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Kathy comes home

…and brings Nigel Slater with her. Her kitchen may be full of Waynetta’s fag smoke and cockney vowels, but actress Kathy Burke is no slob when it comes to cooking, and an even bigger surprise – she’s a vegetarian

The Observer

‘The night my dad died, I found myself in the kitchen at three o’clock in the morning, making fried egg sandwiches with tomato ketchup. The thing is, I had to go to the all-night to get the plastic bread and the ketchup because I never eat that sort of crap. It was something I hadn’t done since I was a kid – you know, making myself a white-bread fried-egg sandwich. I’ve eaten wholemeal bread for years and I never have ketchup in the house.’

Kathy Burke and I are talking food, and not for the first time. Several months ago I was flipping through the CDs in Wood, the tiny music shop in Islington’s Cross Street (the one Nick Hornby used for High Fidelity) when I heard a loud “allo, I made your Pommes Dauphinoise last night’. I would have scuttled off, head down, like I normally do but I knew who it was. No one, no matter how long they have lived in ‘norf’ London, says Pommes Dauphinoise like Kathy Burke. Like it’s got 10 letters in it. ‘I make it all the time,’ she went on, ‘and I stick grain mustard in it sometimes. It makes the cream go a bit funny but it tastes brilliant.’ It does, I know, because I went straight back and tried it.

Kathy Burke’s kitchen is on the ground floor of her lovely Victorian home, tucked away in a discreet cul de sac behind the million-pound homes of Highbury Fields and a stone’s throw from the council flat she lived in until recently. ‘I gave it back,’ she admits, even though she had the right to buy. ‘There were people who needed it more than me.’ We are sitting at her dining-room table, the air filled with the smell of Casablanca lillies and her ever-present fags. Hovering over the table is a black and white photograph of her mates Gary Oldman and Ray Winstone; a private, intense moment caught during rehearsal for Nil by Mouth in which Burke played the abused wife of an alcoholic (and for which she famously won Best Actress at Cannes).

If you see Nigella, tell her I love her mushroom baps, the ones with all the butter and the garlic

She reminds me of the first time we met, in the corner shop where I buy cat food and she buys her trademark ciggies. ‘If you see Nigella, tell her I love her mushroom baps, the ones with all the butter and the garlic, I really love them,’ she had said, followed by a polite ‘thank you, thank you’, said exactly the way Perry the Teenager says it to Kevin’s mum in Harry Enfield and Chums.

She hates ‘poncy’ food. It wouldn’t have surprised me to find our actor, director, writer and ‘national treasure’ standing next to me in the queue in the all-night chippie in Holloway Road. Slimmer and fresher faced than most of the parts she plays she is still a touch more saveloy than Savoy. Yet such a meeting would be as unlikely as her finding her perfect man. (She finds brainy men sexy and has said her idea of the perfect man is a plumber who can read.) ‘It’s so weird ’cause I’m not into the food people would assume I’m into. You know, all the burgers and pizzas and stuff.’

She breaks off to open the fridge door. ‘Do you want a little beer, babe? Because I’m going have one right now.’ She offers me a choice of Stella or a Bud. ‘I only have one occasionally now because it makes me fat. I used to love champagne but I found out I’m allergic to wine. It makes me throw up.’ Her favourite drink right now is vodka, lime and soda; also the usual tipple of one George Clooney.

‘It’s because of some of the characters I play.’ By which she means the the grotesques such as ginger slag Linda in Gimme Gimme Gimme and the scabby fag-smoking Waynetta in Harry Enfield. ‘Everyone probably thinks I eat like them,’ Burke giggles. Nothing could be further from the truth. Neither would have the pots of fresh basil, lemon-scented olives and garlic oil that Kathy Burke has in her kitchen. Neither would they have bags of organic carrots, a fat block of Parmesan or the herbs outside the back door. ‘No you can’t have a look,’ she snaps at Claudia the photographer, ‘it’s a right jungle out there at the moment.’

Kathy Burke washes spinach, then stops to open and sniff a new bottle of garlic oil she’s found at Waitrose. She has not one, but two juicers. ‘I make juice every day. Have done for years. Carrot and orange is my favourite, it’s good for getting rid of toxins. I need it ’cause I’m a bit of a spliffhead and sometimes I think “fuckin’ hell I’ve got to get on with things”, so I have a carrot and orange and it gets rid of it.’

She was into juicing long before it was cool and trendy and has worn out several electric juicers. We discuss the merits of adding ginger but she’s having none of it. ‘I’m not mad on ginger, I know it’s good for you and all that, and a mate of mine puts celery in too but I think it overpowers everything. D’you know what I mean?’ She doesn’t believe in vitamin pills – ‘they’re all crap’. She buy big bags of organic apples and carrots in Waitrose instead.

