Last Christmas I lay in a corridor in agony, surrounded by the injured the traumatised and the weak. Eventually I was wheeled into a ward – the Surgical Ward at Kingston Hospital, which was and remains the worst place that I have ever spent some time. They pulled the curtains around my bed and my wife had to leave me to look after the children. A nurse who wouldn’t or couldn’t talk to me attached a drip, clumsily to the back of my hand and my blood burst from the vein before she could slip in the tube and gushed all over the floor in an oily vivid slick. Nausea attacked as every semblance of colour left my face; my head lolled back on the foam pillow and she tutted and tried again. The blood stayed on the floor for ninety minutes.

Every bed in the ward was occupied, as was every chair in the corridor along with several more beds. There was one poor nurse for the whole ward and God knows where else and when I asked a simple question she told me that she was ‘agency’ and didn’t know. No one knew. This was Boxing Day in London and this place felt abandoned, desperate.

I did not sleep that night, the man in the bed next to me was unbearably distressed, crying, shouting, groaning and farting. I pressed my call button for him but no one came. I genuinely don’t know if he lived through that night for at about four am his bed was engulfed with doctors and nurses and he was rushed out amidst beeping equipment and panic-laced shouts. He didn’t come back. I like to think that he’s on a lovely farm now, chasing rabbits and having the time of his life….

I opened my eyes in the half dark and an apparition stood staring at me, beside my bed. I focused (unfortunately) and it was a man, of advanced age just standing and staring at me, his white hair, wild atop his head and clad in just a pyjama top. His flaccid old cock and balls hung inches from my head and the back of his legs were spattered in liquid faeces. ‘Where is she?’ He murmured. ‘Do you know?’

I pressed the call button and no one came, he turned, his bony white arse, filthy and desiccated and crossed the ward to the bed opposite and began rummaging through drawers ‘My underpants. I need my underpants’. The occupant of the bed woke in a panic and screamed at him to Fuck. Off. I have never seen such a wretched thing, felt more helpless. This man, reduced to pacing his own shit around a hospital, exposed and yes, vulnerable. He might have been a Titan, a leader of men or an athlete. He might have been a scholar or a soldier but here he was in the dying light of his life, confused and scared, covered in shit and desperate for some pants to cover his nakedness. I suspect he’s probably dead now too. I almost hope that he is because his life at that time in that place was too tragic for words. I hope that if he is alive that he doesn’t remember that night and particularly the panic and disgust in my face that I couldn’t disguise in time.

By the side of the winding road from Inverness to Kinlochbervie stands a granite monument inscribed with the legend ‘Welcome to Mackay Country’ and when I pass it I feel like I’ve come home. It’s not my home though and it never has been. In all honesty and to my eternal chagrin it might never be, but this grand ‘Mackay Country’, or ‘Sutherland’ as the less self-absorbed Mackay’s call it is the only place on earth where goosebumps rise when I hear the whispers of my forefathers on the wind. I gaze wistfully over the heathered moorland and eagle-circled crags with a longing that I can’t explain and become, as you can see, poetical and spiritual and deeply, tediously irritating. I can’t help it for I am a Mackay of the Clan Mackay strong of arm and bushy of beard and I will fight you, fuelled by salted porridge and haggis like the brave warriors before me, our great virile balls, swinging in the breeze, bekilted and bare of arse and crushing your windpipes under our feet, you invading Sassenach bastards.

My Great-great-grandfather was a ‘proper’ Mackay and of course he was called Murdo. Of course he was – I didn’t just saddle my poor boy with a stupid name on a whim. From the day that my own grandfather, John sat me on his knee and told me of his grandfather Murdo, I have been all but obsessed with this man who died fifty years before I was born and almost ninety before his young namesake.

He was a fisherman and lived in a two-room croft, on a hillside overlooking the North Sea, not far from the village of Bettyhill, which, in turn is not far from John O’Groats. This is as far north as we can get on this island and as wild. On the map it goes Bettyhill, Orkney, Faroe islands, Arctic. Mackay Country is a barren, hard and staggeringly beautiful land. I know that John travelled by train from London to Bettyhill just before The Great War to meet and spend time with his grandfather, Murdo and this makes all of this less abstract; a man that I knew well and loved visited that croft, spoke to this man, met his children, saw his nets, spoke to him of London and life. How I wished I had sucked more of the marrow of Grandpa John’s life when he was alive.

