'Last summer, near high tide, something drove me to swim from Mother Ivy's Beach, across to the cove on Trevose Head to where my father died. As I swam closer, I became increasingly uneasy: the waves seemed bigger, the sea deeper and darker. I almost felt I had to turn back. There's no path down from the top, and I remembered that they had to launch the lifeboat to recover his body from the seas, so there would be no easy way out...'.
Rick Stein, the chef and restaurateur from Cornwall who, among other things, made a television series about 'Food Heroes', has always been one of my favourites.
Seafood and cooking are among Stein's passions — but he also loves to write, and if you've watched any of his TV programs you will know that he tells a good yarn too. Indeed, he is at his very best when talking (or writing) about the things he loves. Years ago, I welcomed Stein to the Canberra cooking school I co-owned then and I asked him if he would read a paragraph from his Seafood Lovers' Guide before he started cooking. I sensed that he may have been a little surprised at my request, but as soon as the words flowed from that beautifully written passage — describing a walk he and his little dog, Chalky, took along the Padstow coastline on a 'bleak, bitingly cold December's afternoon' ... 'down a sandy tamarisk-fringed lane' ... 'with glimpses of the slate-blue sea and the smell of cold salt' — the (standing-room-only) audience was mesmerised and I swear you could see hairs rising on people's arms. There is no doubt that Stein has a way with words.
In his memoir, Under a Mackerel Sky, Stein begins by sharing recollections of fishing off the rocks in Cornwall with his (bi-polar) father and says he was 'a bit scared of him, because he shouted a lot... but fishing was a time when the tying of knots in nylon line and the threading of ragworms on hooks involved us with practicalities and I forgot my reserve.' He writes about his first taste of Bouillabaisse, his father's tomato and onion soup, gooseberry fool, the 'glorious crunch of cornflakes with full cream milk, brown sugar and clotted cream for breakfast' and his 'mum's spaghetti in the kitchen of Polventon, with the view from the window of the Merrope rocks jutting out into the sea'.
There are memories of summer holidays, food and the family farm, being 'packed off' to boarding school at the age of nine, his mobile disco, music, parties, Chiko rolls, travel, his wife and children, 'experimental years' in his seafood bistro, and time spent in Australia. On this, he says he decided to go to Australia 'because of the lifeguards on Cornish beaches. These Australians were charismatic characters, young, mostly blond, fit and good surfers. They were exceptionally attractive to the local girls and we all loved their accents and their openness. They came from a sunny world altogether more optimistic than ours'. He also writes lovingly of his Australian wife, Sas, her 'cheerful Aussie directness' ... and 'her enthusiasm for life'.
In this delightful interview with ABC RN's Fran Kelly recently, Stein said he was keen not to bring too much of his cooking days into the book, as he 'realised there was not much more to write about' and he had 'led a colourful life ... a lot of it happened before [he] turned 25, so this 'may have been the least interesting part'. 'Writing about your life is the one chance to write a proper book,' he added.
Take this opportunity, dear readers, to add Rick Stein's 'proper book' to your bookshelf, alongside your favourite Rick Stein cookbooks. It's a cracker.
Under a Mackerel Sky: A Memoir by Rick Stein, $34.95, Ebury Press. Many thanks to Rick and the publicity team at Ebury Press for giving me the opportunity to read and review this book.
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