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Digging into history

The crime-solving archaeologists in the daft, sadly defunct BBC drama Bonekickers had me believe that you couldn't kick over a stone in Britain without accidentally uncovering Excalibur, Boadicea's chariot or the one true cross of Christ.

In reality, as fans of documentary series such as Digging for Britain are aware, it's more common for archaeologists to spend weeks squatting in a muddy ditch in the rain only to finally uncover ... yet another broken pot. (I'm no historian, but I've concluded that ancient Britons were fiends for pottery night classes down the community centre. In contrast, the Rainbow Rhythms urban dance class was undersubscribed in the third century).

And yet, what Digging for Britain successfully shows is that seemingly inconsequential finds can build into a fascinating picture of ancient lives. Throughout the first episode of the second series, robust and fresh-faced Dr Alice Roberts strode across England's green and pleasant landscape in a sensible purple rain jacket, breathlessly hypothesising about the closing days of the Roman Empire. She's soon joined by others of her ilk, similarly messy haired and sensibly clad experts eagerly clutching bits of artefact or bone, all with stories to tell.

Each item brought its own mysteries and challenges: large Roman settlements in places they never thought Romans had reached, the villa of a long-dead general being hurriedly excavated before it fell into the sea, evidence of high levels of religious tolerance in Roman cities, and, more sinisterly, a large collection of ancient baby skeletons (this indicated, depending on which expert you believed, the presence of an ancient Roman obstetrics ward or, more disturbingly, a brothel whose workers' unwanted children were killed).

These unanswered questions made the windswept experts' eyes brighten in an endearing fashion, and I vowed that if I ever built a time machine, I'd go back and give them more mysteries to ponder: a Roman centurion with a Sony Walkman, for example, a Viking skeleton clutching a Tayto packet ... or maybe a crusader with a George Foreman grill.

Future historians may have a similar conundrum to ponder: an Irish celebrity chef in post-apocalyptic 2011 living like she's in a VIP photo spread back in 2005.

I'm as much a fan of soft-focus food erotica as the next person, but in Catherine's Family Kitchen the gastro-pervery comes accompanied by footage of the befrocked host, Catherine Fulvio, frolicking on the manicured lawns of her Ballyknocken cookery school and home alongside her perfect family. This suggests that she really wanted to call the programme: My Amazing Life and Why you Cannot Have It.

"I know this looks like a scene out of The Sound of Music," she chuckles delightfully, as she and her clan stride across a green field to meet her sister's equally immaculate clan for dinner. "But Eithne and Colin's house is literally one field away from us. Claudio and I are over to their house all the time and we meet so often."

The field that separates Catherine from her sister is clearly not the one John B Keane wrote about (normally when Irish people cross a field to meet one another it's prior to a fatal dispute about land boundaries), so I think the Fulvio lifestyle is one that we plebs are meant to aspire to rather than relate to.

And, to be fair, it's probably necessary to maintain a clean family image when you're an unrepentant food pimp who likes to film chocolate sauce dripping in soft-focus over a raspberry meringue pie. "All I need to do now is pipe my meringues," she says, as the mellow jazz soundtrack builds and I don't know whether I want to eat the food or make love to it (I don't get invited to many dinner parties).

Still, the food looks lovely and the life looks lovely, and that, I think, is the point.

Digging for Britain HHHHI

Catherine's Family Kitchen HHHII