Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Stirred But Not Shaken: A Review

I've been enjoying "Stirred But Not Shaken: The Autobiography"(2009) in which the late Keith Floyd reflects on his varied life with food and television.

Floyd begins by reflecting on life at home, and how in 1950s austerity Britain, his mother managed to produce a wonderful variety of different meals from basic but fresh ingredients, and inspired him with his lifelong love of food. He knew that you boiled beetroot before peeling it, and when handed a beetroot as a test when he applied for a job in the kitchen of a prestigious Bristol Hotel, he passed and was hired. Unfortunately, the food was cooked badly, with duck being overcooked, then reheated and covered with sauces; the Lobster soup, as he recounts with dismay, came from tins.

So it was not surprising that he left to set up his own restaurant, and had three in the Bristol area. Yet while a good cook, he was unfortunately not good at finances, and ended up being taken for a ride by his partner when the restaurants hit financial problems. Financial problems on his restaurants was a pattern to be repeated throughout his life, and one wonders why he did not learn from his mistakes, and ensure he had a good manager who could keep the books, balance budgets and control his finances. Instead, when the Maltsters Arms in Tuckenhay, Devon was closed and the receivers brought in, this led to personal bankruptcy in 1996.

His first BBC TV series Floyd on Fish led to fame, as his unconventional manner, glass of wine (as a means of giving himself time to think - it was all unscripted), and asides to the cameraman, breaking the "third wall", was in marked contrast to the carefully scripted "recipe by numbers" approach of the conventional cookery programme at the time - now, of course, it is more commonplace, and chefs such as Rick Stein have borrowed the television grammar which Floyd created almost by chance. At first, the local TV station would not contemplate a nationwide broadcast for a cookery programme in which the presenter swigged a glass of wine, but David Pritchard, the producer went to BBC in London to pitch for the show, and it got nationwide coverage on BBC2.

Floyd was a big fan of rock group The Stranglers, and their music became his well known zany theme tune for his TV programmes.

In Floyd on Food, he travelled around Britain, and one episode was set in Jersey, where he ate Jersey royals sitting outside at a table in a field with the President of the Agricultural and Fisheries Committee, a young Pierre Horsfall, and they discussed the accident of the "Jersey fluke", with Pierre Horsfall tending to pontificate. After that he went to a house (I think that of Francis Le Maistre) to cook ormers with, as he put it "a real Jerseyman, and not a politician doing a commercial", which was rather a neat put down on the previous segment! He ended up doing a barbeque of skewers of different fish at millionaire inventor Ron Hickman's house. in the early evening.

Not much of a cook myself, and not one for most cookery programmes - I was like Ria in Butterflies where her copying of the steps in food preparation led to disaster - I was inspired to try cream sauces, throwing in onions, peas etc and experiment with food after watching Floyd. It didn't matter if it wasn't perfect; Floyd's own slapdash way, always with fresh ingredients, showed that enjoyment of cooking was the key. My sister, who is a professional cook, loved the way in which he celebrated the way in which people cooked a diversity of different foods across the world, entering into their cultures, and let the food take centre stage.

He never criticised other cultures, and often went out of his way to explain the background of ones challenging to Western sensibilities. As an example, in "Far Flung Floyd" in the far east - he saw live frogs having their legs pulled off for a stir fry, and the bodies dumped in a tub; as he explains in this autobiography, while it may offend us, for their culture, it shows that the food is fresh, which is important for them.

This is an extremely candid book, in which he describes the failure of his four marriages, and his troublesome reliance on the bottle, as he sought to fight the lack of confidence in his "Floydy" TV performances, and suffered increasing ill health as a result of alcohol abuse, including several strokes. He began to look dissipated, many years older than he was.

In the end, he found happiness with Celia Martin, a lifelong friend, and the widow of his friend Dave Martin (the Bristol scriptwriter who created the Dr Who dog "K9" with writing partner Bob Baker). It was at her home that he died of a heart attack at 65.

Marco Pierre White said  Floyd "inspired a nation", and it was true.

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