Lunch with one fat lady: Fish lips and duck webs with Clarissa Dickson-Wright
If her political views are a little hard to swallow, her idea of a slap-up meal is no less challenging
Thursday 01 October 2009
Clarissa Dickson-Wright is going to spare me the jellyfish. We're sitting down for lunch at Hung's, one of the few restaurants in London's increasingly seedy Chinatown that's yet to become an all-you-can-eat buffet, and I've agreed to match her dish for dish. She orders soft-shell crab, which sounds delicious; razor clams, which are new to me but relatively unthreatening; and a bowl of duck-webs and fish-lips that, frankly, I could do without. But seeing the fear in my eyes, she decides against jellyfish, for which I'm very grateful.
I'm also grateful that, despite making her name as one half of the corpulent cookery duo Two Fat Ladies, Dickson-Wright, now 62, eats no more than the average gourmand. Her size, as she recounted in her autobiography Spilling the Beans, isn't a result of gluttony, but of alcoholism: more precisely, the quinine in the tonic water that she mixed with two pints of gin per day for 12 years, destroying her adrenal gland and leaving her unable to lose weight.
Spilling the Beans told of her troubled childhood, life as a young barrister, the steep descent into alcoholism – and the long hard climb back to sobriety and celebrity. A movie has been mooted. "I had Meryl Streep in mind to play me," she says. "But now she's done Julia Child [in Julie & Julia] I doubt she'd want to play another cook!"
Dickson-Wright's new book, Rifling Through my Drawers, is less a memoir than an agreeable ramble through a year in her life, seasoned with recipes, rants and recommendations of restaurants and suppliers (see box). One restaurant is Hung's of Wardour Street, formerly The Crispy Duck, at which she has been dining for nigh-on 15 years. "The seafood is incredibly fresh," she says. "If you go down to the kitchens you'll find it alive and well." We ready our palates with wonton soup, the dish she took to her retreat on Desert Island Discs.
Dickson-Wright is a geographical omnivore, fond of foods from across the globe, but she is a familiar figurehead for British food and its producers. "When I got sober in 1987," she remembers, "giant supermarkets marched like dinosaurs across the land. The Trades Descriptions Act says a product may be named as being of the country where something was last done to it. So Chilean salmon, smoked in Italy and sliced in Scotland, becomes 'Scottish salmon'. Remove that section of the legislation and it wouldn't stop you selling Chilean salmon, but it would force supermarkets to tell the truth. People who want to buy British food should be able to."
The Conservatives, Dickson-Wright hopes, will come to power and put honest labelling on their agenda – and a repeal of the hunting ban. As a young barrister, she was in chambers with certain members of New Labour (including Tony Blair himself) and has no hesitation in labelling them as fascists. "I mean it," she insists. "There are 50 different government agencies who are allowed to break down your door at dawn. Hitler's first act upon coming to power was to ban hunting. I've had the speech translated. He said, 'Henceforth all the killing in this country will be done by professional butchers.' Chilling words."
Whether or not Blair had some sort of final solution in mind for the rural community when he was elected, Dickson-Wright has become a Jeremy Clarkson for the countryside, loudly expressing views that go against the progressive values of the Government, and the BBC. She's still amazed the corporation commissioned Clarissa and the Countryman, the show made with her childhood friend Johnny Scott in which they travelled Britain bemoaning the metropolitan arrogance of Westminster and espousing the rural pursuits it threatened. "It was commissioned before Jennifer [Paterson, the other Fat Lady] died, and they gave us complete editorial control. I still think I'll wake up in a cardboard box to find that I dreamt it all."
Clarissa and the Countryman earned the formidable Dickson-Wright her share of enemies, and the anti-hunting lobby helped see her convicted in September for her attendance at an illegal hare-coursing event. But as she pleaded guilty and her conviction was down to a technicality of the Hunting Act rather than criminal intent, she escaped punishment. She says the case only highlighted the legislation's poorly-defined parameters.
