TV chef Jenny Bristow on her triple bypass heart surgery, losing mum and cooking for the elderly
Ahead of the publication of her latest cookbook, the Co Antrim chef tells Stephanie Bell about her idyllic childhood, a serious heart operation and how she is using food to improve the mental wellbeing of elderly people living in a Ballycastle nursing home
Whether it was making jam with their grandmother, coming home from school to the smell of stew on the stove or a homemade apple pie in the oven, the residents of one Co Antrim nursing home have delighted in sharing their food memories with the celebrity chef Jenny Bristow.
And after 30 years of cooking in the spotlight, Jenny is thrilled by her latest venture in partnership with the Macklin Care Home group.
The new initiative, called Reminiscing with Food, saw Jenny take part in a unique workshop with residents of Leabank Nursing Home in Ballycastle.
Leabank has been at the heart of the Ballycastle community for the past 24 years.
Jenny hosted food demonstrations with residents, cooking six different meals, inviting them to assist in the food preparation and encouraging them to talk about childhood food memories, as well as recalling happy mealtimes shared with family and friends.
It was such a success that the nursing home owners have engaged Jenny to devise new menus for all their care homes, taking in some of the traditional dishes which its residents recalled during the workshop.
Traditional tasty dishes made with simple, quality, local ingredients are the hallmark of Jenny's cooking.
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She recently spent what she describes as a "beautiful afternoon" helping residents go back in time to remember their favourite foods from childhood.
She says: "It really was a beautiful afternoon in Ballycastle. Leabank is such a lovely nursing home with the smell of the sea coming in through the windows.
"At our workshop, the conversations around food were wonderfully warm and vivid.
"We had residents reminiscing about homemade apple pie, gathering blackberries from hedgerows in autumn so their mothers and grannies could make jam, having fruit fool as a treat in summer, waiting in anticipation for soda farls straight from the griddle and enjoying a big bowl of warm hearty stew in winter.
"Regardless of the dish, overwhelmingly, the key ingredients in every one of their stories were love, family and sharing, as well as the sensation and pleasure of eating.
"Helping residents connect back to those positive feelings nourishes both the body and soul and that is why I am delighted to be part of this caring and proactive initiative.
"This is a wonderfully engaging and exciting scheme that has positive benefits in terms of both mental and physical health for all Leabank residents, staff and their families."
Food played such a huge part in Jenny's own childhood it led to her carving a very successful career out of it.
She grew up on a dairy farm in Coleraine where her mum Josephine, who sadly passed away last year aged 89, cooked everything from scratch.
She has fond memories of her childhood, spent mainly outdoors exploring the beautiful Co Antrim countryside.
"Children are only a few days into the summer holidays and they are already complaining about being bored," she says. "I never remember being bored in the school holidays when I was a child.
"We were always climbing trees, fishing in the River Bann or helping make hay or sailing along on the back of tractors.
"I remember having jam sandwiches and tea from a big teapot out in the fields and all the lovely fun things we did. For us, the summer was never long enough. Food played such a big part too and I even remember my mum churning her own butter.
"I lost my mum last year, but right up until the end she was still cooking her own food.
"Having a tidy kitchen was not an issue then and on the farm mum might have had 15 people round the table to be fed, which included the workmen from the farm.
"Necessity was the mother of invention then and it was about getting nice, hearty food at a low cost, that was filling and tasty, onto the table.
"I also remember Christmas when mum would have had lots of tables up for around 40 people to have dinner at our house.
"She cooked Christmas dinner for all our cousins and family and I remember tin buckets on the floor in the kitchen and peeling piles of potatoes into them.
"There were no short cuts then and convenience didn't exist. Food really was the backbone of our way of life and when the residents of the nursing home were talking I could relate to a lot of what they were saying and remembering."
Jenny, a mother-of-three, lives in Cullybackey with her husband Bobby, not far from her childhood home.
Her career in cooking has now spanned three decades and she runs a popular cookery school, as well as travelling the country for exhibitions and events.
Dates for her eagerly anticipated Christmas cookery school have just been launched for this year and are already almost fully booked, with more dates being planned for release in the coming days.
She is also putting the finishing touches to her latest cookery book - her 14th.
Jenny's own lifestyle is healthy and she feels fortunate to enjoy good health, even though three years ago she went through a triple heart bypass.
Although a major operation, Jenny almost dismisses it as a minor ailment and is just grateful that she is fit and well.
Her father died in his 40s from a heart attack and Jenny and her brother both had a faulty gene which led to them having surgery within a couple of weeks of each other.
She says: "We were lucky that it was picked up on. I wasn't sick to start off with, but had inherited a family gene and it was great to get it sorted. I'm very well and exercising and doing all sorts of things and I'm really delighted to have good health."
Now that her children - Robert, Jane and Peter - are no longer at home, Jenny's own cooking habits have changed dramatically.
These days, she and husband Bobby prefer to cook outside whenever possible and have been known to barbecue in their raincoats.
She says: "When the kids were at home I was always making casseroles and dishes that could be made ahead of time and put in the freezer, as life was so busy and you always seemed to be running them to swimming lessons or the Boys' Brigade or some other activity.
"Now that they are up and grown, my husband and myself have a lovely relaxed way of cooking and we eat whenever we want, which is very different.
"I tend to just go for simple things instead of complicated sauces. We prefer an easy way of doing things and we love to use our open fire barbecue and would cook a lot of things on that if the weather is good - and even when it isn't."
It is an easy way of living and cooking which is captured in her new cook book, At Home with Jenny, which is due out in September.
