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Under a mackerel sky

Appropriately, I was given this book last year when I stayed at Bannisters, an elegant clifftop boutique hotel on the NSW south Coast, a couple of hours south of Sydney (depending on the city traffic!).

I have long been a fan of this place, but even more so since Rick Stein (yes, that Rick Stein, of Padstow, UK, and TV-series fame) placed his only Australian restaurant, Rick Stein at Bannisters, here.

This book is a highly personal story of Stein's life from his earliest memories through to the present day. It is written in the manner we all now know him from his TV programmes, many of them made while cruising down a French canal or interviewing fishermen on dangerously rocking boats, or quaffing wine in a vineyard in a dozen different countries. 

So if you have seen him in action before the camera, then you'll already hear his voice-over in the book.

While today his face is known to many, and his programmes, books, and restaurants are everywhere it seems. There are so many of his seafood eateries in the Cornish town where he has chosen to live most of his life, that it has been dubbed Padstein! But life has not always been this good.

After leaving school, his early years were a welter of jobs here and there - he even spent a couple of years working in Australia which began a lifelong love affair with this country. These were tough years, hard-slog - often in labouring jobs - as he tried to find himself.

With an enduring love of music, especially popular bands, back in the UK he thought a disco would be the ideal job. It wasn't. Things went wrong and somehow (fate took a hand?) he found himself owning a tiny restaurant, learning about food and cookery, and finally creating a place where he could excel and also enjoy what he was doing. Better still, that others enjoyed and visited.

He married, had three sons, and the business expanded. Then came the many TV shows which he is still doing. Late in 2014 Rick Stein's India was released on BBC Two, as well as a book from the series. With all this fame, you might expect this book to become an egotistical parade of triumphs, but it is not. Plagued by a childhood lack of self-esteem, Stein allows a self-deprecating note in his writing. There's sometimes a 'I can hardly believe this' undertone. 

With Stein's early happy experiences in Australia, it is maybe not coincidental that when he was invited back in 1997 to judge the Australian Gourmet Traveller Best Restaurant Australia awards, not only did he reignite his love for the country as he travelled around tasting dishes from the finalist restaurants, but he fell in love, too, with Sarah Burns, the magazine's publicist on the trip. They married in 2011 and now divide their time between  two countries.

Under a Mackerel Sky's enigmatic title is a reference to the clouds often seen above the Cornish coasts, but of course it also reflects the cuisine which has been Rick Stein's keystone to his success in life. Seafood has always been his first love in the kitchen. Cornwall is of course the touchstone of his life. And Sarah, to whom he refers lovingly as Sas, has brought him deep joy and, as he freely admits, good reason to make many more trips to Australia.


Under a Mackerel Sky, a memoir, by Rick Stein, published by Ebury Press, 2013, paperback, rrp A$19.95. ISBN: 978 00919 49914


- reviewed by Sally Hammond



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