Food milestones - Jenny Agutter

She spent a lot of her childhood eating exotic food abroad but, nowadays, the Call the Midwife star much prefers roast beef at home in Cornwall

Jenny Agutter standing in front of blue background

Call the Midwife star Jenny Agutter, 65, was born in Somerset and rose to fame when she was 14, playing Roberta in the TV adaptation of The Railway Children and, when she was 17, starring in the 1970 film. Her other movies include Walkabout, Logan’s Run, The Eagle Has Landed, An American Werewolf in London and Equus, for which she won a BAFTA. Since 2012, the mum-of-one has starred as Sister Julienne in the BBC’s Call the Midwife, now in its eighth series.

I lived in Singapore from the age of three to six.

My father was stationed in the army there and my mother, older brother and I went out by boat to join him. The food sticks in my mind because it was often rice wrapped in lotus leaves. It was fragrant, different and lovely.

At boarding school the food was really bad.

I was at Elmhurst Ballet School in Surrey from the age of eight to 16 and they gave us steamed fish with crisps on top, which was a lovely idea but the crisps were always soggy. We also had pork belly which was chewy and still had hairs on it and grey minced beef. We were dancers so we were hungry and ate whatever we had, quickly.

My favourite meal there was hamburgers which we had at summer weekends. It wasn’t so much that they were great, but more that we were allowed to eat outside, sitting on rugs, which made it more of an occasion.

When my father was stationed in Cyprus, my mother always used markets rather than the army stores.

She made a wonderful dish with a large sea bass or bream. She would cook it with herbs, olive oil and lemon and it was absolutely delicious. But my favourite meal was ‘chicken in a basket’ which my father used to make – chicken and chips in a basket lined with paper.

In Cyprus we used to go up into the mountains and have meze.

I was never keen on the okra, which always seemed slimy, but I loved the aubergine and tomato and the goat skewers. I’ve done lots of travelling and for me, a different culture is all about the food.

Aubergine halves topped with tomato sauce and melted cheese

After I made the film of The Railway Children, I spent four years doing theatre and television.

I wanted to do more film but, at that time, the film business was dead in England, so I went to LA and stayed for 17 years. One of my favourite things was breakfast in a diner where the cook would yell, ‘Here’s your eggs, sunny side up!’

I met my husband John (Tham) in 1989 when I opened an arts festival in Bath where I was making a film called King of the Wind.

I was still living in LA but we kept in touch and wrote letters and, when I came back to England to visit, we went on old-fashioned dates. I would be staying in hotels so in the early days I didn’t cook, I just made reservations!

The first time I cooked for him was when he visited LA and I threw a dinner party so he could meet my friends. I did a whole baked salmon: I wanted to play it safe – I once had a dinner party and the oven switched itself off in the middle of my slow-cooked lamb and it was disgusting. John couldn’t bear LA so I came back to England in 1990, we got married the same year and, on Christmas Day, our son Jonathan was born.

Baked salmon fillets on a bed of vegetables

Jonathan has never been a fussy eater.

He would try anything which was fantastic because, when he was five, I took him to Japan where I was playing the Princess of France in Tokyo. He used to love the little Japanese wraps I’d buy in the corner store – tuna or cooked meat wrapped in seaweed. He would eat everything I ate, including noodles. But he had a bit of a surprise when I bought what I thought were doughnuts for breakfast. They had curry in the middle of them.

The most revolting dish I ever ate was a casserole in a pub which came with part of the container it had been microwaved in.

I put my fork into the dish and came up with plastic! Three years ago, my husband and I went to a posh restaurant in Paris which had three Michelin stars. We felt rather pleased because they had squeezed us in but it was at the end of the day. In France, staff like to leave on time so our meal came fast and then, at the end after a huge wait, we eventually got dessert. It was a mousse/cake type of thing and it had Smarties on it. It looked a mess and tasted horrible. The chef had gone home and someone had rushed out and bought something. John and I just looked at each other – it was a Fawlty Towers moment!

In November 2016, John and I spent a month travelling in New Zealand and ate some great food.

Just outside Queenstown on the South Island we went to Amisfield vineyard, which friends had recommended and we had an amazing lunch. We drank pinot noir and ate a shellfish starter which had flowers around it and gold flakes on top, followed by tiny lamb cutlets. It was five courses and everything was truly delicious and beautifully presented: they even created the New Zealand fern insignia from a vegetable.

The last dish I cooked was a slightly lazy thing.

We were in Cornwall where we have a cottage on The Lizard peninsula. They have great beef in Cornwall so I bought a small fillet, sealed it on a very high heat and then stuck it in the oven for very little time. I tend to stick anything I am roasting – be it meat or chicken – on a mat of carrots, leeks and onions which I have cooked slightly before in the oven so they have started to get a flavour. Then I make a good jus by adding wine to the lovely juices in the pan.  

Sliced roast beef with carrots and a jug of gravy


Quickfire questions

Food heaven? A meal at Kurobuta – they have two branches in London: on the King’s Road and at Marble Arch. It’s highly inventive Japanese food – I love the hamburgers with amazing sauces.

And hell? I like all food except butter beans (too floury).

Favourite celebrity chef? Jamie Oliver. I admire his enthusiasm and he seems committed to changing people’s views on food from school age.

Describe yourself in three words: Impatient, impatient, impatient.

Your ideal weekend? Booking a last-minute flight to somewhere like Lisbon, which I did recently, and trying lots of new foods with my husband, John.

Dream dinner party guests? Sir David Attenborough and, apart from him, family.

What did you have for breakfast today? Porridge with wild cherry jam.

Favourite tipple? Really good red wine. I prefer burgundies.

Finish this sentence: I am most happy when... I am surrounded by family.

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Jenny is patron of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. For further information go to cysticfibrosis.org.uk

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