I started blogging about 18 months ago. I’ve been a writer, broadcaster and journalist for twenty-five years, but when you earn a living as a writer it’s odd how hard it is to find time to write about the things you love best. Food, books, art and photography are my greatest passions and it struck me like a thunderbolt one day that I should combine all those things in a food blog. I just hoped that readers would stumble across Eggs on the Roof and find what I had tried to place there – wonderful food, photographs, eclectic references to art and books and things to make you laugh.
The name of my blog came to me suddenly and clearly. I’ve always loved that rather comic line in Jane Austen’s Emma that ‘it darted through her with the speed of an arrow that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!’ I felt the same way about the name ‘Eggs on the Roof’. When I was a child my mum’s best friend Sally, full of fun and energy, used to say that if you throw an egg onto the roof of a house it will never break and will bring you luck. I always believed her and I can’t begin to tell you how many eggs I threw over our roof. The ones that came back down again, smashed to pieces on the ground. But Sally always said that was because I hadn’t managed to land them on the roof! For me, food and cooking is about fun and sharing and laughing together; the name Eggs on the Roof seems to sum up that sense of joie de vivre perfectly.
When I left university I joined Conde Nast, publishers of Vogue magazine, to research and write a book after fashion in sport. After it was published I left to become a BBC radio trainee. I worked for local radio stations all over Britain – Manchester, Brighton, Luton, Cambridge, Bristol and Chelmsford. I moved away from the BBC for a while to be a news reporter for Anglia Television, before returning to the BBC and a job as a news reporter for BBC Breakfast News. From there I moved back to radio and a job as a reporter for Radio 4’s Today programme, followed by The World at One, PM and The World this Weekend. I eventually became the presenter of PM before moving from hard news into the gentler landscape of literature as the presenter of Radio 4’s Open Book programme. I left there to concentrate on completing my PhD on the post 9-11 novel, while working as a visiting lecturer in English literature.
When I was a child I ate two radically different kinds of food – the food cooked by my mum and the meals cooked by my great aunt. My mum always worked full-time, more than full-time sometimes, so she didn’t cook very often. When she did the meals were always glamorous, fun and surprising, rather than the everyday kind of cooking which can be so tough to do, day in, day out. The everyday meals were made by my great aunt, who lived with us for my entire childhood. She had a very tough upbringing not far from Manchester. Her mother died when she was just a girl and the responsibility for looking after her brothers and sisters fell on her shoulders. She made really traditional, very economical food – I still remember her delicious fritters and potato cakes and a wonderful soup made with butter beans, celery and stock.
My mother’s food couldn’t have been more different. There wasn’t much money when she was growing up – her mother and my great aunt were sisters – but she loved to experiment with exotic ingredients. When I was a child, before the food revolution, my friends were startled by the kind of food my mother made – risottos, curries, stuffed aubergines and a wonderful chicken extravaganza with white wine and asparagus. She used to laugh that she knew nothing about food when she first got married. She once bought an avocado pear and, guided by its name, served it with custard. But she loved anything that was glamorous or unusual and taught herself how to cook, inventing all sorts of exotic recipes. She always insisted that the only piece of kitchen equipment anyone needs is a bread knife – perfect for cutting and great for stirring, she always used to say. My mum was a great believer in picnics – as am I – and she would sometimes make picnic breakfasts of sausages and French bread that she would make us eat outside, on a hilltop or in front of an amazing view, even if it was pouring with rain.
I’ve always loved photography. A film SLR camera was the very first thing I saved up for as a child. I was 11 and I can still see myself going into the photography shop in Bournemouth with my father to buy it. I can even remember what I was wearing – yellow shorts and red sandals. It was a terrible camera – ugly, Soviet-made and second-hand, because that’s all I could afford. But I was so proud of saving the money to pay for it. I now own a wonderful Canon 7D, along with several lenses and various other accessories. I’ve taught myself about photography by reading books on the subject and then practising endlessly – I’m a great believer in learning how to do things from books. I’ve just joined a group of people who meet once a month in Oxford to discuss each other’s work. That’s proved to be a great way to develop new techniques.
