Steven Lamb, originally from Manchester, can be found these days in the idyllic environs of The River Cottage in Devon. He is the curing and smoking expert there for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and he wrote the recently published Cheese & Dairy: River Cottage Handbook. He lives nearby with his wife and three daughters and he chats to us about travels with his lovely brood.
What is your first childhood memory of travel?
We never travelled abroad as a family. It wasn’t until I went inter-railing in the 80’s that I really experienced a true sense of travel, albeit on a budget. My earliest childhood memory of travel would be seeing the windmill as you approach Lytham St Annes and thinking we were nearly there from our home in Manchester. We would go every year for a long weekend, often staying at The Lindum hotel, playing on the putting green and amongst the sand dunes. I remember one year being moved off the beach by my parents as a storm loomed and then looking back to see a line of sea spouts whirling down from the clouds, thinking that we would all get sucked up as well.
Where have you had your best holiday to date?
We love Italy and have made a habit of visiting whenever we can. However, last year, we decided to break the pattern and went to Crete. We stayed in a place called Loutro on the southern coast, which could only be accessed by boat. It was wonderful and unspoilt with a row of restaurants all by the water’s edge. I used to think that I’m not a beach lounger type of person but I certainly channeled it on that holiday. It was such a simple sun, sand, eat, sleep, repeat holiday. The sun was baking so all you had to do was walk a few simple steps into the sea every so often to cool off. We did a few excursions by foot and kayak to explore other coves and beaches and each time found a place to eat and drink. Those meals were some of the nicest holiday meals I’ve ever had because they were authentic and served by people who were delighted that we had found them. I got addicted to saganaki cheese followed by a freezing cold shot of raki – a drink I wouldn’t normally contemplate having in a million years but somehow felt it was culturally important to indulge.
Where was the first place you went with a little one in tow? How did it go?
Our love of Italy and in particular, Tuscany, came about because there is a real sense of family values there. We have a three girls and, often when we travel, people look at us as though we are a travelling circus. On a recent trip to Denmark, people came up to me on several occasions to sympathise with my situation?! We have always found Italy to be very accepting of our gang, though the first holiday we took there with our young daughter Agnes was disastrous. Aggie was 10 months old and my wife Elli was pregnant with our second daughter Betsy, so she wasn’t feeling her best. For some reason, Aggie decided that there was no way on earth that she ws going to sleep and screamed for a week. We were staying in a small agrotourismo and felt that we were responsible for spoiling everybody else’s holidays with our devil child. For some reason, we didin’t hire a car and travelled by public transport that holiday and so we couldn’t drive off and get away from the situation; perhaps the journey would have got Aggie to sleep. We were so tired after that holiday.
How do you find the experience of travelling with children?
My wife is extremely organized and takes on a lot of the detail of booking our holidays. Now that the children are a bit older (8, 7 and 4) and well versed in a bit of travel, it appears to be getting a bit easier. We are ruthless packers because we’ve made the mistake of taking too much in the past and the girls don’t seem to mind as long as they have their headphones and tablets with a couple of films downloaded on to them for the journey. The only issue when your children outnumber you is that you find yourself in a zonal defense system whereby you’ve never really got full control. My main demeanour at airports is shouty with an array of cross looks, which probably sticks until we’ve checked in and dumped the bags. After that, I’m nice again!
Do you ever travel with your children for work?
I always look to drag the family along if I can on any work trips – I just don’t like to be away for any length of time. I recently had a couple of engagements in Denmark and decided to extend the trip which was over the Easter holidays and, therefore, meant we didn’t have to go therough the rigmarole of taking the kids out of school. My wife has an uncle who lives in Copenhagen and we were able to stay at his amazing apartment in Brombleby as well as visiting her cousin in Aarhus. We had days of sweet sunshine where we acted out the full tourist mode of going on a boat tour and riding the scary roller coaster at Tivoli Gardens, followed with heavy snowfall and walks in the park. Copenhagen is a place that just works really well and the public transport is great, as long as you remember to look out for cyclists when you get off a bus. We walked to Christiania one day because we were looking for the new Noma restaurant location, which was both interesting and a bit scarey. The independent little state of Freetown Christiania was originally set up by Hippies in 1971 and has remained outside of normal law since, which means there are no planning laws and several dwellings and bars have been erected giving it a very eclectic feel. There are no recognized brands in Christiania but it is also the drug centre of Copenhagen where you see drugs being sold openly from market stalls and there was an edginess to it, which didn’t particularly suit our little family foray! The rest of the city is very cool though, with good design everywhere and so many brilliant places to eat.
Where was your best holiday with your child?
Barga and Lucca are two really great places to visit in Tuscany and we always have a lovely time. We hire bikes and cycle around city ramparts and the girls have unlimited ice creams. Barga is unique in that it has a very strong connection to Scotland due to families moving there to make a living. Everybody looks Italian but many have Scottish accents – really strange! Lucca is a magical place with amazing produce, especially truffles and ceps. The city is built around a central oval space which is now a pedestrian area with restaurants surrounding the sides but was originally the amphitheatre where gladiators would battle against each other and lions. I did have a secret Russell Crowe Maximus moment.
And your worst?
Without question a week in Carcassone where it rained as hard as I have ever seen for a week and the boiler didn’t work despite engineers visiting everyday to take it all apart in the kitchen.
When choosing where to go for holidays, do you find that food factors into the decision-making process more than anything else for you or are other factors more important?
Food is important but so is comfort, weather, access to a pool and a bit of culture. This summer we are planning to drive all the way down to Tuscany with the children and two dogs in tow, which to some sounds like a nightmare but we enjoy the slight madness and a road trip with stunning views seems like a good adventure, so a pioneering spirit is part of the experience, too.
Can you tell us a little bit about the experience of writing your latest book? How does it feel to have it out in the public sphere?
There are so many levels when putting a book together. There is the beginning when everything looks and feels like a mess of words you want to just get out. After that period and with the considerable help of my very patient editor, the form and pattern of the book starts to take shape, so that you can begin to write with a direction. At that point you have to apply a bit of discipline and aim to write everyday, which isn’t like doing a shift down the mine but sometimes the words aren’t immediately there. Then you submit a draft, which feels like the end of the process but that is where the real work begins. In my case, that draft often comes back with red ink all over it! There are several more months of refining and re-writing, often in tandem with recipe testing and photoshoots. In fact, the photoshoots are great because they help to bring the words to life. I work with a photographer called Gavin Kingome who is amazing – we share a similar aesthetic and he always produces wonderful images. When all the words and images are captured the next part is the layout, which is all about designing the book. This often highlights where there is a need to edit further or add in more content. A final check is done of the whole book, including glossary, index and acknowledgments so that it can be signed off to the printer. There are so many people involved in the making of a book that when it is finally out in the public it is more of a collaborative achievement. Of course you want people to like it, but at that stage it sort of doesn’t belong to you anymore. The frantic rush of finishing to a deadline suddenly becomes a quiet and reflective calm with sporadic searches online to see how it is performing in the best seller charts!