Bryony Hill - Angel in an Apron 

It was my 13th birthday and my godmother had given me a beautiful leather-bound autograph book. My older brother, who was on an exeat from school that weekend had invited one of his friends Dave, for the day. Ah, Dave. What can I say? At 6 feet tall he towered over me and with a shock of shaggy blond hair he was a total sex god. I worshipped the ground he walked on, but at two and a half years my senior, in his eyes I was completely invisible. In a flurry of hope and desperation to be noticed, I baked a chocolate sponge cake, sandwiching it with butter cream. Then I cut a heart shape out of a folded piece of paper, placed it over the cake, and dusted icing sugar leaving a perfect but not very subtle impression of my intentions. He ate three slices.

Minutes before he was due to leave, having dwelt upon it all afternoon, I plucked up courage and asked him to be the first person to christen my autograph book. He condescended with this ditty, accidentally writing 'angle' as against 'angel', but it didn't matter, I was too in love to care. In the ensuing years, he went his way, I went mine but I never forgot that special moment. Chocolate cake has remained my number one seduction technique ever since.

More than four decades later I like to think that I have risen from the depths of a non-being to an angel, at least in the kitchen, albeit with a slightly wonky halo. Cooking is my only saving domestic grace – I am a total nightmare in every other department. My husband, Jimmy says that if there was an Olympic category for untidiness I would knock Sir Steve Redgrave's five gold medals into a cocked hat. However in my defence, I would say that he can invite anyone to our house at any time of the day or night and I would always be able to produce a meal any angel would be proud of.

Why the apron, you may ask? Those who know me intimately may have calculated that I own more of this garment than most women own knickers – I have dozens of the things: for example, there is one cut deftly from American cloth (waterproofed cotton), several frilly vintage overalls found in charity shops and a couple converted from outgrown skirts, cut down for gardening. In an emergency I am a dab hand at improvising (no sewing needed thankfully) with an old man's shirt, using the sleeves as ties. Last but not least, tucked away in my drawers is an authentic 19th century French maid's apron pulled out for special occasions only.

I cannot resist dipping into boxes of remnants and samples found in fabric shops. I scramble voraciously for workable lengths of linen union as not only is it tough but also washable but in order to find a place in my shopping basket, it has to sport a flamboyant, floral design, the gardening theme strongly in evidence. Then once back home and scissors at the ready, I take an old Ikea apron (a firm favourite) as a template, and cut around it. With a bit of stitching here and there I end up with my perfect pinafore. I am content only if I have an apron knotted around my middle – like a child with a dummy, it is my security blanket.

On the day we were married, happily I cooked a three course, roast beef lunch for twenty clad in my new posh frock but which was, naturally, protected by an apron. It was one that I had given Jimmy to wear when busy at the barbecue and sported a grotesque torso of an extraordinarily muscular man lugging an impressive six pack, all tucked into a very tight pair of bright blue Speedos.

Nowadays, as soon as I am up and running in the morning, on goes the chosen apron for the day and if I can squirrel a paper hankie or two, a pair of secateurs and a handful of dog treats in the pocket I am a happy girl. To sum it up, it is virtually impossible to find a single photograph taken of me over the last twenty odd years, whatever the occasion, without me wearing one.

On holidays in France, rarely do I bring back designer clothes in my suitcase. What do I buy instead? Yup. You guessed. Aprons, or tabliers as they are called on the other side of the Channel. The French take these garments very seriously: usually made from dark, inky blue material splattered with sprigs of flowers, they are styled into a wrap-around shape with sensible holes for the arms trimmed with a colour coordinated bias binding.


As a bonus, the ample fabric covers both the back and the bottom – a bit like a sleeveless overall. The indigenous wearer can often be spotted on the vegetable plot leaning on a rake, sporting an ancient, squashed straw hat. As it happens, I have that as well. In triplicate. And the rake.

However in recent months, I find myself wide awake in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat, fearful that possibly I am letting myself go on the sartorial front. The angel getting a little too big for her cloud, as it were, finding it harder to keep the wings fluffy and the halo polished. When my second book A Compost Kind of Girl was about to be published, I wrote in desperation to Hilary Alexander of the Daily Telegraph to see if she could come to my aid. She told me to bring my favourite clothes to the make over. What were they? My gardening apron and gumboots. She had her work cut out that day, I can tell you but expertly she pulled out all the stops and kitted me out in a smart tailored blouse, slender trousers and killer Jimmy Choo heels. After the 'shoot' I was able to purchase some of the outfits, but since that euphoric day they have spent most of their life ignored in the back of the wardrobe.

When it comes to cooking, I wing it (as angels do) since I am far too impatient to bother with scales. Also, having an Aga it tends to rule out precise oven temperatures and specific timings: you open the oven door, bung in the food, wait a while and remove it. If it isn't cooked enough, sling it back in and wait a further five minutes. After which, bingo! But I know this won't suit most of you, so I have been careful to give appropriate temperatures and timings for electric and gas cookers.

