Weekend Interview: Celebrating The Seasons With The Yorkshire Shepherdess Amanda Owens
Chatting with the Yorkshire Shepherdess it’s easy to get a feel for just how chaotic and busy her life is and to add more pressure I am under a strict time limit.
I only have 30 minutes, so I had better get on with it!
It’s all go as she does the round of publicity interviews to plug her new book, which is I’m told part memoir, cookbook, and part photographic journal.
I’m sure Amanda has been told many times that her life is like a cross between The Durrell’s and All Creatures Great and Small, such are all the anecdotes, and I am soon to find out there is no shortage of tales.
The book Celebrating the Seasons with the Yorkshire Shepherdess
is beautifully produced, enhanced by the Yorkshire Shepherdess’s photography, which we will come to later and the recipes are warming. So how did the idea come about?
Celebrating the Seasons with The Yorkshire Shepherdess Farming, Family and Delicious Recipes to Share is out now published by Pan Macmillan £20.00
“It’s a sort of mis-match an accumulation of all the things that people kept asking me for. How do I cater for the family, why don’t I do photographic books, people love my photographs I use for presentations, so it seemed natural to bring it all together,” she says.
Time is precious and because she is always “busy doing about a thousand million different things” I can’t see her sitting down for long and working out what recipes to put in the book.
And I am proved right.
“When it came to choosing the recipes, I’m the kind of person who goes with my gut reaction. I always take things to the wire with the deadline. I’m always under pressure to get things done, so rather than stressing and keep changing things I find I make a decision – that’s what we’re going to have today and then I don’t look at it again because it is a case of that’s it, it’s done, it’s sorted. If not I would spend my whole life going round and round in circles.
“I’ve learnt over time. When people say to me, I must have this by 9am on Monday morning, I end up doing it Sunday during the night because that is my nature. And when it’s done, I press ‘send’ and that’s it, it’s gone. I will never ever do anything 10 days before it is required, because in those 10 days I will look at it again and think I can do better, look at it again and change something and then it just becomes tedious, I can’t work like that. So, you know it works for me and that’s how I chose the recipes.”
Sometimes it’s not the method. I often say to the kids because they like helping, think about what you’re putting in.
I’ve been leafing through the pages and there are quite a few dishes I would like to try but where to start is the question? I’m not one to begin in January and work through to December. So, I start by asking Amanda for her favourite recipe?
“Oh, it’s the Tagine recipe. I love it because you can adapt it to whatever you have around you, whether chicken, lamb, or vegetables. Anything! It’s got that little bit of sweetness too. It’s all about the spices. When you start cooking with cumin and garlic it smells delicious and it brings everybody in as the smell purveys the whole of the farmyard. It’s also one of those most forgiving dishes. Once you’ve done your 10 minutes preparation, you can cook it on the top of or in the oven.
"It’s forgiving too. If I forget it’s in there, I know it will not be a complete disaster if I come back to it an hour or 2 hours later, it might need some more liquid adding to it, but I haven’t completely killed it whilst being distracted. You can put rice or chickpeas in it, and it will go a long way and you can serve it with couscous which is great. You can dress it up or dress it down but at the end of the day you’re getting your protein and vegetables, and everybody likes it.”
There’s nowt wrong with that as they say in Yorkshire.
“Tastes change, I didn’t want to encourage people to think it was just using meat and chicken. I wanted to feature leftovers, and importantly incorporate the idea of adapting things for what you have about the place. Make things your own a little bit more.
“I don’t want it just to be about where we live and location. Hence February has Indian overtones. If I’m doing a recipe and it says lemongrass or harissa, then I’m not going to the shops to get some. You don’t want to invest heavily in stuff you’re going to use once and then it’s just going to grow mould crust in the fridge.”
If you couldn’t take a photograph here with this landscape then you can’t take a photograph anywhere. I mean you have everything here, countryside, big skies, children and animals plus an atmospheric inspiring Yorkshire backdrop.
Now there’s the Yorkshire spirit. I love the way Amanda has found a way of using radishes because I’ll use radishes in that recipe rather than have to eat them.
In typical, what you see is what you get fashion, the answer is funny: “Ah! Radishes are my beauty snacks; I’ve already eaten a packet of radishes. Clive says that I should fart like a horse but believe me I don’t I’m very fragrant in a good way.
“I actually grew radishes, I just love them, they’re crunchy, delicious and some are spicier than others. It’s nice to know that things have a bit of a different texture.
“Sometimes it’s not the method. I often say to the kids because they like helping, think about what you’re putting in.
"Yeah, you can have a one pot dish but if you’re careful you can have something very colourful that looks lovely and that makes an enormous difference. There is a saying that you eat with your eyes. If you have couscous, it’s so easy: just add spring onions, cranberries, chuck it all in, almonds all the rest of the weird and wonderful ingredients, maybe pomegranates might be a bit out of reach but again it doesn’t matter, put something else in.”
The dishes are seasonal and as we are preparing for autumn turning to winter, I wonder if Amanda has a favourite season.
“Well, I usually say my favourite month is June, so that may count as spring or summer. I feel that in June summer’s here. We lurch from winter to summer with not too much in between. I love June because we’ve finished lambing and the ewes have gone back to moor.
"Too early for hay time because the grass hasn’t grown and the flowers haven’t reached seed head, the birds are around and everything springs into life. It’s like after a long winter it’s finally here. If I have done well and I’ve managed to get the sheep and ewes back to the moor, then it’s. So yes it’s a lazier time, I love it.”
