Our columnist chats with the Welsh singer, BBC radio broadcaster and author about what inspired her to write her first cookbook, Where the Wild Cooks Go, while making a dhal from the book.
Cerys Matthews is perhaps most famous to Good Food readers as the lead singer in Welsh rock band Catatonia. She now hosts a music show on BBC Radio 6 Music, a blues show on BBC Radio 2, a programme on BBC World Service, makes documentaries for television and radio and is a roving reporter for The One Show. She co-founded The Good Life Experience, a festival of culture and the great outdoors in Flintshire in 2014. Emma has admired her for years.
Emma I’ve never read a cookery book like this before. It’s more like a traveller’s journal.
Cerys I really fancied doing a cookbook which included the cultural richness of the world and had poetry, stories and songs from the areas where the dishes were created. So each chapter is a different country, and every country has regional recipes, some stories I was told there, a local poem, and a playlist of songs from that place to listen to while you cook.
E It seems like everything you are involved with has a world view.
C The best times I have are to do with people, great food, music and stories. And when I’m cooking, I listen to the radio (and try to ignore my family), so that while things are bubbling away, I get to hear shows that take me away from where I live – and that’s wonderful.
E When did your love of cooking start?
C It started with foraging. From the age of 11, a legendary forager called Roger Phillips was my hero. I carried his book, Wild Food, with me every day.
E Why was that important to you then?
C Because it meant I could run away from home and know I had something to eat. It meant empowerment, independence and not having to rely on anyone.
E Was escaping something you needed to do?
C Not needed, but it’s so lovely to escape into individual distinctions and find things that exist which you never knew before. That’s what I’ve been looking for my entire life, from the age of 18 when I left home with a rucksack to go to Spain to learn flamenco.
E Did you crack it?
C Nope, but I stayed there for a year and learnt how to cook.
E This spirit to explore – where did that come from?
C Well, my dad was a potholer, so he explored underground, and I guess it’s the same drive. My favourite interview ever was with Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut, where she describes watching earth from space. It’s like that Louis Armstrong song What a Wonderful World. I know it’s not always a wonderful world, but really, we do have this miracle of life all around us.
E You spent 25 years in the music industry – how well did a soul like yours fit in there?
C It’s not really my world at all. I’ve just managed to be able to do music, spoken word or poetry for my entire working life, and by hook or by crook I’ve made a living. I think it’s because my interest is deep and convoluted and not at all commercial.
E If it’s not ‘commercial’, then how have you made a living?
C Because there’s a lot of people out there like me – curious people who ask questions and don’t just want to toe the line or accept someone else’s answers. They want to touch, feel, try, consider, and either come to their own conclusion, or perpetually carry on learning. And there’s a massive chunk of us.
E Is that also the basis of your Radio 6 show?
C That was my whole idea when I started at the BBC – I don’t want to be part of an algorithm, I don’t want to be seen as this kind of person that likes this kind of thing, because the world is all the more beautiful for itsplurality, and it’s all about the differences. I met Paul Rodgers from 6 Music 10 years ago in the pub. I’d had a cider and I was ‘giving it all that’ and he said, ‘All right, put your money where your mouth is, come and do Stephen Merchant’s radio show when he’s on holiday’. So I did. I played Herb Alpert, John Denver, some Jimi Hendrix, Asha Bhosle – the greatest Bollywood singer now in her 80s – and bit of Welsh harp. It started as randomly as that, and it hasn’t stopped. I get to play any music I want, in any language, any genre, any era. And there’s no algorithm apart from it being really good.
E So your radio show, the festival you curate, the music you play, and this book, all seem to come from the same base.
C Yes, pretty much. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the same. If you’ve got an interest in the world around you, it really doesn’t matter whether you’re talking astronomy, science, cooking, music, anything. It’s all about having a good life. Our festival in Wales, The Good Life Experience, celebrates music, food, books, poetry, ideas, workshops, foraging, butchery, crafts, campfires, explorers – and a massive chunk of it is to do with what we put in our bodies and how we cook. It’s about moving from stainless steel stoves to wood fire pits.
E So, that’s your mission?
C I don’t think I’ve got a mission. I’ve always been like this.
E I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone with more of a mission. You’re relentlessly out there doing your thing – trying to entertain or educate or excite or ignite change or be radical, or inform.
C I think it’s simpler than that. The music I love, and what people do as individuals and community members, it’s beautiful – but these creators don’t make a profit for anyone else so nobody makes a big noise about it, that’s all. It’s not a mission, it’s knowledge – and I want to know more about it. I’d love to go off grid. I’ve got this feeling of wanting to run away; do the Norwegian thing, learn to cook using stuff around you.
E So why did you choose a recipe book format to put your message across?
C This book is all about gift giving and generosity – it’s really simple. When I get taught an idea and then I give it to somebody else and it spreads, it just makes life better.
E The recipes are wonderful, but the real gift you’ve given me is the understanding of where they all come from culturally.
C Emma, if you can get that over in your article, I will be so happy. Because that’s the whole point.
Find the recipe for dhal in the October 2019 issue of BBC Good Food magazine.
Read more articles by Emma Freud
Emma Freud cooks for Matt Tebbutt
Emma Freud cooks for Bill Granger
Emma Freud cooks for Elly Pear
Emma Freud cooks for... Michel Roux Jr
Emma Freud cooks for... Paul A Young
Emma Freud cooks for... Lorraine Pascale
Recipe adapted from Where the Wild Cooks Go by Cerys Matthews (£25, Particular Books).
Good Food contributing editor Emma Freud is a journalist and broadcaster, director of Red Nose Day and a co-presenter of Radio Four’s Loose Ends.
Photographs: David Cotsworth