When Cecil Day-Lewis lay dying in the home of Kingsley Amis, his two young children, Tama-sin and Daniel, would slink off together to practice a trick their host had shown them: to recite the entire alphabet through a single burp. It is the kind of detail that makes Tamasin Day-Lewis's new book, Where Shall We Go For Dinner?, billed as "a food romance", such a joy. The book was intended to be an account of a year's travels with Rob, her partner, but it evolved into a subtle blend of travelogue, recipe book and memoir.
There is a nightmare press trip through Puglia that somehow manages to overlook the food; a tour of the US with her singing star son Harry; an over-ambitious yomp across the mountains of Southern France; and a chat with Julia Roberts, as the Most Famous Woman in the World feeds her twins. There is also a moving account of the final months of her father in Amis's home, as his wife and daughter masked the truth about his fate in a conspiracy of silence and laughter. Through it all are infused the tastes and aromas of her "greedy obsession" with food. For Tamasin Day-Lewis taste is more than an aide-memoire, it is the essence of life.
For someone who has been brought up with a rigid contempt for public revelation, it is an extraordinarily intimate book. "It was a great risk because I'm not someone who talks about myself," the slender 53-year-old admits over a steaming mug of lapsang souchong in the spacious kitchen of her Somerset farmhouse. "It has been drilled into my family that you don't talk to journalists, you don't give anything away. You don't talk about your father. You don't talk about your brother. You don't talk about your grandfather. You just plough your furrow."
Given the recent very public row about Amis père et fils, led by the cultural theorist Terry Eagleton, it is not surprising that their close friends the Day-Lewises are protective. Theirs is also a family of extraordinary talents and tangled relationships. Cecil's infidelities have been pawed over by a prurient press since the 1950s. Among his mistresses was Elizabeth Jane Howard, later the wife of Kingsley Amis, and best friend of Jill Balcon, Cecil's second wife, the mother of Tamasin and Daniel. In a society where pursed-lipped disapproval was the norm, the family's acceptance of Howard (she is Tamasin's godmother) caused more than raised eyebrows.
The closeness of the two families was reflected in Howard's invitation for the family to decamp to the Amises' Hertfordshire home during Cecil's final months after seeing the family struggle to keep their spirits up in their gloomy Greenwich house. When I observe that staying with your father's ex-mistress would be considered unusual for most families, Day-Lewis snaps back: "What is normal for me is how I was brought up." A frost spreads through the kitchen, and it's not coming from outside. "As a child I never thought there was anything peculiar about my life because my life was my life," she adds.
Life chez Amis was boisterous. "Everyone knew him as this sort of right-wing reactionary," she recalls. "But I can't think of anyone in my life who has made me laugh more than Kingsley Amis. I hold him in enormous affection." As well as the legendary feats of burping, Amis would keep the two families entertained with risqué talk and outrageous comments and by dancing to jazz while stoked up on Bloody Marys with extra vodka.
Eighteen-year-old Tamasin would watch in tongue-tied awe, desperate to impress her surrogate uncle. "I was so shy and so inarticulate," she recalls, laughing. "I just thought, he is going to think I am stupid. But actually the whole point was that he was making everyone laugh. He had this tremendous kindness." There is a crack in her well-modulated voice and she runs her fingers through her mane of raven-black hair. "What he did, which is amazingly generous when you think of it, was to allow my father to die in a happy house."
She looks out of the window to the fields beyond. A soft October rain drizzles down the glass. It may be more than 30 years ago, but the conflicting emotions of that time appear fresh.
Though Day-Lewis cannot recall the exact moment she fell in love with food – "the one mystery is why we fall in love with anything," she says – the stay at the Amises was significant. Each day she would hunker down in the kitchen, helping Howard prepare the meals. If Kingsley was the clown, Jane was the cook, nurturing them through the pain. It is a role that appealed to young Day-Lewis and one she has played throughout her life, whether cooking for university friends, film crews on her successful documentaries or the nation through her show on Living TV, filmed in the kitchen in which we now sip our tea.
Much can be accomplished by feeding people, she claims. "If you are having a difficult time with a child it is much easier to discuss things over a good dinner. I have got far further with people by sitting them down and cooking them dinner."
At this point my tummy rumbles. She seems to hear, because she asks whether I would like a biscuit. It is the first time she has mentioned feeding me, though Day-Lewis's publicist had lured me to Somerset by the promise of lunch or afternoon tea. The cookery writer appears not to know. "I should have made a cake but didn't have time," she adds with a smile. It is not an apology and I remain unfed.
Perhaps it is just as well, given her habit of serving up roadkill. Not quite a freegan (that would involve foraging around the waste bins of supermarkets, which she detests), Day-Lewis cannot pass roadkill without checking to see if it is still warm and edible. In Where Shall We Go For Dinner? she describes how she cooked a squashed badger for friends. It was not a success. Not because she roasted a run-down Mr Brock, but because it should have hung longer and been marinaded for a few days. "It was very, very gamey," she observes, as if badger was on the menu at homes across England. "The blood was very thick and dark." At this point I mention that I am a vegetarian. She looks confused. It may be something she has heard of, but not something she understands.
What she does understand though, is British food culture; or rather the hypocrisy that causes us to turns our noses up at rabbit while happily munching away at endangered cod. "We are the first generation who don't eat rabbit," she says tapping her forefinger on the table in irritation. "Why don't we eat rabbit?" she asks.
"Myxomatosis? Watership Down?" I suggest. She does not seem to hear.
"There is no reason," she says throwing her hands into the air. "Rabbit is one of the most delicious things around. It is free round here – the price of a cartridge. It's better to eat that than fish that is not sustainable. We turn up our noses at really good food. Rabbit could be eaten like chicken. It is good meat at a reasonable price that you can cook very easily."
Despite her zeal about healthy, sustainable food, Day-Lewis is pessimistic that attitudes will change. "You have to start with people who care a bit," she adds with a shrug. The English, she says, are more eager to watch cooking on the telly than to care about what they cook and eat. " I can't make people buy the ingredients. I can't make them sit down together. We want to eat food that takes no time at all and is made of mechanically recovered slurry."
As for Jamie Oliver's attempts to force children to eat decent school dinners, the plan is fundamentally flawed. "It will never work. You have to get them into the kitchen as part of the curriculum and make them cook," she says. It was a lesson she learned in the kitchen of Elizabeth Jane Howard as she chopped vegetables and tried to forget her father's illness. "No child ever didn't eat what they cooked for themselves. That is what life is all about." *
Where Shall We Go For Dinner? By Tamasin Day-Lewis (Weidenfeld £16.99)
"... I was Jane's jobber and chopper... my unskilled labour meant I couldn't ruin or be responsible for anything but I could help, and I could begin to learn a little about cooking and budgeting for an ever-shifting population of people with huge, and in Kingsley's case, eclectic appetites. I could learn, like Jane had, how to take it in my stride"