Cook, Eat, Smile
by Bill Collison
London: Saltyard Books: 2011
One of the things that happens when you’ve been out of the country for a long while is that you find yourself out of the loop with new happenings and trends. It is a little disconcerting at first when you realise that things have moved on in your absence. This happened to us a little while ago when we were back in the UK for a short time meeting friends in Cambridge.
Someone suggested we go to Bill’s, a suggestion that met with universal accord among our friends since everyone (except us) knew exactly who or what Bill was. Bill’s turned out to be an informal restaurant with a wonderful down to earth ambiance and quirky interior design featuring many re-purposed (or ‘upcycled’) elements such as chandeliers made from used (and cleaned!) catering supply tins of tomatoes, or wainscoting made from old window shutters. The food was seasonal, good country-style British and very well cooked. I was immediately smitten. I am sure that being in good company and being back in Blighty once again (even of it was a short visit) added to that impression.
It turns out that Bill’s isn’t simply a restaurant in Cambridge, but a very popular chain of restaurants scattered throughout South East England as well as a product label for things like granola mixes, jams and chutneys, lemonades and cordials. It is also a cookbook called Cook, Eat, Smile by Bill himself. I don’t do restaurant reviews, but I do occasionally post remarks on cookbooks. I was intrigued enough by the restaurant that I purchased a copy of Bill’s book.
The story of how the ‘Bill Phenomenon’ happened is told in the cookbook (with potted summaries on the back of the restaurants’ menus). It is a heartbreaking story with a heartwarming ending. In 2000 floods in Sussex and other parts of Southern England inflicted horrendous devastation, including the destruction of Bill’s greengrocery. As the flood water subsided, Bill’s shop rose anew – almost Phoenix like – now coupled with a café. In a short time, the café won awards and became so popular that people would travel great distances to eat there. And, that was the beginning.
Bill’s book is nicely illustrated and is well organised by seasons – something I quite like, provided there is a good index where you can find recipes (and there is in this case). Each season in this book is subdivided into two sections. The first is what Bill, a greengrocer at heart, calls his seasonal fruit and vegetable Champions – with recipes that feature them. And the second is a selection of foods for key celebrations that occur within the season. For example, Bill’s autumn champions are sweetcorn, mushrooms, leeks, parsnips, pumpkins and squash, figs, apples, pears and blackberries. Autum celebrations include Halloween and Bonfire night with sweets for trick-or-treaters, bangers n’ mash for a bonfire night supper and brandy snaps or toffee apples for after.
The recipes in the book are exactly what you expect to find on a menu of any of the the Bill’s restaurants. In fact, scattered throughout Bill’s restaurant in Cambridge were mounted chalkboards with quaint sayings or recipes such as this one for Betty Webb’s Hot Tomato Chutney which is also featured in the cookbook. The book, however, includes 150ml of cider vinegar that seems to have been left off the chalk board recipe (coincidence?).
Back in Athens, I thought I would try to make this chutney since Cook, Eat, Smile is not one of my tried and tested cookbooks, but a new one on the shelf. Of course, I had to substitute the bramley apples for local tart green apples, but everything else was readily available – including some wonderful late tomatoes, some of the best Mediterranean produce. Out of personal preference, I skinned the tomatoes which is not a step indicated in the original recipe. The result? Even without waiting the recommended three months, it was delicious, although a tad on the sharp side. It is almost like a hot spicy, sweet (note: reduce the sugar next time), slightly chunky, better-than-bottled ketchup that will be even better once mellowed in three months time.
I can see myself testing more recipes from this book here in Athens starting with the beetroot and potato tartlets topped with feta cheese. However, many things will need to wait until our return to the UK, particularly those featuring all berries (except strawberries), rhubarb, parsnips, watercress and other produce that is difficult, if not impossible, to get here. A good, very British book that celebrates seasonal produce. And, for me at the moment, a little bit of Britain here in Greece.