Ceri Jones on eating seasonally, cooking for yogis and her essential kitchen kit
There’s nothing more quintessentially English than braving the weather and wasps and heading to the nearest patch of green for a picnic. We met up with natural chef Ceri Jones in a Peckham park to see how she puts a picnic together (see her recipes here) and to find out about her unconventional – and really quite inspiring – career path, which saw her move from classical music to cooking for yogis...
'Lots of people say that they grew up cooking - I didn’t! My mum cooked everything at home and she was a good cook and I learned a lot from her, but it wasn’t until I went to university and had to cook for myself that I went ‘oh right, I quite like doing this!’ and it built from there. Maybe I would have chosen food first, but I didn’t really know that that was my path. I organised concerts and tours for an orchestra for ten years after university and in the last couple of years of that realised I wasn’t enjoying it so much anymore. I really enjoyed cooking at home and I started a blog, then decided why not make a go of making that my job instead, so I quit my job and retrained as a chef.
I did a short course in nutrition because the healthy aspect of food was what got me into cooking, then a couple of day and evening cooking classes followed by a six month course at the Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition and Culinary Arts in Berkeley, California. Why not? Take a break from your career and go and do something a bit crazy living in another country! When I got back I took a job working as a chef in a cafe three days a week and alongside that I started to build up my teaching portfolio because I really enjoyed teaching other people to do what I do and inspiring them to cook for themselves. At the same time I was building up the blogging momentum and then a year after that I moved into doing more yoga retreats which is the only chef work I do now.'
'Yoga retreats are such a nice environment to be in - you're in one place for three days, cooking for people who appreciate the food. You get the direct feedback - we sit and eat together - people are interested to learn about what you’re doing and for me that brings in the educational element of it as well. When I cook at home it’s very simple - I’ll bung some vegetables in the oven and cook some grains, toss it together and that’s it. On a retreat it’s a bit more special, but the kind of salad I’ve made today would be a lunchtime dish and I’d maybe do a tart to go alongside it, then in the evening it’s a bit more of a cooked thing.
They always say that people who like to eat are the best kind of people! I’ve gone to lots of blogger events over the years and really enjoyed getting to know people and made lots of friendships that way which is something I’d never expected. Anna Jones is a huge inspiration for the way that she just very naturally creates all this healthy food without making a song and dance about it.'
The accidental vegetarian…
'My cooking style is simpler now. When I first started out most of my dishes were what you’d cook in the evening when you get home from work. Now the stuff that I create is more for the fun of it or celebrating ingredients and flavours and not cooking very much meat at all anymore.
I find that getting flavour out of vegetables is really easy. People think cooking with non-meat doesn’t give food flavour but it’s completely the opposite. It’s not about relying on the umami flavour of the meat to give your dish flavour, it’s about using lovely dressings and combining lots of simple ingredients together.'
On eating seasonally
'Veg boxes and bags have been around for a while and if you go back to the vegetarian cookbooks from 20 years ago of course they were all seasonal because it’s always been a thing - it’s not a trend, it’s something that has always existed.
I didn’t know anything about seasonal eating until I did my training. It was one of the pillars of how we chose what foods to put on our plate and how to devise our menus. It was the first time I’d really given thought to it and made more of an effort to celebrate ingredients rather than buying a butternut squash in June and not really realising that that wasn’t a thing.'
Make the most of things
'I don’t see [cooking seasonally] as a restriction, I see it as a celebration of things, so for example the blackberries in today's recipes - you don’t get them all year round so when you do, you make the most of them and you get really inspired to create recipes for them, whereas if you use them all year round you wouldn’t have that specialness.
It’s not about not including something because it’s not seasonal, because if you need to you will, it’s more about highlighting the things that are that have really short seasons. Because things like carrots you get all year round and beetroot mostly too, so it’s more about making a splash and a special song and dance about the things and enjoying them when you do.'
Store cupboard essentials
'Lemon zest, sea salt - proper Cornish or Essex Maldon sea salt, the flaky, really chunky stuff, really nice, good quality olive oil - I usually buy the organic one from the supermarket, Italian or Spanish usually. I know that’s really classic - olive oil, lemon juice, salt - good enough for a salad dressing!
I always have tahini in the fridge because I love it, I thicken it up and make it into a dressing or dip, I use it to make houmus obviously, I even use it to make cookies and drizzle it on porridge sometimes. I just like the bitter flavour. Beetroot obviously, it’s one of my faves! I love the sweet earthy flavour of it, and carrots, can’t go wrong with carrots. I made some beetroot sorbet last week and it was really interesting, an amazing colour - just the brightest pink.'
There’s a farm shop on Lordship Lane in East Dulwich which is just around the corner from here called Franklin's which is really lovely if I need to go and get some nice fresh produce. I get a veg bag from a local scheme called Lee Greens so I get most of my veg from there that I cook at home for myself. There’s a really lovely shop called General Store on Bellenden Road, the other side of Peckham, it’s nice for a wander and picking up a few bits and bobs. And there’s a lovely veg shop called The Creaky Shed in Greenwich. I go there sometimes as well if I want something nice.
My kitchen essentials would include a chef’s knife - you can’t do anything without a good knife and it has to be sharp as well. I got mine from Sonoma when I did my chef training and I can’t use another one now because it fits my hand. If you have a knife you don’t really need anything else - people often ask me about garlic crushers and I say ‘no, just use your knife’. I couldn’t live without my food processor for blitzing things up and making dips and spreads. I got a really cheap food processor that comes around the country with me and makes energy balls in workshops and it doesn’t matter that it’s cheap. I have a high-powered blender which I love as well - they’re not essential but they’re also great for making stuff. A microplane which is a zester basically for making lemon zest which I put in everything, that’s really useful as well, I couldn’t live without that. And I recently got a mandolin and I’m loving that as well. It’s not essential but it’s quite fun! That’s what lives in my chef kit really, it’s the knives...