That Murdo Snr. was a fisherman brings me great comfort and incredible pride. I can imagine his gnarled, bleeding hands, salted and blue, heaving nets in the freezing rain. I see him smoking, drinking a dram by the fire, thawing. Maybe he fiddled in the gloaming, a bow tiny in those great working hands. Perhaps he couldn’t read and regaled his boys with stories told to him by his own grandfather – ancient Highland legends of gods and men. I don’t know if he was happy, if he was a good man or bad. I presume he had a powerful faith, as most did in that time and place and I expect that he led the most simple and Spartan of lives.

What the fuck, I wonder often, would he make of mine?

There is nobility in pulling a gleaming salmon from a frothing sea, selling it, and buying only the things that without which life would be rendered impossible. He raised a family in two rooms on the proceeds of the ocean and died in the parish to which he had been born, having never ventured more than a few miles south his whole life long. He must have fostered some sense of adventure in his son though- Jack Mackay, my great-grandfather, made it to London as a Metropolitan Policeman. His son John, my grandfather, lived in Pimlico and worked for the gas board, and his son, Christopher, my father, was a lecturer. When I sold the first salmon in my shop I thought about Murdo and the completion of a circle. When I named my son for him it felt like a tribute to a myth or a god. Murdo Mackay of the Clan Mackay is my hero; it is as simple as that. I love him – I love the idea of him and I grasp for him when I don’t know what to do, when life is too complex and I imagine him rolling eyes heavenward at my ‘problems’ as the snow batters his ravaged old face.

We went there, Sara and I with some friends and a (as yet unnamed) Murdo shaped foetus in situ. We stopped at the ‘Mackay Country’ stone and took hilarious photos for Instagram, pointing at it and then at me, ‘MACKAY COUNTRY LOL’ etc. It’s probably what Murdo Snr would have wanted. We stayed in a croft, not far from where Murdo Snr kept his. We had hot water and Wi-Fi, snorkels and prosecco. The parents among us plugged in the baby monitors and worried about the stair gradient. I thought again about Murdo, shitting in an outhouse, eating only when there was food, setting his sons broken bones under candle light and spending his day off hearing about the burning fires of hell from the local preacher man.

A few miles east is the most gorgeous beach on earth and you must, if you can, go there before you die. We can’t be friends if you can’t find the poetry and beauty in ‘Sandwood Bay’. You must walk four miles from the nearest road, along a dirt track that winds through moorland and bog, mountains and ancient quarry. Eagles circle overhead and the bones of crofts long since abandoned, jut from the earth and you wonder in awe at how anyone lived here, in this place and for so long. Suddenly as you break the bow of a hill the salt in the air hits you and the sand whips up around your face and you gasp at a vista of dreams, a beach of the whitest sand leading to the most azure sea you will ever see. There will be no one there and you will pity every other person on earth who at that exact moment is not gazing down upon Sandwood Bay. You will run down the dunes, relieving yourself of such accoutrements as clothing and dive into the turquoise froth where your nuts will retract with the force of a thousand horses and you will nearly die of shock as your core temperature plummets to levels of death and suffering.

This is the North Sea and the next mainland to which you could swim, should you be so inclined is Iceland. Ice. Land. On the sunniest of days the sand glows warm, the sea twinkles blue and you could easily be on a deserted Thai island were it not for the fact that testes rarely evacuate scrotum in The Indian Ocean. I thought about Murdo again. Standing up on the cliffs, looking sternly down at his progeny, choosing to jump into a sea that was for me a playground but for him a mortally dangerous necessity.

Not far from Sandwood Bay and as far as the eye can see are beds of jewelled coal black mussels, thriving in the clean, clear waters and just waiting to be plucked. A plump mussel, briny and raw, with your feet still in the water is the greatest of things to eat and forget Murdo, this is an act that connects us immediately to our pre historic ancestors, this is something unchanged for millennia and about as far removed to how we eat now as to be unrecognisable to most. ‘Oh my GOD, that’s disgusting! You’ll get food poisoning! Is it alive? You are so gross’.

The mussel moves me in ways that only a few foodstuffs do, it’s so base, so simple, so ancient. It’s weird and sexy and tastes sweet and salty and nothing a human hand can do improves it. I love an oyster as much as the next macho man but oysters are so obvious, so ‘Fall of Rome’ with their gnarly armour and pearly iridescence. The sluts of the seas, all slippery and sexual, ‘Look at me’ says the oyster, ‘anoint me with your shallot vinegar and marvel as I tumble down your throat with viscous salty abandon’.

