Anna Jones is a food writer who values seasonal, fresh produce and puts vegetables at the centre of our table. A Modern Cook’s Year is her third cookbook, and boasts over 250 recipes while taking us through all four seasons – plus an extra two for good measure. Our Commissioning Editor, Leah Fleming, attended Anna’s event at Topping & Company Booksellers, Bath, and was lucky enough to catch her for a chat as she signed copies of her new book.
On a cold November evening, I was welcomed into the Topping & Company Bookshop with a steaming glass of vanilla and lime mulled wine straight from A Modern Cook’s Year. I’ll admit: this was my first ever mulled experience but it certainly won’t be my last. The sharpness of the red wine was beautifully complemented by the dash of vanilla and spices.
Topping & Company Booksellers of Bath is located where Broad Street meets George Street. It hosts regular author events with signings, reading groups and literary salons. My £10 ‘early bird’ ticket entitled me to a discount of the same amount against a copy of Anna’s new book, which was signed and could be personalised after the cooking demonstration. As well as the mulled wine and other drinks, we were treated to tasters of Anna’s recipes, some kindly made by the staff at the bookshop.
As Anna spoke about the focus on seasonal ingredients in A Modern Cook’s Year, she chopped, blitzed and mixed a simple and fresh winter slaw. Comprised of raw Brussel’s sprouts, kale and cavolo nero, with a creamy caesar dressing you would never guess the slaw was vegan. Every ingredient was something you might have left over from a Christmas dinner. Anna reminded us that leftovers don’t have to be monotonous – they can be crisp, bright and exciting.
We were also invited to tuck into a squash and miso soup, garnished with walnuts and sesame seeds which added a delightfully crunchy texture. The miso gave this traditional winter warmer a savoury kick, whilst the squash was reminiscent of autumn with its delicate sweetness and bright orange colour. Finally, Anna’s prune and black tea malt loaf, an ode to her grandmother, was sticky and indulgent, reminding me of my own mother’s homemade bread.
Anna’s talk gave an insight into how she developed her simple and seasonal way of eating. As a busy mother and writer, she looks to bring out the best in few ingredients in limited amounts of time.
She is also heavily influenced by her family. Anna explained how she handles a Christmas meal for guests with mixed tastes, from her meat-eating father to her vegan siblings.
Although Anna is vegetarian, A Modern Cook’s Year is not a vegetarian cookbook – it is a cookbook where vegetables are chosen over meat because they work best for each dish. Similarly, the vegan recipes are not vegan because they have to be, and readers won’t be missing out on any meat or dairy. This is a really important choice because it shows that cutting out meat (or decreasing meat consumption) is not necessarily as difficult as some may think. This is exactly how Anna wanted her books to be received, and it is executed brilliantly.
If you are reading this article with little to no knowledge of Anna Jones’s recipes, a great place to start is this student-friendly recipe for one-pot pasta. It can be found in her earlier book, A Modern Way to Cook. You can keep up-to-date with Anna Jones and her events on her blog.
More information about Topping & Company Booksellers of Bath and their list upcoming events can be found on their website.
Interview with Anna Jones
Before the event, Anna sat at a table piled high with cookery books from a range of amazing writers. She was signing copies of her own new book, passed to her by a production line of booksellers. Amongst the bustling preparations, I asked Anna a few questions on behalf of milk.
Are you in Bath for long?
I’m just here for the night as I’ve got a little boy at home so I can’t stay away for too long. I love Bath and I particularly love coming [to Toppings & Company]. I think there are some really good food events and things going on in Bath and more generally in this area of the country.
Is there a particular restaurant around here that you like or have come back to?
I quite often come down and do cookery courses at Demuth’s, the vegetarian cookery school, and I love those guys. There’s this amazing vegetarian restaurant here – Acorn Kitchen – which I’ve been to a few times and love. They also have a book coming out, called Plants Taste Better.
What made you go from having a passion for cooking, to wanting to write about it?
I ended up working with a man called Jamie Oliver – I’m sure you will have heard of him! I was cooking in his restaurant, and I saw what was happening with his business. It was a wider adventure in food media than just the cooking I was used to. I saw him writing articles for magazines. I hadn’t considered food writing as a job before. I thought if I wanted to cook I’d be happy to just be in a kitchen – which I did love – but after working with him I realised that it was a viable thing to do as a career. So I moved away from cooking in the restaurant to helping him with his writing and styling. That’s really where the shift from seeing it on my doorstep to being part of the recipe developing happened. I was quite lucky really.
