Tom Jaine

13th September 2017

Interview: Letitia Clark
Photographs: Dan Dennison

13th September 2017

Interview: Letitia Clark
Photographs: Dan Dennison

We wind down the narrow Devon lanes towards Tom Jaine’s smallholding, Allaleigh. The 74-year-old food writer, publisher and editor lives here in shambolic splendour with his wife, Sally, their various daughters and granddaughters, and countless free-ranging animals.

Emerging from the porch Tom barks a brusque greeting. Pacing restlessly, he ushers us into the kitchen and offers us coffee. He makes himself a Nescafe, grinning as he drops a white sugar cube into the chipped mug, revealing teeth that have weathered a lifetime of such sugar cubes and barely lived to tell the tale.

The kitchen centres around an ancient Aga and a butcher’s block. A few crooked old cats and a persistent collie worry at my feet. Hanging from the walls, the ceiling and every other inch of available space are dozens of antique cooking implements: enormous copper pans, ancient moulis, ladles, antique salad spinners and bread proving baskets. It is more a culinary museum than a kitchen. Tom is a part of this living museum. Lean, bespectacled, clad in 20 layers of tweed despite the midsummer warmth, he is one of few surviving relics from a world of food writing, cooking and scholarship now long forgotten.

He is probably best known as the proprietor of Prospect Books, a publishing company specialising in books on food and food history. The jewel in their crown is Patience Gray’s Honey From a Weed, a book which stretches the genre of “cookery book” to its limits; it incorporates poetry, folklore, history and illustration as well as personal anecdotes and recipes. Prospect is notorious for its eccentric catalogue, another of Tom’s proudest productions being Testicles: Balls in Cooking and Culture.

Having handed over the company three years ago, Tom still edits and produces Petit Propos Culinaires, a journal about food and food history. He has also written four of his own books, including Building a Wood-Fired Oven for Bread and Pizza; he has edited the latest two editions of The Oxford Companion to Food and he is a regular guest on BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme.

Our lunch of peppery duck soup, potted cheese heady with mace (“a neglected spice!”) and poached greengages seems to epitomise Tom’s attitude to life and food: rustic, classic and just a little eccentric.

Continued below...

You were brought up in a restaurant.

Yes. My real mother died giving birth to me. My father soon remarried, and when that marriage ended my stepmother (a serial marrier) married George Perry-Smith. He opened The Hole in the Wall, in Bath, in 1951. It was literally a hole in the wall: the entrance to which was through an old coal store. It was a remarkable place. Elizabeth David ate there and approved.

So food was important from early on?

Yes, it was vital. My childhood revolved around the restaurant. At home we ate mostly what we were serving, which for 1950s provincial England was pretty revolutionary: duckling pie, taramasalata, chicken Maryland, that sort of thing. Later, when I was a student at Oxford, cooking became important. Firstly, because it was useful to know how to fend for oneself. Secondly, because I’m of that Len Deighton generation where the boy who could cook had a significant advantage sexually over the boy who couldn’t.

Learning to cook helped you to impress women?

Yes – well, back then it was quite novel. No longer, sadly. Also I never had any money, so the restaurant culture (outside The Hole) was beyond me, so it was useful to know how to cook reasonably well.

Looking around Tom’s dusty study, we spot a large Hole in the Wall menu.

This is one of the menus?

Yes, one of the earliest, from 1951. Just at the end of rationing. Look how long it is! The chef in those first months was a characterful Englishman who had worked in Canada for the Mounties and so there are strange echoes of the Canadian prairie in this menu, such as pork chops in country gravy. God knows what country gravy is.

 

There were many innovative things about The Hole, one of the most prominent being the style of its menus. They were unique, descriptive and humble. The focus was on what we could source locally, of good quality. The main courses were divided into sections “Sometimes” and “Usually”, so we could put something on at any minute if we felt like it, or if something special just turned up. Most restaurants in the 50s had a very different formula: a ridiculously long, elaborate and formal French-style menu. Always the table d’hôte and then the à la carte, but no one would ever order from the à la carte except for Flash Harry, breathless from the racecourse. Then you were fucked because you’d never bloody have what they wanted. So you’d send out some pork looking like veal. That sort of thing. Quite extraordinary.

