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History…or how food, travel and science became my favourite things!

November 16, 2010

I first started caring about what I was eating about the same time I started caring about the environment. As a fussy eater and animal lover, I was a vegetarian back when I was about 10, but the lure of good meat and learning about the natural world convinced me as I grew up, that eating meat was ok (with a few rules!). I started cooking at school and baking with my Nan and learning about everything that went into my food made me far more comfortable with eating it!

As my interest in environmental science developed I became aware of the impact our food culture has on the planet. This further shaped my interest in food and I have become an avid supporter of local, free range and seasonal produce and have followed the science behind sustainable fisheries, food miles etc.

Studying the environment has given me the most amazing oppurtunities to travel – starting with a research field trip to Malaysia. This trip revolutionised my interest in cooking – allowing me to experience a totally different food culture. Malaysia is a fantastic place for the culinary adventurer! With 3 cultures easily accessible in its capital city – my second home Kuala Lumpur (KL), there’s a vast array of Chinese, Indian and indigenous Malay cuisine, plus a range of fusion and food from nearby Indonesia and Thailand (but more on those later ;)! )

An overindulgent birthday cake in Southampton

My trip to Malaysia was definitely a turning point in my life in general I think. Experiencing a totally different culture to home and getting to grips at a grassroots level with environmental sustainability and development issues like palm oil production, aquaculture and deforestation changed my perception about my choice of future career and lifestyle. After that I don’t think there was any chance I would stay in the UK for very long.
After this, I made my first steps away from Plymouth- my home for the first 21 years of my life – moving to Southampton to pursue my interest in Ocean and Climate science, with an MSc in Oceanography. Living away from my mainly non-foodie family for the first time, sent my culinary adventures into overdrive, as my housemates baked goods consumption during that year will testify! Having people who appreciated a variety of food, were well travelled and also loved science was brilliant and allowed me to indulge in all these passions during my MSc year.

Learning to cook Thai food on Koh Lanta.

After a year of ups and downs and finishing my MSc I wasn’t sure what my next steps were going to be. So, at a bit of a loose end professionally and emotionally, I booked a one way ticket to KL! I spent the next 2 months travelling through Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, indulging my love of the ocean by learning to scuba dive and eating and cooking my way through at least 5 cultures!

Whilst travelling and generally over indulging my life passions for 2 months was probably the best thing I’ve ever done and although it gave me a lot more self confidence than I had before, afterwards I was left unemployed in rainy Plymouth. But the time away had shown me that I did need to return to academic research, so I started applying for PhD’s. I looked for PhDs at home and internationally – applying to Exeter, Southampton, Penn in the USA, UNSW in Australia and to the University of Cape Town. The process was long and rather depressing, so in between working two part times jobs (at Pizza Hut – which was pretty good and Tesco – my long term nemesis I am trying to escape from!) I went back to cooking to keep my sanity. I worked on the Asian cooking techniques I had learnt to get a real understanding of spices, learnt how to make fresh pasta, poach eggs properly, make sauces and even developed my own recipes and wrote a book.

How many cupcakes can one unemployed, travel restless girl make?

Then I got an offer from Southampton! I was relieved the academic world had not forgotten about me, and I loved NOCS but the thought of staying in Southampton and missing out on one of the international PhD’s worried me. I felt like I couldn’t turn down the offer, but then I got one from UCT too. You couldn’t have written this turn of events more dramatically if you’d tried I don’t think, I wasn’t sure whether to go for the safe, secure option of a PhD at NOCS or take the chance of a potentially better project and lifestyle in South Africa! And then there was the Australian PhD – should I wait out for what could have been an awesome project?

I took the chance to go to SA. I didn’t get offered the UNSW PhD – so this turned out to have been a fairly sensible decision! Despite the various trials and tribulations involved with moving your life half way around the world – including visas, funding issues and a few concerned family members –I leapt on one of my first solo flights and went to Africa!

Potjie bread at Khwai - Botswana.

To properly de-stress, ready myself for a PhD and see a bit of my new continent, I spent 3 weeks driving around Botswana and Namibia before heading to Cape Town. Another totally different culture to the UK and SE Asia and equally fascinating in its sheer desolate beauty. Turns out I can develop my love of cooking everywhere and I spent those 3 weeks cooking everything possible in a Potjie (large iron pot) on a campfire and learning about African cooking from my travel companions and few local folk!

The Biscuit Mill - my new happy place in CT.

And then there was Cape Town. Cape Town is something totally different to all my other travel experiences. I knew Asia was awesome before I went – who hasn’t seen pictures of beautiful tropical beaches and heard people rave about thai street food? But mention Cape Town to people and the responses you get are far more varied. For me these ranged from: “Isn’t it dangerous there?!”,“why would you go there” and even “I don’t want you to go there!!!” to a few voices saying “It’s the most amazing place and country in the world”. Well, in my experience, it seems the rest of the Western world is missing out. I’ve never been to a place with such outstanding natural beauty, where you can take part in any activity you can dream of, and yet no one really seems to know about it! Ok so lets not sugar coat the crime statistics (hell, there are more locks on my front door here than my entire house in Plymouth!), the vast number of poor people and the problems this country has, but there is so much more to it than that and the Euro-centric media I have grown up with, seems to have missed it! I’m somewhat glad, in my nightmares I imagine Cape Town becoming like the spanish Costa del Brit! It’s probably more risky than other places, but the rewards are huge and I will be exploring (and blogging about) these in the next 3 years of my PhD studies!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. J-Ho permalink
    November 17, 2010 11:09 am

    What a fantastic blog! Good to see you are having the time of your life.
    Got the woodford reserve ready for Xmas, see you then!!

  2. Loupigs permalink
    November 18, 2010 1:49 pm

    OMG actual Jonny Hill online!

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