I can't remember when I first became involved in preparing food, but it certainly was before
I was five. Ma was a hands on, stay-at-home mum who taught us to read and write before we reached school age. She also showed us how to weave baskets out of cane, to make finger puppets from flour and water paste and most importantly, how to cook. Tasteless soups, watery, over-cooked vegetables and tough, unidentifiable meat were often on the tables of other families we knew. Austerity and rationing lingered after the war into the Fifties when I was a child but our mother was a heavenly cook, and her patient instruction taught me to savour the thrill that accompanies full tummies and a stack of empty plates.

In 1970, having completed a foundation year at art school in Brighton and failing to get into a degree course, I sailed away to France to be a companion/cook to a hormonal 14 year old girl, her 35 year old brother (blind in one eye and prone to wearing army camouflage), two dogs and a North African housekeeper while the parents were on a cruise in the Caribbean. In my innocence, in under a fortnight I had fallen hook, line and sinker in love with a dashing Frenchman who took me under his wing, showing me things of which I had only dreamed. An added bonus was that he received a hefty allowance from his father which permitted us to dine in the best establishments where he took every opportunity to show me on a plate all that France has to offer.

Up until then I was definitely more Gordon Bennett than Gordon Ramsay and had only ever experienced simple, wholesome food shared with my family around the kitchen table, prepared from our own fruit and vegetables when suddenly here I was in a foreign country being offered exotic and enigmatic dishes. At these Pantagruelian feasts I ate venison for the first time, simmered with wine and cherries, fried sweetbreads, creamy scrambled eggs studded with truffles and occasionally dishes I would rather not have been told what they were after having consumed them.

At the beginning of our relationship the Frenchman took me to Honfleur, a picturesque port on the Normandy coast beloved by artists, the impressionists in particular. For our first lunch he ordered tourteaux a la mayonnaise. Straddling huge platters were two equally gargantuan crabs, caught locally that morning. Up until then, the only crabs I had caught were in Walberswick , a sleepy village on the Suffolk coast, using bacon or chicken legs as bait, dropping the line off the Bailley bridge in the hope of bringing home supper. These monsters of the deep were accompanied by a bowl of saffron yellow mayonnaise, a lemon cut in half and wrapped in muslin, a basketful of crispy baguette and a pair of heavy duty nut crackers. Alcohol was also alien to me having not sipped anything more inebriating than a Dubonnet and lemonade on high days and holidays with my parents and for the first time in my life I tasted chilled muscadet sur lie. In my innocence, it was sophistication personified and I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

During the following spring holidays, his father generously paid for us to travel south to the Cote d'Azur. We journeyed overnight, first class, on the elegant sleeper Le Train Bleu, accompanied by rumbling indigestion and our six months old cocker spaniel puppy, Ulla. The next day, we drove a short distance along the coast to St. Raphael and it was there that I tasted my first bouillabaisse, the legendary Mediterranean fish stew. It was so copious, as was the bottomless carafe of rose which kept on being replenished that after the bill was settled we managed, with certain difficulty I hasten to add, to stagger across the square to the church where the three of us sank gratefully onto a pew, falling asleep within minutes, encouraged by the lingering aroma of incense and the soothingly cool darkness.

It is impossible to recreate this pungent combination of saffron, olive oil and rock fish effectively in England, but I have learned since to make an equivalent native to Brittany more suited to our cold waters called a bourride.

The Frenchman was busy studying for his degree at the university of Orleans, returning infrequently to Paris where his parents had an apartment. When he returned to the capital his father invariably booked a table at one of the best restaurants with me tagging along in hungry pursuit. Entering wholeheartedly into the spirit of our affair, first off he encouraged me to sample a monumental choucroute at the Brassererie Lipp – a steaming marathon of pickled cabbage and smoked sausage refreshed with tankards of chilled Alsatian beer. On another occasion he persuaded me to wade through a belt-releasing, zip-undoing cassoulet at l'Auberge de la Truite in the Faubourg St. Honore, a mere garlic breath away from the British Embassy. I subsequently learned that a true cassoulet takes days to build and comprises white beans, tomatoes, various types of sausage and confit d'oie (goose), covered with a luscious cheesy crust. It is eating at its most serious and decadent.


Endearingly, pere et fils took as much pleasure in getting me to try different things on the menu as I had in savouring them and through their tutelage they taught me a great deal about presentation, food combinations, sauces and which wines (and bottled waters)should accompany each dish. The irony was that during my entire four and a half year sojourn in France I never owned more than a single electric hot plate and one very large saucepan with which to experiment! Amongst some of the memorable recipes I brought back with me is the tangy tarte a l'orange which was given to me by a French girl with whom I remain friends to this day.

Cooking is an art, an extraordinary alchemic blending of ingredients, amalgamating families and friends. Ask anyone who has experienced extreme happiness (or sadness for that matter) in their lives and I bet you a bottom dollar that they will remember exactly what they were eating either before or after the event. It's also a well-established fact that most men would rather share a meal with someone who happily slurps down every last morsel than a person who pushes and prods indifferently at a lettuce leaf. Food is sexy. It is the very stuff of life. One of those memorable occasions for me was the first dinner a deux I shared with Jimmy. He took me to an Italian restaurant where he was a regular customer, near my old flat in Notting Hill Gate and therefore being familiar with the menu, I let him choose. Our starter was a rustic dry, cured meat called 'speck', served with mayonnaise mixed with fresh herbs, followed by crunchy, deep fried chicken Kiev and an orange and onion salad. Having consumed a bottle of frascati followed by several flaming sambuccas, he found the way to my heart.

