The Gannet Q&A

Sheila Dillon

6th April 2017

Interview: Adam Park

Broadcaster and host of the BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme, Sheila Dillon was born and brought up in the Lancashire village of Hoghton (its claim to fame is that a drunken James I knighted a loin of beef there while staying at Hoghton Tower in 1607). She now lives in Highbury, North London, and has also lived in the USA, Finland and New Zealand. In addition to her broadcasting, she writes and lectures about food, mainly as it connects to farming and the bigger world.

If you could revisit one meal in your life, which would it be?

It was in my friend Claire Tylee’s flat at Leicester University – she’d made Elizabeth David’s oxtail with white grapes, a simple and cheap dish. Even though I’d always loved to eat and my mother and grandmother were great traditional cooks, that one meal expanded my sense of what cooking could create. The balance of the richness of the meat, the slight fresh acidity of the grapes and the sweetness of the carrots. It was a different kind of taste perfection. There were about eight of us that night, a group of friends who, for reasons I don’t remember, had got hooked on David’s book French Provincial Cooking. We’d been taking turns at making meals from it, exploring pleasures that were new to us all. I’m sure the wine we had with it was seriously plonky – I don’t remember. We were students and broke, all the time.

What’s your most food-splattered cookbook?

There’s competition for that title: French Provincial Cooking, Alastair Little’s Keep it Simple, Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Food, Julie Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol 1, Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken & Other Stories, Jane Grigson’s English Food and Good Things.

The scenes with the main character cooking for his mother and her friends are so funny, touching, and so Italian

Describe your perfect breakfast.

On a New England porch in the summer: coffee, toast and some homemade jam.

No restaurant is perfect but which one, for you, comes closest, and why?

Quo Vadis. A lovely room. A warm welcome. Delicious food that is itself – no cliches.

What’s your favourite food scene in the movies?

Food in movies has never interested me – I tend to avoid films with food as a theme, except documentaries. However, I liked Big Night a lot, and I utterly loved Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto). The scenes with the main character cooking for his mother and her friends are so funny, touching, and so Italian. Unsentimental, unprecious – ordinary in fact – about good food.

What was your favourite food when you were 10?

Mustard and cress sandwiches made with salted butter and thin white bread.

Who is your food hero?

Difficult. Amongst the living there’s Raymond Blanc, Angela Hartnett, Simon Hopkinson, Paula McIntyre and Jeremy Lee. And the magnificent Susan George, author of How the Other Half Dies, still the key text to understanding why poverty and hunger go on crippling the world. And amongst those who are gone is my great hero, the one who made the most difference to my life, Derek Cooper, the journalist and first presenter of The Food Programme.

What’s the best thing you cooked at home in the last month?

Simon Hopkinson’s belly pork braised with Japanese condiments.

What do you listen to when you’re cooking?

I’m on a Handel jag. At the moment I’m listening over and over again to L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. So full of joy and life.

What ingredient or food product are you currently obsessed with?

My quest to find the perfect streaky bacon continues.

Describe a kitchen object you can’t live without.

Years ago my teenage son bought me the perfect chopping board: big, well-balanced, easy to clean – the sort that butchers have. It makes preparing every meal more satisfying.

What’s your biggest food extravagance?

Buying organic food. But it isn’t really an extravagance. If we paid the real cost of inorganic food at the checkout – the cost that’s passed onto us as taxpayers for what obesity, type 2 diabetes, etc, costs us – then organic wouldn’t be an expensive option.


Posted 6th April 2017

In The Gannet Q&A


Interview: Adam Park

More from The Gannet Q&A

The Gannet Q&A: Noah Rothbaum – The New York drinks writer on his favourite Manhattan diner, the sour formula and a drink that goes with (almost) everything

The Gannet Q&A: Claire Thomson – The chef & food writer on a high-speed pasta mission in Naples, the electric street food scene in Chengdu and an ingenious use for oyster shells

The Gannet Q&A: J Kenji López-Alt – The science-focused food writer on unforgettable tapas in Spain, the book he's used so much it's falling apart, and making a mean roast chicken

The Gannet Q&A: Gabriela Fernández Orantes – Gabriela Fernández Orantes is a biochemical engineer and the co-founder of restaurant Itanoní in Oaxaca. She was born in Mexico City and lived all over the country as a child,