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'I collect recipes, songs, ideas': Cerys Matthews on the stories and music behind her new folk cookbook

Cerys Matthews
There’s a synergy between music and cooking, says the Welsh singer, radio presenter and festival curator Cerys Matthews Credit: Geoff Pugh/Where the Wild Cooks Go

“I’m a collector of recipes, ideas, songs, quotes, poems and books – anything that informs me more about the world around me,” says Cerys Matthews, the Welsh singer, songwriter and BBC Radio 6 Music presenter, who also describes herself as simply a keen cook. “After sharing my collection of music on the radio for so many years, it seemed natural to share my food.” 

In her new cookbook, Where the Wild Cooks Go, Matthews draws on her notebooks – jottings from her roamings around the world – filled with proverbs, quotes, curiosities and food history. “It could be an idea as as simple as pineapple with chilli, Tia Maria vodka with Guinness or boiled peanuts, which I picked up in Nashville while I was doing a road trip around Tennessee,” she explains.

Matthews describes it as a “folk cookbook – the extreme opposite of chefs, catering and chi-chi recipes. It’s survivalist, and sustainable. For me, food is about people, history and place, identity, generosity, giving and love, and family.”

Scroll down for the recipes for her Moroccan thousand hole pancakes and amlou, Jamaican rice and peas, and half a melon with sherry – a dessert she picked up in Spain, for which you can also use port.

As is to be expected, for Matthews, music and cooking are deeply intertwined. Indeed they are two of the key components of her annual festival, The Good Life Experience, which takes place in Hawarden, North Wales, this weekend (guests include food writers Thomasina Miers and Anna Jones, with music from the likes of Norman Jay and Dave Haslam).

“For me, a good time is not just one thing, one dish – it’s also an atmosphere, a conversation, a place – which aggregates to create a whole world of experience. And if a live musician turns up or there’s a jazz club next door, suddenly it could become one of the most memorable nights of your life. 

Where the Wild Cooks Go (left) is a compendium of songs, recipes, quotes and "nuggets of wisdom"; recipes include Cerys Matthews' take on a traditional Welsh cawl (right)

Once the festival is over, her book tour will take her to fixtures at Liberty Hall in Dublin, The Old Market Theatre in Hove and Cecil Sharp House in London.

“The book itself reminds me of the song Jambalaya by The Carpenters," she says. "It’s a huge celebration of the medley of life and all of the simple riches you can have – just like the jambalaya, crawfish pie and fillet gumbo in the lyrics.

"I once went shrimping on the bayou in Louisiana and caught shrimp, cooked it on the shore – and then the music started: live music with the iron triangle, prevalent in Cajun music and zydeco [a music genre that evolved in southwest Louisiana by French Creole speakers]. It was unforgettable.” 

A recipe for shrimp and grits, inspired by Matthews' time in the US, is paired with a soundtrack of Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe and George Jones: the book is divided into the countries in which Matthews has spent time collecting recipes and music (from the American South to India, via England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, where she grew up). 

She has compiled an hour-long playlist to accompany each chapter, freely available on Spotify (songs are also listed at the bottom of each page).  I’ve put them in a particular order so they flow: I love doing that,” she says. “It was important to me to include the playlists, to aggregate those variables of a good time.

"Places like Mexico and Jamaica pack such a massive punch, culturally – why wouldn’t you want to add a playlist to your cooking? There’s a synergy between music and cooking: the first thing I do before I put the oven on is turn the radio on. There’s an escape to be had, lost in music, wine in hand, pans bubbling.”

For Matthews, certain songs evoke certain dishes, places and people – but she also points out how many songs are about food, when you start looking. Each of the playlists is rich with the theme. “From Bread of Heaven in Welsh culture to Elvis Presley’s Polk Salad Annie, you barely have to scratch the surface to find songs inspired by food,” she says.

But for Matthews, the book is not only a celebration of world food and music (though it certainly is that). Rather, she sees it as a collection of snapshots of world history, through those prisms.  

“The most important thing I’ve learnt from this book is how to question the idea of heritage: the differences between different cultures, but also what we have in common. For example, homemade cheese – milk split with acid, vinegar or citrus juice – is found in paneer in India, as well as in Mexico (quesa fresco). Growing up in Wales, we called it farmer’s cheese. You also see similar bean and pea based dishes across the world, from dahl in India to lentil and whole head of garlic soups in Spain.  

“I was struck by cultural migration and exchange going way back. For example, we think of tomatoes as a cornerstone of Italian food, but the first tomatoes to make it to Europe were brought to Italy by the Spanish conquistadors from Peru in the sixteenth century. Chillies were first brought to India at the same time.  I came to the conclusion that identity is a changing, shifting thing, built on quicksand.”

