By Tiffany Black
Andi Oliver is a busy lady, and when she picks up the phone to talk about her new and long awaited cookbook ‘The Pepperpot Diaries: Stories from my Caribbean Table’ she’s doing a million things at once; in the midst of explaining to her mum how to use the dryer and staunchly ignoring her growing inbox sat in front of the computer. You get the impression she gives a lot of herself to whatever she does and once she gets going (closes down her laptop and successfully gets the drier started), I can feel the full force of her glow. She is an absolute blast of energy and charisma through the phone, with a gravelly laugh that would do any femme fatale proud. A total delight, bad mouthing over priced festivals and lamenting over restaurants that choose to blast house music when you’re simply trying to eat… She holds nothing back and begins by delving into the unusual, lucky happenstance that finally led to the birth of her recipe book.
Could you tell me a little bit about how the recipe book came together?
I went to Antigua, just for a brief holiday in the middle of the two lockdowns. And when we touched down, the travel guidance had changed, and we couldn’t leave…I was absolutely thrilled! I sat there for a couple of days in this beautiful house in Antigua, and I thought, I'm not going to be able to sit here for three months, I’ll lose my mind. So I realised I finally had time to write.
What was the concept behind The Pepperpot Diaries?
I’ve been wanting to write this book for so long. It’s an idea that stretches back a long way for me, it's a connection to my family, my heritage and my duality as a British person of Caribbean heritage. It's celebrating that and exploring that for myself as much as anybody else. I do feel a real strong, true connection to Antigua. And I also feel a very strong connection to being British. But I realised when I was there how much Antigua is in me without my knowing. It was a lovely thing to discover; how much of it sort of lives in my spirit. Being there for three months meant I could really explore that, feel it, love it and celebrate it.
What kind of recipes do you explore in the book?
There are heritage recipes that I discovered when I was there. Things like bamboula, which is an old way of cooking cassava, things like Cha Cha Dumpling, which are these little cornmeal dumplings that you could cook in banana leaves on the griddle and all sorts of beautiful things like that. And then I also got to explore and experiment with ingredients that I knew, and am really familiar with; ribs and loads of different fruit and gorgeous proteins.
What was it like to explore food from across the Caribbean?
There's such a distinct difference between the islands, ingredients and things that are only made in one place but others that are cooked everywhere. It was about exploring the multiplicity of Caribbean life and the Caribbean kitchen rather than this idea that Caribbean food is one homogenous thing, jerk chicken or rice and peas, which is what most people think of.
"What is the point in spending two days on making the most incredible short rib and then serving it under dentist, waiting room lights and s*** house music."
Why did you choose to include a playlist as part of the recipe book?
I always have music on when I cook! The two things are so symbiotically balanced for me that I can't really think of one without the other. It would be like wearing one shoe!
So, what’s on the cookbook playlist at the moment?
I’m still adding to it actually. I just put Navy on there. I like Cat Burns, she's pretty cool. I'm obsessed with Eliza. I've been listening to some Jill Scott, because she's coming back round on that tour again. Cynthia Erivo I really, really love. I hosted a Proms last year at the Royal Albert Hall, and she was singing all these torch songs. It was the best night of my life! I loved it so much. I was just in bits. I had to talk on camera, and I just had tears streaming down my face. She took the roof off the Albert Hall.
Sounds heavenly. Can you remember one of the first festivals you ever went to?
I'm just really trying to think back…. because, I'm 60 you see darling. When I was in Rip Rig + Panic we used to play a lot of festivals. We played at the very first Womad festival. Nanna was five or six months pregnant with Naima and Naima turned 40 last year! That wasn't one of the first festivals I ever went to, but it was a very memorable one. And we played early Glastonbury, when it was the size of my back garden. They really were festivals back then. It's interesting because a lot of the time what people now think of as a festival, I think is more like a village fete with the volume turned up.
So what's missing for you?
They're too clean! It's all so… polite! There are special little zones to put your kids in. And, you get given a bloody copy of The Guardian at the door! I mean it's fun, I'm not saying it's not. But that's not really like a festival for me.
There's no renegade spirit!
I mean, where is the revolution? It's just not rebellious. And the whole point about festivals is it's supposed to be counterculture.
And then you can pay alot for a ticket...
In my opinion tickets should be free. A fiver. Anyway, they've obviously morphed into something else and that's fine. I'm just old!
"I realised when I was there how much Antigua is in me without my knowing. It was a lovely thing to discover; how much of it sort of lives in my spirit."
Who are some of your favourite artists to listen to when you're happy? And on the flipside of that, when you're sad?