No, for me the most honest of the bi-valves is the mussel, the Land Rover Defender to the oysters Aston Martin. Both good in their own way, driven by Rick Stein and James Bond but where you could enjoy a pint with Rick, ruminating on Ulysses and the writing of Elizabeth David, Bond would fuck your wife and kill you.

As a chef of some twenty years standing now, you might consider it surprising that I have long considered that the chef is nothing short of a gastronomic vandal, oppressing ingredients and bending customers to his will. Almost nothing gets on my tits more that a waiter asking me if I would like him to explain the chef’s ‘concept’ to me. ‘Unless it’s to cook food and let me eat it, I am supremely uninterested’ I say, although of course I don’t because I am English and I mumble something about how super that would be.

The chef has prepared for you today ‘textures of carrot’

I love the texture of carrot: It’s crunchy.

‘And for your main course Chef would like you to enjoy his ‘anatomy of owl with a veneer of fennel jus’. Please smell this old leather belt whilst listening on earphones to a dog barking in Soweto to truly experience Chef’s vision.’

God sake.

The best food is untouched by ‘chef’, but it must be fresh. Supermarket fish for example is not fresh; it is horrid and requires all of the numbing garlic and white wine that you can chuck at it. It doesn’t smell right, feel right, cook right or most importantly, taste right. A fresh piece of fish, one that that swam yesterday and cooked simply in a pan with plenty of sea salt, pepper and a squeeze lemon is one of foods greatest joys. You simply can’t replicate it with fish that has ended up in your kitchen via a supermarket. It’s the feel of it, with just a whisper of iodine and sweetness. Like a raspberry off the bush or a carrot from the ground there is a feeling about things fresh for which there is no substitute in science.

When food is fresh you don’t need to do anything to it – in most cases you don’t even need to cook it at all. I would no more mess around with a fresh piece of fish than I would put lippy on my baby girl; both are perfect and to add is to detract.

When you pick your mussels, savour one raw. Close your eyes as the gentle waves break at your feet and allow yourself to become part of the sea for the briefest and most magical of moments. Find your brill stiff fresh and baste it with nothing but golden butter and cry happy tears as a burnished exterior gives way to a translucent pearly white centre. Pluck your raspberry, warm with sunlight from the bush and think not of coulis or mousse. Let each bead burst on your tongue, sweetness and acid in symbiosis and dependant on nothing for perfection. This is how to eat for maximum pleasure and it hardly ever happens, so busy are we with our lives of such immutable tensions.

I have infrequent moments of pure joy; when my son creeps into our bed, terrified by thunder and smelling faintly of wee and mango shampoo is one but for longer than I have had children I have found eye rolling ecstasy in putting into my mouth something unfettered and unadorned. A mussel is everything to me that food should be. It speaks of a past for which I have only an intellectual inkling but an emotional obsession, a constant presence across the millennia that links me to my forefathers and theirs. We gather them for free in a place of wild beauty, with friends or family to share around a table later and they taste delicious. It is a humble beast, the mussel, the proletariat of the sea, workmanlike and reliable but there is magic within and without that dark, glimmering carapace and we would be foolish to relegate it below its flashier cousins.

I dream of Sutherland very often and search property pages for cut price crofts overlooking raging seas. I doubt I could live there permanently, certainly not with a young family and definitely not without the legion mod cons that my posh Edinburgh wife would demand. But I need something approaching a home there, an escape, a tangible link to my past that I can share with my son whom when he’s old enough may think of his namesake as I do; just a fisherman, husband and father yet (and without proof or reason) a god amongst men, a role model and an inspiration. I want to sit with Murdo, looking out to sea, on a pilgrimage I suppose, to our family seat; wild and beautiful still and barely different from when Murdo Snr. bestrode these hills like the Highland colossus that in my minds eye he almost certainly was.

Roast Restaurant, 9.25 am on a Saturday in 2006

‘OK! Excellent! I’ll have the full English please. Is it OK to have an extra slice of your amazing black pudding instead of the tomato? Yes? Great, thanks. And umm, A Bloody Mary- just to take the edge off- you know?

And for you Madam?

‘Can I just have a piece of fruit please- can you make sure it’s been washed? And some grapefruit juice.’

‘Oh, are you sure? The breakfast is amazing here- kippers?

‘I’m actually vegan. Fruit’s fine.’

‘No, of course, sure. Vegan. That’s cool. Is that like, um, an ethical thing?


