The Great British Menu presenter talks to Prudence Wade about the flavours of her childhood, and discovering more about the food of her heritage.
As far as culinary childhoods go, chef Andi Oliver’s was certainly eclectic.
With Antiguan heritage, she grew up in the UK, but had a spell in Cyprus because her father was in the RAF. The smells and tastes of Cyprus are still with the 58-year-old today; she remembers “watching somebody kill an octopus and then going to the restaurant and thinking, ‘That’s what they just did outside!’ I ate the octopus and really loved it. I just really loved the whole understanding of where it came from.”
Other memories include scarfing down what she refers to as Greek Cypriot hotdogs (“Absolutely delicious”), and watching her friend’s mother make halloumi: “It would be hanging from the washing line in tights in the garden, she would be draining the halloumi.”
Great British Menu presenter Oliver is always ready to try new flavours. “I think coming from a diasporic culture helps you keep a broad palate, because there’s all the flavours from the diaspora,” she says thoughtfully, “then there’s the country your family moved to or that you were born in – so there’s always been a mix of everything. I’m quintessentially an Englishwoman, but I have Caribbean heritage – so those two things have always been there.
“If there’s more than one thread or narrative running through you like that, you’re always going to be open to other ways of thinking about food and new things – we are never going to be shy about trying new flavours.”
At home, Oliver’s father would make “some really old fashioned West Indian dishes”, she says – including souse (“Basically pickled pig… Delicious”), roast pork belly and curries. “My dad was a real one for a party, he loved to cook in a very flamboyant, extrovert manner,” she adds. “He would cook these huge dinners with 10 different pots boiling – a classic man of his generation, he used every pot in the kitchen, he never washed up, there would be a trail of devastation left behind.”
Conversely, her mother was “more of an everyday cook, cooking the stuff you eat every day to sustain the family,” she says. Looking back at the food of her childhood evidently brings Oliver great joy: “Those are my memories of happiness and love and kindness and humanity – it’s a lesson in how you can experience simple humanity,” she says.
The past year has given the chef the opportunity to slow down. “What I’ve been doing is writing,” she explains. “It’s interesting writing because I am really quantifiably connecting my cooking to identity: exploring what it means to be a first generation black British woman born here with Caribbean heritage, and what that means for me as a cook.”
She’s been thoroughly enjoying this “exploration of self” because in normal times “I’m always rushing around,” she says. “I’ve always got about 500 things going on, there’s a lot happening. So it’s been quite lovely to have some time and space to be thoughtful and really draw out some new avenues creatively.”
Oliver has been diving deeper into Antiguan cuisine, spending a few months on the island earlier this year. She describes Antigua’s food as “full of flavour: it’s life on a plate, it’s energetic, it’s vital, it tastes incredible. It just makes you feel happy in your heart.” It’s a true melting pot of influences and cultures, with hints of Italian, Indian, Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese cuisines.
Anything to do with food is “like two million times, 100%” therapy for Oliver. She says: “There’s different types of therapy with cooking: when you’re on your own and it’s meditative – I’ve been writing as well, and that’s a very, on your own, calming, peaceful thing.
“Then there’s cooking with a friend – there’s not that many people you can cook with, but there’s a couple of people that I cook with in the world. Cooking with other people is like dancing: you can’t dance with everybody – even if you can both cook, it doesn’t mean you can cook together. So I absolutely think it’s a great thing for mental health and happiness. There’s something intrinsic about doing something that’s going to do your body good, and other people’s bodies good. It’s an act of love, and it’s good to exercise love.”
As the world begins to open up, Oliver is spending a bit more time working to help bring communities together. She’s recently done a walking tour around Liverpool with Google Pixel, visiting community food and arts project Squash. “People use food in Liverpool in the same way I use food – they use it to bring people together,” she says – and she particularly loves Squash because “they exemplify everything we really need at the moment: we’ve been inside for a long time, we’ve all missed each other desperately.”
Communities are at risk because of “all sorts of gentrification and difficulty with affording city living,” she says, “so an organisation like Squash is exactly what all cities need in my opinion, because they bring people together physically, spiritually, emotionally, practically and logistically.”
Television presenter and chef Andi Oliver hosted a culinary rediscovery walking tour of Liverpool, as part of the ‘Behind the Lens with Google Pixel’ campaign to help people rediscover their cities.