Her new collaboration with the Macklin nursing home group is one which she genuinely has put her heart into.
With food shaping her own life so much, she loves how one simple cookery session with residents has lifted their spirits so much.
"Food is recognised as a universal language. It's a great way to get people talking, as it's something we all share and care about," Jenny says.
"Food is also like a time machine, as certain tastes and smells can spark off and help recall long-forgotten memories.
"That's why it's so important for older people to stay involved and in control of their food choices, so they can genuinely enjoy what they eat.
"Over the coming months, in consultation with residents about their personal tastes and preferences, I will be developing Leabank Nursing Home's daily menus.
"I couldn't speak highly enough of the standard of food already in Leabank and I just plan to tweak a few signature dishes and introduce some family favourites, keeping an eye on the ingredients and maybe replacing some things like double cream with healthier alternatives such as low fat yoghurt.
"I'm going to incorporate seasonal ingredients including locally-caught fish, homegrown produce and even dulse, to produce stimulating and exciting dishes.
"To keep us all connected and current, we are also launching a food blog on the Macklin website where we will share some of the most popular meals and residents' best food memories."
Annette Lindsay, nurse manager at Leabank Nursing Home, says: "Macklin Care Homes, owner of Leabank Nursing Home, is committed to continually refreshing and improving lifestyle services for their residents.
"This latest food initiative will not only improve nutrition, but help people connect with positive memories and encourage social engagement with family, friends and staff.
"We are delighted to be working with Jenny on this project, and her insight and expertise are invaluable."
Recipes created by Jenny Bristow to stimulate childhood food memories and recall happy mealtimes shared with family and friends
What you'll need
450g/1lb pork pieces
1 tbsp olive oil
½ tsp fresh thyme
2 celery stalks
Small head of kale (optional)
200g/8oz brown cap mushrooms (sliced)
1 white onion (cut into chunks)
250ml/½ pt vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to season
Bunch of parsley chopped
Cook the pork pieces in a pan with oil until golden brown, about 8-10 minutes. Then add the best of the season's vegetables: white onion, parsnips, mushroom slices, sticks of celery and leeks. Cook, turning often to allow the vegetables to become coated and golden.
Add the potatoes, cut into chunks, along with the thyme, seasoning and stock.
Add lentils if being used and simmer gently on a low heat for 25-30 mins.
Serve hot, garnished with loads of herbs.
Traditional apple pie
What you'll need
255g/9oz plain flour
55g/2oz ground almonds (optional)
125g/5oz butter, softened
Zest of ½ lemon
1 egg yolk
1-2tsps of cold water
6 Bramley apples, peeled, cored and finely sliced
55g/2oz caster sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
Milk or beaten egg
For ease, this pastry can be prepared in a blender or made by hand in a bowl.
Place the flour, almonds, butter, zest, egg and water in the blender and blitz until the mixture just binds together.
Remove the pastry from the blender or bowl. Wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge for 15 minutes.
Place the apples in a dish and sprinkle with sugar, lemon juice and cloves. Leave to sit for 10 minutes.
Remove the pastry from the fridge and divide it in two. Roll out each piece so that it will fit a deep 23cm/9in ovenproof plate. Place one piece of the rolled out pastry on the plate and spread the apples, sugar and cloves evenly on top.
Brush the edge of the pastry with cold water before laying the second piece of pastry on top. Squeeze the edges of the pastry together to seal them. Make a slit on the top of the pie to let the air through. Brush with a little milk or beaten egg and bake in the oven at 200°C or gas mark 6 for 30-35 minutes, until golden.
Dust with icing sugar and serve warm with cream or yoghurt.
What you'll need
Zest and/or juice of 1 lemon
125ml/4floz whipping cream
50g/2oz caster sugar
Sprigs of mint
Puree the raspberries by passing them through a sieve or placing them in a blender and add the lemon juice and/or zest.
To make the fool, beat the cream into soft peaks, being careful not to overbeat. Fold two-thirds of the puree into the cream, add the sugar and mix lightly. Taste and add more sugar if necessary.
Place a few raspberries in the base of the glasses, then spoon in alternate layers of the puree and the fool. Fill until the glasses are topped up. Decorate with raspberries or strawberries and a sprig of mint.
Old fashioned lemon bread and butter pudding
What you'll need
1 dsp butter
1 dsp lemon curd
Zest of 1 lemon
25g/1oz sultanas (optional)
1 dsp lemon juice (optional)
570ml/1pt low fat milk
25g/1oz caster sugar
Few drops vanilla essence
4-5 egg yolks, lightly beaten
125ml/¼pt yoghurt/creme fraiche
Demerara sugar for dusting
Grease an ovenproof dish (approximately 1.4 litres/2½ pt). Cut the bread into even slices and spread one side with butter and then with lemon curd.
Arrange the bread in the dish, butter side up, and sprinkle with the lemon zest.
If using sultanas, first place them in a small bowl with the lemon juice and leave for a few minutes to absorb the liquid.
Then sprinkle them over the bread.
Heat the milk in a pan and add the sugar, vanilla essence and egg yolks.
Whisk continually over a low heat until the mixture shows signs of thickening, then remove from heat. Do not boil as the custard will curdle.
Sieve the custard into a jug and pour it over the bread, leaving it to soak for 10-15 minutes until the bread softens and absorbs the mixture.
Place the pudding in a preheated oven at 200°C or gas Mark 6 for 20-25 minutes until it sets and is puffed up and golden.
Dust with demerara sugar and serve warm with yoghurt or creme fraiche.