Over the course of her career, Kate Humble has spent endless hours posing for pictures on windswept hillsides, usually with a little lamb in her arms. Such is the lot of the poster girl for country living.
‘Jeremy Clarkson takes the mickey out of me for it,’ she says. ‘With my hair, I always look like the lamb’s mother, but that’s fine. I know my niche.’
Does she, though? The woman who’s spent half her life presenting wildlife programmes and writing books about trees and dogs and outdoorsy stuff has gone off-message, and headed inside to the kitchen.
She’s written a cookbook, and admits she’s surprised herself at this turn of events because, as she points out, ‘I am not Nigella.’
Kate Humble, 53, (pictured) has debuted a cookery book with recipes that she claims are ‘terrifically easy to do’
Nor is she ever likely to be on MasterChef. ‘I don’t have what it takes and, frankly, I’m not interested. I can’t be bothered with a foam and a smear on the plate. I don’t know what a sous vide is or what to do with it.’
It was a ‘two-pronged mistake’ that brought Kate, 53, to publishing her debut cookery book, which we’re serialising in Weekend this week and next. She was supposed to be writing another book that involved schlepping around Britain talking to people in wellies, but lockdown put paid to that.
Meanwhile, ‘because I’d had the foresight to marry a TV producer who could also work a camera’ she was scrambled to make a TV show from home, featuring the wholesome, farm-based comfort ‘that people were craving’.
In Escape To The Farm she shared her tips for lockdown loaves, because to be honest there are only so many times you can film pig-feeding.
But she found – who knew? – that people loved the foodie bits. ‘Everyone in the country was going mad for sourdough at the time, but I’d never been able to manage it, not even when I was given a heritage 200-year-old sourdough starter.
‘I managed to kill it. All loaves that I tried to make by hand, rather than in a machine, came out as bricks or looked like cow pats. So I shared an easier recipe for soda bread, which always worked.
‘My Twitter went into meltdown with people sending me pictures of their versions. Then I became emboldened and did a cake – not a fancy-schmancy cake but one where you throw everything in a tin. People started asking, ‘When are you doing a cookery book?’
She sought expert advice from her publishers, who also publish proper grown-up cookery writers.
Kate (pictured) said her publishers tasked her with putting a proposal together with 80 to 100 recipes in two days
‘They said, ‘Absolutely not. It’s a crowded field, and it’s not what you’re known for. But if you did want to put a proposal together, as an academic exercise, we would need 80 to 100 recipes and we’d need the synopsis in two days.’ She sighs. ‘They know me too well, that I like a challenge.’
So here we are, with a rather lovely cookery book that Kate insists only includes recipes that are ‘terrifically easy to do’ (but since one of those recipes involves curing your own bacon we’ll take that with a pinch of salt).
And what is pangrattato, pray? One of her recipes is for poached chicken with it. ‘Oh, it’s posh breadcrumbs,’ she says. ‘But pangrattato sounds much more impressive.’
There was a lot of throwing things
Actually, her book is delightful, written with wit but with an eye on the practical. The recipes are presented by season, with Kate introducing us to each one through the changes at her farm in the Welsh hills.
Spring is all about new life ‘when the new lambs are skipping in the fields and the woods are full of birdsong’ while autumn ‘is a time of such dynamism, of change and colour and extraordinary beauty. Misty mornings, dewdrops on spiders’ webs, wild storms and whirling leaves, mellow golden sunshine, a nip and freshness to the air.’
You very much get the sense of her pootling around, collecting eggs, roasting garlic and reminiscing about how the smell of tomatoes reminds her of her grandfather’s greenhouses. She extols the virtues of cooking with hawthorn (it’s a wild-growing alternative to parsley, apparently) but there are also recipes that take the reader further afield.
Kate said Ludo (pictured), who she married by age 23, saw the full horror of her grumpy behaviour while holed up writing in lockdown
She includes curries she sampled on work trips to India and Nepal. One of her favourites is a Brazilian fish stew, and another is a shakshuka she sampled in Tel Aviv. A stand-out recipe, she insists, is her husband’s one and only dish: cheese on toast. The secret ingredient is a raw egg mixed through the topping, but she says this dish was the thing that made her fall in love with him.
She and Ludo met on one of her first TV jobs, and were married by the time she was 23.
He gave her the single most important piece of advice when she was trying to make the often difficult move from behind-the-scenes to presenting, which was, ‘Don’t think of the camera as a piece of glass. Think of it as a person.’
Was it a serene experience actually writing the book while holed up in lockdown with the love of her life? Well, no.
CLARKSON, I SALUTE YOU!
Kate’s not the only TV personality to have recently taken up farming. The British countryside is now heaving with celebs who think they’re in an episode of The Good Life. Matt Baker bowed out of The One Show and took over his family’s farm.
Former soap star and Strictly champ Kelvin Fletcher has bought a smallholding in the Peak District. And then there’s Jeremy Clarkson, riding the biggest tractor of them all on Amazon Prime’s Clarkson’s Farm.
Jeremy Clarkson on his farm in Oxfordshire
Kate’s fascinated by this one. ‘At first I probably did think, ‘Here’s another one, just jumping on the bandwagon,’ but I suspect he had no idea how the programme was going to turn out either.
‘The thing about Clarkson is that he’d owned that farm for a long time. He’d just never farmed it until, I suspect, he couldn’t go off and drive fast cars in glamorous parts of the world. He was like a lot of people who thought, ‘I want to grow vegetables,’ except he had a thousand acres. And it just so happens that he’s a brilliant broadcaster and could make something that was not only very funny but also insightful to watch.
