Cerys Matthews was given two books as a child that she has held on to ever since. The first was Roger Phillips’s Wild Food, the classic forager’s handbook, which first sent her out into the woods and beaches in the west Wales of her growing up. The second was Soodlum’s Selection of Irish Ballads, which inspired a lifelong understanding of music as storytelling, a philosophy that she carried her through her years as “Queen of Britpop” with the band Catatonia, to the present of her much-loved BBC Radio 6 Music show.
The spirit of those childhood volumes also forms a thread through Matthews’s latest creation: a cookbook that doubles as a loose-limbed memoir, traveller’s notebook and poetry chapbook with a built-in Spotify playlist. Anyone who’s had the pleasure of listening to Matthews on Sunday morning radio over the past decade will know that she is equally at home with the music of India, north Africa and the deep south of America, as with the Celtic folk tradition in which she grew up. Where the Wild Cooks Go extends that restless global curiosity to kitchens and flavours.
She has suggested we meet at Woodlands, a south Indian vegetarian restaurant just off Regent Street, that she has been coming to for a decade – and which has been here for nearly 40 years. She arrives excitedly, telling me in her lyrical phrasing about her cab ride here, in which the driver had given her a recipe for polenta with an okra sauce that his Antiguan mother used to make. She had returned the compliment by explaining how lemon grass would protect him from midges on a planned visit to Anglesey that weekend.
Chatting, Matthews betrays an endless appetite for the ways of the world. In her rock star years (she first found fame in a T-shirt bearing the legend “fastrising lagersoakedriproaringpoptart”) that appetite expressed itself in a frenzied touring schedule and thirsty hedonism. That hectic spirit has matured into an immersive delight in eclectic tastes and experiences. When we meet she has just returned from a family holiday in Italy which involved tours of vineyards in Chianti, afternoons foraging for cocktail ingredients, lessons from pasta-makers, and some serious rock climbing – she shows me the white-knuckle pictures on her phone – her “latest midlife crisis”, an obsession she picked up from a trip to Everest base camp this year.
Sanjay Kumar, the manager at Woodlands, brings out a selection of sizzling dishes and Matthews’s eyes brighten at each one. We share dahi poori, puffed wheat with rich sambar stew, onion and pepper fritters, and a vegetable mixed grill with a tandoori paneer. Matthews punctuates her eating with throaty expressions of joy. “I’m just going to go for it.” “Oh yum!”
“I love south Indian food,” she says. “You don’t miss the meat at all. Sambar is quite complex to cook but it is one of greatest comfort foods ever. So many different flavours.” We divide the plate of paneer with a tandoori cauliflower and coriander chutney.
“My grandmother used to make a version of paneer and called it cuckoo’s cheese,” she says. “All it is, is warmed-up milk with a bit of acid in it to make the solids separate. You can then just squeeze it through an old T-shirt.”
Matthews, who turned 50 this year, has become vegetarian gradually. The six years she spent living and making music in Nashville after Catatonia split in 2001 put her off farmed meat. When she met her second husband, Steve Abbott, a music producer, who had been a vegetarian for years, she restricted the carnivorous part of her diet to game “because of my love of wildness”. Later, after her daughter became vegetarian, she eventually followed suit.
It wasn’t in her genes. Matthews comes, as she says with a laugh, from “a line of Welsh faggot makers” on her mother’s side. Her grandfather was known locally as Chaco de Faggot de Dung Merchant. “He used to collect horse manure for his vegetables, and his family sold homemade faggots in Neath market.” She includes the family’s century-old recipe in her book.
Her mother did not inherit that love of local flavour. For a long while when Matthews was small, her mum ate only chicken and chips. Things changed when the family took their first cheap package holidays and she started experimenting a bit with a paella pan. Later, when neighbours from Gujarat became close friends, “she started cooking proper curries, the works” as well as traditional Welsh caul.
Matthews’s restless soul comes more from her father, she suggests, a farmer who became a doctor. “He was a great Iberophile. His idea of fun on holiday was to drive up into the mountains in Spain until we were lost,” she says. She pauses. Her dad died last year. “We played lots of his favourite songs [at the bedside] and all howled out,” she says. “He was a huge influence on me. I think as a father you don’t realise how much influence you have, even on your most contrary children, if you talk about things you really love.”
One result of that influence was that Matthews took off for Spain aged 18 with a backpack and her guitar with a mission to learn flamenco. When her busking wasn’t earning enough she took a job as a family help in a little village outside Barcelona. “The mother was from Valencia and they laughed at my cooking to start with, but she showed me how and I came away with a brilliant understanding of vegetables and ways of cooking them.” She smiles. “When I semi-retire I would love to do it all again.”
It is hard to imagine Matthews idle. As well as her radio show and her three kids, she also organises the annual Good Life Experience festival of food and music in Flintshire, north Wales. The original idea was to create somewhere that kids like hers could climb trees and make music and cook out of doors as she had done as a child on a farm. It has grown to attract DJs and cooks from around the world. Roger Phillips, the forager, is a perennial fixture, taking groups into the woods to find mushrooms and edible plants.
Matthews tries to use her foraging skills wherever she is in the world. “The more knowledge you have about edible things the freer you are,” she says. “Come Brexit I’ll be chomping on wild sorrel, scrumping nettles in London.”
By now plates of thali and dumplings have arrived at the table. Matthews briefly examines how they have been put together before tucking in. One of the pleasures of her book is the way it answers that quintessentially British question: “What shall we eat tonight? Chinese? Italian? Mexican? Indian?” She covers 15 countries, and wishes she could have included Thailand – “but my knowledge was not quite there”. She aims to make up that gap in a forthcoming visit to Bangkok. From time to time in the culinary journey there are hints of her former life. “Death by chocolate” is a cocktail of Tia Maria, vodka and half a pint of Guinness that she invented with Ian Brown of the Stone Roses back in the day. When I ask if there are elements of that life she misses, she suggests simply that “you are either on the horse or not on the horse,” though she hasn’t quite given up on the idea that “I might yet get a transit van and throw my guitar in the back.”
What music is she making?
“I potter around at home on GarageBand. I don’t record stuff, really, I just play guitar and sing. And, as with the playlists in the book I listen to music while I cook. That is what we all do, isn’t it?”
She has a gift for making the new life sound as exciting as the old: cooking vegan welsh cakes with chia seeds with her daughter, raiding her local corner shop in Westbourne Park for bunches of mint and dill and Turkish tomatoes and slabs of tamarind and dried mulberries.
Does her creative curiosity ever falter?
She laughs. “I’m just a farmer’s wife born out of time,” she says. “Everyone loves great food, good music, a brilliant poem. That is just people. That is what we all used to have. I think we need to get it back.”
Where the Wild Cooks Go (Particular Books, £25) is out now. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.