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CHELTENHAM LITERATURE FESTIVAL 2017

October saw thousands of literature lovers of all ages flood to Cheltenham for the UK’s oldest literature festival. Around 1000 speakers from a diverse programme covering everything from poetry to current affairs took part in over 500 events over 10 days in the heart of Regency Cheltenham. Festival goers were invited to listen to some of the brightest minds, television favourites, literary greats and fresh new talent at the family friendly Festival Village in Montpellier Gardens.

This year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival boasted two new spaces for younger visitors, with The Den and The Woodland Trust Wild Wood adding to the countless free activities on site for the whole family. Over 7000 school children and young people were welcomed on site as part of a year-round education programme that saw them lucky enough to receive inspiration from celebrated illustrators and authors, as well as being involved in Amnesty International UK’s new poetry project.

This year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival headliners provided something for all tastes. From Bear Grylls and Hilary Clinton, to Bill Nighy and Ian Rankin, the festival programme catered for everyone. I was lucky enough to be invited to attend some of this year’s events and envelop myself in literary deliciousness. As someone who can’t think of anything better than having the time to sit and lose myself in a book, this really was a most welcomed treat.

My first encounter was at Cheltenham’s beautiful Town Hall with the extremely likeable local boy, Tom Kerridge. Thanks to his “dopamine diet”, the Michelin starred chef has shed eleven stone over the past three years. To put that in perspective, that’s the same as 70 bags of sugar. With most people finding it hard to keep to a long-term diet Kerridge claims this one is different. The recipes feature ingredients that trigger the release of the ‘happy hormone’ dopamine in your brain, so it’s a diet that claims to make you feel good. Sounds ideal.

Growing up in Gloucestershire and with a brief stint as a child actor,(mainly to impress girls from Cheltenham Ladies College!) Kerridge admitted that his early interest in food mainly revolved around “a burger in a blacked out car in a car park at 3am” before being moved on by the police. Attending catering college in Cheltenham, he was later inspired by the Trouble House in Tetbury and opened The Hand in Flowers, Marlow. The celebrated establishment earned him two Michelin stars (the first pub to have this honour,) and one for its sister restaurant, The Coach. As Kerridge jokes, between the two this technically makes him a 3 Michelin starred chef. Despite his culinary success, the work hard, play hard culture of the hospitality trade took its toll on his health and he piled on the weight.

Approaching 40, he realised that if he carried on partying hard he might not have many years left and decided to make a change. He joked that it’s “no coincidence that the first three letters in diet spell die,” and admitted that the first thing he Googled when deciding to lose weight was if there was a beer diet. Struggling to find a plan that he could follow long term as part of his lifestyle, he ditched the booze and focused on flavour led, low carb diet. Although claiming that he is “still a lump and never going to be skinny,” his focus is now on getting fitter.

Despite the Michelin stars and impressive CV, Kerridge is still a Gloucester boy at heart. His admission that he uses stock cubes at home raised a few eyebrows at the festival, with the assumption being that any decent chef would have a huge freezer filled with buckets of lovingly homemade stock. His new book includes surprise ingredients Bisto and instant coffee, with him telling the audience that they shouldn’t beat themselves up about timesaving. Admitting to only using “proper” stock at home if he steals it from work, his attitude to home cooking seems somewhat more realistic than other celebrity chefs. I’m looking forward to seeing more of him on BBC2 next year with new programme, Tom Kerridge: Lose Weight For Good. His first book Tom Kerridge’s Dopamine Diet is out now, with its follow up Lose Weight for Good: Full-flavour cooking for a low-calorie diet is released on 28th December this year.

Following on from Kerridge, I was lucky enough to see 2015’s Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain talking about her new book Nadiya’s British Food Adventure which celebrates the changing the face of modern British food. While filming the BBC series that accompanies the book Nadiya visited Gloucestershire, sampling jams at The Artisan Kitchen and visiting the Primrose Vale fruit farm in Shurdington to see where the fruit was grown. She loved it so much she says that she would love to bring her children back to visit.

