Mum gave me a lifetime’s appreciation of good food

As Mother’s Day approaches, chef Kirsty Hale reflects on how her mother’s Dartmoor allotment and care-filled home-cooking inspired her recipes and approach to food.

When I was asked how my mum Kate inspires me in the kitchen, I could think of endless ways. As well as feeling genetically blessed to have her pastry-making hands, here are a few thoughts that spring to mind.

Mortgage rates were sky-high when I was little, and I was conscious that things weren’t always easy, financially. One of the ways mum contributed to the pot, quite literally, was to have an allotment on the edge of Dartmoor, a couple of miles from our house. It was a walled secret garden, accessed via ‘fat man’s corridor’ (the local name). Although beautiful, it had no water supply, so she had to lug the water in there herself.

I could supply any number of vegetable recipes inspired by her, but whenever we feature ‘Parsnips Molly Parkin’ in our Riverford recipe boxes, named after an iconic 70s fashion designer, I always think of her toiling away in the mud with my sister and I in tow, and what a great and grounded life she made for us in Devon, so very different from her cool London life and job in high-end fashion. Parsnips may have been over quite early this season, but the recipe is great with squash, too; adaptable, just like mum.

Molly Parkin
Parsnips Molly Parkin can be adapted for squash. 

I could talk about her savoury pancakes that she served up when life and the allotment got the better of her, or the weird chicken and peach casserole from her beloved Cordon Bleu-style cookery book that was concocted for my 18th birthday, but that particular dish is probably best forgotten. Was it the reason I got so drunk I threw up? Hmm, maybe not.  

Mum is still one of the best cake-makers I know. Picking one to mention was simple; the coffee and walnut cake she used to make as my dad and I watched ‘Rugby Special’ on a Sunday afternoon. To this day the aroma of one baking has Bill McLaren’s wonderful commentating voice popping into my head.

Kirsty and Kate
A young Kirsty (right) with her mum and baby sister. 

When I asked mum for her recipe, she told me that although she quite likes some of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s cake recipes now (praise indeed!), she still makes her adaptation from the ‘Radiation New World Cookery Book’, the cookbook she got free with her first oven.

Simply titled ‘nut bake’, she swapped in coffee for water, walnuts for mixed nuts and increased the quantities by a third, as “it wasn’t nearly enough”. The basic (increased) recipe for 2 x 7 inch tins is therefore: 6oz unsalted butter, 6oz caster sugar, creamed together, then 3 eggs added one at a time, stirring in 7 ½ oz of plain flour, 1 ½ tsp baking powder, a pinch of salt, 1 tbsp of strong coffee and 3oz chopped walnuts. That’s all she gave me, she said I knew the rest!

If you want to have a go, it’s 25-30 minutes at gas 4/180C. Mum then adds a coffee buttercream filling and a coffee glace icing on top, as all buttercream is too sickly sweet, and tops with more chopped walnuts.

I spoke to my mum the day before writing this piece; she’s been through a lot this year, losing her youngest sister to Covid. It’s been tough not being able to be with her to share her grief with customary hugs and tea. I asked what she was up to, and she said she’d made a lovely leek soup and was going to make scones in the afternoon. Finding comfort in the kitchen; that’s my mum. I love her.

A note from Kirsty and her mum Kate:

Mum and I know how lucky we are to have each other, even if it’s just on the phone at the moment. We know things aren’t always easy for any of us right now, so if you are reading this and feeling low, please reach out to someone you know, a mum or a friend, or one of the many brilliant people out there ready to listen (Samaritans are free to call from any phone on 116 123). No one is alone. Kate and Kirsty xx   


Leave a Reply

  1. Very lucky and happy to have shared my life with you both! You make me proud and I will forgive you for making Mum cry when she first read this, Much Luv, Your ancient father xxx

  2. Hi Kirsty
    I cooked in a ran a small restaurant in Manchester in the early 80’s – we had a seasonal weekly changing menu and 1 of the 3 main courses was always a veggie. Parsnips Molly Parkin was always a success with our customers and I still make it to our original recipe for a treat today – I wonder if it’s the same one?
    lin x

  3. Lin, I think the name gives it such a nice ring. I am sure all versions are suitably veg-packed with a touch of indulgence! I have adapted mine over the years and now include lentils too for extra protein; it’s become a staple and our customers love it too. Just goes to show good food always wins out, however old the recipes are! Happy cooking, best wishes, Kirsty


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