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Andi Oliver’s Fabulous Feasts review – so hope-inducing it could restore your faith in Britain
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Andi Oliver’s Fabulous Feasts review – so hope-inducing it could restore your faith in Britain

If you had to choose a TV chef to throw you a huge party, who would it be? Let’s face it, there’s only one answer. (OK, two because it is a truth universally acknowledged that no one sets a table like Nigella.) I’m talking about a chef and restaurateur for whom everything is soul food. Someone whose background includes singing in a punk band and throwing legendary warehouse parties in the 1980s, neither of which can be said of Gregg Wallace or Marcus Wareing. A presenter who put the great into Great British Menu, a series that wasn’t otherwise known for its big heart and high glamour. It is, of course … Andi Oliver!

As a premise, Andi Oliver’s Fabulous Feasts is about as heartwarming as a Guyanese pepper pot cooked in a Cornish community cafe by a graduate of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen. All of which feature in episode one of this joyous six-part series in which Oliver travels the length and breadth of Britain, throwing genuinely cool parties for folk who deserve it. Not only is she as warm as a summer’s day in St Ives, she really knows her onions. “You make your own cassareep?” she asks chef Ben Arthur, renowned in Cornwall for his Caribbean hot sauces. That’s the thing about Oliver: she exudes warmth and expert knowledge, a rare combination in her field. I now know that cassareep is a molasses made from cassava root. Plus, I’ve got Oliver’s recipe for green seasoning, for which Fabulous Feasts is worth watching alone.

And so to the southernmost tip of the UK. Cornwall, home to the UK’s longest coastline, endless cream teas and pasties, big skies and buff surfers. It’s also one of the poorest regions in northern Europe and this is what interests Oliver: what happens when the tourists go home. Picture Rick Stein’s Cornwall and Oliver’s is the opposite.

Oliver does what she does best. She brings people together, sorts out everything from the location to the menus, brings the tunes, frocks and upbeat attitude, and doles out copious hugs along the way. In Porthtowan she meets local chef Ben Quinn who has set up a year-round restaurant – a radical act in a tourist hotspot where everything closes out of season – in a 42-acre eco park. He barbecues celeriac shawarma for her and talks about how he owes his local NHS hospital a debt of gratitude because it saved his daughter’s life when she was four months old. He supplied the Royal Cornwall hospital with 25,000 fresh food boxes during the pandemic in 2020, but wants to do more; to throw a party for them to say thank you. Oliver pledges to help him. Cue hugs.

The eco park is also home to a volunteer-run growing programme which two years ago turned a bare field into a vast allotment, and possesses something called a “gentle jobs table”, which clearly every organisation should have. Oliver makes the volunteers, many of whom work in the NHS, a lunch of crushed crispy potatoes and freshly cut salad. (Another thing I’ve learned about Oliver: she makes a mean vinaigrette.) She asks the head grower, who used to work in pharmaceuticals, about the project’s aim. “The overarching thing we want to do here is save the planet,” she replies. In Oliver’s world, fabulous people abound like rainbow chard.

On the cockle-warming goes. She finds her venue: an impractical stretch of beach at the Hayle estuary, home to Cornwall’s biggest sand dunes. Quinn wants to seat 60 people at one long table. Oliver: “Let’s call it 80!” She tracks down a British-Jamaican-Indian musician to play the flute when guests arrive and tells him how she, too, grew up in an area (Suffolk, in Oliver’s case) where black and brown people were a rarity and music was her refuge. She devises a menu of locally caught fish crudo, doused in oil made from the wild mustard she has spotted growing everywhere, beef carnitas made with brisket and shin from retired dairy cows; and to finish, Cornish ice-cream, of course. She makes steak sandwiches and a quick “panic pickle”. For those of us who have delighted in seeing Oliver grace screens more often in recent years, it’s a pleasure to see her doing what is at the root of all this success: cooking.

The day of the party arrives. And it’s not even raining! The flautist plays. The NHS workers eat. Speeches are made. “My brother had sickle cell anaemia all his life,” says Oliver. “We were in and out of hospitals until he passed away. The NHS gave us everything. It really means a lot to me to be here.” They raise their glasses. Eat and drink some more. Kick off their shoes to dance in the sand. It’s such hope-inducing stuff I almost start to believe in Britain again. That is how infectious Oliver’s love of food, people and partying – which is to say life itself – is.

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Source: theguardian.com