Here, Matthews shares three recipes from the book and talks us through some of her song choices to accompany them in your own kitchen…

Half a melon with sherry (Spain)

A simple dessert to evoke memories of Spain Credit: Where the Wild Cooks Go

Learning Spanish and Catalan was a huge part of growing up for me. I went to Spain when I was 18 and lived with a Valencian lady, who taught me how to cook.

Adios Papa by the Los Ronaldos was on the radio all the time, as was Calle Betis by Pata Negra, which has roots in flamenco but pushed the genre. Eduardo Niebla’s beautiful guitar playing in My Gypsy Waltz evokes the history of flamenco and its story of migration from North India to Spain.

METHOD

  1. Cut a ripe, small, orange-fleshed cantaloupe in half and remove the seeds. Fill the hole with Jerez sherry, or sherry of your choice, and serve.

Jamaican rice and peas

Cerys Matthews suggests using whatever peas, beans or pulses you have in stock

Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Soul Rebel was a huge song for me in my teens, as was Rudy Mills' John Jones, and all the other massive reggae hits. The things Bob Marley wrote about and the way he changed the world with his lyrics...they’re hugely important to most teenagers that grew up in the Eighties. 

Each family has a different take on rice and peas. My husband works with Jamaican artists and I go a lot; I’ve cooked with friends there and added this recipe to my cauldron of ideas, but you can push and pull it depending on what peas are in season and what you have in your cupboard. 

INGREDIENTS

  • 100g fresh gunga or garden peas, or 100g cooked
  • gunga peas, drained (alternatively use cooked red
  • kidney, pinto beans, or black-eyed peas)
  • 1 clove of garlic, sliced
  • sea salt, a pinch, or to taste
  • 250g brown rice
  • 600ml water (you can use the bean-cooking water as
  • part of this)
  • 100ml coconut milk (or coconut powder with water)
  • large sprig of fresh thyme
  • 1 small Scotch bonnet chilli (or to taste – they pack
  • a big punch)
  • 1 spring onion, sliced
  • 10 allspice/pimento berries

METHOD

  1. Boil the fresh gunga peas or garden peas in a pan of water with the sliced garlic and a touch
  2. of salt until soft – about 10 minutes – then drain, reserving the water. If you are using pre-cooked
  3. peas, you can go straight to step 2.
  4. Put all the ingredients into a saucepan. Put the lid on, bring to the boil, then turn down the heat
  5. and cook until the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is cooked – about 15–30 minutes, depending on the rice you’ve used. Brown basmati takes 30 minutes.
  6. Turn off the heat and keep the lid on the pan until you are ready to serve.

Moroccan thousand-hole pancakes with amlou

When the pancakes bubble, they produce the miniature craters which lend this recipe its name

I start the Moroccan playlist with Bing Crosby’s Road to Morocco – I love throwing a bit of a smile maker or a curveball in there! Thousand-hole pancakes (or baghrir) are traditionally served with melted butter, orange blossom water and honey for breakfast and during Ramadan. They’re a bit like skinny crumpets.

Serve them with amlou, fresh orange slices and dates. Amlou is a mix of roasted ground nuts, honey and argan oil, in a ratio of 2:1:1. It’s easy to scale the recipe up.

For the amlou

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 tbsp ground almonds
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 2 tbsp argan oil*

METHOD

  1. Using the back of a teaspoon, mix everything together in a dish until blended.
  2. You can replace the ground almonds with peanut butter, ground linseed (flax) or tahini if desired.
  3. If you don’t have any argan oil handy, replace it with groundnut oil. You could also try sesame, walnut or hazelnut oil for a stronger flavour.
  4. Add more honey to taste.

For the pancakes

INGREDIENTS

  • 125g fine semolina
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 1 tbsp honey or sugar (optional)
  • 1 tsp active dried yeast
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 250ml warm water
  • 1 tsp baking powder (not heaped)*

METHOD

  1. Blend together all the ingredients except for the baking powder for 5 minutes, then add the
  2. baking powder and blend again for 3 minutes. Allow to rest for 30 minutes (or longer if you’ve time – it keeps overnight).
  3. Heat a bakestone or pan, lightly greased with oil or butter.
  4. Pour in enough of the batter to make a round, like a drop scone. Within seconds you’ll see holes bubbling up – allow the baghrir to continue tocook on top, don’t fl ip it, just turn down the heat if the bottom begins to colour.
  5. Once the baghrir has no wetness left on top, it’s done. Remove it from the pan and lay it on a tea towel, then repeat with the rest of the batter.

NB: If you don’t like the taste of bicarbonate of soda, make the baghrir without it. Leave longer for the yeast to work – you’ll see the batter bubbling. You’ll just get less epic hole action.

Where the Wild Cooks Go is published by Penguin, available to buy now (£25, Waterstones)