Belfast Telegraph

Jenny Bristow: 'Bobby and I were surfing at Portstewart Strand a few weeks ago and we were the only people in the sea without wetsuits'

As her latest cookery book goes on sale celebrity chef Jenny Bristow talks about how she keeps active and why going back to nature has helped with her wellbeing

Outdoor life: Jenny Bristow enjoys walking in the woods at her home
Outdoor life: Jenny Bristow enjoys walking in the woods at her home
Getting ready for Halloween in her kitchen
Young Jenny with her dad
With mum Josephine and sister Rosie
Jenny Bristow outside her beautiful Co Antrim home
With husband Bobby at their daughter Jane's wedding to Kevin Hulse

It's been an emotional week for Jenny Bristow. The celebrity chef launched her latest cookery book on Wednesday with a star-studded event at her idyllic home in the Co Antrim countryside. It was her 14th book launch - and her first without her mother.

"I was just thinking today, this is the first of all these events that I've had without my mum," says Jenny.

"She passed away last year. She was 89 and she lived until she died, if that makes sense. She was a bundle of energy, and right up until the end she didn't stop. You'd find her out fishing on the River Bann.

"My mum was very supportive of me, always, of everything I did. She was proud, I think. She was proud of all of us."

It's no surprise she was proud, because Jenny, herself a mother to three grown-up children, has achieved a lot.

Starting out in her career as a home economics teacher, the Coleraine native took the brave step of opting out of full-time work when her children - born hot on the heels of one another - were little.

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Getting ready for Halloween in her kitchen

"At one point there were three, with the oldest one just two years old," says Jenny.

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"So we had a baby, a one-year-old and a two-year-old all at the same time. They were the crazy baby years. Sometimes I wonder how I got anything done."

As well as the release of her latest book, this year also marks a phenomenal 30 years since Jenny first appeared on TV, launching a career she'd never planned for as one of Northern Ireland's best-loved broadcasters.

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Young Jenny with her dad

"I can honestly say I was never really ambitious," she says. "When I stopped working as a teacher it was because I wanted to be part of the children's lives until they went off to school.

"And then when they did, I wasn't looking for a career, I was looking for something to keep me out of bother and keep me busy for a few hours a day.

"Mums with small children all know what it's like. It's chaotic. There were three of them so for a long time I just felt like if I could achieve one thing, even something as straightforward as making biscuits, then that was enough. I felt like I'd done something."

Then, explains Jenny, when she felt she could manage a bit more, she took on a job as the home economist with some of the local food authorities.

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With mum Josephine and sister Rosie

"It was just three hours in the morning, then I was back with the children," she says. "I was able to build life around our home. Things took off from there in a way I hadn't really planned."

And just two years after her 1989 appearance on UTV's Farming Ulster, Jenny's first cookery book was released.

"Just this week I've been looking back through the old books getting ready for the launch," she says. "Looking through the first 13 that I did, I had an emotional afternoon because I thought, 'Gosh Jenny, where did you get the time?'

"On the very first book which came out in 1991, I've got a little picture of the kids. I sometimes wonder how I got things done with so much else going on around me.

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Jenny Bristow outside her beautiful Co Antrim home

"But you obviously do, you just get on with things. Gosh, compared to back then, I have so much time now."

One thing Jenny, who has been married to engineer husband Bobby for 42 years, doesn't struggle with is filling her time.

Like the ultimate hipster - albeit not the most obvious one - she has a long list of brilliant, on-trend pastimes that keeps her days packed from morning 'til night.

Except Jenny, who grew up on her family's dairy farm outside Coleraine, isn't following trends - she's been doing this stuff all her life.

"Well I wouldn't say I'm a hipster," she laughs. "These things have just always kept me right and made me happy."

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With husband Bobby at their daughter Jane's wedding to Kevin Hulse

From surfing and sea swimming - without a wetsuit - to making homemade, local food and connecting with nature, on the wellbeing charts, Jenny's got it nailed. "People are talking about all these things more and more now," she says. "It's fantastic, because I really feel people today are facing so many issues and problems, struggles with their mental health.

"I grew up in the countryside and I've always gone out, taken to the hedges and found other things to occupy my brain and my mind in those difficult situations. Getting in the sea up at Portstewart Strand is something I've done since I was a child and it really makes you feel so wonderful.

"Bobby and I were there a few weeks ago surfing, and we looked around and realised we were the only ones in the sea without wetsuits. It made us chuckle.

