Cerys Matthews: “Cooking is alchemy. You’re like one of the best gold makers"
We speak to Welsh singer, songwriter, broadcaster and author Cerys Matthews about the "satanic capabilities of a homecook"
Is there anything better in life than food, wine and music? Not according to Welsh singer, songwriter, broadcaster and author Cerys Matthews, who has a new cookbook out. 'Where the Wild Cooks Go' helps you cook your way around the world, with a Spotify playlist to go with each chapter. Mixing cooking, travelogue, poetry, proverbs and quotes, the book gives you the building blocks – and the key – to all kinds of different cuisines.
Cerys chatted to FoodTribe about her book, her love of the world around us, polishing off at least 10 mojitos in Cuba, and the “satanic capabilities of a homecook”. She also gives her top tips for the perfect Christmas dinner. Hint – keep the cheese away from the bloody sprouts.
Some music to read along to...
Can you tell us about your new and beautiful cookbook?
It’s really quite an unusual cookbook, in that it will also appeal to those who only have a casual interest in eating. As well as food, it’s full of world history, and has lots of interesting quotes from people like Sophia Loren: “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti;” Jonathan Swift says, “It was a brave man who first ate an oyster;” and Confucius, “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” All these nuggets of wisdom have been passed down through generations, in countries all over the world, and the book is full of that, as well as recipes.
What do you love about cooking, recipes and eating?
I love the world around us. If anyone listens to my 6 Music show, they know I talk to anyone from astronauts, scientists, builders, engineers, gardeners, chefs… the more you can inform yourself, the more options you have. In this world now, I’m even more passionate. I lived in America for six years, and seeing what passed as an excuse for food over there… it made me really passionate, especially about unpretentious, sustainable, fast, delicious, cheap, easily created at home recipes. That’s what the book’s full of.
And some of it’s just ideas. They’re really simple, but if you don’t know about a certain combination, like pineapple and chilli, which I picked up in Mexico… or the Death By Chocolate drink which I picked up in Japan thanks to Ian Brown from the Stone Roses… or the quick ponzu salad dressing I picked up recently which I had to put in there. It’s three ingredients: rice vinegar, soy sauce and a citrus juice like lime, lemon or yuzu. Once you know these and they’re in your repertoire. They’re the basic building blocks, and then you can cook anything.
What’s your favourite recipe from the book?
They’re all my favourite. I went to live in Spain when I was 18, and I was taught to cook roast artichoke. Again, super simple, but everywhere else I’d tried artichokes they were cold, wet, in jars… etc. Nothing of interest. But when I was taught by my friend there to cook them whole, smash them open so the leaves comes open a bit, and cut the bottoms off so you can line them in a roasting tin, drizzle with olive oil, and roast them until they’re basically burnt for 40-50 mins, have homemade mayo to dip them in, or just eat them with lemon juice. It’s just simple, simple things.
Plantains! That’s in the Jamaican section. Just fry them, but you can double fry them and make chips with them. It’s knowledge, plus stuff about the history of man and migration… St Patrick was Welsh… Schnitzel’s not from Germany… chillies aren’t indigenous to India… it just gives you a whole new look at the world.
There’s a Spotify playlist for each chapter as well. So that’s 15 hours of playlists from American South through Japan, China, Mexico, Morocco, Spain, Italy, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and everywhere else. It goes chapter by chapter, and you can cook your way across the world. You meet interesting characters along the way too, whether they’re gods, prolific blind harpists, St George (who’s Greek not English by the way)... a random camel… Krishna… there are some fascinating characters in history that for one reason or another I put in there. You pick them up on your travels.
Do you think the combination of food and music is important?
Food and music is everything. Add a bit of wine to that. It’s everything. The best parts of life are when you try something new, learn something new, and then add brilliant food, company and drink, with music playing. In my mind. I’m not a big shopper, I’m not bothered about fashion… I like food and good times.
What are your top tips for Christmas dinner?
I’m a bit of a purist. My pet hate is messing around with tradition. You have to wear the jumper, you have to follow the unwritten rules of whatever rituals you’ve established in your life. They’re sacrosanct at Christmas. When my brother’s adding blue cheese and lardons to his sprouts because someone on TV told him to do it, that’s not ok. I keep it simple, but as long as the sprouts aren’t overcooked… lashings of salted butter. Always use sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper… really lovely roast vegetables.
The food from the earth is the best food… the best carrots, parsnips, potatoes… and just cook them. Cook them with a lot of love. I’ll have loads of Yorkshire puddings, vegan Haggis for the vegans, and some nut roast. I love nuts, and have that with crispy sage. Get loads of sage leaves and fry them gently in butter, or oil if you’re vegan. They’re like the best crisps. So loads of sage leaves. Red pickled cabbage. Lots of choice, but no cheese on anything. Cheese comes after. Then it’s cheese. Keep cheese as cheese.
Do you and your family have food and drink traditions at Christmas?
Traditionally my mother gave us Babycham at Christmas, not realising it was alcoholic, so we looooved Christmas. I think they’ve changed the recipe now though, so we don’t buy it any more… But we’ll definitely have some bubbly pear drinks, just for that tradition. Nobody’s allowed to get dressed until about 3 in the afternoon, the alcohol starts pouring at 10 in the morning, and nobody’s allowed to put blue cheese in the sprouts.
With all your many travels, what’s the best bar you’ve been to?
