Wednesday 18 September 2019

From pop goddess to kitchen queen

Cerys Matthews found fame as the frontwoman of Catatonia, Now she's bringing a touch of rock 'n' roll to the kitchen, writes Julia Molony

Cerys Matthews Photo : ©Boris Conte Photography
Cerys Matthews Photo : ©Boris Conte Photography

Julia Molony

Since she found fame as the whisky-and-cigarette-voiced frontwoman of Catatonia, Cerys Matthews has consistently defied expectation. After soaring to prominence as the wild-child of indie pop in the 1990s, she was predicted to crash and burn.

Instead, she has reinvented herself over and over - as a radio broadcaster (she hosts Cerys on 6 on the BBC), a reality TV star (she came third in I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here in 2007), she runs a boutique music and lifestyle festival called The Good Life Experience every year, and now has surprised everybody again by writing a cookbook.

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It's far from a move into twee domesticity, however. Where the Wild Cooks Go is a decidedly rock 'n' roll take on the genre. You wouldn't catch her in a Cath Kidston apron. The book, inspired by recipes she has collected from all over the world, reads as the work of a relentlessly curious, experience-hungry soul who happens to have rocked up in the kitchen.

"It's a folk cookbook," she explains. She is dressed in a crisp white shirt, her blue eyes peering out from under a trademark trilby hat. Her beauty has always had an unpolished, lived-in quality which is as appealing now she is in her 50s as it was when she was a pop starlet of 25.

In Where the Wild Cooks Go, the food is only part of the story. "The best occasions are not just about a good Irish stew or a good piece of bread," she says. "It's everything around it. Who you've met that day. Who you are sitting by? What's the drink to go with the food? What's the music playing? What's the smell in the air? What's the history of the place? What do the walls tell you? What are the ghosts of an area? What are the differences to where you come from in the world? So I tried to make a cookbook like that."

The book is a world tour, chapters divided into countries. There are accompanying playlists that can be downloaded from iTunes to listen to in the kitchen, and each section is introduced with personal anecdotes, family photographs, poems, facts and quotations she has collected. It reads a bit like a diary, or an autobiography in food. "Wherever I've travelled, home and away, I've collected music and recipes," she writes in the introduction.

It's a narrative as much as a recipe book, tracing her life from a childhood growing up foraging and fossicking in the Welsh wilds, her years as a touring pop star circumnavigating the globe, when she hoarded recipes like treasures as she moved from country to country.

It covers dishes she learned to love while living in the Deep South of the United States with her first husband, Nashville musician Seth Riddle for seven years before the marriage broke down and she bolted back to Wales with her two young children. There's soda bread from Ireland, a place which first captured her imagination through the rebel songs she sang as a child. And a head-spinning cocktail called Death by Chocolate, which she first discovered in Dublin thanks to Ian Brown of the Stone Roses.

Ireland has been the setting, it seems, for some of her life's most pivotal moments. She fell in love with her now-husband (and former manager) Steve Abbott over oysters and Guinness in Davy Byrnes pub in Dublin. He proposed to her in front of a packed National Concert Hall, while she was onstage. "I could have killed him," she says. "He went on and on and on when he was asking me, and someone from the audience in proper Irish fashion just goes "Get on with it!" she laughs.

She agreed to marry him, she jokes, "because of his record collection." They get on well because "I think he's got a similar way to me… he loves books, he loves people. He's got no interest whatsoever in dressing up in really overly expensive clothes and being seen in the so-called right places. Or being high-profile just for the sake of it."

Cerys, it seems, had her fill of that kind of vacuity early on. Now she is driven by a search for authenticity of experience. Socially, she says she is "very comfortable just to go down the pub and spend time with people who don't just spend time looking at themselves in the mirror and in selfies and stuff because really it makes for terrible company".

The centre of the blended family she shares with Steve is their home in Ladbroke Grove, west London, where they live with Cerys's two children, Glenys and Johnny, from her first marriage, and Red, the son they share. Steve's two older children are regular visitors.

The cookbook is inspired, too, by Cerys's experiments and adventures feeding her family, which encompass a wide range of ages and tastes. Steve is a vegetarian, Cerys's daughter is a vegan.

"My kitchen is tiny," she says. When she cooks, she's often "got a nice bottle of wine. I've got my music playing. There is an escape, for me. If you don't have to think too much in terms of ingredients and measurements - most of the recipes in here are pretty fail-safe, I know that because I generally don't weigh anything, I throw things in - so you can really relax and just be artistic about it. And the kitchen overlooks my lounge, and kids could be reading and my husband could be somewhere - I'm the only one allowed in the kitchen then, because it's tiny. Me and my bottle and my glass and my pans and my radio."

Her love of food was born when she was growing up beside the sea in Pembrokeshire. Though in the early days it didn't seem the most promising start. "My mum only ate chicken and chips," she says. All family meals were prepared in the deep-fat fryer. "It was the 1970s and 1980s - Findus pancakes and chips. Or fish fingers. All deep fried."

That started to change when her mum became friends with a neighbour, Mudrika Purohit, who was from Gujarat in India. "There were these gorgeous curry smells always coming out of their house. My dad loved curry, always loved curry... in the end I think my dad begged my mum to try and ask Mudrika to give us some lessons in how to make a proper curry." Food suddenly became a passion and Cerys, her mother and her siblings all learned about it together.

In the book, she writes of Mudrika: "I'll always thank her for opening the door to the secrets of rolling chapatis, scorching aubergines on the gas ring, preparing the best vegetarian food this side of the sun."

Matthews once described herself as someone not overly inclined to look backwards. Yet there is a distinct flavour of nostalgia in Where the Wild Cooks Go. "I think it's a whole chapter this one," she says of the book. It represents the first half of her life. "From being a child to being, maybe, just past the middle of a normal life."

"There's a quote in the book from Confucius that speaks to me," she says. "It says 'We've got two lives. And the second one begins when we realise we've only got one life.' That's how I feel.

"My youngest child is now nine. The chaos and the single-mindedness of having young children is now gone. They're starting to walk on their own feet, starting to live their own lives. I'm still guiding them, but that wholehearted, absolute utter focus… that's gone. I can read! And now I'm looking forward to the next chapter. But it was quite nice to put down everything I've learned in the first chapter in this. And appreciate it all."

Where the Wild Cooks Go by Cerys Matthews, published by Particular Books, £25. Join Cerys for some music and foodie chat on September 24 at Liberty Hall, Dublin, or at The Good Life Experience in Wales, September 12-15. Details at www.penguin.co.uk/events/2019/cerys-matthews-where-the-wild-cooks-go-tour

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