Monday, 22 October 2012

Woman After My Own Heart

The WI rock. Seriously. For lots of reasons but especially how during the war they all came together to help to grow and preserve food while rationing was enforced. It didn't matter what class they belonged to. Lady of the Manor mucking in alongside her maid - totally unheard of prior to this cool movement.

I was looking at their website and doing a bit of research, I stumbled upon a fabulous looking book titled "Vintage Teatime" by Jessica Simmons (now Jessica Johnson - a lucky chap married this lovely lady) The book is packed full of wonderful cake, biscuit and bun recipes. This book alongside my WI research inspired me and realised that the WI embody a lot of the cooking principles I believe in. I wanted to know more about the lady who wrote the book - where did the recipes come from, what inspired Jessica, what does she like to eat? So I found Jessica's website.

A must have
Expecting to see a real homely mature woman on the website I was shocked yet delighted to see a beautiful, classy and really young lady. Who said the WI was stuffy?! I discovered Jessica is a freelance food writer. Even more inspired I had the idea of asking her whether she would do an interview for the Vivi blog (hoping I didn't look like a web stalker) and god love her she said yes! Cooking, Classic FM and vintage capes - a woman after my own heart and I kind of want her to be my best friend. (don't freak out Jess, I'm kidding! Sort of...)
Oh so pretty!
So allow me to introduce the gorgeous and talented Jessica Johnson:

VV: Thank you Jessica for partaking in the first Vivi interview. Firstly,What made you decide to become a food writer?
JJ: I love the history of a recipe - it can tell so many stories and offer a wider social perspective of the time it was written. Working at the WI, I started researching old recipes from the archive on my lunch break and then decided to start a blog to bring some of the classics alive.

VV: What is your earliest memory of cooking?
JJ: I did a lot of baking with my Grandma. She had an allotment and was always putting the crops to good use in pies, crumbles and puddings for all of the family. I had my own little rolling pin and she had infinite patience, helping me to roll out the pastry and make my own jam tarts.
Jessica pouring her sis a cup of tea

VV: Have you always cooked and baked?
JJ: Not really. It was only after university that I started getting interested. I lived in Madrid for a year and I guess it inspired me to be more adventurous with my cooking, and my ordering of restaurant food. The Spanish have such a healthy attitude to mealtimes – it’s very ceremonious, with all the family sitting down and sharing some wonderful dishes. The baking was really inspired by my time at the WI – as their staff writer I got to meet some of the most wonderful cooks and bakers across the UK. Always very modest with it!  

VV: How fantastic! So who are your cooking heroes?
JJ: Real home-cooks. Top of the list would be my good friend Sue Ashworth. She’s a first-class home economist and cooks with panache, humour and precision - what she can’t do in the kitchen isn’t worth knowing.

VV: Ooh I wouldn't say no to an invite at chez Sue! Tell us about your involvement with the WI.
JJ: I joined the WI in east London when I moved to the capital in 2007, and days later applied for a job as Staff Writer for their membership magazine. I worked here for over three years, started the blog which then led to the inspiration for the book. Although I’m freelance I continue to be a WI member – after moving south of the River a few weeks ago I’m looking forward to visiting my new WI early next month. It’s a wonderful organisation; steeped in history but going through a really exciting time as more women get inspired to start their own WI and bring traditional skills like sewing and baking back full circle.

VV: I agree wholeheartedly. Your book Vintage Teatime is wonderful. Where did you collect the recipes from?
JJ: Thank you! All the recipes are sourced from the archives of the Women’s Institute including WI cookery books, recipe pamphlets and federation (county) recipes going back to the 1930s. Some were tweaked slightly to bring them in line with modern appliances and measures – it was great fun to research. I decamped to the Women’s Library which holds all of the WI archives and loved every second creating the perfect set of afternoon tea recipes. I wanted to reflect the regional specialities that each federation is famed for, so there’s some Guernsey Gache, Devonshire Splits and – one of my favourites  -the Lincolnshire Plum Bun. Fabulously fruity!

VV: Do you listen to music when you’re cooking or baking, if so what?
JJ: A bit of Classic FM sometimes – but I quite like the peace and quiet!
Doing what she does best 

VV: Me too! God forbid you were on death row, what would your last meal be?
JJ: Fish and Chips from the Magpie Café in Whitby – drenched in vinegar!

VV: Excellent choice - my mouth is watering. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
JJ: Be true to yourself.

VV: Wise words there. Authenticity is a must. A brief detour from the culinary – you’re a very classy and stylish lady. What inspires you fashion wise?
JJ: I used to live in second-hand clothes but now I like to mix it up with contemporary pieces. Autumn is pretty inspiring as I love layering up in tights, dresses, boots and scarves. I also own too many coats so it’s a good time to get some wear out of them. My favourite is a 1920’s tartan-lined ‘nanny’s cape’ from an antiques market in Lincolnshire, complete with toggles and a big hood. I love a hood!

VV: Sounds amazing, I'm very jealous of the cape. So what do you think are the challenges are in a modern world regarding home cooking and have you got any tips for us to overcome this?
JJ: The market is saturated with recipes, TV shows, and book-shelves now heave with new baking and cooking books which can sometimes be a little daunting. I would say don’t put too much pressure on yourself and try out the dishes that really interest you. Cooking or baking one new dish a week – or even month – is a great way to start. Jot them all down and create a little notebook of recipes. My mother-in-law, who lives in Cape Town, has the most gloriously battered book of home recipes – a lot of them have been in the family for quite a few years and they are really cherished.  

VV: Excellent advice. As you say it can feel overwhelming. So what’s next for you, have you plans to write anymore books or do you have other projects in the pipeline?
JJ: My mind is always brimming with ideas and projects - another book would be the literal cherry on the vintage cake!
Who else is drooling at this? Vintage heaven.
Well I don't know about you but I can't wait for another book from this inspiring lady. Read more about Jessica here and follow her blog.


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