‘Right. Yes, COOL. That’s really great. How about a drink though? Pretty sure there’s no animals in vodka and tomato juice, HA HA!’

‘It’s 9.30 am.’

‘No, right. Of course. Ridiculous.’

‘Here is your Bloody Mary sir.’

Oh Christ.

‘Oh, thanks, mate. Lovely.’


‘How’s your grapefruit juice- looks great.’

‘Nice, thank you.’

Well this is going swimmingly.

‘So have you been to Borough Market before?’


 Really!? I love it- come all the time- this is my first date here though! You’re not a ‘foodie’ then?


‘Full English with extra black pudding for you sir……’

Oh yes, lovely. Thank you.’

‘And this apple for you Madam.’

‘Thank you.’


And that was the beginning of the end of that first date at Roast restaurant in the middle of Borough Market.

But it didn’t deter me though- In the dating years (c.2005-2010) Borough was my first date of choice- more interesting/original than a bar, easier to escape in event of a disaster (see above) and ample opportunity to show off my encyclopaedic knowledge of aged Alpine cheese and Sussex day boats. It’s interesting, but probably not surprising that amazing first ‘Borough’ dates- you know, perusing great produce, fog and excitement in the air, clutching a hot cider and ‘accidentally’ brushing arms as you both reach for the same pumpkin display….. usually meant a disastrous second date in a poncey bar or posh restaurant.

Borough relaxes people, especially me- I’m happy there, comfortable, confidant. I can be myself in my surroundings. When you stick me in a ‘trendy’ bar in Shoreditch for date 2 I’m an idiot, out of my comfort zone and I sweat profusely and say things like ‘So, erm dating! Eh? What’s THAT all about? Do you like bicycles?

But you can’t really have a first date and a second date in Borough Market because you’d come across as a bit weird so instead of supping oysters and Chablis off a barrel and skipping past butchery displays, fingers entwined and alive with possibility, you have to put on a shirt and give someone a pound to wash your hands when you have a wee and pay fourteen quid for a watery martini for someone that you literally know you will never see again.

I’m so glad I’m married now.





Suet has rather snuck up on me over the years to become one of my absolute favourite ingredients. It doesn’t sound great on paper- fancy some animal kidney fat? But it’s one of those ingredients that does things that can’t be replicated by anything else and is touched with magical alchemy when added to a multitude of sweet and savoury dishes.

It’s first recorded use in this country is early in the 17th century – in something called an ‘English College Pudding’ which was served to Oxford University students as early as 1617. From what I can work out a ‘College pudding’ is a cousin of our Christmas pudding, crammed as it was with suet, dried fruits and spice.

Suet is absolutely crucial to the success of Great British nursery puddings- jam roly poly, spotted dick, and of course mince pies and Christmas pudding but I love it even more in the depths of winter with meat and rich gravy. Suet is synonymous with ‘rib-sticking’ and it’s such a perfect evocative phrase, suet gives pastry a richness and unctuousness that you will never replicate with other shortening agents. It sticks to the roof of your mouth, coating it with flavour. Ale will help here or a glass of something old and red. I recently had a meal at The Kingham Plough and it was freezing cold, pouring with rain when we arrived like a couple of drowned rats. A roaring fire helped but not as much as seeing steak and kidney pudding on the menu. I could have stayed for a week. I realised then that if ever I see something containing suet on a menu I will order it. If there’s animal kidney fat and ideally animal kidneys on your menu then I’m pretty much a happy man.

Here is a pie recipe that celebrates suet, free-range chicken, bay leaves, onions, British charcuterie and most importantly simplicity. One of the things that I do now when I develop a recipe is literally the opposite of what I did say, 10 years ago. I take things away. I used to add little sausage balls, sage, ham, mushrooms, leeks and any manner of other ingredients when I made a chicken pie. This one has a handful of ingredients but they are all crucial and all hold their own. As an example, so many recipes will say ‘add a bay leaf’ and you’ll reach for the back of your spice cupboard and pull out a desiccated leaf that crumbles to dust immediately. Pointless. I want this pie to taste of bay so I use 6 fresh leaves from a tree in my garden. Bay, chicken, sweet melting onions, British chorizo and rich crisp, soggy suet pastry make for a wonderful pie. The inherent crispness and sogginess is one of the great joys of suet pastry – it’s so full of fat that you can’t fail to have a crispy lid but so unctuous that within it is soft and melting and moist.

