Meeting: Valentine Warner
PUBLISHED: 12:32 02 February 2009 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013
Stephen Swann catches up with TV's newest cook only to discover that he is in the company of someone who thinks of Dorset as home
Interviewing TV cook Valentine Warner, he of the BBC TV series What To Eat Now, was a stimulating experience to say the least. There we were, sitting in Valentine's car, parked on double yellows in Dorchester's South Street on a market day, cars bumper to bumper, people everywhere, traffic wardens about to appear any minute. Valentine had just done a couple of book-signing gigs, one in Bridport, one at Waterstones in Dorchester, and was running on coffee. As for me, I was somewhat twitchy knowing that I had perhaps 15 minutes tops to get the words.
I needn't have worried. Talking to Valentine proved to be an exhilarating experience (if you could imagine it as the verbal equivalent to doing the Cresta Run you might just get a feel for what it was like). Two minutes in and I knew I was with someone who was not only enthusiastic about food - and boy was he enthusiastic about food - it was also obvious that here was a man who lived life itself at Gas Mark 10.
Valentine was born in 1972. His father was Sir Fred Warner, diplomat, and sometime 'our man on Japan'.
"I grew up at Laverstock Farm at the foot of Lewesdon Hill. It was a real country childhood, a wonderful childhood - damming streams, heaving rocks into the slurry pit and generally making the farm manager's life hell," says Valentine, his face breaking into a broad, almost conspiratorial, grin.
"Me and my younger brother, Orlando, were born with inquisitive stomachs. Days were spent mushrooming, fishing and foraging. Food at home was always important. My mother was an exceptional and inventive cook. My father taught me all about natural history. It's so sad that most kids today don't know a thing about the countryside. We are becoming increasingly disassociated from it and that is wrong. One day I hope to be able to do something about that in some small way."
As for school, it would seem from listening to Valentine's tales of poaching, of cooking trout and rabbit and pheasant in the sixth-form kitchens where his housemaster turned a blind eye in return for the occasional goodie, that a career in the groves of academe, still less in the civil service, was never on the cards. In fact, he went on to art college in London where he lived in a bedsit off the Holloway Road. Again it would appear that Valentine preferred cooking back at his gaff to painting at college. "After leaving, I spent five years working in London's restaurant kitchens under chefs such as Alastair Little and Rose Carrarini. That life was never going to be for me though and so I set up my own private catering company."
I have to say that I wasn't surprised at this. Five minutes in to our chat and it was obvious that I was in the company of a restless, questing and very individualistic individual who could never be content with the creative constraints that are of necessity required of someone working in a restaurant kitchen.
Our talk turns to his book, What To Eat Now. Based on the highly successful BBC TV series, it is Valentine's first book. "I set out to write a seasonal cookbook," he tells me. "Seasonal cooking is about making life more simple. Instead of using exotic ingredients that have been flown in from faraway places, I look for things found in our waters, fields and woods. It is all about timing. Seasonal food means waiting for things and it is the waiting that makes them become a treat. And you know they will be delicious because it is their time."
I put it to him that it sounds like a cookbook for those who live in the country, have a 12-bore shotgun, lots of fishing rods and time on their hands. "Not at all," he replies. "All the food I talk about can be bought in the shops. I've included recipes for those in a hurry and also for those times when a more leisurely approach can be enjoyed."
Well, having had a copy of the book land on my desk in advance of the interview I have to say that it is one hell of a good cookbook, the sort you can sit down and read because Valentine couldn't write a clichd sentence if he tried. What To Eat Now is quirky, thoroughly entertaining, in places laugh-out-loud funny, and full of good recipes.
Aware of time's winged chariot hurrying near and the likelihood of a traffic warden appearing at any moment, I resort to firing a string of questions at Valentine. I ask about heroes and influences. "Keith Floyd for his enthusiasm and the way he's not afraid to speak his mind. Elisabeth David, of course. Alastair. Fergus Henderson. David Attenborough is a total hero, and also Martin Rix for his wonderful books on flora and fauna," the answers come back.
I ask about hobbies, interests. "Float fishing for mackerel and spinning for bass off the beach in the shadow of Golden Cap. Walking in the woods in the Marshwood Vale. There is magic in the woods. Witchery. Spirits." At this point a look of incredulity must have fleetingly crossed my face. "I know you think I am barking, but I have felt these things in the pitch black of Dorset woods at night. Believe me, there are such things."
What will the future bring? "There is another TV series planned and I want to write more. I want to try and bring a more holistic approach to the whole idea of food, bring the countryside and natural history into the kitchen. I am not totally against processed food - baked beans are, after all, processed food - but for me the kitchen is the room in which the outdoors is brought indoors and transformed into something wonderful."