Heaven and Hell: Tessa Allingham

Freelance journalist Tessa Allingham

Freelance journalist Tessa Allingham - Credit: Phil Morley

Tessa Allingham is an acclaimed freelance journalist, who over the last 20 years, has written about the world of hospitality for  EADT Suffolk Magazine, Waitrose Weekend, The Caterer and more.

She has also written and published books about the chefs and food of East Anglia.

She lives just outside Bury St Edmunds, and feels lucky to have a lovely home and garden and, above all, family.

And today happens to be her birthday! Here she talks to Gina Long

What’s the impact of Covid-19 and how are you adapting?
My husband’s birth-mother moved in on that fateful mid-March weekend after suffering a stroke.

It was unconnected to Covid-19, but she ended up staying till summer.

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That first lockdown for me was one of caring, cooking, cleaning and watching commissions evaporate as editors’ budgets disappeared and some publications ceased.

My work started to come back late-summer but it’s not been 
the same.

My house is tidy, though!

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The impact of the pandemic on the children, aged 18-22, troubles me more.

That age group, just starting on adult life and full of boundless hopes and plans for work, study, travel, have had the rug pulled from under them. I fear for the scarcity of those typical starter jobs, the ones in hospitality which teach life skills and resilience like no others – and of course can offer a career like no other too.

What advice can you give to our readers?
I read a post recently somewhere on social media, from Alex Mahon, CEO of Channel 4, acknowledging the struggle of this winter lockdown.

He’s instituted a dedicated lunch break for everyone 12.30-2pm, and company-wide ‘meeting-free Fridays’, to provide time in the day and week to, as he puts it, ‘think, breathe, catch up’.

I like that.

What is your connection to East Anglia?
My husband was brought up in a Norfolk farming family, but I’m an incomer, from Lancashire.

My great grandfather, Cyril Power, lived and worked in Bury St Edmunds, though.

He was an artist and architect, and had his practice on Chequer Square.

His paintings and architectural drawings (including one of a proposed restoration of the West Front of the Abbey ) are beautiful, but he’s better known for his linocuts which celebrate the ‘machine age’ of the 1930s, exploring themes of urban life, speed and the dynamism of the human figure.

They are flowing, powerful.

He worked closely with his student, Sybil Andrews whose name is given to the Academy in Bury that opened in 2016.

What is your East Anglian Heaven?
It has to be the food and drink, and the people who grow it, make it, sell it, cook it, serve it.

It provides an endless source of learning and joy for me, and a lifetime of stories to tell.

I am forever curious, and am blessed with appetite!

What is your East Anglian Hell?
I don’t like insularity.

What’s your favourite East Anglian landmark?
It’s between two churches.

The tower of St Edmundsbury Cathedral, either from the Abbey Gardens or when you look up from inside, is majestic, bright and beautiful.

I also love seeing Blythburgh church, the so-called cathedral of the marshes, as I turn off the A12 towards Walberswick – especially when it’s illuminated at night.

I remember the children being captivated by the deep grooves on the door, supposedly scratches left by Black Shuck, East Anglia’s devil dog, trying to get out.

What’s the best thing that happens in East Anglia every year?
The Latitude Festival has been a July marker for my family since 2009.

I have wonderful memories made with great friends over campsite cooking, putting tents up and down either in ferocious heat or lashing rain, and of course exciting music and other culture…

There are also some never-to-be-shared photos out there!

What is your specialist Mastermind subject?
I’ll rarely slip up in the ‘questions asked of mum’ category.

I can direct anyone to car keys/clean knickers/phone chargers in seconds.

I am rarely floored by the daily ‘what’s for dinner’ question either.

What is always in your fridge?
Leftovers, because I hate waste.

There’s usually some muddy 
veg too.

Oh, and all sorts of sriracha, pickles, capers, anchovies.

And cheese – St 
Jude never lasts long, nor does Binham blue.

And charcuterie.

I love a pick-and-mix lunch.

What’s your simple philosophy of life?
Listen, adapt, be kind, be loyal.

What’s your favourite film?
I’m dreadful at falling asleep in films, or wandering off to do something else… unless it’s the original Italian Job.

I am a Netflix series junkie though, currently loving Spiral, the French police crime drama starring my cousin, Caroline Proust, as the troubled cop, Laure Berthaud.

It’s brilliant, noir in the way the French do so well, and subtitled which makes it fantastic for learning the living French language.

What was your first job?
My very first was as a student when I worked in my uncle’s Italian restaurant in Oxford, Fasta Pasta.

I cringe at the name, but at the time it was cutting edge!

My first journalism job was as a reporter on the illustrious Fresh Produce Journal (published weekly since 1895!).