"The private prosecution cost The International Fund for Animal Welfare £86,000," she says. "The police dropped all charges but IFAW wanted their moment of glory, which is one reason why I pleaded guilty and never went to court. The Yorkshire Police said they couldn't guarantee my safety from the antis. What should I have done? Take a bodyguard of large terrier men and start a riot on Scarborough's streets?"
In fact, it's easy to imagine her doing just that. Though her legs aren't what they were, she insists that she has "the blood pressure of a healthy five-year-old and the cholesterol levels of a three-year-old. It drives the doctors nuts". She never watches what she eats, except to check its origins. "If I survived my alcohol intake for 12 years there's not a lot that's likely to kill me. And quite frankly, I don't want to be old and in a home for the bewildered. Think of the food! It'd be disgusting."
Speaking of disgusting food, the fish-lips are on their way. But the restaurant has got wind of our lunchtime challenge and produced an array of all too delectable-looking delights in the hope that we'll eat them, too. A lobster appears dressed to the nines, along with a plate of deep-fried prawn balls arranged around a carved pink flower with a flashing lightbulb beneath it. "I don't want that," Dickson-Wright tells the waitress impatiently. "I want something unusual. Take it away."
The softshell crab, dipped in salt and then fried with chilli, is fantastic. The razor clams, steamed with spring onion and soya sauce, are light and tasty. But the gristly duck webs, riddled with tiny bones, seem utterly impractical. And the fish-lips (which must have come from a very large fish) are unwieldy and gelatinous.
Foolishly, I ask about her most unpleasant eating experiences just as I'm chewing thick, rubbery lips. "Swan is disgusting – very oily and stringy, like moorhen. I ate guga, dried salted gannet from the Northern Isles. That's disgusting. As is the shark rotted in permafrost that I tried in Iceland, which stays in your nasal hairs for three weeks. Or Surströmming – Swedish rotten herring."
Dickson-Wright had a famously difficult relationship with her father, a surgeon to London society, whose physical abuse she described in Spilling the Beans. The one common or garden foodstuff she resists is the carrot, "because as a child he used to pull them from the ground with slugs on them and say, 'Eat these'. These days I'd probably eat the slugs with some garlic and butter. But not the carrot." By this point, I'm rather glad to have a prawn ball to hand, to dispel the memory of fish-lips slithering down my throat. There may be worse things in store for me than fish-lips, however, or even jellyfish. "If I don't like your article," she warns, "I might have to hit you."
"Rifling Through my Drawers", Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99
Clarissa's food heroes
Where you can buy unpasteurised, whole milk: Middle Farm, Firle, on the A27 Lewes to Eastbourne road. Go and buy some and taste it; it is delicious and quite different, and if you use it for sauces or milk puddings it is sensastional, better than anything you've ever eaten and fit for a queen."
"Cranfields Foods stock the finest jams, chutneys and pickles I have ever eaten. They ranged from bitter orange marmalade to a very good home-made lime pickle, through rowan jellies, elderberry jellies and all kinds of other delights. I do recommend her products to you and no doubt you'll be able to order them from her website or indeed find her at whichever of the country shows she attends."
"Jan McCourt farms and fattens rare-breed beef and pork and lamb in Cold Overton on the Rutland/Leicestershire border. The meat Jan produces (and you can buy it at Borough Market, if you can visit his shop) is of excellent quality. He is one of the two people in the British Isles from whom I regularly buy pork."
"Willie Selby Robson is a leading authority on British bees and runs the Chain Bridge Honey Farm on the Northumbrian border ... I can vouch for their Propolis cream, which is made from a wax-like substance produced by bees."
"There is a very good restaurant called Clos du Marquis, just outside Stockbridge, run by an enchanting little French friend of mine called Germain. He asks all the keepers in the Test Valley and its tributaries to bring him their pike when they're clearing out the rivers, which he'll buy and with which he produces the most exquisite dishes, among them a pike mousse with a tiny monkfish liver embedded in the centre."
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