“In one of the most absorbing and moving memoirs I can remember reading, Rick lays himself bare in just over three hundred pages of compulsive honesty.”
If you thought you knew Rick Stein from all those years watching him on the telly, let me tell you right away – you don’t.
In one of the most absorbing and moving memoirs I can remember reading, Rick lays himself bare in just over three hundred pages of compulsive honesty.
The slightly bumbling, cranky, crosspatch of a man we know from his programmes evaporates and someone a lot more complicated and layered emerges. For me the most interesting chapters were those devoted to his childhood and adolescence. Some people leave their early days in life behind them and re-invent themselves as adults: Rick Stein is not one of them. He is a man utterly shaped and honed by his formative years in 1950s and 60s Britain.
His was, in many ways, an idyllic childhood, and it was spent in three very contrasting worlds. Rural Oxfordshire, where the Stein’s principal family home was; Cornwall, where Rick began his lifetime love affair with the peninsular’s rugged coastline; and secluded Rutland, where he was a public schoolboy.
No-one would describe Rick as an old man, yet his vivid memories of life half a century ago come from a vanished era. It’s a faintly glamorised Just William world of long summer days spent far from adults, fighting with other boys, building extravagant and dangerous castles out of sheet iron and rubbish in the woods, smoking behind the bike sheds, fishing for trout, and surfing the Atlantic rollers. The sun had yet to rise on the age of ‘elf and safety and Rick and his band of outlaws took full advantage of their freedom to roam, rebel, and take risks.
“‘Perhaps the most loved school dish,’ he writes enthusiastically, ‘was mince and potatoes. Just writing this gives me the thought of putting it on my pub in Cornwall.”
Food, stories about food, recipes and a rich remembrance of the flavours of the past season these memoirs like rock salt and rough-ground pepper. You can see exactly where Rick’s passion for keeping it simple comes from, and he is unashamed about enjoying the kind of traditional fare that, in today’s oh-so-sophisticated foodie age, so many sneer at.
‘Perhaps the most loved school dish,’ he writes enthusiastically, ‘was mince and potatoes. Just writing this gives me the thought of putting it on my pub in Cornwall. As far as I remember it was just minced beef, fried with chopped onions and carrots, then stewed with beef stock, salt and pepper. It was always served with cabbage and plainly boiled potatoes slightly falling apart. It was the sort of food foreigners like to cite as an example of terrible British cooking. Try convincing a 15-year-old teenager that it was anything less than splendid.’
But a shadow lay across Rick’s childhood. His father struggled with what we now know as bi-polar disease. Rick loved him but was slightly frightened by him too; his depressions, his rages. One day Stein senior threw himself off a Cornish cliff and a devastated 17-year-old Rick and his family were left to make sense of such a violent suicide. He writes that his mother was not only sad, but angry, too. At the time he thought it a little hard to be angry with someone who has just killed himself. ‘Only later did I realise what an enormous strain it is living with someone with mental illness.’
His sexual awakening; his first faltering steps into what blossomed into an incredible TV career are covered, of course; as are his marriages, his highs and lows. But this is essentially a memoir of lost youth. It will move you to laughter and tears.
Here are a selection of the reviews for Under A Mackerel Sky
“Stein’s brilliant memoir traces his halcyon days spent in Australia, culminating on his home turf, Cornwall.”
“Dealing with his father’s suicide by heading for the outback, catching a freighter from New Zealand to New York, running a nightclub: Stein has plenty to talk about before he gets to fish restaurants in Padstow and becoming a fixture of food TV. His fine autobiography never shies away from that defining tragedy and how it rippled through his life, even revealing his sudden need, last summer, to swim to the Cornish cliffs where his dad died.”
The Observer Food Monthly