We were in the elegant first-floor drawing-room of their London house, part of a beautiful early-Victorian terrace by the river at Richmond, and we were talking about food. Cooper is the writer and presenter of The Food Programme, currently in its 15th year on Radio 4. If his deep, slow voice were edible it would be a treacle tart, so reassuring, recognisable and reliable it is. Yet the man is more substantial than any pudding, and a lot better for the nation's health. Inside the orderly frame of a dapper, moustachioed gent is a zealous campaigner, with fire in his belly.
Ten years ago, Cooper became the founder-chairman of the Guild of Food Writers. His first action was to write to every supermarket in Britain, asking them if they sold dyed kippers. If they intended to continue using a suspect dye, he wanted to know so that he could tell all his members. Within a couple of weeks, two major chains had announced that only natural kippers would be available in their stores. Further victories were to follow, always in support of natural and local produce. The fi ght goes on.
It is fitting that this first battle was over fish. Fish has always been important to him. He has spent nearly every summer of his 69 years on the Isle of Skye, latterly with his two enchanting granddaughters who are the latest of a line of important women in his life. His mother, the first, was from the Isle of Lewis. She could gut a herring with her fingers, and often did. Now, he says, every loch in Scotland has its salmon farm. Greedy men farm the sea so intensively that the fish, in their sea-cages, develop symptoms of stress, which leads to disease, cross-contamination, the use of antibiotics and drug residues in food. And in a huge factory on Lewis, the herring are made into fish-oil capsules, to be bought in chemists' shops by people who will never know the pleasure of cooking and eating the real thing. "It's like the bloody madness of garlic capsules," he says.
In the Coopers' house, real garlic is eaten every day, as is olive oil. He points out that France has its Mediterranean olive culture as well as its Normandy butter culture. Both happily co-exist in their Richmond household, with a bread-and-dripping culture thrown in. No fastidious food-snob - he detests the neologism "foodie" - Cooper believes that what is natural and wholesome is good. Conversely, the bogus and artificial is bad, partic- ularly as exemplified by the cynical ploy of Cadbury Schweppes, a company which has installed Coca-Cola machines in schools, having first offered the schools £150 each.
A life-long Labour voter, Cooper is depressed by what he sees as a two-tier society in which food is following the same divided path as health and education. He would like nutrition to be an integral part of the National Curriculum, so that children growup knowing how to enjoy healthy eating and avoid the illnesses that a poor diet invites. But then he remarks that it is of course easy to live on crispbread and orange juice if you have the money. If you're hard up and poorly, with no prospect of a job,what you crave is comfort, often in the form of cigarettes and buns.
Oddly, it was bad food that made him a writer. In 1966, after a few chance remarks, he was asked to compile The Bad Food Guide. Every hack in Fleet Street got hold of it and it had 90 reviews. They all used the book to air their own grievances, but the result was a runaway bestseller which gave Cooper the muscle to insist on the ppublishers bringing out his book about Skye. Pure blackmail is how he describes it, but it paid off and Skye has not been out of print since 1975. He has written dozens of book s, including eight on the subject of whiskey, and he is happiest with the Scottish ones. The Road to Mingulay and Hebridean Connection are probably the best - so far. On the same beloved subject he made 30 hard-hitting television programmes on the lifeof the Highlands and Islands called Breathing Space: these were only ever shown in Scotland though there is clearly a case for letting us all see them.
Along with his weekly column for Scotland on Sunday, he is able to fill his life with a happy mixture of writing, television and radio, but it is The Food Programme for which he is best known. The programme's proud boast is that it will take up any issue, from salmonella to food and sex. Quick to nose out any hint of corruption or dirty dealing, Cooper and his current producer Sheila Dillon are also always on the lookout for excellence and ready to celebrate quality wherever it appears. It has been saidthat Cooper has done more for food in Britain than anyone since Elizabeth David. He would be modestly surprised by such an assertion, but it is not far off the truth. As he finished off the last scrapings of his wife's scrumptio us fish pie, he said what he so often says on the radio: "Well, I'm going to have some more - it's so good." Couldn't agree more.
8 `The Food Programme' is at 12.25pm Fridays Radio 4, and is repeated at 7.20pm Mondays.Reuse content