Rural France has provided the backdrop for many a summer romance. It was also where Sean Wilson fell in love, not with some Gallic art house beauty, but with cheese. A piece of L’Ami du Chambertin to be precise.
“It was 1986 and I was staying in a Burgundy château with a particularly austere landlady,” says Wilson, who despite later opening his own cheese-making business and becoming a full-time foodie, is still best-known as Martin Platt, the character he played on Coronation Street for 21 years. “It was a tiny, whole cheese, the size of a small Camembert. It tasted quite simply delicious, sweet and delicate.”
Wilson can wax lyrical about food; the foreword to his first cookery book is more of a love letter to local produce, than straight forward introduction. However, it wasn’t always this way. Growing up in Ashton-under-Lyne he says he was raised on a tomato sauce and tomato soup diet. It was the 1970s and, for most northern working class families, dinner meant egg and chips or meat and two veg.
“Food was just something that kept you going, it wasn’t something you sat down to savour,” says Wilson, who is currently on a mission to promote northern food classics from both sides of the Pennines.
“The only time we saw a raw tomato was during the summer and a slice of cucumber in a salad was a bit of an event. That was just the way it was.”
Wilson’s background may mark him out as an unlikely food champion, but even when the most exotic thing he tucked into was potted meat sandwiches, there were signs that he had an appetite for culinary experimentation.
“I do remember Bonfire Nights. I was always determined to cook the perfect baked potato, wrapped carefully in foil and placed on the fire. It took a while, but eventually I got it down to a fine art.
“There was something really rewarding about peeling back that foil and cutting through to the fluffy potato inside. At home the kitchen was pretty much off-limits, I suspect my mum just didn’t want me getting under her feet, but Grandma Mona’s was a different story. We were incredibly close and she opened up a whole new world to me. Together we ate Bury black pudding, brisket pots of lush-tasting beef with thick gravy and vegetables and homemade trifle with silver balls on the top. To a kid, those silver balls seemed like the height of sophistication.”
While those days spent at his grandmother’s house became prized childhood memories, they weren’t enough to convince him that his future lay in the kitchen.
After leaving school in the early 1980s, Wilson instead began to pursue his other love, acting and through the Oldham Theatre Workshop found himself auditioning for a part on Coronation Street. Wilson made his début as Martin Platt, aged just 19, when the show had ratings of upwards of 18m. He joined shortly after the murder of soap favourite Brian Tilsley and not all Corrie fans approved of his relationship with widower Gail, who was, wait for it, some 10 years his senior. It all seems rather tame these days, not least when you consider the nature of the storyline which ended Wilson’s time on the Street. Having discovered dependable, reliable Martin was destined to have a relationship with a young teenage girl, Wilson decided that it was time to leave.
“I felt uncomfortable about the whole thing, so in September 2005, I picked up my coat and left,” he says. “Twenty years is a long time to do any job and it just felt like the right time to try something different and over the years I’d spent in front of the cameras my passion for food had really grown.
“Funnily enough, about the same time as I started on Coronation Street, Keith Floyd appeared on the television. I was immediately hooked. Floyd was not like any of other TV chef we had seen before and he appealed directly to men. He stripped away all the nonsense, with a glass of wine never far from his hand he made cooking seem like fun and gave people like me the confidence to give it a go.
“Before then, cookery shows had all been very precise and technical. Not with Floyd. In the space of maybe a couple of years, supermarkets began to cotton onto a different kind of customer. Alongside the usual cabbage and cauliflower they began selling artichokes and wild mushrooms.
“It was then that I bought my first cookery books and experimenting in the kitchen became a real hobby. I know when I said I was leaving Corrie some people thought I was mad. It was a steady income and actors who have stayed with one show for so long often find it difficult to adapt to life away from the familiar routine, but I never had any regrets. ”
For the next couple of years he juggled occasional acting work with developing his own culinary skills. In the kitchen of his home in Saddleworth, where he had moved some years earlier, Wilson began making his own black pudding, experimenting with piccalilli recipes and even reviving that childhood delicacy, potted beef.
“I guess things got really serious when I got a call from Nigel Haworth, one of the Michelin star chefs who took part in the Great British Menu,” says Wilson. “He asked if I wanted to do a stint in his restaurant. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Haworth has been a vocal advocate of local produce – pretty much everything in the kitchen of Northcote Manor in Blackburn is drawn from a 30 mile radius of the restaurant and while Wilson wasn’t exactly an apprentice, he says he was there to soak up as much of Haworth’s expertise as he could.
“It was amazing, I learnt so much. I boned 200 pigeons, took over the production of the Michelin twist on egg mayonnaise and made Lancashire cheese ice cream,” he says. The latter saw him introduced to Bob Kitching, who runs a nearby organic dairy. Under his guidance Wilson set up his own cheese-making business.
“I approached a dairy with its own 300-strong herd of Holstein Friesian cows and basically asked if I could hire the floor to start making cheese on a commercial basis. I started small, but it was pretty addictive. I had cheese in the porch, in the back room and crammed into every fridge in the kitchen. I spent months experimenting and binned so many prototypes, but it was worth it. There is something inherently satisfying about starting with the raw ingredients and ending up with a perfect piece of cheese.”
Wilson began in the summer of 2009 and a month later his Muldoons Picnic won best in the All Traditional Crumbly Cheese category in the British Cheese Awards. The Saddleworth Cheese Company was up and running and in the last three years Wilson has expanded his range, which now includes Smelly Ha’peth, How’s Yer Father and Mouth Almighty alongside the more mundane sounding Lancashire Crumbly and Lancashire Creamy.
Wilson is now focusing on a new foodie project. Inspired by the likes of Simon Hopkinson, the Lancashire chef whose own cookery book Roast Chicken and Other Stories was voted the most useful of all time and the original domestic goddess, Elizabeth David, he is now hoping to spark a renaissance of traditional northern dishes.
The first step is the release of The Great Northern Cookbook, which runs the recipe gamut from liver and onions and deep fried tripe to Eccles cakes and pork pie. A television series to accompany the book, which also features some less obviously northern dishes like tomato risotto, chilli con carne and prawn curry, will be screened on Channel 5 next year.
“I had a brilliant time filming, ” says Wilson, adding they worked hard to avoid a Lancashire bias. “Having spent so long in front of the cameras during Coronation Street I didn’t experience any of the usual nerves of a first-time presenter and it just felt like the two halves of my career had come together.
“I had a great time grouse shooting up on the moors and of course no celebration of northern food would be complete without a trip to Whitby. I went out on one of the scallop trawlers and thankfully my sea legs held up enough so I could enjoy a plate of fish and chips in the Magpie Café afterwards. I’m not sure that northern food has a bad reputation exactly, more the fact the no-one has ever really looked at it properly before. We have a lot to be proud of in the north and if I can help people shout about our culinary heritage then that will be a job well done.”
The Great Northern Cookbook by Sean Wilson, published by Hodder and Stoughton, priced £20 is out now.