Every recipe was the same, and none of the dishes ever looked that edible, but Keith Floyd—broadcaster, bon vivant, born entertainer—changed my life. He was the man who made me understand that food, and by extension travel, was as important to a broadened mind as books, or films, or paintings.
Growing up, I had four brothers. I still have four brothers and I have two sisters now, too, in addition to the four brothers. Growing up in a larger-than-usual family has its benefits, but the quality of food on offer isn't one of them. This isn't to disparage the tireless efforts of my mum, who balanced a full-time job in mental health with raising five children, and then swapped that job to become a full-time foster carer, resulting in mealtimes when more often than not, six or seven children crowded around the table. She cooked whatever was quick and easy and shut us up. It normally came coated in breadcrumbs, and was normally served with chips and baked beans.
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We didn't help, either. Most of us were loathe to consume anything that looked like a vegetable and one of my brothers genuinely spent the first 16 years of his life exclusively eating Weetabix for breakfast, butter sandwiches for lunch, and plain, unseasoned pasta for dinner. He eats mince now and text me last week to say that he'd just tried ketchup for the first time. It was, he said, "alright."
What I'm getting at here is that for the majority of my life, food was something that popped out of the oven at exactly 5.30 PM, was slapped between two slices of white bread for maximum ease, and wolfed down joylessly. (If you've never had a mashed potato and mini chicken Kiev sandwich, rectify that ASAP. Honestly.)
For the majority of my life, food was something that popped out of the oven at exactly 5.30 PM, was slapped between two slices of white bread for maximum ease, and wolfed down joylessly. Keith Floyd changed all that.
That all changed when I was 17. In the long, long summer between AS and A2, I devoted entire days of my life to watching nothing but cookery shows. I devoured them, gobbling down episode after episode of Nigella Express and the early Naked Chefs when Jamie was all curls and tongue.
This was the slightly fallow period between the staid Food & Drink days and the soon-to-be omnipresent, uber brash, hyper pornographic MOUNTAINS OF OOZING MEAT AND MELTED CHEESE AND SWEATED ONIONS AND SHORT RIB AND MAC AND CHEESE AND MORE GREASE-style of American show that currently dominates the food TV landscape. It meant that my televisual Cordon Bleu was slightly sedate—slightly quiet. It was more technique and less "Dude that taco is like being bukkaked by God on acid!!!!" My guy, though—my favourite—sat somewhere between these polar opposites. He was a cultural equator of sorts. A pissheaded cultural equator armed with an endless supply of red wine.
Keith Floyd was the acceptable version of a terrible, terrible stereotype: the Great British Eccentric. You could imagine him stumbling around a poorly kept semi-stately home, his trousers round his ankles, bellowing "The Grand Old Duke of York" to nobody in particular. You could imagine him ranting from provincial bandstands about God knows what. He was a bloke who went to the grave wearing linen trousers and a Panama hat—a sad, sorry tuft of baby-thin hair poking from under the brim, dickie bow unfurling in the stiff wind. A privately educated military man, a bloke who joined the army because he liked the film Zulu so much, Floyd lived a life slightly out of time. Crucially, he was more than just a posh piss artist—he was a hero. Of sorts.
From the arid plains of central Spain to the sultry swamps of the American Deep South, Floyd travelled the world in search of genuinely local food, cooking and eating as locals cooked, working with their ingredients in their kitchens. It didn't matter that nearly everything he ever cooked during the course of his 25-year television career consisted of diced onions, red peppers, green peppers, garlic, a glug of oil, salt, pepper, and one other ingredient. And it really didn't matter that everything he served to groups of disinterested seeming workers, of bamboozled dinner guests looks like … well, the grey and slightly grizzled result of having thrown said ingredients into a tepid pan while barking orders at whichever cameraman has been assigned to shooting duties that series.
None of that mattered because Floyd was Floyd, and being Floyd meant enjoying food and drink and good company and pretty views and resolutely not being a technical wizard who whipped up three star-quality meals. That's not to say that he couldn't cook or that he didn't know his technique, but anyone who's ever seen even a few seconds of the man in action knows that the joy of Floyd comes from the sheer conviviality that pours out of his every pore.
This was TV cookery stripped of the bullshit machismo, TV cookery that didn't rely on soggy bottom puns and excessive amounts of whipped cream.
Watching him felt like spending time with a favourite grandfather and in a world of Guy Fieris, that was vital. This was TV cookery stripped of the bullshit machismo, TV cookery that didn't rely on soggy bottom puns and excessive amounts of whipped cream. This was TV cookery in which food—as an idea—was the beginning of a conversation, not the totality of it.
Floyd pioneered a kind of cookery show in which the viewer doesn't tune in with the hope of sorting out a few quick and easy teas for the next week. If Delia Smith—an important but ultimately dull mark on the British culinary landscape—encouraged her audience to cook along with her newest batch of easy enough recipes, Floyd was an almost dichotomic opposite. One doesn't watch Floyd's Fjord Fiesta because they want to knock out a few Norwegian staples on a dismal Wednesday evening: one watches Floyd's Fjord Fiesta because to do so is to soak in one man's deep-rooted love of the finer things in life. In doing so, we learn something about the world, about the possibility of pleasure, about things can do that stop us doing the wicked and ordinary things we do day after day.
And this was what changed my culinary life. Through Floyd, I learned that food was something to be cherished and shared and savoured and enjoyed communally. That good food and good company are all we can ask for in this life. So tonight, I'll raise a glass, or two or three bottles, to the man himself.
Thank you, Keith, for changing my life.
Want more eccentric Englishmen and life-changing culinary experiences? Check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food, running every day this week on MUNCHIES.