Labelled an anxious child and suffering with a panic disorder from an early age, Nadiya first took to writing in an attempt to win a competition to meet the Queen. Little did she know that following her stint on Bake Off her childhood dream would come true and she would get a call inviting her to make a 90th birthday cake for the monarch. Talking about how she would often be in bed for “days at a time” with anxiety, Hussain confessed that her husband had actually applied for her place in Bake Off and she only completed the application to humour him, despite saying that “his idea of cooking is adding coriander to a Pot Noodle.” If only she had known what was to come!

Fast forward a few years and Nadiya triumphed in Bake Off and was named as one of Britain’s most influential people by Debretts. She spoke passionately on stage about the importance of being British despite the racism she has encountered growing up as a British Muslim. Of the racism that she has encountered she said “I expected it, I still do. As soon as something happens in the media I get abuse just for existing.” In spite of this she is still fiercely proud to be British and says that her latest book allowed her to see Britain in a way that she hadn’t seen before, finding unusual ingredients in places that she didn’t expect.

Hussain travelled the country for her BBC series primarily in search of food heroes but confesses that she was really trying to find herself. “I think it is because I am part of so many worlds. My life is so slightly scattered – I am Muslim, I am British, I am woman, I was a housewife and I am a mum. I feel I have spread myself so thin and I am now realising I am part of so many amazing worlds. One thing I am is British and what I have learned to accept is that I can be all of those things and still be British.”

Nadiya’s latest creation: Nadiya’s Bake Me a Festive Story features thirty festive recipes and stories for children that the family can all enjoy together and is out now.

Rounding up my holy trinity of foodies, was the gorgeous Nigella Lawson. There to promote her new book At My Table and it’s accompanying BBC series, the television favourite still insisted that she is a “home cook” rather than a chef. Despite being labelled a Domestic Godess, Lawson admitted that there’s one basic meal that had always eluded her: the simple poached egg.

Confessing her irrational fear of poaching eggs and haphazard knife skills, she joked that viewers could make a cup of tea in the time it actually takes her to slice up a carrot. Turning to a French chef for advice in finally cracking the perfect poached egg, she says that finally finding the knack changed breakfast for her. Sharing her secret method she says to “crack the egg in a tea strainer over a cup and all the very watery bits go underneath. Push it into another cup and I add a teaspoon of lemon juice to the egg white in the cup. I put it into the water, which is almost turned off, and I leave it in there for three or four minutes and I sometimes with my slotted spoon encourage the white to come up in shape.”  Simple as that!

 

Lawson, who has sold over 12 million cook books, described her cooking as “more sticky toffee, less things with foams,” and admitted that she wasn’t a fan of the new technique led food trend. Instead she favours flavour over technique and hopes to inspire home cooks to cook differently. She chooses to shun fads in her recipes and focus on what readers would actually have at home to limit waste. Slamming celebrity chefs for not thinking about how many pans people at home would have to wash up after following their recipes, Lawson instead tries to simplify things and use as little steps as possible, describing herself as “extravagant but not wasteful.”

Asked by an audience member how to help turn children into good eaters, Mum of two Nigella advised that parents should try not to fight with their children at the dinner table and instead attempt to enjoy the experience. She said that children will “always win” if you turn food into a battleground and instead it was best to just do “whatever gets you through.” She described the emotional attachment she used to have with meals freshly prepared for her children when they were younger and her heartbreak when they rejected them. Pre-making and freezing them helped her to have less of an attachment and helped her to keep her cool at meal times. A tip I will be trying myself!

When prompted to predict future food trends, she tipped Filipino-influenced cuisine for the next big thing and speculated that pandan, a plant used in southern Asian cooking, could be the new matcha. Her new book, At My Table, is out now and the BBC series is on BB2 at 8:30pm on Mondays.

