Food Writer, Matthew Fort
PUBLISHED: 11:55 29 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:35 20 February 2013
Witty, knowledgeable, passionate and discerning, Matthew Fort is arguably Britain's leading food writer. With more than 10 years of award-winning writing for the Guardian under his belt, he now pens articles for Esquire, The Observer,
"So? What's the difference between a Greek swordfish and an Italian one?"
"As they come up through the Straits, they are getting amorosi, ready to spawn. It makes their flesh pi dolce, pi delicate, pi morbido - sweeter, more delicate, softer, better in every way."
"Can you really tell?"
She looked scandalised. "Of course," she said in a manner that brooked no further argument.
Matthew Fort, Eating up Italy
Crisis? What crisis?
Matthew Fort has clearly forgotten our early-morning interview. He opens his front door in pyjamas, looking faintly bemused.
"Katie..." I venture, tentatively. "Katie Jarvis..."
"Oh!" He claps his hand to his forehead. "Sorry! Sorry! Come on in."
Ooh dear. Should I come back another time?
He shakes his head. Of course not. You see, he's just returned from a few days' filming in London. Left his car at Stroud Station. Came back late last night - and couldn't find the car keys.
Since then, he's been (naturally) somewhat preoccupied with trying (unsuccessfully) to find the spare set.
It's difficult to know whether offering to rifle through his things would appear helpful and kindly - or meddling and intrusive. So while he gets dressed upstairs, I stand rooted to the spot, but swivelling my upper torso so as to give the impression of searching in a non-tactile sort of way: running my eyes over the shelves full of books - predominantly on Italy, it seems - in the pin-neat sitting room; peering between panama hats on the windowsill. A lack of x-ray vision renders the exercise courteous but pointless.
"Never mind," Matthew says, reappearing fully dressed. "Let's have coffee." He opens the fridge to reveal milk cartons that are not there in a similar fashion to the aforementioned car keys.
A lesser man, at this point, would adopt the Basil Fawlty frog position and pogo round the room uttering incandescent croaks of rage.
Not Matthew Fort. He smiles chipperly, presents me with excellent black coffee, and sits down at the table looking as if he's just enjoyed a particularly innovative dish of pigs' trotters.
Something's not right here... I thought foodies - chefs and restaurant critics and other highly-seasoned souls - were meant to throw wobblies at every opportunity. Doesn't he ever get stressed?
"Well, I'm not exactly running through the jungles of the Congo in fear of my life," he points out, reasonably.
No. But even if he were, Matthew Fort would probably admire the foliage during the perilous - but refreshing - dash and comment that the exercise had done him the world of good. If the fridge had contained milk cartons, they would undoubtedly have been half full.
It's not to say life's perfect; but happiness is evidently and enviably his fall-back condition.
That's probably what you'd expect from Britain's leading food writer - a writer who, during the course of his articles, delights in sitting you at the table beside him and presenting you with a plate laden with baby cuttlefish and fat prawns, or a sharp pecorino counterpointed by sweet early nectarines; (Italy being a country whose cuisine and passion for food he admires above all others.)
In spite of the fact that he went to Eton and evidently knows a fish fork when he sees one, you feel confident he'd turn a blind eye if you drooled; would understand if, in your appreciation of such delicacies, you even slobbered a little.
Matthew Fort doesn't talk dryly about food in terms of technique and sourcing - at least not to me. He doesn't sear and flamb his phrases. The most frequent word you'll hear him use is 'pleasure'.
"I come from an extremely greedy family," he explains. "There's a Fort greedy gene - something I share with my three brothers and my sister. My earliest memory is making fudge with my granny on a wet Saturday afternoon, in that golden era before television; nowadays, of course, you just watch other people making it."
So is a Proustian evocation of childhood, where all things were home-grown, the basis of his passion?
"No - food wasn't obsessive in those days. It's just that good food was seen as a natural part and parcel of life - like conversation and reading books and music. It's only looking back you realise that we all sat down to family meals. Virtually all social ills can be traced to the fact that people don't sit down and eat together any more. Sunday lunches, in our family, were a tremendous ritual: the smells and the process of cooking.
"Candy floss and Walls ice cream and Lyons chocolate mints... These are things I have a particularly fond memory of..." (We both dribble, nostalgically.)
"The very first time I ever got sick was as an infant, scarcely able to walk. I crawled into the kitchen garden and gorged myself on peas."
Did it put him off them for life?
"Not at all. I love peas."
So there were five of them; E E Nesbitt children running round a sprawling Georgian/Victorian former coaching inn in the Berkshire countryside, in those independent days before the county was sucked into London's ever-widening grasp. Alongside the fudge-making granny, there was a nanny. Even boarding school at the age of seven, followed by Eton, was an uncomplicatedly happy experience. (The food was unspeakably filthy, of course, though being allowed to cook your own tea of baked beans on toast with fried egg, followed by a tin of Epicure tropical fruit salad, saved the day).
But in 1959, when Matthew was 12, his father, Richard, was killed in a car crash. A chemist who worked for ICI, at the time of his death he was MP for Clitheroe, Lancashire, where the family had roots. Though there was financial provision for the children's education, their mother was left with five young dependents, including a toddler. To her credit, she wasted no time in securing the post of headmistress at Roedean.
Perhaps this deep loss explains why (after Oxford had failed to recognise his talents), Matthew headed for Lancashire: the shiny new portals of Lancaster University. Opened only the year before, it was one of a swath of new universities designed, in the radical post-war years, to open up higher education to those from working-class backgrounds.
You might expect a lad from Eton to experience a culture shock.
In fact, it was mutual.