Suet crusted chicken, British chorizo and sweet onion pie

Serves 6 hungry people . Cooking/prep time 2 hours

Perceived wisdom states that you should use leftovers to make a chicken pie. Not in this manor- poaching the whole chicken is well worth it here, not least because you flavour your sauce with the reduced stock. Literally every ounce of flavour from that chicken finds its way into your pie. I can never be faffed making a separate roux for this kind of pie- adding butter and flour and cooking through is much easier, makes less watching up and makes no discernible difference!


For the pie filling:

1 1.5kg free range or organic chicken

3 white onions

200g British chorizo, cut into small cubes

6 fresh bay leaves (or dried if you can’t find fresh)

150g plain flour

200 mls double cream

150g butter

For the pastry:

350g self-raising flour

tsp salt

175g beef suet (shredded)

2 egg yolks to glaze


Pre heat oven to 200 degrees

Place the chicken with 2 bay leaves in a large pan and cover with cold water- about a litre. You can add some aromatics, carrots and onions if you wish. Bring to a simmer and poach gently for 1 hour. Remove and allow to cool and pull the meat from the bones and cut into chunks. Increase the heat and reduce the stock by half. Set aside.

Slice your onions thinly and add to a frying pan with a knob of butter, the chorizo and the bay leaves and cook over a low heat, stirring gently until soft and sweet but not caramelised. At least half an hour.

Now add your chicken to the pan with the rest of the butter and the flour. Coat everything in the flour and cook for 10 minutes, stirring all the time .

Add the reduced stock and the cream and cook for a further 15 minutes. Add some milk, stock or water if too dry.

Place the filling in a pie dish to cool.

For the pastry:

Mix together the dry ingredients with your fingers. Add very cold water slowly until you form a dough. It should not be too wet. Roll out and place over the pie. Crimp the edges with a fork and glaze with the egg yolks.

Put into preheated oven at 200 degrees for 35 minutes until golden, burnished brown.

I’ve deleted this paragraph three times now for I am finding myself insufferably patronising. You try writing about a meal that you ate, cooked by an 18 year old whilst sitting next to his mum and his aunties (paying guests on the day I attended) without sounding patronising; Its nigh on impossible, so I am going to pay Sam and his partner Alberto the compliment of entirely ignoring their youth and critiquing what I ate based entirely on the experience.

They have settled into a three-month residency at Borough Market’s Cook House and are bringing skills honed at the sharp end of London cooking – under the gimlet eye of Marcus Wareing at his eponymous restaurant in Knightsbridge. They have big plans, huge ambition and are entirely charming to boot.

Can they cook? Of course they can- you don’t do two years of nineteen-hour days at one of the world’s finest restaurants without knowing your way round a set of pans. Are they restaurateurs? No. Not quite yet…..

You sit at an unadorned table (dress the room, lads- this stuff matters too) and watch as they sear lamb, and talk to them about their suppliers and their plans. It’s exciting stuff- everything comes from the market and they treat it sensitively and with precision. Alberto serves the starter and explains the inspiration behind it. A veritable forest floor of fungus has a puree that is deep and earthy and ceps, meaty and caramelised with the complexity of the finest steak. Wild garlic gives a seasonal pungency and freshness that works beautifully. I can take or leave the caramelised baby gem- can we all agree that it’s time to stop cooking lettuce now?

Main course is rack of lamb with goats curd and Roscoff onions and what’s served is faultless- lamb cutlets, pink within, all crisp fat without and bone-gnawingly good (I apologised to Sam’s mum for my table manners). Goats curd was fine- herby and fresh and just sour enough to cut through the lamb and a few rings of charred onion added sweetness and texture. A Caribbean-inspired dessert involving Malibu gel and compressed pineapple was refreshing and interesting and nicely balanced- sweet without being cloying.

The meal felt like what it was- half of the evening tasting menu, rather than a coherent 3-course lunch (they serve a 6 course tasting menu in the evening). I would suggest tweaking slightly – adding some veg to the main, increasing the size of the dessert, but I’m greedy and old fashioned- you might not be and think it perfect.

I’m going to be shamelessly patronising now because if these two are anything to go by, not just food but society in general is in good hands. When I was eighteen I was entirely feckless. Sam has already commuted for two years from the end of the jubilee line to do nineteen-hour days – his Dad picking him up from the station at 2am every morning. If I were going to invest, I’d invest in him and Alberto because they’re talented grafters with a plan. Oh, and his mum looks younger than me- It’s entirely inspiring and depressing in equal measure.