Amanda writes about living in harmony with the earth and the countryside around you and post lockdown a lot of people are moving to the countryside. Is this a good thing?
“Well, I would try to encourage them, I wouldn’t be so full of hypocrisy to say here’s a tv programme about what I did, but don’t come here. I’m not going to say that. Go into it with your eyes open, do your research, try it, and decide what things matter most to you. What’s the worst that can happen? If you don’t like it, move back.
“However, I think we’re more extreme than most places and you have to have a sense of independence to live somewhere like here, you can’t be too reliant on other people and services. You know you must be able to turn your hand to anything. You need a certain sense of practicality and you also need to be a more chilled out kind of a character because there are so many variables when you’re out in the countryside that can go wrong.
"It’s not easy. If the things that you consider to be important such as constant water supply, electricity, and a great phone signal, it might not be for you.
“People say that those who live in the countryside hate city life - absolutely not. I’ve just come back from London, I’ve done sheep trials across London Bridge, it’s great, but it’s also great to come home. The world has got smaller for sure and things like life in the countryside isn’t what it used to be even 20 years ago; with the internet you can have a lot of things that previously you could not.
The other part of the book is about photography and there are some fantastic atmospheric shots I need some tips. The main one I learn is never leave home without a camera.
“I take my camera with me all the time. It’s like a diary. Wherever I go, my camera goes. If I’m in the picture it’s because one of the kids has taken it.”
People call Amanda a photographer and she says she cringes when she hears that.
“Andrew, if you couldn’t take a photograph here with this landscape then you can’t take a photograph anywhere. I mean you have everything here, countryside, big skies, children and animals plus an atmospheric inspiring Yorkshire backdrop.”
Again, with that characteristic Yorkshire forthrightness she tells me “You’d have to be a complete muppet not to be able to take a picture.”
“I once did a talk at a very prestigious Harrogate photographic society and when Graham the man in charge rang me up, I asked him if he was sure about getting me to talk because they had speakers that included a royal photographer and specialists in all aspects of photography. You know I use autofocus a lot.
“I could not go into an in-depth discussion on aperture, depth of field, focal lens, anything like that, she said: ‘no, no, no, we want you to talk about your photography’. It was a good event because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how big your kit is or what equipment you have or even how much you’ve spent on it, it’s about being the picture, being there at that moment and being able to take it.
“I’m fortunate I live here. When those storms roll in, the snow falls and it’s cold and it’s up to your waist. I have a camera and that’s unique to this place. I take the kids, I don’t say stand here, move that, because most of the things I’m taking photographs of don’t respond to that sort of thing – kids and sheep don’t stay still or do any of the things I want them to do. I want interesting photographs not dull, dull, dull.”
Amanda captures the essence using an example.
“The Yorkshire Post did a photograph a few Christmases ago taken in different houses, a stately home, a caravan, and here. The photographer who took mine said that he had never had so much feedback about photographs ever. People said they just loved the picture of our living room because as per usual I had forgotten he was coming so hadn’t tidied up – no change there! There were terriers, logs, little bits of coal, washing hanging up, dust, felt tip drawings on the wall and discarded slippers. With a fisheye lens it pulled it all into that one photograph.”
For the Yorkshire Shepherdess it captured something about Christmas when you’ve watched the Only Fools and Horses Special and The Queen’s Speech, eaten too much, had one too many gins and you’re bored, you haven’t anything else to read so you pick up the magazine and you look at that picture and you find something else, and you look at it again. “Those are the pictures that I wanted. People will look at those pictures in my book and they’ll see something and then they’ll say “OMG look at that" – that's what I want because that is more interesting.
There are all kinds of photos a particular favourite is one of a heifer eating socks.
“Yes,” she enthusiastically interrupts me, “that’s the kind of picture you can get if you have the camera with you all the time. I carry a smart phone and no one calls because there is no signal but I use it to take pictures and also a proper camera, even though mine has gaffer tape round it that I use to waterproof it and the on/off button is very very sticky because I had a ripe banana in the case and it’s somehow got squashed and got stuck all over it.”
Watching the time, I ask her what she means when she describes the book as not a handbook or an instruction book, but it should be lived.
“The whole book is about doing your own thing. So, anyone who says, ‘is it a parenting guide?’ No. Nor is it a basic entity for writing a purist recipe book to be followed to the letter. I think one of the worst things was having to weigh out things because my editor kept saying – ‘but how much Amanda?’ and I would say well I’ve just tipped some in!
“Yes it is quite difficult to get those kind of specifics but I think at the end of the day the idea is to say look this is what we’re doing and this is how we live, this is what we’re on with, read it, enjoy it, look at the pictures and if there’s any element that you take away from that book it’s a way or idea of being yourself and doing your thing.
“Because you know people will always tell you what is unachievable, what you can’t do. People will say all kind of things, like you’re a shepherdess, you’ve got mascara on, look at you you’ve got earrings on and wellies. So what, why care, that’s the thing. If you know what you’re doing and you’re good at it, just leave it there and you know with recipes if you haven’t got the right ingredients, please do not say I’m not going to do it’, in other words just put something else in.”
With those inspiring words I have come to the end of my time with the Yorkshire Shepherdess, and I am 5 minutes ahead of my time. I’m going to give Amanda 5 minutes of free time before the next interview. But I don’t think I have been listening as she says “I’ll find something to fill those 5 minutes, don’t you worry. Any minute now the door’s going to fly open, and the kids will be back off the school bus – 4 of them maybe but I’m not quite sure.”