What other cookery books and authors inspire you?
There are loads of amazing people around at the moment. I think the world of cookery and cookbooks is so rich, which is something I’m so grateful for. Especially in the world of vegetarian cookery and putting vegetables at the centre of your plate – ten years ago there just wasn’t that stuff around.
There are two people who I follow closely: one is an American writer called Heidi Swanson who has a completely vegetarian blog called 101 Cookbooks [https://www.101cookbooks.com/about/]. She writes her own cookbooks too and I just love her writing, her style, her aesthetic and how she plates the food. She’s also a photographer so there’s just this whole flow of things that make her work completely amazing. Her food is easy and fresh and doesn’t take a million ingredients, and I think that’s quite important to me with a young kid. My days of spending five hours in the kitchen are temporarily gone!
I also love a girl called Sarah Britton who has a blog called My New Roots [https://www.mynewroots.org/site/about/]. It’s all plant-based and a lot of it is vegan. She’s smart and is the only voice I really trust on nutrition because she’s a properly trained nutritionist and a lot of people get a bit lost in the pseudo-science of it all. I really feel like she knows her stuff. I trust her when she says ‘if this is how you’re feeling physically, then this might help you’.
I’m a lifetime fan of Nigel Slater – he’s a cooking poet! His books are always amazing so I’ve been diving into his Christmas book…
There are millions of people that inspire me! There’s a book here (Anna points to one of the cookbooks on the table) that I love – The Art of the Larder [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/best-cookbooks-2016-diana-henry/20-best-cookbooks-buy-autumn/art-larder-claire-thomson/]. I think she [Claire Thomson] is so smart, and she’s got little kids so her books are particularly speaking to me at the moment. Whilst they’re not all vegetarian, the recipes are time-friendly and easy to make in the short windows you have.
You lived in California for a while as a child. Does that have a lot of influence on your cooking?
Yeah, it definitely has an influence on my cooking! I think putting vegetables at the centre of the plate is something that Californian cooking is a bit more about. I also think in California they’re a bit braver with flavours because they’re a newer country, made up of lots of different communities (a bit like London). I don’t think American cookery is as trapped by the conventions of things as European cookery sometimes is. People think you can’t put ginger in a bechamel – I mean, probably not something you’d actually do! It’s not that they don’t respect traditions, but I don’t think Californian cooks mind breaking boundaries. That is something I’ve definitely taken away from my time there.
If you had to cook one dish for a meat eater you were trying to inspire to eat more sustainably, what would you cook?
It would depend on the time of year, who I was cooking for and the mood of the day. For me, cooking is so much about reading the signs. Just as you might play a certain song at a certain time, it’s about reading your crowd. I think it’s really down to the time and season so that’s a really difficult question to answer. Quite often, when I am expecting a vegetarian guest and another who loves meat, I make a couple of pies. They’re a good first step into moving away from meat. They still feel indulgent but are completely vegetable-centred. There’s one in here [A Modern Cook’s Year] which I make a lot at this time of year. I definitely make it at Christmas when I have a mixed crowd to feed! It is a celeriac pie so it’s creamy and rich – it’s got cheese and dairy in it but you can easily make it vegan. I make it for my brother and sister sometimes and it’s got this crispy celeriac rosti topping.
As someone who has worked really hard to follow a passion for food, what advice would you give to someone looking to land themselves a career in food writing (or follow their own passion)?
Number one: I would definitely ask for help. Ask the people you respect and like if they have any advice or opportunities. I got to this point, writing books and things, by being brave and asking people that I liked and respected if I could shadow them. I think you do have to work for free and realise that food writing isn’t a quick and easy way to make money.
At the beginning, I thought food writing would be easier than the kitchen side of food, but anyone in food has to be passionate and work hard. Just because I’m not doing those shifts doesn’t mean that I’m not working until ten or eleven at night! Just make sure that you back up your passion – start writing so you have something to show people. Send it around, start your own blog. Until you’re actively doing it, it’s really hard to know what your style is, what you love doing and which bits you’re interested in.
That would be my advice. Good luck!
I would like to thank Anna Jones for speaking with me even though she was busy signing books, and all the Topping staff for putting together an amazing event. Finally, special thanks goes out to Kathleen at Topping Bookshop for arranging this interview with Anna.