Ainsley Harriott shares a taste of the Caribbean
From football-sized avocados to being 'too late' for mangoes, the telly chef shares his adventures with Ella Walker, Press Association.
Ainsley Harriott is munching happily on a bit of toast when he calls, and even talking through crumbs, proves as jovial and excitable as any Nineties kid will remember from his days presenting absolute classics, Ready, Steady, Cook and Can't Cook, Won't Cook.
Is it even possible to look at a random collection of ingredients in your fridge and not think: What would Ainsley do?
The London-born chef is back on screens with a new ITV food/travel series and accompanying cookbook of the same name - Ainsley's Caribbean Kitchen - which sees him visit seven of the Caribbean's sunshine islands: Barbados, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Antigua, Grenada, Dominica, Trinidad & Tobago, which are all, he says, "so close to my heart".
"I very much consider myself British," the 62-year-old explains, but his Jamaican heritage is massively significant to him. "It's where your parents come from," he muses, "and as you get a little bit older, we all get drawn back a bit, there's that sort of reconnection." The Caribbean, he adds - where his mother and father were both born - "had that pull for me".
As a region though, however disparate the Caribbean might be, sprawled across the ocean in bite-sized tropical pieces, it's often lumped into one: One climate (hot and sunny); one cuisine (jerk chicken, rice and peas, goat curry) - but that ignores the nuances, says Harriott.
"Everybody is very, very different and has their own style of food," he explains. "Every island you go to, the people have their own personality, their own way of cooking things, and they're very proud of it."
That said, certain ingredients are ubiquitous. For instance, ground provisions - staple items, like yams, sweet potato and cassava - which are used in countless dishes and are thought to be the secret to many islanders' longevity; there's more centenarians living in Dominica than anywhere else in the world ("I was interviewing a 102-year-old woman and her 104-year-old sister came to visit her - it blows you away!").
The pace of life is something shared too - and is something we ought to take more note of, says Harriott. "They do teach us something," says the prolific food writer, "and you have to be slow in heat like that. I tell you what, we are too hectic, we really are rushing around."
Sometimes, however, you can be too tortoise-like - especially when it comes to mango season. "Off the beaten track - I wasn't at the posh hotels [where you can get out-of-season produce] - I'd go and say, 'Can I have a couple of mangoes?' And they'd say, 'Too late'. 'What do you mean?' 'Two weeks, too late - mango already drop from the tree!'
"And literally I was two weeks too late, the mangoes had dropped from the tree and you have to wait - that's it. I was like, 'This is the Caribbean, you should have mangoes everywhere!' You know what I mean?!"
Instead, Harriott was forced to compromise and use papaya, which isn't too much of a hardship when they are "as big as a small rugby ball" - although not as impressive in size as some of the Caribbean's avocados, which are "as big as a football - massive things!"
Talking of which, Harriott adds: "Sometime you get an avocado and it tastes a bit like avocado, it doesn't really hit you, but out there, the flavour of it...
"Just a sprinkling of salt on there and you can actually spoon it out and eat it, it's so wonderful," he shares rapturously.
He calls the food he's created for the book - think Tobago curried crab, chargrilled watermelon with slaw, plaintain and chickpea hotcakes - "nice and casual, it's not too intricate on the plate", and when it comes to controversy over jerk seasoning, and people keeping their recipes top secret, he's magnanimous.
"When my late mother was cooking, I'd say, 'Mum, what are you putting in?' [And she'd just say]: 'A handful'. You have to have a look at the size of someone's hands and guess how much a handful is, because they just don't know," he explains. It's more to do with instinct and 'just knowing', than measuring quantities exactly.
"You know when you're cooking something like onions and you can tell when the sweetness comes out of them, just before they brown, there's a change?" he asks. "It's a bit like that with people, so they don't really know how much of everything goes in there, they just know about a smell, they put a bit of this in, that in.
"Nothing's weighed out, so what's the recipe? It's in their head. And when you taste it, you think: 'My god, there's 40, 50 years or maybe generations of experience in that one little dish', and it tastes great."
Harriott first visited the Caribbean aged eight with his family, and remembers his friends at school being impressed that he was going on a plane. However, it was also the summer of 1966: "Hence I have no recollection of England winning the World Cup, I missed everything!"
Instead, while Geoff Hurst was busy scoring a hat-trick in the final, Harriott was getting his first glorious taste of island life.
"I remember going to see my granddad and asking him for some money to go buy a Coca Cola," he recalls, before putting on his granddad's Jamaican accent: "'Go on, pick two or three fresh limes from the tree, mix them with sugar, ice and water' - that was my first experience of fresh lemonade, literally picking limes from the tree, squeezing out the juice, adding shavings of ice.
"Oh my god. By the time we left, there wasn't a bloody lime left on the tree - it was fantastic!"
Fresh mangoes and pineapple, tamarind pulped into snacks, genips (Spanish limes) and guava made a lot more impact than football on him that summer.
"When I got back to the UK, I didn't want Fruit Salads or Black Jacks anymore," Harriott recalls raucously. "We craved the natural stuff."
Ainsley's Caribbean Kitchen by Ainsley Harriott, photography by Dan Jones, is published by Ebury Press. Available now.