Meet the Expert – Christine McFadden

Meet the Expert

Please could you tell us about yourself?

Hello I’m Christine McFadden. I’ve been involved with food one way or another for the past 25 years. I write cookbooks and magazine features, I develop recipes for publishers and food producers, and I demonstrate at local food fairs. I’m also a volunteer judge for the Taste of the West Awards and the Great Taste Awards, and I was former Vice-Chair of the Guild of Food Writers and Chair of Slow Food Dorset.

I’m passionate about west Dorset where I’ve lived for the past 15 years. It has an incredible food culture, excellent watering holes and a lively arts scene. I am lucky enough to live within sight of the Jurassic Coast, so the beach is a favourite place for a picnic or after-work swim.

Until recently I have travelled far and wide, particularly in New Mexico, Italy and the Middle East, visiting food markets, cookery schools and fellow food writers around the world. I have been privileged to meet inspiring people – food producers, chefs, food campaigners and more. My most challenging trips were to Syria in 2010 – a time when the country was developing its tourist industry – and to Kerala, southwest India where I researched my book Pepper: the Spice that Changed the World.

I haven’t yet stopped travelling. I yearn to go north – to Norway to visit the Global Seed Vault at Svalbard and to visit friends in Sweden. I am also inexplicably drawn to Shetland. I had a trip booked in May that was scuppered by lockdown. Hopefully it will happen later in the year.

How have you spent your time during lockdown?

I have very much appreciated the beauty of the idyllic wooded valley where I live. I have enjoyed regular walks, scarcely meeting a soul. I have also spent time successfully growing herbs and vegetables from seed, transplanting young seedlings, excitedly watching them grow and subsequently enjoying the fruits of my labours. It’s a supremely rewarding and creative exercise that gives much-needed focus and motivation at a difficult time.

Why did you pursue a career in food?

In another life I was a graphic designer. This involved art directing photo shoots that often showcased food. Attending the shoots were people called home economists and food stylists whose job it was to organise props, prepare the food and arrange a napkin or sprig of parsley just so. “I could do that,” I thought.

Never one to do things by half, I subsequently enrolled on a BSCHons degree course and spent three very happy years as a mature student studying food in all its aspects – not just cooking but also food anthropology, nutrition, product development, marketing and sensory evaluation.

I went on an industrial placement, which in my case was with a publishing company where I worked on research and development of cookery books. I also helped out with photo shoots and learned the skills needed for preparing food for photography. I couldn’t have been happier.After graduating I worked as a free-lance cookery editor, recipe developer for publishers and supermarkets, and as a home economist. My first cookbook Combined Recipes for Vegetarians and Non-Vegetarians was commissioned by Sainsburys in 1992, a time when vegetarianism was a newly growing trend. I now have more than fifteen published cookbooks under my belt, three of which were short-listed for international food media awards:

Pepper: the Spice that Changed the World published by Absolute Press and available online at ckbk

The Farm Shop Cookbook published by Absolute Press/Bloomsbury

Cool Green Leaves and Red Hot Peppers (co-authored with Michael Michaud of Sea Spring Seeds) published by Frances Lincoln

My latest book Flour: a Comprehensive Guide published by Absolute Press/Bloomsbury, is an A-Z guide to 45 flours – a timely book given the current lockdown and seemingly unstoppable interest in baking. The book clearly demonstrates that wheat is not the only flour, and that it can be milled from grains and seeds, pulses, nuts, tubers and roots – even insects!  It includes what I hope is an erudite essay on each flour, plus a motley collection of recipes from around the world, some developed by me, others kindly donated by chefs and fellow food writers.

What is your favourite ingredient and why?

Though flour is fascinating, my favourite ingredient is pepper (NB not chillies).  Researching and writing Pepper: the Spice that Changed the World not only provided the opportunity to visit India, it also allowed me to indulge in my love of spices and deep interest in flavour. I learned that there were more types of pepper than I had ever imagined. I learned how to taste pepper properly, how to grind peppercorns in different ways, and how to use them in a broad spectrum of recipes.  Pepper remains my favourite ingredient and it shows up in much of my cooking – often in unexpected places!

What is your biggest achievement/lesson you have learnt?

I am proud that Pepper: the Spice that Changed the World was short-listed for the Guild of Food Writers Food Book of the Year Award. I’m also proud that my former cookery school, which I ran for 8 years, came second in the British Cookery School Awards. An important lesson I have learned is to come to terms with rejection and to continue to persevere.

Could you share your favourite recipe?

I have plenty of favourite recipes so it’s hard to choose just one. That said, in summer when strawberries are at their best, I like to make Strawberry and Black Pepper Ice Cream.

Strawberry and Black Pepper Ice-Cream

This is so easy to make – no syrup or custard involved, just pure ricotta, a little double cream, lemon juice and sugar. There’s a bit of heat from the pepper, but it’s subtle and slow, and takes a back seat to the creamy richness of the strawberries. Eat the ice cream right away, or at the most within a day or two of making. The fresh fruity flavour starts to fade soon after that.

Makes about 850ml

Strawberries 450g plus extra to decorate
Caster sugar 150g
Lemon juice 1 tbsp
Black peppercorns 1 tbsp crushed and sieved, plus a few whole peppercorns to decorate
Ricotta cheese 125g
Double cream (preferably organic) 2 tbsp

  1. Rinse, hull and dry the strawberries (in that order), reserving a few unhulled berries for decoration.
  2. Put the hulled fruit in the bowl of a food processor along with the sugar, lemon juice and pepper.
  3. Whiz to a purée, scrape into a bowl with a spatula, then cover and chill for at least an hour.
  4. Slacken the ricotta with the cream, mixing well, then stir it into the strawberry purée.
  5. Freeze the mixture in an ice-cream machine following the manufacturer’s instructions. Spoon into plastic boxes and press cling-film over the surface before putting on the lid. Store in the freezer until completely firm.
  6. Put the ice-cream in the fridge to soften 20-25 minutes before you want to serve it. Spoon into glass bowls and decorate with a strawberry and a single black peppercorn.

Cook’s notes

Don’t be tempted to use regular kitchen pepper for this. To enjoy the ice-cream at its best, you need top-quality, organic or single estate peppercorns, preferably Tellicherry or Wynad. You can buy these and other top-notch peppercorns from Seasoned Pioneers or good supermarkets.

Recipe © Christine McFadden

Portrait photography Richard Budd 

Food photography Christine McFadden

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