Valentine Warner talks about his new cookery series and reveals his thoughts about getting back to nature and trying new foods.
Valentine Warner has spent a warm May afternoon cloistered in the windowless library of a smart London hotel. Instantly friendly and with a ready smile, he is a bit like a coiled spring; full of restless energy and eager to talk about both his first and second ‘great passions’: cooking and fishing, in that order.
His new cookery series Valentine Warner: Coast to Coast (out on the Good Food channel from 24 July) has recently given him a chance to combine the two and he has written a third cookery book, The Good Table, due out in September.
Valentine has become known for his adventurous cooking spirit; he is a keen outdoors hunter, forager and cook.
He grew up on a farm in Dorset and trained as a portrait painter before working in London restaurants for eight years, setting up a private catering company and then landing himself a series on the BBC in 2008. Called ‘What to Eat Now’ – the clue is in the title – it was a call to action; to eat seasonally and re-discover native foods that had fallen out of favour.
“I’m always falling in love with falling in love with things,” he admits. But, that is not to say he doesn’t see a time and place for the simplest of foods – “there’s always a time for cheese on toast”.
There have been a lot of fish programmes on TV recently. How is yours different?
Unlike Hugh’s Fish Fight, the series has no overt political message, although that’s not to say Valentine doesn’t have strong feelings on the issue of fish discards (“disgraceful”) and food waste (more on that below).
“Coast to Coast is rather quirky and hopefully relatively amusing,” he says. It starts in North Cornwall, “creeps” into fresh waters and Valentine ends up “smelly and feral” in Norfolk. “Apart from showing other fish people can try, it was an opportunity for me to try fish I haven’t eaten before – a safari of taste.”
There are plenty of characters along the route and Valentine’s inquisitive nature comes to the fore in escapades such as fishing for mackerel using flowers in Cornwall – “that got some funny looks”.
“See where you are and what’s available. My table is very varied. I eat very seasonally; I want to know what the possibilities are for whatever I am eating,” he explains.
Valentine hates to see food wasted and is a strong believer in education, both about what we eat and how to cook it. His mantra is “eat to the full capacity that nature allows me”. Quite often “nature excels itself”, he says and as cooks we just need to be adaptable.
Isn’t this idea of scouring nature and eating seasonally a bit of a middle class mantra?
“I think that’s absolute bollocks,” he says. “Supermarkets sell seasonal veg. People should look at the label and if it’s got a Union Jack, buy it.” He points out that local markets are often cheaper than supermarkets.
The truth is that we simply can’t have all food at all times because it is damaging the world around us, he explains. “If you can’t have stuff sometimes, then tough luck. That’s the way it should be.”
Are we really seeing a food revolution in this country?
“There are acres of farmers’ markets and amazing producers, nonetheless cooking skills are disappearing faster than ever and people are becoming increasingly squeamish.” The danger is when people think that food appears as if by magic and shopping for food just becomes another chore.
How do we reverse those trends?
“Get people to understand the natural world”. When you start telling people stories about the world around them and expanding their understanding of where food comes from their eyes light up, he explains. “Why is cookery called home economics? Call it animals, flames and knives. Teach people and romanticise everything. Get a bit embroidered.”
It is this tendency towards the romantic; his belief in stories that explains why Valentine’s cookery shows go beyond cooking to explain the natural world and how to source food. He is a great believer in getting stuck in and having a go.
His new book ‘The Good Table’ is about urging people to try new things, rather than “getting too bogged down by a recipe”.
“I’m trying to urge people to taste all the time and try things they might not usually.”
Jamie’s 30 minute meals has flown off the shelves. What about the trend towards people wanting “quick food”?
“I can put a proper dinner on the table in seven minutes. How long does it take to make an omelette? Four minutes.
“What irritates me is people saying ‘I don’t have the time’. I think it’s more about ‘I don’t know what to cook’,” he says. If you try new foods and learn more about how to cook, it gives you more options, he says.
What’s he up to at the moment and what does the future hold?
Although Valentine grew up in the countryside, he loves living in London, where he is based at the moment. He still enjoys painting and has illustrated his website and cookery books. In fact he thinks he might go full circle and one day end up in an artist’s studio. That is, if his second option doesn’t work out: “I want to build a house in the wood, out of wood and cook on wood wearing fur.”
With his passion for the outdoors, stories and good food, Valentine will hopefully be sharing his enthusiasm a while longer; that is before he retires to the forest.
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