Five minutes with Regula Ysewijn

The passionate food historian and judge for Fortnum & Mason’s Platinum Pudding competition, Regula Ysewijn, shares her love of castles and vintage clothing.

An anniversary edition of Regula’s book Pride and Pudding: The history of British puddings, savoury and sweet (Murdoch Books £30) is out now.

Five minutes with Regula Ysewijn

What is your first memory of food?

When I was two, I went with my parents from our home in Belgium for a holiday in Switzerland. I can still recall the cold crisp air, the scent of wild flowers and, most vividly, being given a strawberry by my mother. I have never tasted a strawberry like that again: its sweetness, its chewy white core. The flavour of it encapsulated the memory of the trip. I remember the day so clearly ¬– there was a big steamer boat giving out a loud honk!

What’s the first recipe you properly learned to cook?

My mother shopped for fresh food and cooked every day but there was no sense of joy in it. Food was more a necessity. We didn’t have cookbooks and my mum thought that shopping for specific ingredients for a dish was extravagant, which I understand when you are on a budget and cooking for a family every day. But when we began travelling around Europe, especially to the British Isles, I saw that food was something to be celebrated. And then Jamie Oliver came on the telly here in Belgium and I would take notes and pretend I was him doing the cooking… but I can’t recall one specific recipe.

What’s the one recipe you can’t live without?

I hardly ever follow a recipe unless it’s to translate a historical recipe. I just go to the shop and buy what is seasonal. I also have meat, mostly game, delivered from a nature reserve scheme and let what I have available dictate what I cook – which is exactly what my mother did, intuitive cooking. But I do like looking at recipes and taking inspiration from them – they lock in my brain somewhere. So maybe if I have a peach and some fennel already, I will recall a Diana Henry recipe… I love cooking that way.

What food do you absolutely hate?

Extremely processed food where meat is pressed into a character shape, like dinosaur nuggets. I hate some plant-based alternatives that are also very processed but marketed as healthy. I don’t want plant-based food to look like a chicken fillet or a steak. It freaks me out.

What’s the one ingredient that you’d take to a desert island with you?

If I was really going hardcore, catching my own fish and so on, it would be black or white pepper. I would not be able to live without the warmth it gives.

What’s the meal you’d miss the most whilst there?

Tomate aux crevettes, which is a traditional Belgian dish based on shrimp. We use North Sea grey shrimp, like the tiny ones from Morecambe Bay, mixed with mayonnaise to fill a hollowed-out tomato, and I like it served with some sweet baby gem lettuce and boiled eggs. And a decent rye bread and butter. It is so good. It sings in its simplicity. And I would have it with a Rodenbach, a Belgian red ale based on mixed fermentation, so it’s sour but not too sour. The perfect pairing for a hot tropical island.

You can have a one-off dinner party on your desert island… who would you invite and why?

It sounds sad but I would invite my best friend who died when I was 17. I want to tell her everything about the world, except the bad. And I would want to talk about all that we have now, social media for one. I would also like Queen Elizabeth I: she was a big idol when I was growing up. She was a strong woman with red hair like me, and she accomplished amazing things. Also, definitely my husband because he is my absolute rock and best friend in the world. And Jamie Oliver. He is one of my big inspirations. He got me enthused about food and cooking with his The Naked Chef series when I was little, and he has been a massive supporter of my work, which is mind-blowing. There I was, an unknown Belgian woman writing about British food, and he shouted what I was doing from the rooftops. He is one of the kindest, most selfless people I know.

Which cookbook would you take with you to the island?

I thought about what would help if I was cooking over a fire, possibly preparing some strange animal that I would have to kill! But then I thought it would be best if it was an entertaining cookbook that I would like to read, so it would be Jamie’s Great Britain: you can eat from the pages. It’s a happy book. Whatever he does, it comes from the heart.

“I like to make friends the retro trifle included in my book Pride and Pudding – they love its history."

Why are you excited to be part of the Platinum Pudding competition?
Making a pudding for the Queen of England, who has been alive so long and has been through, so much is an absolute delight. It’s a great honour to be part of such an historical moment. I love Britain and I love the Queen. It’s one of my biggest wishes since I was a small child to meet Queen Elizabeth, and I still have a tiny hope that she will turn up when the winner is announced! It would be wonderful to show appreciation of the amazing strong woman that she is. She’s an icon.

What have you been looking for in the judging process?
Simplicity and wonderful flavours – a pudding that has the potential to become a new classic and stand the test of time, like a Victoria sponge cake. We are not looking for the next crazy Heston Blumenthal-esque creation! We also want it to be in the spirit of the occasion, so that everyone can make it for their Jubilee parties. I would also like it to have a bit of a story, to reflect what the Queen has done and achieved.

How will you be celebrating on the Jubilee weekend?
I would love to be part of a British street party: lots of people around a long table in the middle of the road, gingham tablecloths, bunting everywhere, pretty Royal Albert china, scones and clotted cream. And lots of servings of the Platinum Pudding!

An anniversary edition of Regula’s book Pride and Pudding: The history of British puddings, savoury and sweet (Murdoch Books £30) is out now.

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