First Published November 2014
A HEART AS SWEET AS HER COOKING TASTES
It’s often said that nothing great or good can happen without great and good people first deciding that something actually needs to happen. Well, a group of caring, committed and dedicated folk in Kilcormac made just such a decision when it came to doing something about the dangerously narrow entrance to Scoil Mhuire Agus Chormaic. After one near-miss too many they decided to form the ‘Scoil Mhuire Agus Chormaic Safe School Entrance Group’, reasoning that waiting for a tragedy to occur, which would then force the highlighting of this issue, was not something they were going to allow happen.
Between 35,000 and 40,000 euro is needed to complete this important and vitally necessary project and this coming Thursday, 13th November, sees the next step taken on their journey towards that target when they will be joined by celebrity chef and one of Ireland’s most famous faces, Rachel Allen, for ‘An Evening of Christmas Cooking’ in the County Arms Hotel in Birr. It is hoped that proceeds from this event will edge funds ever closer to the halfway-mark. Now despite the many and varied demands on her time Rachel didn’t hesitate for even a moment when contacted by the Group and asked would she be able to help. Much to the delight and eternal appreciation of all involved, once Rachel heard the details of what they were aiming for, her immediate response was pretty much, ‘Say no more, just tell me where and tell me when, and I’ll be there!’
I had the pleasure of spending some time in conversation with Rachel last week and no sooner had we introduced ourselves than she was emphasising how important she thought it was for this safe drop-off point to be achieved in Kilcormac, and how happy she was that there was some small way she might be able to bring that desired outcome closer. Our chat then turned to Christmas, and with the countdown now well under way (and suspecting that I might already know the answer!) I asked Rachel if she was someone who loves a traditional Christmas? Do the tree, the holly and the lights all fly up in her house as soon as the first chance comes?
“Yes! I’m very much a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas. And Christmas isn’t Christmas without the brussel sprouts and the cranberry sauce, the turkey, the stuffing. And goose I love as well. So yes, it’s traditional in our house, Anthony, definitely! I love getting the tree up and having all the lights twinkling. Normally we try to get our tree up about the first week of December. But do you know what I’ve been finding is that the kitchen/sitting room where we keep the tree, it’s quite a warm room because we have a stove in there. And last year, and the year before, I had the tree up at the very beginning of December. But by Christmas it was looking a little bit dry! So I think I need to work out a better place for it, or some kind of pot, maybe. But anyway, I shouldn’t be bothering you with all of that! The short answer is our tree goes up nice and early, so we can make the most of it!”
And would there be a particular moment each year that really signals the true beginning of Christmas for Rachel? Like the famous ad for the Coca-Cola lorry, for instance, or perhaps the Toy Show being on?
“Oh it is, it’s all of those for me! I love all the Christmas music when it starts, and I love the Toy Show, of course. And decorating the tree and making gingerbread men with my children. Well, the two older boys, they’re not so much into it now! But our daughter still is. So it’s everything, Anthony. All of those things, those little rituals, I love it.”
I wondered what was Rachel’s earliest stand-out memory of Christmas? And could she still recall the present that most excited her as a child?
“Hmm, the Christmas stuff that I always remember? Well I always remember going over to Canada. My mam’s family are from Canada but her parents actually lived in Canada, and my grandfather is still there. So I remember going over there and it was just snow…everywhere! It was white, white, white. And that was something I loved. It was really Christmasey, because you know the way now in Ireland loads of people have trees outside with lights on them? But people didn’t do that in Ireland when I was little! But in Canada, they put lights on EVERYTHING. And it was always just gorgeous, Anthony. And the standout present? I’d say a bike, yes, my orange bike. And that was last year! No, I’m only joking!”
What about a favourite Christmas song?
“Oh there’s so many! I love any of the Rat Pack Christmas songs. I know I’m really cheesey, but I do!”
Before leaving Christmas behind us, so to speak, I couldn’t help but wonder what Rachel thought about the way Christmas seems to begin so much earlier every year….
“Well, yes, I know what you mean. It is literally as soon as halloween is finished that Christmas seems to be starting, doesn’t it. But you know, I suppose that’s just the way it is now. I’m definitely not one to complain about that, though, because I love to see all the decorations and lights and everything going up. So yes, it is starting quite early these days, but I’m not complaining.”
So, in case you guys didn’t know (and are maybe still stuck for an idea or three for under someone’s tree!), Rachel has a brand new book in the shops, the fabulous ‘All Things Sweet’, which exists, of course, in conjunction with her equally fabulous tv show of the same name. As with all of the books which bear Rachel’s name and smile on their cover, ‘All Things Sweet’ is huge! Full of detail, full of colour and full of pictures that will tempt you into tasting the paper itself! I asked Rachel what would the normal time-line be for one of her books?
“Oh, it’s pretty much a year. Yeah, it is. I’d start taking notes on different ideas first, and I could be doing that for a couple of years even. Then when the idea has formed on what I’ll actually do, I start researching, start testing, start writing. So at the start it’s sort of thinking about things and writing down ideas, and then after that, I really start testing! So normally, Anthony, I’d come up with the idea in about September or October, then start making my notes, get all the testing done by about January or February, all the writing done by about March or April. Then all of the editing is taken care of and it normally goes to print by about June and comes out in September. So yeah, it’s about a full year cycle each time.”
