Emma Freud meets Davina McCall
Our columnist talks to the TV presenter about her childhood, her cookbooks and evocative memories baked into particular recipes.
When Davina McCall began working on TV over 20 years ago, she changed the game for female presenters. She’s professional and accomplished, but also honest, open, emotional, funny, authentic and relentlessly true to herself. Now in her 50s, she’s added a fitness business to her CV and written four cookbooks.
Emma: You had a complicated childhood (her mother moved to France when Davina was three, so she was brought up in the UK by her gran, only seeing her mum in the holidays). What kind of food did you eat?
Davina: My granny, Pippy, made lots of old-school home food. All the pies, roast everything, plus a smattering of 70s-style convenience food like canned ravioli and chicken noodle packet soup. My favourite was her boiled ham with parsley sauce and mash – such a lovely, old-fashioned dish. When I went back to France it was a three-course meal, every meal, of pure gastronomy! Rabbit, the best cuts of every meat, frogs’ legs, seafood (which I never really got to grips with), every salad known to man, and huge platters of cheese, plus expensive wines – I’d be given a little glass from age 10.
E: Was food a comfort as you kept moving home?
D: Food with my granny was love. After bringing up three young children in post-war Britain, cooking was how she could care for me. She wanted to lavish me with sugar and butter in a way she couldn’t with her own children. But in France, it was a bit of a chore really as every meal went on for so long! There was only about an hour after a meal before we had to eat again. My mum cooked for me sometimes – she was a good cook – but it was rare. My grandparents had a maid called Maria who was more of a mother to my sister and I than our mother was.
E: What was the first meal you remember cooking?
D: My dad and my stepmum used to come down to Pippy’s every weekend to see me. My granny would make a pie for Friday night and give me the leftover pastry to fashion into something. They would have to eat it and pretend it was delicious.
E: You’ve written four cookbooks now. How did that become part of your professional life?
D: I was approached a few years ago to make a sugar-free cookbook as I had started eating without sugar. There was one problem – I wasn’t a chef and I wanted to be totally transparent. So I worked with food writer and recipe developer Catherine Phipps. She made healthier, sugar-free versions of my favourite dishes, then I tried them out and wrote about experimenting with new ingredients, or finding shortcuts or hacks. I’ve got no idea how I got from a nightclubbing, pizza-eating maniac to here. How on earth did that happen?
E: Your diet is exemplary, though as a teenager your lifestyle was wild – and dangerous. Is that partly responsible for why you live so healthily now?
D: I have a healthy diet to watch my weight and live longer. I can’t take my eye off the ball for a minute!
E: Do your children have a healthy lifestyle too?
D: I do police their food but not too much. The girls (Davina has three teenagers – Holly, Tilly and Chester) have developed a good attitude to healthy food. Holly, my oldest, is way more of an instinctive cook than I am. She’s always marinating, making rubs, adding seeds, spices, extra fibre here and there. She’s going to study dietetics at university this year.
E: How did you feel about your son judging (and eating) all 25 entries in his godmother’s Best Sweet Tournament? And have you forgiven her for making him do it?
D: Yes, Emma, I’ve forgiven you for all of your outrageous sweet-themed gifts. Let’s not forget the giant 2kg blue gummy bears you gave him for Christmas.
E: Are there any foods that you connect particularly with your sister, Caroline?
D: My sister lived with me a lot of the time, which I loved. We cooked together every Sunday – she was my right-hand woman. I really struggled with cooking Sunday lunches alone after she died in 2012. Holly, my daughter, has started cooking them with me now and I often tell her how much it reminds me of Caroline. It makes my heart happy. One of her favourite dishes was poule au pot – poached chicken with a lemon crème fraîche sauce and white rice. So French, so gorgeous.
E: Is it strange for you to eat those dishes now?
D: Food does bring back enormous memories of both sides of my family. Sometimes happy, sometimes painful, but it’s in a good way.
E: It’s big news about you presenting the return of Changing Rooms on Channel 4. Were you always a fan? What do you love about it?
D: I’ve always been obsessed with that show. At home, I’m seriously uncreative and need to be hand-held through any home renovations and decorations, so I’ll be learning on the job, too.
E: Has the show been updated to speak to a world that has a very different relationship with their homes, and with money? The year 2020 has left so many people increasingly broke.
D: It couldn’t come at a better time. Money is tight at the moment so we’ll be looking at affordable, impactful changes that anyone can do, and giving lots of support online. I think lockdown has changed so many things; our use of space, creating home offices, renovating rather than moving. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about it.
5 ingredients you always have and need? Cans of mixed beans, red onions, peppers, quinoa and chicken stock.
What would your last meal on earth be? Bangers and mash with peas, or baked beans and onion gravy.
The meal you make most often? A ‘picky plate’.
One ingredient you couldn’t live without? Salt.
One ingredient you hate? Do you know, I really can’t think of one.
The meal you find hardest to make? Complicated and ‘bitty’ posh dinners.
Find out more about Davina’s health, fitness and well-being website at Own Your Goals.
Read more articles by Emma Freud
Emma Freud meets Nigella Lawson
Emma Freud meets Jason Isaacs
Emma Freud cooks for The Rangoon Sisters
Emma Freud cooks for Sabrina Ghayour
Emma Freud cooks for Rick Stein
Emma Freud cooks for Vivek Singh
Emma Freud cooks for Nigel Slater
Comments, questions and tips