With a decade of TV cookery programmes, a 12-year stint as head chef and her own cookery school under her belt, Rosemary Shrager knows good food and is not afraid to shout about it. Here, Produce Business UK grabs a moment or two with the chef superstar
It’s one of the hottest days of the year, so far, and Rosemary Shrager has been stuck in a car for the best part of the morning due to an incident en route to central London from Kent, but she still burst into the Good Housekeeping Institute’s showroom with that energy and twinkling boisterousness that comes across on the TV so well. After knocking back a coffee and a taste of the food made from her own California Prune recipes, she’s ready for her first interview.
Now take a packet of California Prunes…
Known for haute cuisine and TV shows where she takes a nurturing teaching role, Ladette to Lady and Rosemary Shrager’s School for Cooks, Shrager is not exactly prone to putting her name to promotional campaigns. Busy running the Rosemary Shrager Cookery School, in Kent, where she takes a very hands-on approach, and in the midst of launching several new TV shows, Shrager has mainly said no to promotional ventures, sticking to her ethics in cookery and life, saying she will never sign up to anything that would comprise her standards. So, what makes the California Prune Board different?
“I have always used prunes and I have always eaten them like sweets,” Shrager explains excitedly, also noting that it helps that prunes are a generic ingredient and not a powerful big brand. “Prunes are absolutely delicious anyway, so if you are going to be asked to endorse a product, then as far as I am concerned, they are the best product in the world for me.”
Promoting a consortium of prune farms in California, the California Prune Board is keen to show UK home cooks not only how healthy prunes are, but how versatile and tasty they are in meals. “It’s my job to endorse the quality of these prunes and then the brand gets taken on by different companies,” continues Shrager, offering me a prune from the snack-sized packs that hold one of your five a day. “They are too good a quality to be canned. Californian plum growers have developed an unrivalled expertise in judging the precise moment when the fruit of each tree is at its peak, which provides consistency and flavour.”
That Californian sunshine
The result of four generations of growing expertise over 150 years, California Prunes are produced using advanced growing technology, which sees the precise amount of water needed given to each tree, in the Californian sunshine. The prunes are even shaken off the trees to make sure they are just about ripe enough to harvest. Some 900 prune-farmers produce under the Californian Prune Board banner, growing D’Agen – a French variety – and supplying to more than 70 countries as well as 99% of their own domestic market.
Although the UK is the sixth largest export market for the California Prune Board, consuming 3,300 tonnes a year, the board says that more prunes can be sold, believing that they are misunderstood as a cookery ingredient, with people mostly knowing them for their digestive elements. “I myself hadn’t realised how versatile the prunes were,” admits Shrager. “What I hadn’t realised was that sometimes you can get prunes that are too ready to eat and too soft, and then you get ones that are far too hard. And, actually, these ready-to-eat California Prunes are almost in the middle, which makes them very good for cooking – for short cooking. They are good to cook with, as you don’t have to do an awful lot of preparation.”
Shrager has developed a series of recipes for the board, including Prune and Duck Tartare Tartlets and Prune, Pork and Peppery Sausage Rolls, which will go out to the general and food media for inclusion in features and online magazines. And it’s now consumer food show season for Shrager, who has been part of The Cake and Bake Show since its second year. “I have incorporated some prune recipes, because they are just so good,” says Shrager. “They are great for both sweet and savoury dishes – there’s nothing that quite does that so well ingredient-wise, except for nuts, maybe. My grandchildren can’t get enough of the prune sausage rolls.”
Shrager says that her cookery style has changed over the years and mellowed slightly. “My actual cooking technique is probably slightly simpler. I work and have worked with chefs to a very high-end molecular gastronomy standard and I find, I want to stay on my classic training for my every day and people can relate more to that. There is an audience for molecular, but people don’t want to do it every day. My food is simpler, daintier and presentation is completely different. Presentation has become so important; you eat with your eyes. Everything has to look beautiful.”
Having set up her own apprenticeship scheme at the cookery school, called Shrager’s Apprentices, the chef feels more help is needed from the government to nurture young chefs into the right jobs. “The system is not working as well as it should be and potentially great chefs are getting away from the industry,” she explains. “The struggle we are having is that young people feel they are going to be abused, will endure long work hours and have no social time. We also need help in educating the establishments that take the young people on in what is actually requested of them and that they in turn need to educate the young chef. We have to be very careful where we place these young people – it can’t be in too small a place where there isn’t enough time to teach them anything.
“The government should be doing more in advertising for apprenticeships. We are up against a battle; the schools what to keep the funding for themselves, we want young people to come into the industry and most of the funding is happening between 16-18 years old. We are doing our best, but we need help to make it happen better and quicker.”
So, what’s next for Shrager herself? Well, of course, she will continue to forge the way for prune use in the UK in her new role as ‘Queen of Prunes’, but what about these TV shows? They have certainly set a twinkle in her eye, but despite the gleeful smiles and nods to various suggestions, she won’t tell me.
We will all have to wait to see what Rosemary does next.