I get in trouble because if it’s a great bar, you always stay way too long. There was one bar in Cuba, and I think it was called Floridita… it was lining up the mojitos and it was where Hemmingway used to go. We met a couple who were travelling like us, from Ireland, and got on very well… we had one mojito, and another and another… I think we drank the bar’s worth of mojitos. We had lots of Havana musicians come by and they were singing all kinds of Cuban songs… it was great. I ended up trying to sing an Irish song that I really know very well, but 10 mojitos in I couldn’t get past verse one. It’s a great bar. I’d really recommend it.
What’s your favourite kind of food?
I wouldn’t want to eat one kind of food for the rest of my life. The beauty of living in the 21st century is that we are able to go from Asia to Africa to Europe, up to Scandinavia… we can access so many different things. My aim now is to eat cheaply, sustainably, fast, deliciously, and healthily, and have the knowledge of the building blocks of each cuisine.
So in Morocco you know cumin, turmeric and ginger, plus a bit of preserved lemon will give you a taste of Morocco. And you can go round all the cuisines like that. In Jamaica you love a scallion, ginger, garlic, fresh thyme and Scotch Bonnet chillies… the stalwarts of each cuisine.
The beauty is being able to enjoy one taste and then the next time have a totally different taste. I don’t have a sweet tooth so I do like spice, and sourness and different textures, and now I’m getting quite hungry… that’s the beauty of it. I wouldn’t have a favourite.
However, as someone who’s not eating as much meat any more because of the environmental impact, more than anything, I eat locally-sourced, small batch stuff. What I look for now is… is it in season? Has it travelled the world? Quinoa from Peru is a no, avocados are a no, meat from America, definite no, milk from America, hell no... What is great is things like dahl from India. If you learn a really good dahl recipe that you love, it will feed you and your friends and family and have zero impact on the world. And be amazing.
So eating sustainably is really important to you?
My daughter’s vegan, and my husband, and my son is vegetarian. The thing we all have in common is that we want to pass on a healthy planet to the next generations. If that means eating locally, sustainably, seasonally, is that a sacrifice? I don’t think so. It bloody well tastes better. Tomatoes in winter… I don’t want to spend money on a forced grown thing.
In winter now we’ve got celeriac, cabbages, potatoes, parsnips, carrots, root vegetables, leeks… so how many delicious meals can I make with my knowledge about spices, for cooking? Don’t give me any more pumpkin curries… it’s very sweet and I prefer putting my pumpkins in cakes. There are some delicious cabbage recipes… cut them into wedges and sprinkle chaat masala on. It’s quite exciting.
Cooking is alchemy. You’re like one of the best gold makers. If you give me a handful of black mustard seeds, curry leaves, asafoetida, and some vegetable oil, heat that up until they pop and crackle, and this one fizzes. Pour that on your dahl and it creates something entirely different from a humble little red lentil. And it’s that simple. You’re like ‘flipping heck’. And everyone who eats it says, ‘what the hell, this is delicious’... it’s that, and it costs you 2p.
What was the most memorable meal you ever ate?
I like trying food at the side of the road on a road trip because you can tell it changes with the season. I was driving through Mexico, Belize and Guatemala and I kept seeing this yellow wedge of something. It turned out it was pineapple, sun-warmed, with a sprinkling of salt and chilli powder. Ah man, it was a taste sensation. Pineapple is a taste sensation.
On ‘I’m a Celebrity… get me out of here,’ we were given rice and soybeans… that’s it, no flavourings, salt, nothing. I was in for just under three weeks. By the second week we were allowed, or if we got too boring, they’d feed us a bit of alcohol… but the other thing they gave us before that, if we were boring, or they wanted to film more of an animated chat, they would give us pineapple juice, because of the sugar. I will never forget the tate of that pineapple juice after two weeks of zero food, zero seasoning. It was heavenly. That’s the thing. I’m so passionate about the world’s natural flavourings, it seems to be sacrilege, or criminal, to eat things with lots of chemicals in.
I went on Sunday Brunch and they were trying to give us hard seltzers… I tasted it without knowing anything about them… all I could taste was Saccharine. I’m so passionate after living in America for six years… there are so many milks, but none of them are naturally acceptable in terms of the standards of food we accept, and animal welfare… you wouldn’t want to clean your floor with it. I’m so passionate and once you start being aware of false tastes and non-foods. There’s nothing dirty about clean eating either, if it means you’re not eating chemicals. But you definitely start to recognise the chemical tastes.
What celeb chefs do you like watching?
I like watching Rick Stein at the moment… his Far Eastern Odyssey. I like Keith Floyd. They have such a manner with people, and I love the folklore and the food history they bring into it. And the culture. I like the satanic capabilities of a homecook.
Is there a single country’s food you love above all others?
India. Especially the South. The vegetarian options… I just think it’s magical. Definitely magical. Sambal… if I could learn how to cook a sambal like I tasted in South India, I know I will have reached a good level of cooking. I’ve tried many times, but it’s so nuanced.
There are keys to certain cuisines though… In Italy, the key to cooking good pasta is to finish off the cooking of the pasta in the juices or in the sauce that you’ve cooked. No-one told me that. I grew up in the 70s and 80s where the pasta was on one side of the dish, and the sauce on the other side. Chefs don’t tell you that.
Some of those keys to things are in the book.. How to make garam masala, za’atar, ras el hanout… they’re all in there. You don’t have to buy any ready made ones. All my secrets are in there. Everything you need to know.