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Stein looks back with pride and pain
Rick Stein recently returned with a film camera crew to the farm in West Oxfordshire that had been his family home.
The 150-acre mixed farm just outside Churchill, on the road to Chipping Norton, gave the celebrated seafood chef, restaurateur and author his first memories and love of good food.
In his television series Rick Stein’s Food Heroes, which saw him touring the UK, he said: “There’s a whole band of people out there producing small quantities of food with passionate commitment who look after their land properly, treat their flocks or herds with affection and take their time to grow or rear crops or animals.”
Only many years later did he realise he was talking about his own Oxfordshire home. But seeing the farm again, for a film to promote his new autobiography Under a Mackerel Sky, stirred feelings of pain as well as pride.
For there was a shadow over what in many ways was an idyllic childhood in rural Oxfordshire, with regular holidays in Cornwall, where his family had a house on Trevose Head. Unconventional, attractive to women and a marvellous party host who would put the present day Chipping Norton Set to shame, his father Eric Stein was a charismatic personality. The young Rick, however, would sometimes be embarrassed by his father’s sometimes manic behaviour and deep depressions, all symptoms of bipolar disorder. Seeing again the swimming pool at the farm brought the memories flooding back. His father had built it, during a manic phase, during a summer of drought. The Daily Telegraph would later and erroneously report how Eric Stein had filled his pool while villagers were queuing at the standpipes. “In fact my father had fallen into the empty pool shortly before it was due to be filled and had broken his leg,” recalled Rick. “He lost interest in it after that. “It remained about a quarter full filled with increasingly muddy rainwater. I was too young and naive to read the signs but they were an early indicator of my dad’s state of mind.” When Rick was 18, his father threw himself off a cliff in Cornwall. His difficult relationship with his father and how the tragedy was to shape his own life and personality are key themes of his new book, which shows the relaxed figure whom we are so used to seeing at work in his kitchen or cheerfully chatting to fishermen in Cornwall or some distant corner of Asia, to be an altogether more complex figure. “It is now long enough away to look at it objectively. I guess it is unfinished business. It is a coming to terms about something that happened in my life that had a dramatic effect on me. “At the end of the book I describe how I swam from Mother Ivy’s Beach across to where my father jumped off a cliff. I have been open about it and hope that it will help other people who have been through similar things.” Emotionally adrift and unsure what to do with his life, in the immediate aftermath of his loss he headed for Australia and Mexico to work as a manual labourer. But on his return, despite having had to retake his A-levels, he managed to secure a place at New College, Oxford, in 1969 to read English, where his tutors included John Bayley, married to one of his literary heroes Iris Murdoch, and Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R.Tokien’s son. His brother John, who was to become an eminent Oxford professor, was then a junior medical don at Magdalen College. Rick was to make his mark in Oxford in a very different way, becoming editor of Cherwell, the student paper, something he put down to the fact he had a Land Rover and was able to drive to Swindon, where it was printed. His driving was to nearly cost the life of Jill Newstead, later to be his wife with whom he would open the famous Seafood Restaurant in Padstow. After a heavy night’s drinking with one of Oxford University’s arcane dining clubs, The Boojums, he had collected her from The Bear in the city centre. “I drove my Mini 1275 GT very fast round the Oxford bypass — and straight into some roadworks. I hit a 44-gallon drum that had an oil lamp on top. This smashed through the front windscreen and hit Jill on the head, then broke through the rear window. The first thing I noticed, after I came to a shuddering halt, was she had blood running down her hairline.” After taking her to the city’s Radcliffe hospital, Stein was arrested. “They took me to the cells in St Aldates police station, where I was told Jill was dying. Next day, I went to see her. I was in tears. In the end, however, Jill had a fairly large piece of her skull removed, and gradually recovered. “All that, plus the fact that I was drinking too much and finals were approaching, precipitated a kind of nervous breakdown.” While he would hardly rival his brother academically (he was to leave with a third in English) Oxford certainly added to his culinary knowledge. “Oxford was particularly well endowed with restaurants.” His reflections on the former Elizabeth in St Aldates did not make it to the book’s final draft, but it contains a lengthy tribute to Oxford’s Covered Market.
“For me it was almost as import as the architectural beauty of Oxford. It was handsome too. The greengrocer’s, Bonners, was an inspiration to get cooking, while Palm’s delicatessen was a source for the sort of things you really could get nowhere else in those days, I bought mackerel, cod and crab from the fishmonger and took them back to Winchester Road for early forays into fish cookery.
“For someone with a growing appreciation of food, Oxford was a good place to be. I think that market gave me a real sense of ownership of Oxford. To me there’s something very reassuring about being in a place where there’s good food.”
But after coming close to joining the Western Morning News in Bristol, he settled on becoming a nightclub owner in Padstow.
“Oxford University is such a big deal, I was still in a state of shock when I had to enter the real world,” he now admits.
The famous restaurant that was to turn him into a television star and best-selling author, in fact came about by accident.
Frightening violence and regular police visits made his time as a club owner “hell on Earth”.
He jokes that many of the people engaged in the fighting now sell him fish but there was nothing funny at the time when he would find himself hosing blood off the terrace at the front of the club early in the morning.
After briefly opening a burger bar, the Seafood Restaurant was opened on the site of the club, with Stein doing the cooking himself because he couldn’t afford to pay anyone else to do it.
The menu was short and very simple but he kept the restaurant open through the winter of 1976-77.
“Most nights no one came, “ he recalls. “I thought about returning to Oxford, somewhere with all-year trade. We went so far as to contact estate agents. But my sister, Janey, said ‘you won’t get fresh fish like you get in Cornwall. In the end people will come to you, you don’t have to go to them.’.”
He listened and a £32m empire of restaurants, shops and hotels was created.
Oxford’s loss was to be the gain of Padstow. now widely known as Padstein.
Jill remains his business partner, although the couple divorced after 32 years of marriage.
Readers of his autobiography will look in vain for tasty snippets about the break-up, including the famous incident when, in the restaurant, Jill slapped his mistress, Sarah Burns, the Australian 20 years his junior, whom he later married.
“I just didn’t want to go back over it,” he told me. “Things have moved on. You can still read about it on newspaper websites.”
The 66-year-old restaurateur now divides his time between Australia and Padstow.
But he will be back in Oxfordshire on September 18 when he will be speaking with Paul Blezard at St Mary Magdalene Church, as one of the big names at the Blenheim Palace Literary Festival in Woodstock.
No doubt his old home just down the road from the palace will be very much on the mind of the chef, associated by millions of viewers and readers with sea and fish.
“All the cooking I’ve done since is, in some way, an attempt to recapture some of the flavours of the cooking at home when I was a boy.
“You know the farm has hardly changed since I left in 1965. It was good to go back and remember where my bedroom was, where the orchard was. The swimming pool my father built is still there, but I don’t think it has ever been used.”
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