Not just William

William Sitwell is adamant: "British food culture is the greatest food culture in the world."


The writer, TV presenter and food critic puts it down to the fact even the most provincial UK high street still overflows with eating options, from Chinese and Thai, to French, Italian and Indian.

"We welcome food culture with open arms, we absorb it into our daily lives. What we do - which probably annoys people from overseas - is that we actually end up doing their food better than they do."

As a MasterChef judge and editor of Waitrose Kitchen magazine, he's well placed to adjudicate. And who better to pull together The Really Quite Good British Cookbook, a new collection of recipes from "about 100 of our finest chefs, cooks, bakers and food heroes". It features established talents (Nigella, Ottolenghi, Stein) and rising stars (Gill Meller, Rosie Birkett), as well as home cooks, restaurateurs, celebrities and innovative producers.

Sitwell's job was to "corral" the lot of them - via phone, email, Twitter and accosting them at parties - and get them to hand over recipes for dishes they make their loved ones.

He even got former Waitrose Kitchen columnist, Pippa Middleton, to contribute.

"I hired her [originally] because she represents a particular style of eating and of entertaining," says Sitwell, 47. "She's a great cook. All of the ideas were hers, all the recipes we ever published were hers, we would tweak and test them, she would come in, try them out, make comments, and she always impressed me with her genuine enthusiasm and hard work. I like her enormously, so I'm very lucky that we've got one of her recipes in here."

You won't find a recipe from Sitwell himself in it, however - he thought the idea "a bit self-regarding" - though he is a keen cook.

"On a Friday night, the default thing I do for the people I love is roast chicken, dauphinoise potatoes and a crunchy green salad with French dressing, and a nice bottle of Chardonnay," he muses. "I like doing braised belly pork in cider, preferably 3Cs cider - which is the cider I make. I'm quite good at roast potatoes, especially if they're a bit burnt at the edges."

The father-of-two is constantly nibbling on something (today it's an Honest Burger for lunch, then chocolate and rhubarb sweet-things snaffled from the Waitrose magazine test kitchen), but he says: "I was a very bad eater when I was small, I never ate anything."

He's no food snob ("I used to love Kentucky Fried Chicken - with a glass of milk") and proclaims a love for Iceland's frozen fish soup.

But after 17 years in food journalism, Sitwell - who now lives in Northamptonshire and has just been shortlisted for a Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Award for his non-fiction work, Eggs Or Anarchy - has developed a few dietary guidelines, including eating less as the day goes on, cycling everywhere and avoiding food trends.

"I eat when I'm hungry and what looks good, and I try and eat widely - and I certainly eat very greedily," he says.

Fortunately, greediness is essential if you're filming MasterChef; Sitwell and his fellow critics, the likes of Jay Rayner and Tracey MacLeod, are served any number of two-course meals back-to-back by anxious contestants.

"You get a whole grown-up portion - if you like it, you eat all of it," Sitwell explains. He adds with a laugh that they do tend to share good dishes with the crew, however, "they devour the crumbs we leave, so sometimes, just to annoy them, we eat everything!"

When asked what fascinates him about his field, Sitwell is irrepressibly passionate...

"Food is about politics, it's about history, culture; it's about entertaining, it's about love, it's about survival, it's about poverty, it's about pleasure, hedonism, it's about staying sober, it's about getting drunk.

"It's a subject that covers every aspect of human life."

Cheers to that.

Inspired to reacquaint yourself with proper British cooking? Try one of these three recipes...


250g fresh young nettle tops (foraged from the garden or local park)

25g butter

2tbsp olive oil

2x150g pollack fillet steaks

1 small bunch wild garlic shredded (foraged from the garden, local park, hedgerows and roadside - or use 1 clove, crushed)

2 eggs

2 slices sourdough or good-quality country bread, toasted

Salt and pepper

Wash the nettles in plenty of fresh water. Remove any tougher lower stalks. Drop the nettles into a saucepan of salted, boiling water and simmer for two to three minutes, until tender, then drain really well. Return the nettles to the pan, add half the butter and one tablespoon of the olive oil. Season well with salt and pepper, stir and then cover and keep warm.

Set a large, non-stick frying pan over a medium to high heat. Season the fish all over with salt and pepper. Heat the remaining butter and oil in the pan and when hot, add the fish, skin-side down. Cook for three to five minutes, depending on its thickness, then turn the fillets over and fry for one to two minutes until the flakes separate when pressed lightly with a fork; this indicates the fish is cooked.

Add the garlic to the pan. Spoon it through the buttery fish juices; cover and keep warm while you cook the eggs.

Bring a medium-sized, high-sided saucepan of water to the boil. Twirl a spoon in the water to make a mini whirlpool. Crack the eggs in, turn the heat down to minimum and cook for three-four minutes. Remove the eggs carefully with a slotted spoon. Keep warm. Remember: the fresher the eggs - the better they poach.