There's a few things I like, I love Jay. He makes me very happy. I love Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Eliza, Tyson, my niece, when I listen to her music my heart soars. My other niece, Naima. She's a jazz pianist, an incredible concert pianist. And Mabel, their sister. So that's all Nanna's kids and when they make their music it just makes me incredibly happy. Mabel, Naima and Tyson, they're all very very different though! And I'm such a sort of soppy Aunty with them. My goddaughter Libby has started making music that is extraordinary. I love all the old blues queens. Bessie Smith, Sydney Wallace, I love Charlotte Day Wilson, she's pretty great, Sly, Dusty Springfield, Coleman and Mary J Blige too. Well, that's quite a long list, isn't it? And Cynthia Erevo, I'm just totally done by these people. Solomon Burke or Jimmy Cliff too. When I'm sad, I probably listen to the same people because they cheer me up!
What’s your process when it comes to selecting the music in your restaurants?
I think about sensuality, because food should be a sensual experience. One of my pet hates is when I go to a restaurant and there's music on and they clearly haven't thought about it. Playing thumping house music when people are trying to eat food is just not the one. I don't like it. So, please stop doing it people! The lighting and the music, sort it out! What is the point in spending two days on making the most incredible short rib and then serving it under dentist, waiting room lights and s*** house music. My thoughts are always about sensuality and a kind of caress for the diner.
"It's interesting because a lot of the time what people now think of as a festival, I think is more like a village fete with the volume turned up."
In a dream dinner party scenario, what five musicians would you want there dead or alive?
Aaah! That's a ridiculous question. Hmm. To play or to just talk to?
To talk to.
Okay, so. Jesus Christ! Wait a minute I'm really going to think about this. I would like Nina Simone to be there. Mahalia Jackson. John Lee Hooker. My brother, Sean Oliver. And Stevie Wonder. I would like to say as a proviso, that that could change at any moment. Ask me tomorrow and you might get a completely different answer! Because Bessie Smith should be there as would Billie Holiday. Aretha for god's sake, young Aretha I would like to meet.
And what dish would you serve them as well?
Oooh interesting. When you said that, I got an immediate picture of yellow cheddar grits, which I love - really buttery and really cheesey. And then you could have two different toppings. I would go with a really slow cooked, dark, stout braised oxtail, really velvety or maybe chargrilled giant red prawns and squid that are dripping in a sort of gorgeous spiced, honey, salty, chilli butter. And then you'd have a really crisp, bright, tangy, zesty, green salad, with beautiful beans, chargrilled courgettes, fresh peas and lovely things running through it like that with a very light, lemony dressing.
Oh, my God. That was a sensory experience! That sounds so f***Ing good! I'll come and volunteer to waitress!
You can do front of house!
Perfect! Are you excited about Pub in the Park this year? (Andi will be hosting at Tunbridge Wells and Chiswick).
I had a great time last year, I have to say. Tom (Kerridge) is one of my favourites. He's just a good person and how he looks after people I think is really moving. I meet a lot of chefs, as you can imagine, and some of them are not like that. He goes to see every single person running a restaurant, delivering food, all the chefs, and asks how it can be better for them, how the festival can support them better. And I've got a lot of time for anybody who has got a heart that big.
That’s so lovely to hear. My last question is, can you tell me about a cookbook that has shaped who you are and how you cook?
My answer to this will always be easy. Edna Lewis’ In Pursuit of Flavor and ‘The Taste of Country Cooking’, all.about Southern American cuisine, soul food. It’s astonishing because there's a beautiful simplicity to it. But she elevated food from the home to a restaurant arena. When I say elevated, I mean she literally put it in a new environment. She grew up in Freetown, a black town, so she had a very strong connection to how she existed in the world and her own traditions. And so everything was seasonal. When people talk about ‘seasonality’ these days, it’s so whitewashed! Like somebody ten years ago decided we’re all going to cook seasonally, it’s laughable. But, she was cooking seasonally as a kid because she was on a farm! And that’s happened for millenia.
Her books are a masterclass in celebrating traditional approaches, with new ideas being folded hand in hand. And I think that's the way forward with being a cook, to buy what is best for your table, which is seasonality and then to celebrate the things that you grew up learning, whilst bringing some of your own brand new songs into it. I read them as bedtime stories sometimes. There’s something about fried chicken in the skillet…. It makes me want to get into bed and curl up and go to sleep. It’s incredibly comforting.
And with that, Andi hung up and went back to her zip zappy universe, being an absolute national treasure, promoting her cookbook, hosting The Great British Menu and keeping up with her laundry schedule too. I'd admitted on the call that I wasn't familiar with Edna Lewis' work, so after the call ended Andi very sweetly sent me a link to Edna's cookbooks. It’s that kind of generosity of spirit that makes her such a force of nature in the kitchen, on TV and on stage. It sounds like Andi has created a cookbook well and truly worthy of her own definition - one that both celebrates tradition and folds in new ideas. If you’d like to buy her cookbook (as I absolutely will be) head to Waterstones here.