She once told an inquisitive journalist she was married to an embalmer called Greg who she had met in Tibet just for the hell of it. He printed it.

Burke’s kitchen is linked to the sitting room by a couple of steps. ‘Everyone usually stays at the table while I cook,’ she says pointedly when I follow her into the kitchen.There are jars of sun-dried tomatoes, bright china and much loved pots and pans. There’s a big American style fridge containing, among other things, 12 cans of Stella ‘in case any of my boys pop round’. You don’t ask about Kathy Burke’s boys. She once told an inquisitive journalist she was married to an embalmer called Greg who she had met in Tibet just for the hell of it. He printed it. Luckily I’m not here to pry, I’m here to eat.

‘Is it you who can’t stand sun-dried tomatoes?’ she says as she puts a big pan of water on to heat up. I say that I got annoyed once when I found them in a loaf I’d bought from Marks and Sparks when I was trying to make plain toast and got a bit heated about them in print, but that I liked them really. ‘Good,’ cause you’re having them in your pasta.’ We debate how much pasta we need for two. Neither of us know. We decide on half a pack . ‘Nine minutes, good, time for a little ciggie.’

It turns out that we have much the same food shopping trail, using the same delis, grocers and supermarkets. The one place we won’t bump into each other is Godfrey’s the local butchers. Burke does not eat meat. She insists it isn’t really an ethical thing, she just doesn’t like the taste of it. The idea that the same person who played pizza-gobbling Waynetta Slob, or perhaps even more so, the abused Valerie in Nil by Mouth is a veggie comes as something of a shock. ‘I haven’t eaten meat for years,’ she says throwing long tubes of spaghetti into the boiling water.

Her mother Bridie died from stomach cancer when Kathy was 18 months old. Paddy, her Irish father went through patches of drinking heavily though he gave it up and went back to work for the last 10 years of his life.

Dad had a drink problem when we were kids and would go on benders that could last a few days so we were left with no money to buy food.

‘Dad had a drink problem when we were kids and would go on benders that could last a few days so we were left with no money to buy food. I think I became a little chub-nut because when there was grub I’d eat everything in sight! I must have hoarded it all like a strange cockney hamster.’ This is also probably the reason that when she recently went to a primary school reunion she remembered her schoolfriends’ houses by what she used to eat there. ‘At Claire’s it was French toast; Diane’s, chops and mash and at Bernice’s – the most exotic- it was Chinese spare ribs.’

Although the only girl in the family she did very little cooking then. ‘I took it for granted that my brother John did the cooking as he was the eldest (10), I was a tiddler and I really liked what he cooked basic but good, like boiled bacon and cabbage. I started doing my bit when I was about 11 and my speciality was home-made sausage rolls and chips…it was when shop-bought puff pastry caught my eye!’

She may not have cooked then but she ate well, partly through the generosity of her mother’s friends. After her mother died, with her father unable to cope with a toddling daughter, she was taken in by Joan Galvin, a neighbour and friend of her mum. There were bacon sandwiches and home-made chips, fish fingers and fry-ups. ‘Well,’ she says, cutting slices off a wedge of Fontina and cutting it into neat strips, ‘every Sunday I’d either be at Joan’s or my godmother Nellie’s for a good old Sunday lunch. Nellie did a great chicken and I always remember Joan’s teas…lots of jam or lemon curd sandwiches!’

Better than the food she now has to endure on location? ‘Most of it is vile. Unless you’re a big name Hollywood star and can afford to bring your own caterer in. It’s not the caterer’s fault. They get no budget and they don’t know when you’re going to stop and eat, so they get it all ready for one o’clock then we over-run and it gets all dried up. I really feel for them. The food on Nil by Mouth was just hilarious. We were filming in these horrible damp flats and it was the middle of winter and they came up with cold quiche as the vegetarian choice. No wonder I ended up being carted off to hospital with stabbing chest pains.’ Kathy Burke stirs the pasta to stop it sticking and tears up the spinach leaves. Though Linda is heavily padded and Perry the Teenager’s erection is remote controlled, she sometimes still has to put on real weight for parts. ‘It’s great…lots of pasta and beer and no exercise but taking it off afterwards is a bummer. No booze and lots of walks.’

Kathy cracks open a bulb of garlic, sniffs it and decides it’s OK. She is not fond of winter garlic and finds it can be bitter. ‘I usually make this dish in the spring and summer,’ she confides while we debate whether to use the garlic oil or the fresh stuff.

‘I don’t eat anything really, I’m amazed I’m quite chubby. But I love soups. I love making them and they’re brilliant fast food if you make enough for a couple of days.’ Her favourite at the moment is celery to which she often adds a bit of chilli. ‘I do love veg of all kinds but I’ve never got my head round aubergines.’ Kathy Burke chops sun-dried tomatoes into small nuggets, pulls basil leaves off a bushy little plant and pours thick green olive oil into a saucepan. She crushes the garlic and warms it gently over a low heat so as not to burn it.

