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Interview: Sue Simkins, cookery writer and part-time church administrator

16 March 2018

‘The attitude to food in hospitals makes me angry. I can’t understand why proper nutrition isn’t seen as a fundamental part of the healing process’

Cooking is something I’ve always done. I remember as a dot of a child stirring the gravy thickening in a cup, helping mix Yorkshire puddings and crumbles for Sunday dinner, and so on. My dad’s mum, Nana, was a professional cook at a country house in Yorkshire before she married. Nana was the kindest, most generous person, and we all revered and learnt from her cooking skills.

Many years ago, when my children were six, I attempted to write a children’s gardening book (I’d recently taken the RHS certificate in horticulture). Then, one Friday evening, when the children were in bed, I had a sudden epiphany over a glass of wine with my husband. The outline for a book on traditional home cooking, complete with title — Cooking with Mrs Simkins — came into my head. An opportunity arose to write recipes for the village magazine, and I went from there.

So I became a cook, recipe developer, researcher, and writer, especially noted for traditional British recipes, baking, and cooking with garden produce. Mrs Simkins writes regularly for The Countryman, The Dalesman, Down Your Way, The Blackmore Vale Magazine, Country Smallholding, and Garden News. I’ve written seven books, including Cooking with Mrs Simkins, Tea with Mrs Simkins, and Cakes from the Tooth Fairy, and I’m just finishing a book on British recipes.

Several years ago, I was lying in the dentist’s chair, mouth crammed with instruments, when my dentist suddenly said: “You know what you should do, Sue? You should write a book on sugar-free cakes.” I said, “I don’t think so: I’m not very keen on artificial sweeteners, aspartame, and so on.” He told me about xylitol, a naturally occurring sugar from birch trees and other plants. It has a low glycaemic index, and it’s actively good for teeth. Before we knew it, we’d virtually mapped out the whole book.

I’m working on how we can offer good food without sugar at parish occasions, with Eve Pegler, and it’ll be the subject of a diocesan well-being day, “Cake with Everything”, we’re doing together in June. I love cake, but, when I was a child, it was for weekends and special occasions, and I try to stick to that. Eve adores cake, too, but we think there may be a bit too much of it in church. We’re trying to come up with some healthy and appealing alternatives. And no one should be made to feel awkward if they don’t want to eat anything. Sometimes, after the service, we have live music going on in the background — someone playing the piano, for instance. Maybe we should do more of this, and take the focus naturally away from biscuits and cake.

Salisbury diocese runs well-being days for priests and LPAs. It’s a chance to take a day out and learn something practical, combined with companionship and meditation. My co-leader is Eve, a pioneer priest at St Mary’s, Gillingham, in Dorset. We usually have a bread, cheese, and salad lunch, but usually we eat some of what we’re making, and there’s usually enough to take home, too. There’s always a walk included, weather permitting. We’ve done days on winter dishes, recipes from the time of the Magna Carta, truffles, ice-cream, and using up scraps. The November day will be “Cooking in the Spirit of Remembrance”.

In my village church, kitchen facilities are limited, but we’re noted for our hospitality, and offer great fresh coffee after services and before the school service.

We have recently introduced our popular bacon-bap breakfasts. The landlord of the village pub cooks the bacon for us, and lots of others get involved. My speciality is festival baking: Simnel cake, Lammas loaf, scripture cake for Bible Sunday, and so on. I’ve made King cakes for Epiphany, and a big birthday cake for the Church’s birthday at Pentecost. This year, we might arrange something for Gaudete Sunday.

Sometimes, we’ve provided sherry and teas after funerals in church. The service flows naturally into the tea, and everyone feels encouraged to stay.

We have a famous tea tent at the village show, and again at the church fête, and the unmissable Pie, Peas and Poetry Harvest Supper.

We like traditional homemade soup and bread for Lent lunches. It’s plain and wholesome, and everyone can have a convivial time while remembering it’s a time of fasting. As our Rector says, if you start getting fancy and adding chutneys and things, it defeats the object.

As a community, we’re usually alert to individual dietary issues, and deal with these as they come up. We keep gluten-free communion wafers for some of our regular members, plus spares for any GF newcomers.

A glass of wine on special occasions, like mulled wine after the carol service, is always cheering, but it’s not a part of our regular hospitality.

The sombre and contemplative services of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday precede the dramatic Saturday-night lighting of the new fire in the churchyard: the solemnity of the occasion coupled with practical uncertainties and the inevitable lapse into humour. Will the fire catch hold? Will we be smothered in smoke? Or will it go up like a torch and the priest’s hair catch fire? We process back into the dark church and light our candles. The spine-tingling voice of the cantor and our responses float into the shadows, and later there’s the wild cacophony of random instruments and the organ at full pelt.

The contrast with Easter morning, when the church is full of flowers and light, and we begin with “This glorious Eastertide” takes your breath away. We have an Easter-egg hunt in the churchyard afterwards, or, if it’s wet, we hide eggs inside the church. It’s fun, and a good opportunity for children to explore the church building.

Our parish is St Gregory’s, in the large village of Marnhull, Dorset. We have weekly services, our own Rector, and organist, and musical director, and a dedicated choir. We’re yards away from St Gregory’s village school and The Crown, perhaps the inspiration for Thomas Hardy’s Pure Drop in Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

My role of church administrator is fairly low-key and I work in contented collaboration with our Rector, but, when I first started, we were in an interregnum. I was slightly tearing my hair out then, booking priests, dealing with wedding, funeral, and baptism paperwork, and so on. I had huge amounts of help from everyone, but it was a bit of a learning curve. The worst thing was writing entries in the marriage register. I’d always break into a cold sweat, because if you make a mistake, it’s permanent, and you feel absolutely desperate. Happily, Tony does that now.

Many sounds reassure me, but the chinking and general bustling noises of a pot of tea being made always help.

My mum’s been the greatest influence on my life. Although she’s no longer with us, I hear her voice, and the expressions she used, all the time. And I would certainly never dream of eating in the street. Whatever would she say?

I love walking on the beach at Trebarwith Strand, North Cornwall, when the tide’s out, and watching the waves.

Every morning, among other things, I pray I might do justice to the day.

The attitude to food in hospitals makes me angry. I can’t understand why proper nutrition isn’t seen as a fundamental part of the healing process. It’s ludicrous. Whatever happened to the concept of convalescence? A light diet and eating yourself well?

Singing the top line of the Gloria from David Thorne’s Mass of St Thomas makes me happy. Being a part of the choir is wonderful. You can’t afford to think of anything else: it’s completely focused and “in the moment”.

My teenage children and their friends give me hope for the future.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with my mum. She died the year before I became a mother myself. We’d huddle together in the choir stalls in our church, near the altar, and have so much to catch up on. If my baby brother, who died in early infancy, could be with us as well, what an encounter that would be!

Sue Simkins was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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