I loved it, ended up as editor, and travelled the UK and the world, telling the stories of Fenland carrots and Kentish apples, grape-growing in India and Israel, avocado-farming in South Africa, the Princess Borghese and her blood oranges grown in the lea of Mount Etna, and the Zimbabwean mangetout crop.

Travel, and what it teaches – how I miss it!

What is your most treasured possession?
Health, my own and that of people important to me – if that’s something I can possess.

What are your favourite East Anglian restaurants?
Sorry, you’re not going to draw me on this one, but I cannot wait to make that first post-lockdown booking!

I’m not sure where it’ll be yet… but I will definitely savour it.

What do you like about yourself most?
I’m a good listener, and I keep a confidence.

Both are important in what I do, and I think are solid Pisces traits!

What’s your worst character trait?
Like every writer I know, I can procrastinate with the best.

But deadlines are my unbending framework, learnt from years on the weekly pound at FPJ and then The Caterer magazine.

Deadlines can terrify, but paradoxically also reassure, and without them I can feel a bit lost.

Where is your favourite holiday destination?
Walberswick is the summer go-to.

I can map the children’s growth by those August activities.

There were the crabbing years, the learning-to-ride-a-bike summers, the gradual relaxation of the maternal leash till the three of them were hanging out on the beach with their mates, working in the (wonderful) pubs, and above all making lifelong friends.

I’ve missed that village during the pandemic.

Much as I love East Anglia, my spiritual home is high on the Cumbrian fells with a flask of tepid tea, squashed sandwiches, a bruised apple, a 4-bar KitKat, a life-affirming view, and the sound and smell of Herdwick sheep.

A year without that experience is never quite complete.

Best day of your life?
Well I suppose I should say when the children were born, which obviously was great, three times over… in a searingly painful way.

What’s your favourite breakfast?
My son makes the best weekend breakfast. T

hick toast, eggs (from my hens till the fox took them all on Christmas morning, rounding 2020 off true to form), mushrooms, softened tomatoes, wilted spinach, a dash of cayenne, made with real care and delivered with properly strong, hot coffee. 

What’s your favourite tipple?
At the start of the day, it’s Yorkshire Tea, pretty much a pot of it as I digest news from Radio 4’s Today programme, The Times and social media all at once.

At the end of the day – not every day, mind – mix me a beautiful negroni.

What’s your hidden talent?
I play the cello.

The Suffolk Sinfonia is Bury’s wonderful amateur orchestra, and I’m 
proud to be part of it.

I’ve missed our weekly rehearsals hugely, and our concerts in The Apex that were a joy to play.

We’re so lucky to have a world-class venue, and I look forward to the cultural life of the town reigniting, and that concert hall filling up again. 
What’s your earliest memory?

Mum made me a hobby horse for my fourth birthday, with a woolly mane and tassels.

I remember trotting around on it in the garden of our home in Lancaster.

I loved playing ‘horses’ with my two younger sisters, and then ‘secretaries’ which we – in all innocence – abbreviated to ‘secs’.

Tell us something people don’t know about you?
I was recruited by MI6 at university. I studied Modern Languages and they like linguists.

I sometimes wonder how different my life could have been, though I’ve always joked that writing about the global world of fruit and veg, based in an office at New Covent Garden wholesale market which is a stone’s throw from the spy HQ at Vauxhall, was the perfect cover story!

Tell us why you live here and nowhere else?
I could go all lyrical about the landscape and the people – both are incredible of course – but I live here because it’s where we put down roots back in August 2002 and, being a floaty Pisces, I like an anchor.

We moved from London when Rose was four days old, her brother was a toddler, her older sister a pre-schooler… oof!

What do you want to tell our readers about most?
Just to say that the warp and weft of East Anglia relies for its strength and colour on countless independent, often family-run, businesses.

Without these, the region becomes an identity-deprived, dull mess of sameness.

We must celebrate and value the region’s uniqueness by choosing to spend our money with the small, the start-up, the individual – and to spread the word about them.

It’s not just about the independent hospitality businesses that I care passionately for – from corner coffee shops and village pubs to nationally reputed restaurants and hotels – it’s about the people who feed into those businesses, the pig-farmers and potato-growers, the wine-makers, cheese-producers, butchers, bakers, candle-makers, the florists and the fishmongers.

These people, when woven together, create the essential personality of East Anglia, 
and a web of interdependence that we break at our peril.

I hope through my work that I help in a small way to keep the fabric whole. I’d like to think that a silver lining from the pandemic, hard though one is to envisage 
as I write in mid-January, is that people will be more aware and appreciative of what’s immediately around them, and care about preserving it. I’m ever the optimist.

If you have a story, email gina@hallfarmfornham.com or follow Twitter: @geewizzgee1 Instagram: @ginageelong

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