This menu is fascinating. The prices though – £25 for a main? That’s not cheap

No, shillings, dear. It was incredibly reasonable. They were doing it for the love, not the money. In fact, there is even a disclaimer on the front of the menu declaring just that.

You served yoghurt as a dessert?

Yes. Isn’t that sweet? Back then there was only one shop in Bath that sold yoghurt, it was a total novelty and came in glass bottles from the United Dairy. We used to serve it with black cherry jam or honey.

Well that sounds delicious. My granny used to serve it as a pudding for us with double cream and muscavado sugar…

Yes, exactly! Utterly delicious. Something we take completely for granted now. We still make our own yoghurt here, it’s so much better than the bought stuff, even if it is a bit of a faff.

I start the day with a Nessy [Nescafe instant coffee], a large mug full with one sugar and full-cream milk. This is the first of my daily 12

And what’s this at the top of the menu?

The motto reads, “Kissing don’t last, cookery do!” which is a George Meredith quote, I think. It was a bizarre place, quite unique. During the war it had been a knocking shop.

A knocking shop?

A brothel, dear. There was an English lady who used to sell hotdogs downstairs. The allied service personnel stationed in Bath during the war could pop in for a hotdog and then go upstairs for other amusements.

I see. So when you left home and The Hole behind you, what then?

I went to Oxford and dreamt of being an architect, but didn’t have any money, so took a job in archives instead. By 1974 George had had enough of The Hole and the attention it attracted so he sold it and we opened The Carved Angel with Joyce Molyneux, in Dartmouth: again a pioneering restaurant. It was one of the first restaurants in the country to have a fully open kitchen. Not your little peep-through kitchen window, but a fully open arrangement, you know, where you could look up the skirts of the woman putting the food in the oven.

Joyce cooked in a skirt?!

Well of course.

At the Carved Angel we used to do this famous dish, salmon en croute with ginger and currants: a strange but beguiling combination

What do you think about women in restaurant kitchens, incidentally?

Fantastic. More civilised. Not like me. I couldn’t hack being a chef. I was front of house, sommelier, admin and manager at The Carved Angel. But we later opened a little fish restaurant down the road called The Tall Ships, where I was forced into the kitchen. It was chaos. But The Carved Angel was a magical place: Joyce is a wonderful woman and an incredible cook. We used to do this famous dish, salmon en croute with ginger and currants: a strange but beguiling combination. It was one of George’s signature dishes at The Hole. Jane Grigson later wrote about it. The Good Food Guide named The Carved Angel the Best Real Food Restaurant of 1984. We had some fascinating regulars. Ted Hughes (another Devon boy) came in often. He wrote Sally and I this poem when we left:

The Angel carved in wood
Resisted all temptation.
She fasted and withstood
Libidinous immolation

And anointings of breasts
Of birds and thighs of beasts.

She did not bat an eye
When those two loose-mouthed harlots
Claret and Burgundy
Turned glass and drinker scarlet.

She barely coloured – say
Chassagne Montrachet.

She only cracked when Tom
Plucked Sally from the shrine as
A cork out of the Dom.
This bomb among the diners

Shattered the Angel – left
Her not so carved as cleft.

Ted Hughes
January 20th 1985

So how did you get into writing?

Whilst there I started writing a food newsletter called Twelve Times a Year, about obtaining seasonal ingredients and using them, which was (again) pretty pioneering for the time. This evolved into the Three Course Newsletter, which was then summarised in my first book (an exploration of the wilder shores of gastronomy) Cooking in the Country. I kept up numerous newsletters, mostly for the customers at the restaurant. I could publish them myself and they were fun to produce. Later I began writing The Good Food Guide. I enjoyed writing the first one, laughing about and eating out. I used to lunch at The Brackenbury every day. I enjoyed it slightly less by the time I had to write the fifth. Somehow my deathless prose didn’t seem quite so deathless anymore. Then I acquired Prospect Books from Alan Davidson [author of The Oxford Companion to Food] and carried on publishing my own books, as well as some others which interested me. More deathless stuff.