As the only public schoolboy on campus, Matthew Fort could have been a creature from another planet. Recalling the experience in The Observer a couple of years ago, he wrote, "Some were genuinely curious about what it had been like at 'Britain's premier public school'. But for many, it was as if I carried the mark of Cain. I ran into a hail of inverted snobbery.
"People made assumptions: I was rich, snobbish, aristocratic, right wing and good for a kicking (whereas, in reality, I was middle class, politically vague, pretty much took people as they came and failed to live on my grant like everybody else)."
It was, he says, a shock - but, actually, an entirely beneficial one. In fact, he terms it one of the great liberating experiences of his life.
Here, he scraped a degree in English and French ("regarded by my teachers that the age of miracles had not yet passed") but, more importantly, began to cook.
"I had an unhappy love affair that came to an abrupt halt against my will. Love in your teens is incredibly boring: your friends dash into dark alleys when they see you coming. Luckily, students will do anything for a free meal, so it was a trade-off: you listen to my misery and I'll cook you a meal.
"Lancaster in those days had a really wonderful market: fish, game, cheese, good butchers, black budding, bacon, hams, and good veg too. I can remember attempting chicken in white wine, cream and mushroom sauce, and serving it to some friends. One of them said: 'Can I have some bread please, Matthew? And I was puzzled: Why would you want bread?
"'Because the sauce is so delicious I can't bear to leave any of it.'
"And that was when the doors of perception opened."
The seed had been sown; it continued to flourish during the time he spent at the University of Pennsylvania, failing to get a masters but pepping up his social life no end; as well as through his settling down to a career in advertising. He married Lindsay and - much to the envy of her circle - did all the cooking and shopping. It was at one of their dinner parties that guests brought along a friend who just happened to be JDF Jones, then editor of the FT Saturday review.
By the end of the evening, JDF Jones had invited Matthew to write a food column for the paper.
"At the time, I thought: Can I be bothered? I've got a job. It was only afterwards when I started meeting proper journalists that I realised how extraordinary it was - the equivalent of knocking a ball around in a park and having some chap tap you on the shoulder and ask if you'd like to play for Manchester United.
"I wrote about anything I felt like - restaurant reviews for Bibendum and Guy Savoy, Paris; the history of eating horse meat; what was the ideal food to take to Glyndebourne (which, incidentally, was a Marks & Spencer chicken tikka sandwich.)
"I don't think there was anyone else writing anything similar in this country at the time. There were the more serious heavyweights like Paul Levy, and longer pieces by writers such as Lionel Trilling, but nothing in quite the same vein."
While still copywriting, he went on to do other columns before a phone call out of the blue, in 1988, changed the direction of his career for good. Alan Rusbridger was setting up the Weekend Guardian. Did Matthew want to be food editor?
"I didn't know him," Matthew says, with the sort of emphasis only a fellow old Etonian can fully understand.
It might have meant a 50 percent drop in guaranteed income, but it opened doors into the world of television as well as the written media. Since then, he has cemented his role as one of the country's most respected food writers and restaurant critics.
Is it hard for such a genuinely pleasant chap to write scathing reviews?
"There are places I've written about very savagely because I felt they were bad places; by and large your final responsibility is to the reader but you do also have a responsibility to the people you're writing about: at least treat them fairly."
Does he have to pay for his own food?
"I've always had a limit on my expenses; invariably, at the end of a year I find I've spent about 2,000 over because I was greedy."
Is it a job he enjoys?
"To be paid to shovel food down your face? It's difficult to find a flaw in it."
Seven years ago, he, Lindsay and their daughter Lois moved to Stroud - partly drawn by the excellence of the town's grammar school. The move has also been a blessing food-wise: it's an epicurean paradise. 5 North Street in Winchcombe, Cheltenham's Le Champignon Sauvage, Tetbury's Trouble House Inn and even HK House, the not-so-well-known Chinese restaurant in Stroud, are all local places Matthew rates highly.
And he's a regular at Stroud Farmers' Market: Madgett's Farm chickens, Fulmay's pork and beef; Duchy vegetables; Days Cottage apple juice; cheese from Shepton Mallet; Hobbs House's wild white loaf; "And the fruit that comes from the Severn estuary - apples and plums - I can't remember their name. I always go in with a clear mind of exactly what I want to buy from each stall, and then I lurch away with five times the amount I intended.
"Clare Gerbrands - it's her personal fiefdom. The success of Stroud Farmers' Market is down to her energy and her vision."
Does he worry that, while fresh fruit and veg are in abundance each Saturday, Iceland is still thriving opposite the farmers' stalls?
"I do," he says, "but it's a problem that goes across the board, whether people shop at Iceland and Asda or Waitrose and Sainsbury's. The principle is the same because they can't be bothered to cook things from scratch.
"There was very interesting research a few years ago to see whether people in lower socio-economics groups understood the healthy eating message. It turned out that they did try to get their children to eat apples and oranges but, when it came to themselves, they would eat the crisps and the beer. Their perception was they had so little control over their lives, the one thing they could control was what they ate. It was a case of: **** off; I'm not going to do it because you're telling me to do it; this is my little bit of world that I can guard for myself.
"Change is critical, given the level of childhood obesity. When the government's own chief medical adviser says he's presiding over the first generation of children that will die younger than their parents because of diet, something drastic has to be done."
"Well," he says, "There's a very strong argument in terms of social engineering: you should start at school. You should be taught domestic science, not just on a health basis but on a pleasure basis. And from food comes history and geography and chemistry, and all sorts of other things. To use food as an example leads off into almost every other aspect of learning."
Does he having anything else to say?
"Only where are my ******* car keys?" he growls - then grins.
"If I have a single mantra that all people should follow, it would be: eat better, eat less.
He pauses in typically wry Matthew Fort fashion. "I myself just have a problem with the 'less'".