As a guest on Paul Merton’s Room 101 she put ‘poncy teas’ into the same room that Danny Baker put pub food and Anne Robinson put the Welsh

As a guest on Paul Merton’s Room 101 she put ‘poncy teas’ into the same room that Danny Baker put pub food and Anne Robinson put the Welsh. Even now I’ve seen what she eats I still can’t see her with a cup of rose pouchong. ‘I can remember a posh deli opening on Upper Street when I was about nine and I would bunk out of school at lunchtime with money nicked from my Dad (one of the perks of him being splattered!) and buy egg mayonnaise that was in little ramekins…really put me off salad cream. Oh yes, we won the pools once – £45 – and overdid it on strawberries and fresh cream!’

She grates Fontina and Parmesan from a big block. ‘The point of adding both strips of cheese and the finely grated is that the two melt quite differently, so the grated stuff coats the pasta and then you get thick gooey bits of melting cheese throughout as well.’ Kathy Burke tosses the Fontina into the garlicky olive oil with the sun-dried tomatoes, some black pepper and the spinach leaves. ‘I’ve been using Fontina for years, long before everyone else did. There is this great deli called Montes in Canonbury Road off Upper Street [London N1] where I get my lemon olives and pasta and I asked them for a cheese that melted smoothly. They suggested Fontina and I’ve used it ever since. Mozzarella’s so bland. D’you know what I mean?’ (I later succumb to their lemon olives myself and have been eating them ever since.)

‘To be honest I usually do this dish with the new season’s garlic – it’s not all that hot at the moment.’ Kathy Burke lifts a string of steaming pasta from the pot, juggles it in her fingers and lowers it into her mouth before declaring it not quite ready. A minute later she tests it again,then drains it and most of it makes it into the olive oil and cheese. Lifting the pasta up high she tosses the spaghetti with a wooden fork and spoon to mix everything together. The spinach has gone bright green and almost melted into the hot sauce. We both inhale the hot garlic and cheese. It smells like a fondue. ‘Sometimes I put some salmon in too. [She offers it separately in a dish.] You could use fresh salmon if you wanted to be posh.’

We sit on the step and tuck in, Kathy Burke winding her pasta neatly round her fork with the help of her spoon and me just shovelling it in the untidy way I always do. It is warm and comforting, the cheese all oozy and sublime. ‘Oh shit, I forgot the fucking basil,’ she cries. But we are happy scoffing and it doesn’t matter in the slightest.

‘I nearly did you baked potatoes. They’re my favourite thing in the whole world. I bake them the Irish way, like we had when I was a kid, with lots of butter or Olivio.’ She adores toast too. ‘It’s fantastic, but I like it really thick, and made with wholemeal bread, and I like it best a bit burnt. I really love burnt toast, especially with ripe tomatoes and black pepper on.’ We sit on the step in her kitchen, me telling her about the research that has revealed a link between cancer and carbonised toast, she telling me she’s heard the same about tomatoes. ‘Yeah, babe, you just watch, when I die they’ll all blame the fried egg sandwiches and the fags… and it’ll have been all the fucking wholemeal toast and fresh vegetables.’

Kathy Burke’s spaghetti with Fontina and spinach

Serves 2 as a main dish

250g spaghetti
125g Fontina
2 cloves of garlic
8 sun-dried tomatoes in oil
2 double handfuls (about 125g) small spinach leaves
a handful of basil leaves
optional: a small tin of red salmon

Put a large, deep pan of water on to boil. Slice about half of the cheese thinly then cut each slice in thin matchsticks. Grate the other half.

Peel the garlic and crush it or slice it very finely. Slice the sun-dried tomatoes into small pieces. Wash the spinach leaves thoroughly and remove any tough stalks. (The bags of baby spinach leaves need no stalking.) Shred the basil leaves, or, if they are not too big you can leave them whole.

As soon as the water comes to the boil, add salt and the pasta. Leave to boil for about 12 minutes. Have a quick fag (optional).

Meanwhile warm enough olive oil to cover the bottom of a large saucepan, add the garlic and cook over a low heat for a minute or two until the garlic is pale gold. Add the pieces of Fontina, the sun-dried tomatoes and then the spinach and let it soften slightly in the warm olive oil. This will only take a minute. Test the pasta for tenderness and drain.

Tip the pasta in with the cheese and olive oil, scatter over the basil and grind in some black pepper. Add the tinned salmon if you are using it, then toss gently with the finely grated cheese and serve on warm plates or pasta bowls.

By Nigel Slater. Original story