For dinner we usually have some of our own meat: pork from our pigs, or lamb chops, Sussex stew. I drink three glasses of a reasonable French red wine

Talk me through an average day and how you would eat.

I start the day with a Nessy [Nescafe instant coffee], a large mug full with one sugar and full-cream milk. This is the first of my daily 12. Then I have a slice of toast with butter spread thick as a slice of cheese. Sometimes with marmalade, sometimes with jam. Then we have lunch at around 1pm, which is invariably hot. Some kind of soup, leftovers, a leek pie – whatever’s in the garden. For dinner we usually have some of our own meat: pork from our pigs, or lamb chops, Sussex stew. I drink three glasses of a reasonable French red wine. We buy it in France, never more than £5 a bottle.

Any good kitchen wisdom?

Absolutely sweet bugger all. Actually that’s not true. Quite early on I decided that manufactured food was disgusting. It’s a bit of a fatuous statement, as many foods that are now “manufactured” such as bacon or smoked salmon are quite good, but I have always lived by this rule: distrust all third-party foods. Even if it’s more work to make it yourself, it is worth it in the end. Do it yourself, that’s my motto. But then I do love eating in restaurants… but I’ll very rarely eat a pâté unless I trust the chef.

On The Menu

Lunch with Tom Jaine
Totnes, Devon, August 2017

To eat:

Duck soup
Potted cheese, rye crackers and Kentish cherries »
Tom’s homemade bread »
Poached greengages

To drink:

Breton cider

Where do you shop?

We don’t buy meat because we only eat our own. If it’s something very specific, like calf’s liver, which I am very fond of, then we get it from the butchers in Totnes [see Address Book]. We try to never shop in supermarkets. I’m sure they are wonderful, but I refuse to buy into their monopolies. Fruit and vegetables are either from the garden or from Annie’s greengrocers in Totnes. The only thing we might buy in a supermarket is easy-peel oranges, as they are genuinely better in the supermarket than anywhere else.

And bread? You take bread fairly seriously…

Yes, I make the bread. A good, simple, crusty white loaf. I prefer the taste of homemade bread. Once a year or so we fire up the bread oven and bake a huge batch and freeze them. Otherwise I bake it in the Aga which also produces a good crust. If I don’t feel like making it then we buy sourdough from The Almond Thief, which is excellent, if a little trying on the teeth. I used to run bread courses here in the 80s in my fervid time, using my wood-fired oven. It was one of the first in the country. In fact, Mary Berry attended one of my courses! She came to stay and we were baking in the Aga because she had been asked to write the Aga cookbook.

Charles Carey imports some of the best olive oils we’ve ever tasted. I’m also a sucker for a lovely tin
Tom on his favourite ingredients, kitchen objects and books

Now that you have handed over Prospect Books how do you amuse yourself?

I bake bread every few days. I do a lot of mowing and keep this place under control. There are numerous animals to tend to and feed. I continue to edit PPC, the longest running English language food studies journal in the world – now up to issue 109! For the last 12 months I’ve been translating The French Country Housewife, by a lady called Cora Millet-Robinet, which was first published in 1845 and anticipated our Mrs Beeton. It really was every French housewife’s friend. Here you can find everything you need to know about the house as well as cooking on the open fire, quite remarkable.

Talk me through our lunch.

Well we had lots of old cheese, and some duck stew left. So I bulked out the stew with some tomatoes and some stock and lots of black pepper to make a good meaty soup. Then the cheese became potted cheese. Plenty of mace, lots of butter. It’s a very old recipe from Mary Anne Boermans’ latest book, Deja Food. Sometimes it’s good to cook old stuff – it’s your heritage girl! Though you never quite replicate it fully as it’s not cooked over an open hearth, et cetera. Leftovers often make the best meals, I find.

For more about Prospect Books, go to prospectbooks.co.uk

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Posted 13th September 2017

In Interviews

 

Interview: Letitia Clark
Photographs: Dan Dennison

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