We catch up with cookery writer and granny skills advocate Rebecca Sullivan ahead of the Ballymaloe Litfest.
Tell us how “granny skills” got started?
I lost my great grandmother Lily, and she was our family’s matriarch. Much loved and respected, she taught me to be who I am today. My heart broke when she died, but it broke even more when years later I was handed some of her things and in those things were a bunch of medals and certificates. It turns out she was an award-winning baker, and nothing hurt more than not having learnt those tips and tricks directly from her.
Is there something we should all know about the way most of us are eating today?
Yes – our grandmothers were right. If it does not look like real food, it isn’t. The easiest way to be sustainable is to live like our grandmothers did. Not that they even knew it then, but they ate seasonally, locally and did not waste food. They had no choice. Nowadays, the “war” we are facing is overconsumption and waste. If only we all ate the way our grandmothers did. Imagine if we refused to buy food from strangers, how much healthier and more economical it would be for us all. We created a demand for the exotic, and it has punched us square in our pockets, and now our planet.
Is there a favourite thing you grow or make that is unbelievably tasty (and so different from the bought version) that you’d recommend?
So many things. Herbs taste better freshly picked. I try to grow some native herbs at home and old varieties/heirlooms. If I pick too many, I just put them into an ice cube tray and cover with olive oil, then pop a cube out for cooking. Jams and pickles as well as my own kraut – that way, I can control the sugar and spice and play around a bit. Store-bought condiments are often way too filled with sugar and are best bought from trusted artisans or producers, but even better when you give them a go yourself.
What would you say to men who might feel this is ladies’ territory?
Funnily enough, that has never actually stopped men from getting involved, and in fact, more often than not when I do a radio interview, the men are the first to call up and share their nostalgia. To add to this, we just launched Grandpa Skills, which is about the shed and the garden and protecting those things Pop knew best.
Was there a certain point that you realised this was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
I’m not sure I can say that I will be doing this forever, as I feel like the journey I am on evolves so much, but one thing’s for sure: my life’s work is to make as much positive change as I can while I can, and to ensure more people don’t wake up and realise time has passed and they didn’t spend that precious time with their elders.
Do you get restless and want to learn another new skill?
I sure do. I am rather hyper as it is, so am always busy, and my work is wonderful, as one day I will be recipe testing or at a photo shoot cooking, and the next I’ll be leading a group of students preparing a long table lunch for some elders at an aged care home. I am always surrounded by people with so many skills and have learnt from the past, so I always ask for a lesson, or two.
Have there been things you’ve learned along the way that surprised you?
That baking does require exact measurements. My great grandmother won awards for her Victoria sponge. That requires serious measurements. I tried so many times to make it my way by experimenting. It doesn’t work. Measurements are measurements, so I keep my experimentation for the rest of the kitchen, not the baking.
What would you say to anyone who says they “don’t have time”?
Now, this is where I can seem a little arsey, but it is not intended that way. My grandmother had two jobs and still always put a meal on the table cooked by her for her five kids. Every night. One reason was because she had no choice. Convenience food didn’t exist, and ingredients weren’t flown in from afar. This is one of my major reasons for encouraging people to find their inner granny – they ate seasonally, locally and didn’t waste food. My grandmother also didn’t have Facebook. So I challenge those who say they don’t have time for these old skills and cooking from scratch to perhaps look at their priorities. If you have ten minutes or two hours to whittle away on social media, you have time to cook or make jam. Let’s get real and look at what we spend time on. Food is life, medicine, nourishment, love. Sure, if you would rather spend it watching TV, playing on your phone or elsewhere, fine, but don’t say you don’t have time – just say you don’t want to. For me, the minute you know where your food comes from and its journey, you will be hooked. Or once you learn to grow or pick it yourself. Try my foolproof fridge jam recipe (or quick pickle) – you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to use your own granny skills. Once you seal that jar, you won’t be able to wait long to crack it open.
Is there one thing you think we all need to do when it comes to cooking?
Don’t be afraid to experiment. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes. It makes it so much more fun, and every now and then you’ll create such a winner that you won’t regret that version the dog enjoyed. I also feel that if we all knew where our food came from and demanded transparency that that would also make food more fun. Knowing that Farmer Joe milked his cow Daisy this morning as you’re pouring it on your cereal brings a smile to your face and ensures a healthier attitude towards eating. The best ingredients make the best dishes, and the best stories later on.
What are your thoughts on food waste and current food trends?
Food waste is one of my absolute pet peeves. Seriously, we all need to take a lesson from our grannies when it comes to use-by dates and cooking with some common sense. When my granny cooked, if the juices ran clear in a chicken, it was cooked. Now, we are all so caught up in health and safety that we have to stick a thermometer up its butt to trust that we can eat it. We need to get a grip and cook with our gut and our soul a little more. We need to open the milk carton and sniff it – if it smells fine, I am pretty certain it is. Plus, leftovers always taste better. Think about it. I guarantee you’ve enjoyed a Christmas ham more a few days later or the curry the next day. Imagine had you thrown it away. Food trends, while they are certainly fascinating, as someone trying to protect the past, its heritage, culture and traditions, I hope that this becomes not just a trend, but mainstream.
What do you know (and love) about Irish food?
My father’s side of the family is from Cork, so it’s in my blood. I lived in London for ten years, so I frequented Ireland so many times, and every single time the hospitality was exceptional. I never felt like I was in a restaurant, but always in someone’s home. The food is my ideal kind: rich, warm and comforting. In fact, one of my favourite chefs in the world is Clodagh McKenna – her food makes me so happy and nostalgic and to me, she represents modern Ireland with all of its traditions held close to her heart. It’s fabulous produce, all with a wee modern twist. I also made my parents fly with me to Dublin for one night for my 25th birthday so that I could eat at Locks in Dublin’s Portobello. We were only there for twelve hours, but it was the best half-day ever. Seriously, your produce and people are just second to none, and I cannot wait to get my fork in again in May.
What can we expect from you at this year’s Ballymaloe Litfest? And is there something you’re really looking forward to?
I cannot wait to give Darina Allen a massive bear hug. She is one of my heroines and the champion of granny skills. I want to go to everything. Honestly, if I could, I would. I am beyond chuffed to be included amongst a list of people whom I have looked up to and admired as well as been inspired by for over a decade: Alice Waters, April Bloomfield, Allegra McEvedy, Fuchsia Dunlop, and Valli Little to name but a few incredible women doing amazing things. I expect to be in awe, shed some tears, laughs, eat loads, and go home feeling the same way I always do when I leave Ireland – planning my next trip back.
Catch Rebecca Sullivan at this year’s Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine, May 15-17, litfest.ie
Follow Rebecca Sullivan @grannyskills
Meg Walker is Deputy Editor at IMAGE Magazine @MegWalkerDublin