A few years later, in 1985 we moved to Sussex, where we have remained happily ever since. This is where I learned to garden in earnest and now, after years of hard work and landscaping the grounds we are now very nearly self-sufficient in vegetables and fruit. Jimmy took a bit or persuading, but two years ago I achieved a childhood dream when we acquired three brown hens. The deal was that he would name them – and so he did: Cocker, Doodle and Do. Tragically Do recently had to be put to sleep as she was suffering from the avian equivalent of sheep bloat and we have now augmented our flock with a light Sussex and a soft, dove grey Maran, the first sporting Fulham's colours as Jimmy confirms. They have been named (in spite of being fiercely female) Haynsie and Robbo after his old playing mates, Johnny Haynes and Bobby Robson. Miraculously after only 24 hours, Robbo produced her first, quite perfect egg.

One of my favourite times of the day is to be up with the dawn, checking in the still warm nests in the coop for overnight laying. The hens are very obliging, popping out on average an egg each a day, and Jimmy often has one boiled for his breakfast.

I cannot resist seed catalogues and flip through the pages as soon as they drop through the letter box, ticking every other carrot, lettuce or must-have beetroot. We have plum and apple trees, black and redcurrant bushes, peach and quince trees, gooseberries and a couple of young walnut trees which will probably not fruit until well after I reach pensionable age and the era of free prescriptions. I try to grow crops which will enable us to pick at least something on every day of the year: salads, tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes and beans in the summer months and all kinds of the cabbage family and leeks during the winter. Anything edible leftover is fed to the chickens or to our vertically challenged labrador, Charlie - the rest goes onto the compost heap thus completing the circle.

Next spring we are taking on some new tenants: in our village lives a family of bee keepers and we have invited them to put a dozen hives in a sheltered corner of our half acre field. They will look after them on our behalf whilst the bees look after us providing delicious honey made from our own flowers.

We entertain sporadically all the year round. Jimmy's family are frequent visitors, as are friends and colleagues from the entertainment and sporting world and my family lives nearby. Our favourite time for these gatherings is around Jimmy's birthday in mid-July. After two rotten summers, we are desperate for sunshine and a few consecutive warm days so that we can eat on the terrace or in the shade under the apple tree. Lunches are leisurely, spontaneous affairs and comprise whatever is ripe and ready to pick. The asparagus bed we created from scratch reached maturity last June and now we are able to feast on bundles of it for many happy weeks, often served cold with mayonnaise made from our own eggs.

If we are planning a dinner or lunch with friends, I would far rather be given little or no notice because it removes the hours, days – even weeks - spent agonising over recipe books in an attempt at choosing suitable dishes. I start with Delia, ending up with Rick, via Jamie and Gary and in the end (probably unwisely) I ignore the lot of them, and usually plump for a simple roast with a pudding to follow, which is invariably my grandmother's all-in-one pavlova. I don't do a starter as such, but hand round freshly made nibbles with a drink beforehand so that we can all sit down together for the main course.

One of the biggest compliments I have ever been paid was the day Tim Brooke-Taylor and Des Lynam came with their other halves to Sunday lunch. Carelessly we had left our shopping until very late on the Saturday afternoon, planning to cook a couple of ducklings. However, when we reached the supermarket there was only one bird left. We searched the other aisles and located a couple of quails, a partridge, a wild duck and a hen pheasant. Their cooking needs vary considerably and I had given myself a nightmare challenge, but once I calmed down a couple of hours before our guests arrived, mercifully it all came together.

I started off with the largest fowl in the roasting dish and after half an hour, in went the pheasant, then the other birds in size order. When they were crispy and golden and the juices ran clear, I lifted them out of the pan, cut them in half or quarters with poultry shears, laid them on a platter, and poured over the gravy, scraping the sides and bottom of the pan, and left them to rest in the warm for ten minutes. I dished them up with potatoes (dug freshly from the garden) roasted in some goose fat left over from Christmas alongside a steaming bowl of petits pois a la francaise. Laid out on a clean white table cloth, it looked like something from a medieval feast and there wasn't a crumb left. When it was time to head back to the smoke, Tim B-T said that it was one of the best meals he had eaten in his life.

The recipes in this book are the result of a mixture of old family stalwarts and ones I have conjured up or interpreted. It is the sort of food we like to eat: uncomplicated, satisfying and full of natural flavours. The ultimate in comfort food. In general I tend not to buy expensive ingredients or prime cuts as I prefer neck of lamb to leg, and belly of pork to loin. The instructions and ingredients are not set in tablets of stone and if you feel that you want to change them in any way to suit your taste buds, then it's entirely up to you. Be flexible, have confidence in yourself and above all, enjoy! You will feel positively angelic...the apron is an optional extra, but certainly the wings and halo will be firmly in place.