Helen McGurk meets acclaimed Ulster cook Jenny Bristow who talks about her upcoming appearance at the Dalriada Festival and why she loves life
Jenny Bristow is putting more logs on an oh so chic, spaceship-shaped outdoor oven when I arrive at her beautiful Cullybackey home.
With only days to go to the Dalriada Festival at Glenarm Castle, where the celebrated culinary queen will be doing a number of demonstrations, she’s trying out new dishes on the sleek piece of cooking apparatus.
‘‘You can cook all sorts of things in it,’’ she says, her eyes beaming like a child with a new toy.
‘‘You can adjust the temperature, it’s almost like an oven. I’m going to cook the turkey in it this Christmas.’’
The Dalriada Festival takes place on July 14 and 15, and Jenny is just one component of a jam-packed event which brings together music, children’s events, and the gloriously un-PC wife-carrying competition.
Jenny is really looking forward to the event.
‘‘I think Dalriada is an amazing festival because it’s very, very different and every year they re-invent it.’’
She will be cooking up some delectable delights in the kitchen garden, using the aforementioned wood burning stove.
‘‘We are going to make lovely sundried tomato and feta bread, chilli prawns, a Thai casserole, teriyaki salmon, lots of vegetable dishes, including salt-crusted potatoes with Himalayan salt.’’
There were also be a tantalising array of sweet treats.
‘‘We are going to do baked Alaska and meringues, lovely summer puddings with all the fruits out of the garden, rhubarb, apricot and peaches, We are also having a children’s pizza competition, because it (the stove) can also be used as a pizza oven.’’
I am chatting with Jenny in the grounds of her enviable property which oozes bucolic calm and pastoral seclusion.
Her little and large dogs, Scamp and Major, frolic on the lush lawns, resting every so often under the horse chestnut and beech trees.
Baby-pink roses cascade around doorways and the walls of the house wear a heavy coat of Virginia creeper; it’s like something straight out of a glossy country homes magazine and I can only imagine that homesickness would take on a new agony if you were parted from the place.
We sip tea and eat homemade granola cookies in the sunshine outside her Cookery School, which she established three years ago. The building was a series of ramshackle outhouses which Jenny converted into a wonderful space with all the key ingredients for rustic bliss. Indeed, it’s kitchen was the one used on her popular television shows.
Jenny explains that the inspiration for her Cookery School came from Mary Berry, the unflappable, serene and stylish former judge on The Great British Bake-off.
‘‘Mary Berry decided she would bring people to her own house, have a reception and then show them how to cook.
‘‘As our children grew up and disappeared off, we decided this would be a clever thing to do and use what we have here. We have all sorts of events, from healthy eating, seasonal food, nostalgic events, Mother’s Days events, the high days and holidays of life - Easter, Halloween and the Christmas one is always so popular, with mulled wine and canapes in the drawing room and then over to the Cookery School. We would do about eight events a month.’’
Jenny was a familiar face on UTV television for some 25 years cooking honest-to-goodness, flavoursome food. She enjoyed the TV work, but says she is relishing new challenges.
‘‘There’s always lots of new things to be doing. I have just enjoyed every phase and how it’s gone and probably when I was younger it was easier, it took less make-up - I think when you get to a certain stage, radio works best,’’ she laughs.
As well as television, she has been a prolific writer with 13 cookbooks under her pinny strings and another one in the pipeline.
‘‘I need to speedily move on to 14 because I am a superstitious person. I’m hoping it will be finished early next year.’’
She adds: ‘‘People always wonder where the recipes come from...it’s inspiration, you get an idea and then you build it around that, but obviously recipes have got to be checked and tried and tested to make sure that they are going to work and I think a lot of the recipes I have done in the last couple of years have been very much geared towards health and lifestyle and making things easier for everybody. I think people want to spend more time enjoying good food and less time in the kitchen working.’’
Despite writing about food, and teaching others to cook food, Jenny hasn’t tired of cooking at home.
‘‘We cook from scratch every night. I love vegetarian food and I love fish. We have been barbecuing fish nearly every night, we have a great market in Ballymena and I buy fish on the bone and cook it on the bone. I also love fruit dessert puddings.
‘‘We have apple and pear trees and all the fruits that are free for the picking, such as blackberries and raspberries, damsons, rosehips and elderflowers - all those things that people love today - those old nostalgic flavours.’’
Jenny Bristow has had a busy and exciting career, so does she have any unfulfilled ambitions? ‘‘To live to be 130 and may the last voice you hear be mine,’’ she smiles referencing Frank Sinatra’s famous salute.
‘‘I want to beat Methuselah. I just want to live for ever. I’m having such a wonderful time.’’