Locked up with writers

No duffers, no loons, they could cook, they were funny and twisted and many of them had nice mums -

Once again I am hunched in the only office I may ever know – a train - my own lovely home being a distant memory filled with housework and DVD’s I haven’t watched for ages. On this occasion I’m in a Birmingham-bound diesel office which has managed to sneak out of Edinburgh Waverly without being – thus far – stymied by all of the apocalyptic and mysterious things that happen to the rail network on Sundays. Yes, dear reader, I am mad enough to attempt Sunday travel.

Sitting opposite me in a kind of smiley coma is Gill Dennis the splendid creature responsible for writing, among other things, the screenplay for “Walk The Line”. We have just tutored a screen writing course and, having talked and thought almost continuously for five days we now find it challenging to organise complex tasks like blinking. Occasionally we cry. I may even be crying now.

Tutoring residential courses represents a delicious kind of community-based Russian roulette for writers. There you will be, trapped in a remote location with a number of complete strangers in order to Teach Something About Something, perhaps with another writer who may or may not turn out to be going through a drug-induced internal soap opera, or a sex-induced external soap opera, or a typing-induced grand opera.

Expecting typists to respond warmly to group experiences always seems odd to me. We are not naturally hugging, sharing, orderly folk. We have the power to transform The Walton Family Eats Dinner into The Manson Family Gets Even. Before arriving at one of these things – on a train – I am always assailed by similar questions. Will there be more than one nutter? Will inappropriate sexual behaviour in thin-walled bedrooms cause conflict/envy/bootleg recordings? Will we end up building a rudimentary altar and sacrificing the weakest participant? And, most importantly, will all the writing be shit?

Happily – miraculously – this course involved 100 per cent charming and co-operative people who could also write like the stars I hope they become. All sixteen of them - no duffers, no loons, they could cook, they were funny and twisted and many of them had nice mums. Plus, Mr. Dennis is one of nature’s gentlemen and a joy to be around. Much fun was had, much work was done – and I got to enjoy being slightly teary on the final evening as work was presented and everyone found out how good everyone else was.

If only there was a British film industry it would all have had a point. If only there was a Scottish film industry and the powers that be weren’t more interested in rebranding themselves than making watchable, unique films that would entertain, enlighten and delight. If only they were interested in the arts at all – we could be another Ireland. But we’re not.

Lately, I’ve also managed to lie in a couple of pals’ spare bedroom and finish the first draft of a short story. (I will commence serious rewriting once I have finished this.) As said pals were away for the weekend and left me in charge of their children – no, that’s not arrestable, I am in fact a competent warder/baby sitter – I had the incalculably wonderful experience of introducing two ankle-biters who don’t have a telly at home to the full glory that can be squashed into three box sets of Dr Who.

They are excellent young people – partly because their parents love them and they have not been accosted by television and partly because they have gone to a school that treats them like human beings and has equipment and proper teachers and lots of running about and mild risk – they just didn’t have the doctor.

And now they do. Ah, the flinching, the giggling, the looking away, the being surprised when tricky situations are not resolved by murder, the gentle exploration of a world that loves adventure and intelligence and curiosity and human potential. A television show that respects the viewer. They have only a vague idea of how rare that is. But they now do know how good the doctor is. I growed up with him around and they can, too. He’s where the BBC keeps what’s left of it’s soul.

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad