What is it you do in food?
Following my win of MasterChef in 2019, my life has been filled with food. Writing about it, first for my book and then for magazines and online blogs, recipe testing for my website www.irinicooks.com and in paid partnerships, demonstrating on line in ‘cook lives’ over Instagram and Facebook and teaching it even in a programme I have developed for University students called Uni.Yum. It has given me great pleasure showing students of Cumbria University how to shop, store, manage ingredients and prepare healthy, quick and cheap meals whilst providing them with some basic nutritional information.
What does good food mean to you?
Pure, natural, local and fresh are characteristics of food that are part of my DNA. I did not need to read or learn about these principles. I was born in them. Coming from a farming family and growing up without the abundance of ready made and process foods we are all bombarded with now, the sweetness in my food came from home produced honey, the dairy came from our animals which we fed with things that naturally grew in our land, I had to wait for the fruit of each season and for Christmas, Easter and the odd celebration to enjoy treats and for every Saturday that my mother baked the bread for the week. Slow was a way of life and in order to create and preserve foods for all year round, time was taken and experiences were shared. I have wonderful memories going with groups of women to find snails very early in the morning or with my brother to find crabs in the river or mushrooms after the first rains, working with my mum and her piers to make tomato paste or grape molasses or cheese, everything seemed to take time but during that time relationships were forged, problems were solved, joy was shared. To me, food means nature, love and life itself!
What other women have influenced you in food?
I was fortunate to be the grand daughter of foodies. My maternal grandmother loved food which was just as well as she was cooking for an average of 15-20 persons every day (family of 12 and always passers by – my grandfather was the local priest so their house was always full of people in need, and workers who were helping them in the fields) and I was always hovering around her apron, wanting to help her make sausages, pork in aspic, the bread, pies and sweet cakes. My paternal grandparents came from Asia Minor and both had a sweet tooth and a liking for the finer things in life so I was always around them with wide eyes seeing how in their poverty they used their imagination to create dishes out of thin air. My grand father used to slowly roast chickpea flower in a dry frying pan over the fire to make Greek coffee or brown flour in the same way over a long time stirring all the time so that it would not catch only to mix it with sugar and cinnamon in order to create a kind of halva. My mum too was very creative conjuring up whole meals with very little so I have that I was given a huge treasure chest of knowledge and experiences that are now serving me and the young I teach very well!
Why do we see less women in food and farming in the UK than in many other countries, and how can we change that?
I think that work associate with food production can be physically demanding, challenging and dirty even and I can see that it is not immediately attractive to young girls. We also always hear how tough it is for farmers to make a decent living, how they are constantly squeezed by super markets and how dependent they are on subsidies and government schemes. So, it is not surprising. I think a lot needs to change from the top. The UK Government needs to do much more to support farming and small producers for the sake of our health and the planet going forward. Things will change for the better only when some of the fears associated with having a stable, fair and predictable route to market without the supermarket constant price squeeze are eliminated. Education too is always one of the biggest tools for change and I am certain more can be done to expose young girls to the joy of food growing and production.
What message do you have to other women and young women in particular who are thinking about food or farming as a career?
I would say that they would have a wonderful opportunity to make a positive impact, to bring new ideas and make their own stamp on things not just for their own lifetime but the future too. Food is a world of colours, smells, beauty and nurture. I cannot think of any better world to work in!
Irini is a Masterchef winner, cook, teacher, and Slow Food ambassador.