The single most important thing when taking pictures of food is to get the lighting right. How often have you seen pictures of beige food with a slightly sinister orange glow cast by a camera’s flash? They’re the kind of pictures that actively take your appetite away. If you can, use only natural lighting and don’t ever use the camera’s built-in flash. Develop your own eye by looking obsessively at other people’s work. Try to unravel how the picture has been constructed and then see if you can develop your own style, your own signature. The other trick that helps is to develop a passion for picking up odd bits of china and cutlery in junk shops. You really only need one of something, whether it’s a cup or a fork or a spoon, to make a really great picture. I recently had an email from a reader saying that she suffers ‘serious china-envy’ when she looks at my pictures. I think she imagines that I have whole services of china and canteens of cutlery – the truth is that I only have one of everything.
I love shopping for food. The biggest let-down was making a pilgrimage to Zabar’s in New York. Fighting for trolley-space in the aisles, being yelled at for standing in the wrong queue and being glared at by impatient customers isn’t my idea of fun food-shopping. I always enjoy going to the cheese stall in Oxford’s Covered Market, as well as Daylesford for their sourdough bread and salami. Clarke’s in London’s Kensington Church Street is wonderful, although the service can be a bit eccentric. I always buy walnut and green olive paste and their parmesan biscuits. I love the restaurant Gee’s in Oxford, housed in a former Victorian fruit and vegetable shop, but when I finally complete my PhD I’m going to save up to take my children to Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons for dinner. In the meantime I’m very happy with a perfect picnic of sourdough bread, organic salami, Epoisses cheese, olives, a tomato and herb salad and some raspberries, preferably eaten on top of a hill in Dorset with a view out to sea.
My accessories and points of reference are eclectic. I was sorting through some old books of my mother’s the other day and I found a wonderful book about writers’ houses. The chapter on Karen Blixen took me off on a meandering thought about her habit of collecting flowers at dawn when they were still covered in dew. That in turn led to me creating a recipe for risotto with dew-covered rosemary flowers. I recently wrote about a jug made by a ceramicist called Emma Lacey, because it had a perfect dimple in the side, just perfect for resting your thumb on. I gather books and china, often from second-hand shops, that I think will become blog posts one day. A friend who knows I love books found me a copy of MFK Fisher’s With Bold Knife and Fork in an Oxfam bookstore recently. It included a fantastic quote that ‘mushrooms are friends of mine’. That quote turned into a blog post about mushroom pies with photographs of mushrooms on a vintage tea-towel that another friend had found in a Salisbury market.
I’ll let you into a secret… sometimes I use my clothes as tablecloths or napkins in my shots, if the colours or details are right. A reader wrote to me recently to ask where she could buy the pale green embroidered napkin on which I had placed a bulb of pink-striped garlic. In fact, it was my best summer dress!
I live just outside Oxford with my son and daughter and our ridiculously soppy cat and dog. My children are very interested in food, although they drew the line at my experimental tea-smoked salmon – even the dog wouldn’t try it. But they love to cook and have become very good at guessing what ingredients I’ve used. I was very impressed that they detected fermented black garlic and pomegranate juice in a casserole the other day.
I think that when writing is good, it’s possible to say something funny, new, uplifting or thought-provoking about just about anything. The very first food blog I ever read is still one of my favourites. Molly Wizenberg of Orangette is a wonderfully inventive writer, with a style that is all her own. I always enjoy reading CookSister by Jeanne Horak-Druiff and Extra Relish by Pascale Cumberbatch has exquisite photographs. The German photographer Dietlind Wolf has a totally original style in a blog of the same name.
If I have one ambition for my blog it is that it should be published as a book, with my recipes and photographs. So many of my happiest – and funniest – memories are entwined with food. For someone as obsessed by reading and literature as me, the thought that Eggs on the Roof could become a book would be worth celebrating. It would be worth throwing a few eggs over the roof for, in fact.
Charlie’s Blog: www.eggsontheroof.com