Anna Colquhoun: culinary anthropologist

17 Sep

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story.  How do you learn to cook? One way might be to join a cooking class run by Highbury local Anna Colquhoun, a trained chef who teaches cooking and runs a supper club from her home close to Arsenal tube. Interview by Nicola Baird

Anna Colquhoun: xx

Anna Colquhoun: “I’m a big fan of local shops”.

“Just don’t call me a foodie,” says Anna Colquhoun after we’ve had the sort of Islington conversation that comedy script writers just might mock (we were drinking proper coffee – obviously – while discussing the price of saffron, so there). The term “foodie” ought to be a shoo in for Anna who is a multi-talented chef, cookery trainer and food writer based in Highbury. She’s also doing a Masters at SOAS in the anthropology of food, with a view to doing a PhD on food and tourism, so no surprise that semantics matter. As she puts it: “food is an insight into how society works – gender relations, food supply chains, economics and politics.”

Anna Colquhoun: “I make a very nice sourdough.”

Anna Colquhoun: “I make a very nice sourdough.”

Anna, now 40, moved to Islington in 2001, but since then has also: “had a spell in San Francisco to train as a chef; a year travelling for my own culinary research all around Europe, Turkey, north and west Africa, and a year living in Ware, Hertfordshire” (where husband Matthew Purver is from).

Summed up in this whirlwind way you might miss that she’d worked in Chez Panisse, a famous restaurant in California’s Bay Area, honed her sourdough bread to the point where she’d considered baking full time and created a wonderful travel and food blog, see www.culinaryanthropologist.org which features brave eating and great conversations with locals.

Eat Slow Britain
Getting to know the locals is something Anna is good at. Her 2010 book Eat Slow Britain features more than 80 food producers and places to eat, united by their passion for good, clean and fair food.

 

 

Anna is helping customers of Mrs Lovell's the Greengrocer pool their recipes. You've just got time to submit your's.

Anna Colquhoun is helping customers of Mrs Lovell’s the Greengrocers pool their recipes. You’ve just got time to submit your favourite.

She’s also working with Michelle, who owns Mrs Lovell’s the Greengrocers at Highbury Barn, to create a cook book with around 50 recipes from locals that’ll be ready for the Barn’s annual October fundraiser (2014) for breast cancer charities.

“Personally I’d like to call the cook book Mrs Lovell is Curious because Michelle explained to me that when she took over the greengrocers she hadn’t been in the trade before, and had to learn what people did with the veg they bought. She was amazed by the elaborate dishes, from all around the world, that people made.”

The planned cook book is as much about the stories as it is the recipes. “We want to know why people cook the dishes that they do, and how this reveals something about their lives, their family histories and their connections to Highbury and elsewhere in the world. It will show the quirky diversity of Highbury,” she explains, clearly excited by the project.

Anna is often busy with the Radio 4 program, The Kitchen Cabinet (just about to start its eighth series). But she also organises cooking classes – the most popular are home preserving and artisan bread – and a monthly supper club at her home.

“In San Francisco I’d really enjoyed catering for large numbers – preparing a whole table full of duck legs or dealing with a mountain of turnips,” explains Anna who hadn’t wanted the risk or superhuman effort of setting up her own restaurant. She points out that “something like nine out of 10 fail within a year.” But when she came back to Highbury she brought a rather cool American concept – the supper club. “I’d been really taken by secret dinners in the Bay Area – food served in a private home, not a restaurant. You had a surprise menu, sat at tables with people you didn’t know and it was great. I wanted to do something similar in Highbury.”

Find Little Sardegna at xx Blackstock Road, N4.

Find Little Sardegna at 170 Blackstock Road, N4.

Places Anna loves in Islington

  • xx

    Highbury Vintners: a chance to chat about what to buy.

    I’m a big fan of local shops and try to visit as many as possible – not entirely for political reasons… I like getting to know people and find Mrs Lovell’s the greengrocer, Chris Godfrey (butchers), Meek & Wild (fishmongers), Five Boys and Highbury Vintners are all chatty and want to engage with their customers. I also use the Moroocan and Turkish shops on Blackstock Road – they’re great for couscous, olives, rose water, dates and merguez sausages.

