1. Try to buy organic or local where you can.
I’m very lucky to live near a small town called Stockbridge, which has an old-fashioned butcher (complete with day-old sawdust on the floor), a proper greengrocer and a new bakery. My Australian grandmother always opted for homemade treats where possible – she made delicious bread and strawberry jam for my grandfather and our BBQs were legendary. That’s what happens when you can live outdoors most of the year. As for our family, our biggest tradition is probably our annual Christmas cake competition. We compete with a bunch of other women who I’ve taught the recipe to, and I’ve even been known to send pieces to my children through the post to test – especially when we were locked down last year.
2. Good quality spices make a huge difference.
On the ingredient front, I’m a big fan of ras al hanout and cumin. Recently, I was introduced to a wonderful specialty destination called The Spice Shop. Over lockdown I got to know so many ingredients a lot better – we simply had the time to try more unusual recipes. All The Spice Shop spices come in yellow and red tins and can be refilled if you run out (sadly they don’t really fit my kitchen colour scheme, so they’re hidden away in cupboards for the most part). Another favourite is its Café De Paris blend, which is a blend of herbs and spices designed to recreate the famously rich and creamy sauce originating from the Café de Paris in Geneva – it’s great with chicken or steak. I always have pots of fresh herbs in small vases dotted around the kitchen, too – after all, they could always double up as table decoration. Finally, Japanese ingredients are so transformative. We’re always using this mushroom-based soy sauce from Healthy Boy and a mayonnaise we buy specially from Amazon.
3. A decent set of copper pans is a must.
My son bought me a set a few years ago and while I didn’t use them for ages, I’ve since fallen in love with them – the frying pans, especially. Amazingly, they’re not that difficult to clean. I also have a new Vitamix, complete with the mini chopper attachment – it’s brilliant for making small sauces or blitzing herbs and smoothies. The children love making healthy juices and smoothies and we make this dressing with it all the time – just add a bit of honey at the end. The price tag is steep, but it’s worth it if you ask me. For something a bit more affordable, I hear the Cuisinart mini chopper is excellent. Finally, I have to mention this new lid I was shown at a cooking demo I went to a few months ago. It works almost like cling film. You can put in on top of a saucepan (you can buy different sizes, but it doesn’t matter if it’s a bit big) or over a bowl to cut down on plastic waste. The suction is so strong it allows you to pick up the entire bowl just by the knob. It’s incredible.
4. Make slow cooking your go-to method.
This isn’t the ideal midweek dish, but a marinated shoulder of lamb with a paste of ras al hanout, cumin, garlic, sea salt and butter is so delicious – especially when you serve it with a crisp green salad and crunchy roast potatoes. When the children were younger, we had roast chicken every week – herbs, mustard and butter under the skin, green beans and mash potato on the side. On that note, a potato ricer is another great investment; it really does make for better mash.
5. Having two dishwashers is life changing.
I still have large amounts of fragile handwash-only crockery from my wedding, but these days you’ve really got to go for things that are dishwasher safe. It’s embarrassing, but even with two dishwashers, I find they’re constantly on the go – I would have three if I could. I have four children and the idea is that one is empty while the other one is running – it’s great for entertaining because you can hide the mess and never have dishes piled high next to the sink. A good way to look at it is this: my husband says the cost is the same as having a new set of cupboards installed to hold all the china. If you can, spend your money on a Miele, even if it’s just the entry-level model. The one time I bought a competitor brand, I seriously regretted it.
6. Quality knives are a luxury worth investing in.
Blenheim Forge and Kabata Hamono are my go-to brands. My son, who is more of a foodie than I am, sharpens them himself – and yes, they’re handwash only. We also invested in a Japanese Konro Grill and a Roccbox pizza oven recently, both of which have encouraged us to cook outside whatever the weather. They’re great fun. Also, a bit lower tech, but there’s this heatproof baking mat which any Aga owner needs to have. I discovered it at another cooking demo – you place it on top of the Aga and it acts almost like a BBQ grill or sheet pan. You can make almost anything with it.
7. Music in the kitchen is an absolute must.
Our new house has the most extraordinary music system, although prior to that we used the Bose SoundTouch, which more than did the job. Generally, the children like to be in control of the playlists, but our tastes all vary. I like a good mix – from the very predictable Michael Bublé to Lou Reed and even a bit of Coldplay. I’m certainly not someone who curates endless playlists for everyone occasion but I find it always helps create a bit of atmosphere and frivolity. It pepped up many an evening over lockdown.
8. Having a failsafe dinner party dish will save you so much time.
My signature dish is Ottolenghi’s honey, coriander and spices rack of lamb, served with sweet potatoes (skins on) with sour cream and parmesan. You marinate the lamb in advance and serve it with a big salad. I’m never that big on starters, it’s more about delicious nibbles, like homemade cheddar biscuits with anchovies or chipolata sausages with honey mustard dip. Roasted sweet and spicy homemade mixed nuts are another favourite. As for puddings, I love putting a huge basket of mini Magnums on the table. Where you can, keep it simple. I love laying everything out on the island and letting our guests help themselves.
9. Always have a regular clear out & sorting session.
Since being involved with Mrs Alice, I try to give something away whenever I add in new bits from our latest collections. I’m a Virgo so it stands to reason I’m always clearing and sorting things out! As for investing in new pieces, there are some really good brands out there these days. Rebecca Udall is a favourite, as it Setting Pretty. Amanda Lindroth is a great name hailing from the US, and I get most of my tablecloths from Thyme. Birdie Fortesque is so pretty, and if you’re looking for stylish, affordable buys, it’s hard to beat H&M home.
10. A great tablescape requires lots of layering…
...Much to my children’s horror – it can be a minefield when it comes to sitting down at the table! But I love using a proper tablecloth, flowers and candles – and the best part is you don’t have to spend a fortune on any of it. Good bud vases are a great investment, though, as they only need a few stems to make them pop – or you can just put some left over sprigs of rosemary in them. If you’re on a budget, try using old magazines as placemats and tie ribbons round a simple napkin to make it look more elegant. There are so many small touches that can make a real difference.