"But all of these things really work, the natural environment, being active. It might be trendy now but the reality is, it's always worked."

And one other factor Jenny says is vital in the pursuit of wellbeing is a feeling of achievement.

"Since those days being at home with the kids, all my life actually, I know it works," she says.

"Even feeling a very basic sense of achievement can lift your mood and self-esteem, and I saw it in my time as a teacher.

"Home economics was a wonderful subject and it was fantastic for a diverse range of children because it was so possible for them to succeed, and get that sense of achievement.

"To go home and present something to their families and get a pat on the back. It was great.

"Cooking is a perfect way for people to feel good. It's accessible, anyone can do it - and it ends with the joy of beautiful food."

As well as her general wellbeing, grandmother-of-eight Jenny is conscious of her health, too.

She had major heart surgery five years ago, a triple bypass, and says staying on top of her health remains a priority.

"My operation was a preventative one," she says. "My dad died in his early 40s, and this family background meant we were able to detect a potential issue, so I was never actually ill because of it.

"In all honesty the operation was much more straightforward than you would think.

"It does sound very daunting, of course, but the surgeons and everyone who looked after me were wonderful. I hope I've been able to reassure people facing it a little bit. I've had different people phoning me up, and of course there's that fear about it. It was six weeks after the operation of rest, feet up, and I was honestly right as rain.

"Unusually for me, I really did take all the advice I was given and did a lot of not very much.

"I read books, I watched TV, and I absolutely loved it - but I was out again pretty quickly.

"I gave myself six weeks, and I was out walking and skipping my way round rural Cullybackey. That's what I like. It's how I stay healthy. I walk loads and loads, I do Pilates. It keeps my brain working too."

With so much on the go, does Jenny have any plans to retire?

"No," she laughs. "I have no plans to retire. I've decided one way to approach it is to retire things along the way that I don't enjoy that much anymore. That's one way. Although even that is quite difficult, because most of the things I've been doing for such a long time, I enjoy!"

And with things work-wise focused on her books and the cookery school she runs from her home, Jenny has spotted a bit of a gap on telly - and thinks there's room now for new local cooking talent to make their mark on screen.

“We used to have a real presence here,” she says. “People loved it, and there was such a connection with the local cooks and chefs on TV. The shows were exported around the world and did very well. 

“And, vitally, it was never just about the food. 

“It linked up so many things and I feel like we’re missing it because there’s a lot still be done. We were teaching people very basic and simple skills, which every generation of people need. We spent years building up a relaxed and trusted relationship with them. 

“It feeds into all the issues around mental health and achievement, and I really do think there’s a gap there now. 

“With so many people struggling financially, and so many families in Northern Ireland relying on food banks, there is a real gap for that basic instruction. How to make healthy, tasty, affordable food without feeling anxious about it. 

“So many of the foodie programmes on TV look beautiful, and I love them, but the food is complicated. It’s really high-end stuff. 

“I’m amazed by what the contestants can achieve on shows like MasterChef, but there is definitely space for some more back to basics programmes, and it would be lovely to have more local faces on screen doing our wonderful local food. 

“For ordinary people out there watching, things don’t need to be restaurant quality. They don’t need to be picture perfect to put up on social media. 

“That’s where all the pressure comes in. People just need to figure out the simple elements and enjoy the process, and then enjoy the food.”

And back to her hipster credentials, Jenny’s lifelong approach to food — something handed down to her from her mum Josephine — is as 2019-style back-to-basics as it gets.

“Maybe I was born too early,” she laughs. “But I’m just an extension of what I was growing up. When I was a child I felt like I led a very boring life. When other children would open their lunch boxes there would be pink things and squashy marshmallows.

“I’d open mine and there would be homemade wheaten bread with butter we’d churned on the farm.

“That’s what people want now because people are realising we went a bit off the rails with our food for a while.

“The simpler the better. Forget the razzmatazz, and don’t waste anything. That’s not to say I don’t use wonderful new ingredients and techniques as well, but the essentials are there. Get into the countryside and pick your food. Get into your garden and grow it.  

“All these things are coming full circle because this is where the value is in food, and there’s fun to be had in it. 

“Now it’s trendy for people to make their own bread. My son who lives in Holland and who never expressed any interest in cooking, has started making his own sourdough.  

“That’s what it’s all about. You feel good, you impress your friends — and you feed yourself at the end of the day. What could be better?”

Home With Jenny is available now from www.jennybristow.com and at book signing events throughout N Ireland, priced £11.99

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