I wasn’t expected to be so taken with my next speaker, despite his reputation as a bit of a charmer, but the legendary Bill Nighy won me over almost immediately. Coming out on stage and striking a pose in an impeccably cut blue suit, Nighy was told to calm down by hostess Emma Freud to which he coolly replied “I thought it was Glastonbury.”

In a self-deprecating and utterly hilarious talk, Nighy talked style, (“if you ever see me in leisurewear you’ll know I’ve falled apart,”) anxiety and his distaste for the fashion of modern actors not learning their lines.

Leaving school with only 2 D’s at O Level, he described himself as a dreamy child who “ached to be elsewhere.” He once ran away to the Persian Gulf but only got as far as Marseille before getting hungry and seeking shelter at the British Consulate. Nighy had dreams of being a writer, mostly in the hope of “writing killer sentences that were going to get me a girlfriend.” With his mother unimpressed by his career hopes he ran away to Paris to write a novel but never wrote a word. After eventually returning home, he turned to acting after a girl he was rather in love with suggested he should go to drama school. Despite mistakenly auditioning with two monologues meant for famously female parts he was given a place and the rest is history.

When asked if he had any advice for budding actors, Nighy lamented at modern actors having lines fed to them, rather than learning them. “You can’t rehearse with a book in your hand, and you can’t go be on the sides of a film set and not know your lines until someone turns the camera on. The process is you say the lines over and over again until you can give the impression that you’ve never said them before and that it’s just occurred to you. That’s the gig, any other version is just people who don’t want to do their homework.”

The BAFTA winning actor spoke with a level of honesty that makes you think that you would be friends if you met him personally. However, he confessed that he is more popular with the older lady than he would like. Normally approached by a bevvy of “gorgeous young women” when out, he is more often than not left embarrassed when they tell him that their Mother or even worst their Grandmother loves him. Especially disappointing as he claims he “can remain upright for quite a long time.”

Freud finally quizzed Nighy as to whether he had ever got the girl to which he replied, “it was brief and I didn’t trouble her for long.” There’s still hope for us all!

I saved my favourite for last at my final event at the festival. I’ve always had a soft spot for comedian turned author and political activist Russell Brand, but was unsure if he would be quite as charismatic discussing his postmodern self help book, Recovery. I shouldn’t have worried. Despite the emotive subject matter, Brand had the audience both cackling along with him and choking back the tears when describing the birth of his daughter, Mabel.

The comic disclosed he felt that his addictive personality developed as a child, swiftly presenting itself in unhealthy “patterns and tendencies”. After an early addiction to penguin biscuits, Brand swiftly moved onto alcohol, cocaine and sex before finally finding heroin, describing it as the thing he felt he had always been looking for. Now 14 years sober he follows a programme which

was originally created by Christian organisation the Oxford Group, and became the basis of the Alcoholics Anonymous infamous 12-step guide. Despite sticking to the 12 steps, he admits that he still has daily struggles to keep his bad habits in check. Describing himself as “flawed and fallible’ he credited his wife and friends with helping him to stay grounded, admitting “I am still crazy and I still need a lot of things to hold my life together.”

Speaking candidly about his own addictions, Brand voiced his fears for the technology obsessed teenagers of today, with smartphones helping to form addictive behaviour. “I think with something like technological addiction we are not in a position to say what the results of that will be,” he said. “The guy that invented the ‘like’ button on Facebook doesn’t even have his phone in his bedroom any more.” He warned of an imminent “dystopia” where teens are becoming just as fixated with social media platforms as he had been with drugs.

Despite his concerns for the direction that society is going, he says that he still believes that the world is going to change for the better and that he is doing his best to be a force of good. When asked if a tiny bit of him believed that he was a chosen one, Brand simply replied “yes.” Well that settles that then. Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions is out now.

Cheltenham Literature Festival will return next year on 5 – 14 October 2018. Follow them on Twitter @cheltlitfest for the latest updates.

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