  • 69 Colebroke Row, N1 is excellent for cocktails. My tip is sit at the bar – ring up and book your bar seat – then chat to the barman about their potions. I’m not much of a pub person though.
  • Me and my husband don’t have much free time. I work in term time because that suits my clients, so in the school holidays, even though I don’t have children I take my holidays and disappear. But occasionally on a Sunday we potter in Highbury Fields, Clissold Park. Finsbury Park and Gillespie Park. I love the parks and we are lucky to have so many close.
  • I do like Little Sardegna, it’s close and always friendly. It’s busy but miraculously they always seem to have one table so it always feels buzzy. I like the way the chef talks to people and occasionally they have a singsong with Sardinian songs. My top tip is the special – pumpkin and ricotta ravioli with nduja sauce (spicy sausage).
  • Five Boys at Highbury Barn stocks everything.

    Five Boys at Highbury Barn stocks just about everything, including fresh yeast.

    I’m also loving the arrival of more Ethiopian restaurants in the area such as Wolkite Kitfo 82 Hornsey Road, N7 and Hamer on Rock Street, N4. Try the doro wot (chicken stew), kitfo (raw beef in spiced butter) and tej (homemade honey wine).

  • Five Boys in Highbury Barn is fantastic – you can get fresh yeast, ancho chillies, big bags of cinnamon sticks and all manner of spices. If they haven’t got what I want they treat it as a challenge!

Come to the supper club
Anna held her first supper club in January 2010 and has now run more than 45 supper clubs, usually for 20-25 people. “It’s fun. I hire two waiters, as I’ve learnt that I can’t serve, cook, wash up and talk to people. The guests turn up at about 7.30pm with their own wine. We start with drinks and canapés while everyone mingles then guests sit for dinner. We usually have a three-course meal, but it depends on the cuisine. Last month was Moroccan themed and I collaborated with another anthropologist who has just done 12 months of fieldwork in the kitchens of Marrakech. Next month – July – my menu is inspired by flowers and summer produce. There will be lots of fresh fruit. It’ll be really colourful.”

Supper clubs have become a very modern way to spend a night out. “I think there were two others doing this when I started, now there are more like 200,” explains Anna. “That’s great and it is still a friendly, intimate way to eat, but it is being commercialised and is the reason I now charge in advance (£35-£40), to make sure people turn up.”

There are so many creative ways to use your home – from Airbnb where you rent out a spare bedroom to kitchen table freelancing – but Anna who loves to travel and to cook has clearly hit on a winning formula. Best of all her students and guests get to enjoy a north London home winningly situated right between the old and new stadium. What could be a better conversation starter around Highbury than delicious food or Arsenal chitchat?

Info

  • For more about Anna Colquhoun’s supper clubs (also suitable for vegetarians), cooking lessons and other projects (including her book Eat Slow Britain) see www.culinaryanthropologist.org/ or follow @CulinaryAnth
  • Anna is currently up for an Urban Food Award as a Food Educator.  Londoners can vote for her here.
  • Mrs Lovell’s Greengrocers, 28 Highbury Park, N5 – if you want to contribute a recipe and story contact Anna at anna@culinaryanthropologist.org

Over to you
Would you like to nominate someone to be interviewed? Or would you like to write a guest post for this blog? if the answer is yes for either please email nicolabaird.green@gmail.com

If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you. 

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right), @nicolabairduk

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or jobs to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola

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2 Responses to “Anna Colquhoun: culinary anthropologist”

  1. Kitchen-Counter-Culture September 17, 2014 at 9:11 am #

    Excited for those Ethiopian restaurants! And for Mrs Lovells book! And for this blog writer and that blog writer to make a date for Anna’s Supper Club.

    • nicola baird blogs September 17, 2014 at 10:42 am #

      Kitchen Counter Culture you need to spend a bit of time in my neighbourhood! My favourite Ethiopian is Gabriels, you’d love it. Thank you for the invite to Anna’s supper club, it does sound wonderful. I also think it’s something you SHOULD do in Wales: i reckon goose blood tarts would create a taste sensation. Nicola

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