Verity Hesketh meets the brains behind the 5 O’Clock Apron
Food is part of life, food is story telling. In today’s liberalised society, it is also perhaps the most international means of communication that we have. In an old, all-at-angles cottage off the Gloucester Road, chef and author Claire Thomson is inspired daily to find ways of communicating that food doesn’t have to be tedious and time consuming to be delicious. The very opposite, in fact.
At her kitchen table, catering for her busy family, there’s room for autonomy, room for individuality. When dinner is served there are always other extra plates; a dish of chilli flakes, a bowl of lemon wedges to squeeze. In a world full of machine-made meals, Claire’s are a breath of fresh air.
Better known as Five O’Clock Apron, she’s a blogger who – you guessed it – posts at 5pm more or less on the dot every day, with a particular slant towards cooking for a family. She is now a cookery writer with three tomes under her apron strings, and a fourth on the way. The Art of the Larder, her third book, was one of the most successful food books of 2017, keeping Jamie, Hugh and Nigella company in the top 10 best seller lists. Its attraction is plain to see, even from the title – frankly, who wouldn’t want a larder? The very word speaks of comfortable organisation – the knowledge that you’re covered, should a sudden snowstorm ground you.
Claire’s kitchen table is, no doubt, her hub – but the kitchen itself is far from a mysterious, off-limits place where delicious meals are simply magicked up; Claire’s girls are encouraged to get stuck in and to have opinions about flavours, spices and ingredients.
It’s a room as down to earth as its owner; jars labelled by the girls (Dorothy, aged four, Ivy, seven, and Grace, 10) line the kitchen dresser and include many names of spices I’ve never heard of, let alone know how to pronounce. Stacks of plates are arranged neatly, ready for the extra guest or five, and aprons hang behind the door. “My aprons are my battledress,” says Claire. “I’m ready for anything once the strings are tied. My favourite is one made for me in a lovely denim blue with big pockets and adjustable straps. The girls have an apron each with their names on and they love getting them on and helping out.
…There shouldn’t be any need for food trends in today’s society; we’ve been through so many fashions, now is the time for good, simple meals…
“We don’t own a TV so after dinner we make time to read lots of books, take stock of the day and indulge in a glass of wine – us that is, not the kids.” The children are clearly never far from Claire’s thoughts, popping up at every corner of the conversation.
She deftly fishes out a volume from her bookshelf. “If you have any cookbook to refer to, make it Jane Grigson’s veg book and fruit books,” she says. “They are proper tomes. The food books that I rate aren’t necessarily cook books per se; more like food encyclopaedias where I can find out what flavours complement each other, rather than slavishly following someone else’s idea of what goes with what and how it should be done.”
And what is on the menu for five o’clock tonight? She shrugs; “I’m thinking of a saucy, slow-cook casserole – wintery flavours for hunkering down. Nice and easy, no faffing about – the broccoli will be left to steam on top of the rest of the casserole, there might be a few dates in there, a nice bit of beef. Practically a one-pot dish.” Not much washing-up? She nods emphatically; “Absolutely.” It certainly sounds attractively down to earth and no-nonsense; whipped up fairly sharpish. What’s not to love?
Claire briefly explains her diverse background for me; as a child she lived first in Botswana, then London, and finally ended up in a rural idyll in Shropshire during her teens. Her earliest food memory is teething on a piece of biltong – the dried cured meat common in southern parts of Africa.
Shropshire, despite the idyll (a large vegetable garden and a bee hive), could not hold Claire, and after studying media and journalism at university, she upped sticks to go back-packing around Australia and Thailand, absorbing as many flavours and tastes as possible along the way. “It was then I felt in my bones that I needed to write about food,” she discloses.These adventures were swiftly followed by chef training in Bristol and work in London. As well as kick-starting her career, through this Claire also met her husband Matt (a fellow chef) in London. The pair travelled for nine months, first to New Zealand and then back to China, via India, all by public transport and with Dot – Claire’s youngest, then just a year old – carried throughout in a sling.
Although at first glance, Claire’s recipes seem homely, their homeliness belies their diverse layers. Expect to see recipes from all corners of the earth, with a focus on the easy and inexpensive, and no compromise on flavour. “Meals for the family could cost as little as a few quid, but they’re always yummy,” she says.
For Claire, consuming food needs to start with understanding, and the only way of understanding it is through education. “I most often get asked about lunches; how to put together something filling, wholesome and, above all, quick. School dinners are still fairly bad, despite all the good work that’s been put towards them – they are essentially a clumsily designed conveyer belt. Recently I was able to visit one of the factories where school dinners are produced, and there I came face to face with the food charts aimed at optimal nutrition for children… I was taken aback. Butter was listed as one of the baddies. How have we arrived in a world where butter is dangerous? It’s not necessarily good or bad, it just is.”
Claire’s current project Table of Delights, cooked up with her husband, is a way to educate the younger generation about food – through a fabulously nutty, splendidly batty interactive theatre show. It is truly a Spike Milliganish, Pythonesque achievement of education through a hands-on approach. Claire has harnessed the talents of several artists and creatives to bring the show to life over the last three years, including Bristol graffiti artist Alex Lucas. Claire has just launched a website to extend the project – a celebration of ingredients where you can find recipes, fun facts and tunes that turn into serious ear-worm very quickly (my personal favourite being a ditty about spuds – essential listening for any little one with a keenness for carbs).
Today, Claire gathers her daily inspiration from her shopping commute; five minutes out of her front door and into the Gloucester Road. You don’t need to travel to the ends of the earth here to pick up exotic flavours, and Claire is no stranger to Asian supermarkets, Polish delis and a good, old-fashioned greengrocer; her eyes glisten while recounting her bargains. “Yesterday I picked up a massive bag of over-ripe bananas for £1! I made banana bread that day, perfect for the girls after school.” When I ask her about food trend predictions, she briskly rejoins, “There shouldn’t be any real need for food trends in today’s society; we’ve been through so many fashions, now is the time for good, simple meals.”
Claire’s favourite ingredients are simple, but easily made stylish: “I love food from that hot, dusty southern belt of countries – Spain, Turkey, Italy. I wouldn’t be without pasta, olive oil or tinned tomatoes. When in doubt, these are my go-tos.”
It is impossible not to be swept along by Claire’s enthusiasm, but rather than being overtaken by the urge to cook anything complicated, I’m refreshed by her philosophies of simplicity and of edible egalitarianism.