To serve, place a piece of toast on each plate. Divide the warm, buttery nettles between the plates, top with a piece of fish, followed by a poached egg, then finally spoon over the garlic and any buttery juices from the pan.


1 pork belly (2 1/2-3kg), bone and skin removed

3tbsp rapeseed oil

2tbsp sea salt

2 leeks, halved lengthways

2 carrots, halved lengthways

4 sticks celery, halved lengthways

8 peppercorns

12 bunches of thyme, of which 4 should be stripped of leaves

1 pint perry (or pear cider)

5 firm pears (4 halved and cored, 1 finely diced)

Set the oven to the highest setting. Pop the kettle on. On buying your belly, have your butcher remove it from the bone. Keep the bone and bring it home. Also, have them remove the skin, having first scored it in a criss-cross fashion.

Place the skin in the sink and pour boiling water over it. Carefully dry the skin, thoroughly. Rub a tablespoon of oil and then the sea salt into the scored flesh. Place the skin in an oiled roasting tin and put in the oven. It should take only 30 minutes for the skin to become crackling. Remove the crackling and allow to cool. Turn the oven down to 120C.

Lay the leeks, carrots and celery in the bottom of a roasting tin with the peppercorns. On top, lay the rib bones, eight sprigs of thyme and then drizzle a tablespoon of oil over. Tuck the veg in under the ribs. Lay the pork belly on top, oil and drizzle the rest of the oil, and scatter the remaining salt over.

Pour 350ml of the perry into the roasting tin. Cover in tinfoil and pop into the oven for anything between nine and 11 hours. 90 minutes before the end of cooking, add the halved pears. Roast uncovered for the final hour and a half.

Remove the pork from the oven. Carefully lift the pork and the pears out and keep warm. Discard the cooked veg. Add the remaining perry, deglaze the tin and reduce the liquor by half. Immediately before serving, add the remaining thyme leaves and finely diced pear.


For the blackcurrant layer:

250g blackcurrants

A squeeze of lemon juice

Up to 100g caster sugar

50ml water

For the chocolate layer:

25g cocoa powder

50g caster sugar

100ml water

For the cream/yoghurt layer:

200ml double cream

200ml plain full-fat yoghurt

2tbsp caster sugar

To finish:

50g skinned hazelnuts

1 tbsp Demerara sugar

Put the blackcurrants in a saucepan with 50ml water. Bring to a simmer and cook for a few minutes, stirring once or twice, until the fruit has broken down and you have a chunky, juicy mix. Push this through a sieve to remove the currant skins and seeds. Add the lemon juice to the warm puree, then sweeten it by stirring in caster sugar. Start by adding 50g, then stir in more until the puree is sweet but still tastes fruity and fresh. Leave to cool and then chill.

To make the chocolate layer, put the cocoa and sugar in a small pan with the water. Bring to the boil, whisking constantly, then let the mixture simmer for about one minute - again, stirring often - so it thickens. Leave to cool and then chill.

When you're ready to assemble the puds, put the cream, yoghurt and caster sugar in a mixing bowl and use a hand-held electric whisk to beat the mixture until it holds soft peaks.

Choose four wine glasses or tumblers. Divide half the blackcurrant puree between the four glasses. Add a couple of spoonfuls of the creamy mixture to each glass. Trickle on a layer of chocolate sauce. Add a second layer of the creamy mixture, using it all up this time, then finish the dishes with the rest of the blackcurrant puree. Chill for at least a few hours - up to 24.

Shortly before serving, toast the hazelnuts in an oven pre-heated to 180C/Gas mark 4 for five to six minutes, until golden and fragrant. Put the nuts in a pestle and mortar with the Demerara sugar and bash together roughly so the nuts are broken up but not pulverized (alternatively, do this in a food processor). Leave to cool, then sprinkle over the puddings and serve.

The Really Quite Good British Cookbook, edited by William Sitwell, photography by Lizzie Mayson, is published in hardback by Nourish, priced £25. Available now

THREE OF THE BEST... Dark chocolate bars

Taste The Difference Belgian Fairtrade Dark Chocolate, £1.25 for 100g, (Sainsbury's)

:: Single Origin Dark Chocolate 100g, £2.19 for 100g (Waitrose)

Choose quality dark choc from Ecuador, Peru or Dominican Republic. This brilliantly snaps off into large, rich, bitter squares that go very well with a glass of red.

:: Finest 70% Cocoa Peruvian Dark Chocolate Bar, £1.50 for 100g, (Tesco)

Promising 'subtle berry notes', this bar has a distinctly fruity aftertaste. The sweetest of the bunch, it's good grated over baked fruit and pastry.