‘He’s probably done more for the farming community than the rest of us put together – the b****r! It’s infuriating, but I salute him.’
‘It nearly killed me, and nearly got me divorced,’ she says. ‘I had no idea what I was doing. I very much felt I was straying into territory that wasn’t mine. Cookery books have a code.
‘You have to write the recipe in a certain way, list the ingredients in a particular order. It’s fiendish when you’re doing it so I was unbelievably grumpy. I’m quite vile when I write a book anyway.
‘I get terribly up myself so usually I take myself well away from polite society, but of course I couldn’t do that. My husband saw the full horror. There was a lot of throwing things.’
Kate Humble really is hilarious. I was expecting someone quite earnest and wholesome. She is not. She swears like a trooper and is quite bemused that people think they know her ‘from off the telly’.
‘It’s like saying, ‘We all know what Reese Witherspoon is like.’ As if! I mean, we all do it. I love to think Reese Witherspoon is amazing and she would be my best friend. But she could be the bitch from hell. Who knows?’
What we can say is that Kate has had a good pandemic. As the country closed down, her decision to up sticks and move from London to Wales 14 years ago started to look less like a career gamble and more like a genius piece of planning.
And every day in lockdown she thanked goodness she had done it. ‘I don’t want to sound like some sort of over-emotional American, but every single day I went out over the fields with my dog and thought, ‘How did I get so bloody lucky?’
She’s lost that dog since. Poor old Badger (‘the world’s most magnificent dog’) bowed out a year ago, at an indeterminate age (‘probably 15 or 16 but he was a rescue dog so we don’t know’).
‘We had to call the vet, and had that thing of, ‘Is this the time?’ and it was, but at least we were able to end his life in the kindest, most lovely way possible. In the way that I would like to have my life ended, in fact.
‘We had a very kind person come in, and we held him in our arms in front of the fire, and then we buried him in a hole in the garden, in his favourite spot. And we still have Bella, our other dog, who’s now entirely blind but can still find a sausage roll anywhere in the house.’
She’s had to deal with a lot of loss over the past few years, and her surroundings have provided much comfort. Her beloved father Nick died almost a year before lockdown, and she says there was a lot of ‘walking outside to howl’ during that grieving process. While ‘we miss him desperately’, there was some comfort in the timing.
‘Thank goodness it happened when we could be with him. It wasn’t anything to do with Covid and it wasn’t at a time when we wouldn’t have been able to be there with him. He didn’t become a statistic.
‘He had a condition that would have made him very vulnerable. One of the great joys of the way he died – I know joy is an odd word to say – was that he was lucky he didn’t lose his mind. He was sharp as a tack, and we could have those conversations.’
Her heart goes out to families who have not been so lucky. ‘I don’t know how anyone can possibly process that sort of loss if you haven’t been able to have that kind of contact.’
Kate, who grew up in Berkshire, admits she feels tremendously grateful that her parents never questioned her decision not to have children. Pictured: Kate getting to grips with one of her pigs at feeding time
Her dad knew he was dying and went to extraordinary lengths to sort his affairs out so Kate and her brother did not have to do so. ‘I don’t have kids, but it’s the kindest, most unselfish thing anyone can do, making sure their affairs are in order as they come towards the end, so that their children don’t have to deal with that too.’
She never did want kids, and never changes her mind on that, although she reckons her parents must have wondered if she would.
‘One of the things I feel so tremendously grateful for was that my parents never questioned my decision.
‘Because I got married when I was young, there was a period of two years or so where people were saying, ‘Will you be thinking about it?’ But I was able to say, ‘No, I don’t think it’s right for me.’ And that was that. There may have been an underlying feeling that I might change my mind. I didn’t know myself if I would, but I didn’t.’
Kate grew up in Berkshire and once had ambitions to be an actress, but started her TV career as a researcher on shows such as children’s sci-fi drama Parallel 9. Her easy manner soon saw her move front-of-camera and since the late 90s she has fronted all manner of programmes, from the ever-popular Springwatch and Autumnwatch to science shows like Orbit and The Secret Life Of The Sun.
You can stop being flavour of the month for no reason
She’s very pragmatic about the job, though, which is probably sensible when you’re 53 and in an industry known for its obsession with shiny new things.
She says she was flattered recently when a make-up artist told her, ‘You’re the first person I’ve worked with for ages whose face actually moves,’ and she jokes about her wayward hair.
‘People always say, ‘Have you heard of a comb?’ and I say, ‘Have you ever been on a Welsh hillside?’ There is no point, because my hair will look a mess in five minutes whatever.
‘But yes, you can suddenly not be flavour of the month in the blink of an eye, often for no reason. It’s not necessarily anything to do with age or gender or anything else.
‘It’s just the way of the world. What that taught me was not to make decisions for the sake of your career; do things that make you happy.’
The move to Wales came under this heading. Did she worry that her TV career would suffer? ‘No, because the fact is your career will survive or it won’t, irrespective of what you do.
‘Of course, there are ways you could screw up, but moving to the country isn’t one of them. And if your career doesn’t sustain because you’re not in London bashing on the door of a commissioning editor every five minutes, it’s not going to sustain anyway.’
She pooh-poohs the idea that being on TV is a magical sort of job anyway.
‘People blow it up as an other-worldly career, but it’s just a job. It’s a lovely job, yes. But I come home, like I did this evening, and I walk the dog and feed the pigs and shut the hens up, and lock up the goats, and that’s what makes me happy.’
Home Cooked: Recipes From The Farm by Kate Humble will be published by Gaia on 3 February, £25.