wasn't, well, high on the menu. "I still cooked, but when you're drinking a lot, or doing drugs, food is low down on the list," he says.
"Making yourself something lovely to eat, be it a bowl of soup, beans on toast... it's an act of self-care, and that's something that was really lacking in my life.
"We're all good at caring for other people, but I was low down on the list. Cleaning up has allowed me to look after myself a bit better. Plus, I'm getting on a bit more, I need to look after myself now!"
There's a real 70s vibe to the book, with recipes such as cheese and onion tart and Black Forest gateau. There are also influences from abroad, 'hangover' food, and a fabulous section called 'For Fancy', inspired by his sister.
"My cooking and food story has allowed me to reconnect with myself. That's why I say in the book that cooking the food from my past has helped me to live in the present. It helped me to go back and remember aspects of my life and myself that I had forgotten.
"Some I chose to forget, some I thought weren't important enough to remember. And I'm so grateful that I've been able to have this opportunity to do that.
"I continue to use food as my wind down, as my comedown – pardon the pun! I use it as a way to be social, in a way to relax, pretty much in the way I used to use drink and drugs. Now I use food in that way.
"I didn't cook fancy dishes on MasterChef. I remember Greg [Wallace, one of the judges] saying, 'You can't cook a hotpot for the final'. He loved it! It may not be what you call fine dining, but it's fine with me. I will be forever grateful to that programme."
:: There's No Taste Like Home by John Partridge is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £20. Below are two recipes from the book for you to try.
CHEESE AND ONION PIE
For the pastry:
425g self-raising flour, extra for dusting
120g unsalted butter, chilled and cubed, extra for greasing
25g walnuts, ground
25g Pecorino cheese, grated
25g Parmesan cheese, grated
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
100-150ml iced water
Beaten egg, to glaze
For the filling:
1 potato, peeled and cubed
1 small sweet potato
3 large onions, sliced
2tbsp plain flour
200g Cheddar, grated
1tsp English mustard
1tsp Worcestershire sauce
1tsp Tabasco sauce
Salt and pepper
For the pastry, combine the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips, then mix in the nuts and cheese. Using a table knife, stir through the egg yolk and water - don't overwork or knead it. Bring together with your hands into a ball.
Cut off one-third of the dough for your pie lid. Flatten both pieces into discs, wrap in clingfilm and chill for an hour.
Meanwhile, the filling. Cook the potato cubes in a saucepan of salted boiling water for about 10-15 minutes until tender. Drain and set aside. Pierce the sweet potato with a fork. Bake in the oven at 180C for 20 minutes. Cut in half, scoop out the insides and mash.
Put your onions and milk in a small saucepan and cook over a low heat for 20 minutes.
Tip the onions and milk into a large saucepan over a medium heat. Sprinkle over the flour, stir and cook off the flour for a few minutes. Stir in the potatoes, and then the rest of the filling ingredients – you want this thick enough to plaster a wall. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 200C. Grease and flour a 20cm round pie dish. Roll out the larger pastry disc on a floured surface until large enough to line your dish. Use the back of your finger to press your pastry base into the edges of the dish. Trim off any excess and prick your base. Line with nonstick baking paper, fill with baking beans (or uncooked rice) and bake for 15 minutes.
Remove, lift out the paper and beans, then spoon in the filling. Roll out the smaller piece of pastry to fit the top. Brush beaten egg around the rim of the pastry base, gently lay your lid on and press the edges with a fork to seal. Use a sharp knife to trim off any excess and make a slit in the middle.
Give it a good wash of beaten egg and bake for 30 minutes or until it is golden and delicious. Let it sit for at least 30 minutes before slicing.
50g unsalted butter, plus a little extra, melted, for brushing the top
450g onions, sliced
250g boneless lamb shoulder, diced
250g lamb neck fillet, diced
Plain flour, for dusting
20g golden caster sugar
5-6 floury potatoes (850g once peeled)
4 best end of neck lamb cutlets
Thyme leaves, for sprinkling
50ml lamb stock
Salt and white pepper
Pickled Red Cabbage
Preheat the oven to 180C. Melt 20g of the butter in a large pan, add your onions and sweat them down over a low heat for 15-20 minutes, until a very pale golden colour. Season with salt and a pinch of pepper. Set aside.
Put all your diced lamb in a large mixing bowl, dust with flour and season with the sugar and one teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Then get your hands in there and give it a good mix, making sure all the meat is coated. Set aside.
Peel your potatoes and slice them quite thin, about 2-3mm, and put in a bowl. Melt another 15g of the butter, pour over the potato slices and season with a teaspoon each of salt and pepper, then once again mix with your hands to make sure all the slices are coated. Don't break them, as you need them intact for layering.
Use the remaining 15g of butter to grease a high-sided casserole dish and arrange a layer of potato slices over the base and up the sides – you are going to encase your lamb inside a layer of potato. Put your floured and sugar-seasoned meat into the base, add half your onions and mix together well. Then layer the rest of the onions on top.
Place the lamb cutlets around the side of your dish, pushing the flesh into the onions, with the bones poking out of the top. Sprinkle some thyme leaves on the onions before arranging the remaining potato slices on top, overlapping them like fish scales.
Pour in the stock, then brush the top with a little more melted butter. Add a final crack of pepper and salt, and a sprinkling of thyme. Bake for about two-and-a-half hours. I brush with a little more butter halfway through.