Food champ who cooked up kitchen that really is the heart of her home

Sue Nelson amongst her books in the kitchen of her home at Wheldrake
Sue Nelson amongst her books in the kitchen of her home at Wheldrake
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In the second in our series A Room Of My Own, creative cook and Yorkshire Food Finder founder Sue Nelson talks to Sheena Hastings.

SUE Nelson’s first foodie memories from her 1960s childhood in Northallerton and then Beverley involve being allowed, aged five, to stir the huge bowl during the making of the Christmas cake. She also recalls fish on Friday, mince and onions on Saturday, roast beef on Sunday and liver on Tuesday.

Before the roast had even been properly digested, Sunday tea would appear: red or pink tinned salmon, bread and butter and Yorkshire Salad, an exotic affair which consisted of shredded lettuce, sliced onions, mint, vinegar and sugar, with a bowl of tomatoes on the side.

Rising star Delia Smith’s mantra that anyone who could read could cook sent Sue’s mum to night classes. Little Susan got stuck in whenever she got the chance. By the time she left home she was infected by her mum’s new-found ambitions in the kitchen but was also driven by a dynamic personality that hungered for challenge on all fronts.

Although she followed other paths for decades – first a successful career in regional journalism, then communications jobs for rail companies, and later a rail safety and risk management consultancy – more recently her private love of adventurous cooking and a desire to promote food produced in Yorkshire converged.

A pot of coffee and homemade ginger and sultana biscuits sit between us on the 10-seat dining table of the home Sue shares with her husband Aidan in a village near York. Parsnip flatbreads and a pot of vegetable soup are on the go for lunch. All’s right with the world. Inarguably a foodie of the first order, Sue explains how the seeds were sown for Yorkshire Food Finder, the business she and Aidan established just over a year ago.

“We were driving back from Suffolk and had seen some publicity down there about food tours. We reckoned we’d seen nothing like that in Yorkshire, but knew that the provenance – the producers and suppliers – of the county was second to none.

“We were particularly interested in the one-and-two man bands ploughing a lonely furrow. Yorkshire is full of people who are committed to great food. Over the years we had got to know Andrew Pern (chef/proprietor at The Star at Harome in North Yorkshire) and when we discussed the idea with him he was very supportive.

“He’d been one of the first to extol the virtues of local produce, years ago before it was fashionable, and gave me his contact book of growers and suppliers.”

The Nelsons then spent a few months travelling the highways and byways, tracking down food and drink enterprises large and small to add to their list. They explored creameries and breweries, herb gardens, smokehouses, fishmongers, huge farms, small charcuterie companies, the alcoholic beverages produced by monks at Ampleforth Abbey and a lot else.

The idea of the 15 one-day tours they devised was to marry up a trail of behind-the-scenes visits for up to 12 people to growers and producers with restaurants that would then showcase foods from those enterprises. A string of producers and great eateries signed up to the idea, the trails were launched and Sue is now organising more for this year.

Sue and Aidan’s own food buying habits have increasingly revolved around farm shops and other local producers before topping up at the supermarket.

Her unquenchable enthusiasm for Yorkshire in general and its abundance of produce in particular should qualify her as some sort of official ambassador.

She’s the kind of person who does something properly or not at all, and the kitchen where she enjoys exploring the culinary possibilities of local food and drink can only be described as state of the art but with a heart.

The Nelsons have had the back of the detached house extended twice, enlarging the kitchen into what was the dining room and out onto what was the herb garden.

They might as well rent out the rest of the house and move a bed in here. Sue laughs “…It’s true. We have a living room with TV and fireplace but don’t use it. This is my dream kitchen, and when our son Michael is home from university with friends, they love to gather in here, too.”

The open plan space incorporates an all-singing, all-dancing kitchen area full of covetable professional gadgetry, a small office corner and dining area with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. The main reason for the last extension was the need to accommodate Sue’s ever-growing collection of 1,236 cookbooks, found all over the world and dating back to 1913 with the slim, handwritten and linen-bound volume of recipes gathered by Aidan’s grandmother Eleanor Jackson.

They are housed in a library along one side of the room, adjacent to Aidan’s shelves of railways books. Comfy chairs, including an Amish rocker invite you to relax and browse. Fingers linger over Mexican, Hungarian, Argentinian, Japanese, Peruvian... Titles run from a specialist book on artichokes to Sushi for Dummies and White Heat, with a cornucopia of themes (A Thousand Culinary Kisses, anyone?) and iconic names like Roux, David and Morales in between.

“They’re hard to resist but I don’t buy willy-nilly. It has to be something of interest, and I do use a lot of them. I still go back to Delia, though, and like early Gordon Ramsay. I used to stick slavishly to recipes, but now I mix them up. I love seeing other people enjoying the books.”

High class cooking ‘toys’ include a Thermomix – one wizard piece of kit that replaces 10 others – a boiling tap (cheaper than a kettle, apparently), a huge sink with a tap on a hose, a vacuum sealer (as seen on Masterchef, and used four-to-five times a week here), a large butcher’s block (a wedding gift to each other) and extendable heat lamps to keep food warm.

There’s an Aga with four ovens, two gas hobs, two more ovens and five fridges. Sue says Christmas Day is by no means the only day when everything is on the go.

Drawers groan with little implements and devices like a porcelain truffle grater and scales that weigh the tiniest amounts accurately.

This is a couple who adore the sociability of food, and seem to be stocked up for any eventuality. Sue volunteers to do ‘grunt work’ in the kitchen at The Star to add to her skills.

A plaque on the wall pays tribute to father and son builders John and Matty Lynch, who carried out the extension work. In the process they all became good friends, a relationship helped along by the Lynches also being foodies.

They hold a regular ‘Lynch Fest’, involving the cooking and eating a seven-course tasting menu inspired by Sue’s library.

The most recent involved such delicacies as Yorkshire Dickie Bird pud, squab breast with crispy curry noodles, halibut with macadamia nut crust and venison loin with mole and cashew vinaigrette. Almost everything was sourced in Yorkshire.

All this sounds very high-falutin’, but Sue maintains that she has no time for overly-fussy food.

“We’re just as happy with really nicely cooked fish and chips. Although I like to be adventurous, I dislike too many ingredients on a plate and unnecessary fussiness. And a smear of something across a plate doesn’t make good food.

Among her dislikes are cupcakes and “…some pubs and restaurants offer a Sunday lunch of meat on a carvery they’ve cooked the night before… and you get cold meat with hot gravy on top. That’s no way to treat people.”

She feels there are lessons in the 1913 notebook kept by Aidan’s grandma, whose contents include My mother’s wedding cake, Tiger gingerbread and How to make pressings of meat.

“There are elements of her cake in mine, including chopped sweet almonds and the ratio of fruit and blend of spices. Mine uses fruit soaked for four days in Ampleforth Abbey cider brandy, though. But the basic principles are the same, now as then: Good food is about great ingredients treated well. That’s it.”

Tomorrow: Playwright Rony Robinson and his partner, the poet Sally Goldsmith on finding inspiration in the open study they share in their Sheffield home.

On the trail of county’s finest

Yorkshire Food Finder is all about linking the county’s finest food producers and great Yorkshire restaurants with food lovers from far and wide.

A series of themed culinary trails have been devised to explore how Yorkshire’s quality foods are created, bred or grown, and for them to then be showcased on specially themed menus at some of the county’s best restaurants.

Trails can also be tailored to the interests and can include anything from wine making to visits to cheese, charcuterie and rapeseed oil producers, as well as smokehouses, farms and breweries.

YFF also offers cooking masterclasses in small groups led by Sue Nelson. 01904 448439,