So does that mean that at this very moment Rachel is already into the early stages of the book we’ll get to dive into a year from now?
“Yes! But it’s going to be either one of two ideas. So at the moment I’m kind of working on two books, because I’m not sure which one it’s going to be!”
How difficult is it to keep coming up with new recipes or twists on different ones? Is that something Rachel has to discipline herself to work at or does it come very naturally?
“I think they kind of come quite naturally. There are sooo many things you can do with food. I suppose the day I run out of ideas is the day I’ll stop. But I don’t think i’ll run out anytime soon!”
Now, I have to admit to something here….I’m a guy who doesn’t cook or bake. At all. And to my shame, I suppose. And yet, here’s the funny thing; I love shows about cooking or baking! And Rachel’s have always been my favourite. And no, I wasn’t just saying that. I wondered if she came across many others ‘like’ me???
“Aww, well thank you. Well you know, a lot of people do love to watch cooking but don’t actually cook themselves. Yeah, quite a few people, but that’s ok as well. I suppose it’s because it can just be nice to watch, can’t it. To see different things being created. I, personally, do hope that people would watch my shows and then actually go off and cook afterwards. Now I’m not saying that I hope YOU’RE in the minority, Anthony! But I do hope that a lot of people will say, ‘Great, ok, that has actually shown me exactly what to do, so I’m going to make that!’ “
It’s always struck me that Rachel’s lovely manner of presenting her shows makes them every bit as entertaining as they are informative. In the same way a really good teacher can lead you into loving a subject without even seeming to try and without you realising. I wondered if that was something she tries to make sure of, but modestly, she seemed genuinely unaware of her ability to do so.
“Oh goodness, I don’t even know! I’ve never even thought about that.”
As I mentioned earlier, Rachel’s new book, ‘All Things Sweet’, has a companion tv show of the same name. In it, we’re presented with delicious half-hour slices of Rachel’s talent, but how much time would go into actually putting together one episode?
“Oh my goodness, well it’s just ridiculous really. It takes so long. If I’m filming out and about, which I often do, going to a chocolate shop say, or a sweet producer or a baker, it can take a whole day to do just one show. And if the budget is bigger, it can take even longer! If you’re traveling more, say. So it can all depend on the budget too. And the higher the budget, the longer it takes. Isn’t that ridiculous!”
With Rachel due in Birr just a week after our chat (that’s JUST ONE day from NOW!), I didn’t want to ask her to give away too many of the secrets and tips she’ll be sharing down in the County Arms. But at the same time, I was talking with one of Ireland’s premier cooks, possibly our Queen of Cooks! And if I’m ever to start baking I can’t pass up any opportunity to learn from the best! So that was my excuse for asking Rachel for just two of the most important things to remember when it comes to planning and preparing for a Christmas feast….!
“I would say definitely, if you’re having a bird for Christmas, a goose or a turkey, make sure to order it in advance. So that’s a really good thing to start thinking about in the next few weeks. Then I would say, and I know this sounds ridiculous, but when you have time, write out the menu. Actually write down, ‘I’d like this, I’d like this, and I’d like this.’ Everything. Even ahead of time as well, and again this might sound really ridiculous, but write out an order of work. If the goose is 6 or 7 pounds or whatever, know that you need to put it on at such a time. All of those kinds of things. So kind of work backwards from when you want to sit down and eat, and write down the order you need to do things in to get everything done. A little bit of organisation goes a long way, Anthony!”
Staying with the Christmas theme, I could hardly bid Rachel farewell without first asking what she’d like to find under her own tree this Christmas morning, if she could ask Santa for anything in the world and know it would be waiting there for her?
“Well of course I’d want for everyone I know to be safe and happy and healthy. Does that sound really cheesey?! But that is all I’d want.”
And finally, any New Year’s resolutions already lined up for 2015?
“I think I need to up the running a bit!”
With our little question and answer session concluded and just as we prepared to say our goodbyes, Rachel was eager to point out once again how important Thursday’s event in Birr is and how she’s delighted to be able to offer her support.
“I really hope people will come to the cookery demonstration because this is all happening for such a good cause, to get these drop-off points put in for the school. It really, really is so important. And I’m just so happy that there’s some way I can help. So for such a brilliant cause I hope loads of people come because they’ll have a really lovely time. There’s going to be market stalls and loads of different things to see; local producers, local butchers, and arts and crafts and everything, and of course the cookery demonstration as well. And I’m looking forward to meeting everybody there too!”
I can say in all honesty, with hand on heart, that Rachel is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to interview. So the fact that she’s been on-board with the idea of Thursday’s fundraiser right from the very second she was first asked came as no surprise as all. We spoke on a Wednesday evening and the next morning my phone pinged to a new text message coming in.
It was from Rachel; ‘Oh sorry, Anthony. If it’s not too late, my favourite Christmas song is Fairytale of New York, by Kirsty McColl and the Pogues!”
So there you go, I can also honestly say that Rachel Allen made both my Wednesday evening and my Thursday morning! And more importantly, it’s further proof (as if any were needed) that she truly is a bit of a sweetheart who’s always finding the time to think of others.
Now, where’s my apron…