Famed for TV comedies Extras and Ugly Betty, the actress shares her memories of Angel Delight, a bad experience with kidney beans... and eyeball soup!
Ashley Jensen, 48, found fame on television as Maggie Jacobs in Ricky Gervais’s award-winning comedy Extras. She went on to be cast in the American series Ugly Betty and moved to LA with the actor and writer Terence Beesley who she married in 2007. More recently she appeared in the hit comedy Catastrophe and as the detective Agatha Raisin in the eponymous series.
Jensen’s film work includes the BAFTA-nominated The Lobster, Nativity and Robert Carlyle’s directorial debut, The Legend of Barney Thomson. Now back in the UK, Ashley lives with Terence and their seven-year-old son, Frankie, in Bath.
Childhood food memories
Growing up in the 1970s in Scotland...
We had things like Angel Delight and food out of cans. You used to be able to get four corn cobs in a massive can which seemed to me the height of exoticism!
When I was little, my mum made a chill con carne and, of course, there were beans in the shape of little kidneys.
I refused to eat them because I thought they were the kidneys of tiny animals but I didn’t say this to my mum. I just said ‘I’m not eating it’. Of course, if you didn’t eat your food it was a terrible waste, and I sat there for a long time looking at those bloody kidney beans. It wasn’t until years later that I told my mum I hadn’t eaten it because I thought it belonged to a tiny animal. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ she said, ‘I just thought you were being fussy!’
Mum was a single parent and in the holidays she used to take me camping in France.
On the campsite they used to sell skinny fries; when you came from Scotland you got a chip from the chip shop and it was a big solid thing that looked like a potato so to be having these freshly cooked really skinny long French fries was amazing.
In 1990, much to Mum’s chagrin, I became a vegetarian (although I ate fish, so I was actually a pescatarian).
My mum used to make soup with lentils and ham and she couldn’t fathom why I couldn’t just eat her lentil soup without the bits of ham. In Scotland in 1990 most people, including my mum, thought being a vegetarian was just a phase and you’d soon eat a sausage. My phase lasted 20 years!
I terrified my husband at the beginning of our relationship.
I lived in London and used to love going to China Town where I would buy packs of things that looked like fungus and toenails but were actually seaweed and dried mushrooms. I used to make noodle soup, a bit like a ramen I suppose. I would drop an egg in and garnish the soup with bonito flakes which are tiny flakes of dried, fermented tuna. When they hit the water they expand and look like they’re flapping and he used to say, ‘Oh no, not the eyeball soup again!’
When I became pregnant...
I was aware that I was a vessel for the baby and thought much more about what I put into my body, and I still do. When I look back to what I ate in my twenties, all these terrible sweets that we used to eat at the cinema for example, I just cannot fathom eating something like that now.
Career and food choices
I entered LA as a vegetarian, but left as a meat eater.
We settled in LA when I got Ugly Betty and we had Frankie there. When we were feeding Frankie we looked at all the processed vegetarian food that was on offer and thought it would be better to have a really nice cut of meat than some processed vegetarian sausages. So we started eating wild meat that we had delivered from a ranch in Texas. The first meat that I ate after 20 years was an incredible rare venison steak and we used to get elk, deer and wild boar.
When we came back to Britain, we used to get our meat from a place in Scotland and ate mutton, pheasant, partridge and venison. I don’t eat a great deal of meat now, but I will if I know it’s been farm-raised, grass-fed or wild-caught. I try not to eat processed food, but I do slip up on bacon now and again.
For the last four months I have been living like a nun in a closed order.
I have been away from home, filming in Leeds. I’d get up, go on set, come back, have some soup, learn my lines and go to bed. I did get to come home at the weekends and then I’d cook us all a nice big English breakfast. I like simple honest food, like soups. I can go to the fridge when there’s nothing in there and I can make a pot of soup – it’s quite a skill!
For my last supper..
This would be a nice glass of red wine and a simple meal: I really love spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino which is basically just oil, garlic and chilli flakes. I haven’t got a sweet tooth but if it was my last supper, maybe I’d have a little dense pot of dark chocolate, heavy on cream and heavy on chocolate.