Jamie Oliver invites Essex Life on a virtual drive around the county as he shares with Chloe Govan his nostalgic family history plus his favourite spots to wine and dine in the county
His culinary tour of the county he loves
Jamie Oliver is a celebrity chef, best-selling author, TV star, British household name and Essex boy. Home for Jamie, just a few decades earlier, was bounding around his parents' country pub in Clavering putting his energy and enthusiasm to good use, helping them keep the punters happy and the pub clean.
Born in Leigh on Sea in 1975, not long after Jamie's arrival, the Oliver family relocated to Clavering – perhaps one of the most under-rated Essex beauty spots around. In this sleepy village barely a stone's throw from Saffron Walden, his parents Trevor and Sally set up the now renowned pub and B&B, The Cricketers.
His father, while ‘very loving’, was also a fearsome disciplinarian with whom he dared not disagree. Consequently Jamie spent parts of his childhood performing various unglamorous cleaning duties.
As he grew older, the tasks became a little less gruesome and by the time he was seven, he was armed with a chef's knife to prepare dishes.
‘I could chop like a bitch!’ he proudly enthuses, and by the age of ten, Jamie was pulling pints for the customers. Already indispensable in the pub, he fared less favourably at school.
Jamie and his farmer friend Jimmy Doherty were the only two in their school year in the special needs class. Each lesson time, mischievous mates would serenade the pair with a chorus of, ‘Special needs, special needs’ to the tune of the Beatles song Let It Be. Jamie preferred art, cooking and gardening over academia.
Jamie was clearly a ‘touchy feely’ type at heart, although, amusingly, his penchant for roughing it in the great outdoors would lead him into trouble in later life. When wife Jools started to spot green stains on his knees, she assumed the worst – that he'd been secretly fornicating in a football field somewhere. Yet Jamie tells a different story. A picture of wide-eyed innocence, he would counter, ‘I was tending to the courgettes on the vegetable patch!’
At 16, Jamie left school with two GCSEs and transferred to catering college in the capital. ‘I'm getting away,’ he had declared defiantly. ‘I'm going to London where the best chefs in the country are!’
However, while he aspired to learn from the greats, he gradually realised that it was the fresh home-cooking his parents had provided that he regarded the best around. It wasn't long before he returned to Essex, where the upward spiral of his career would begin.
Essex is a county of culinary inspirations for Jamie and, like a modern day Ghost of Christmases Past, he invites us to step back in time for a snapshot on the places he regards as so special.
Jamie is renowned for being highly selective and discerning
— he has turned down lucrative advertising deals with the likes of ‘junk drink’ giants Coca Cola, an ambassadorship with Tony Blair and even a dinner invite from former US president Bill Clinton, who he claims had a ‘disrespectful attitude to food’. With this in mind, it's guaranteed that Jamie's recommendations for wining and dining in Essex will include only the best.
The journey begins back at his birthplace in Leigh on Sea. ‘Besides me,’ Jamie jokes, ‘Leigh is also famous for its cockles. Visit the cockle sheds for an amuse bouche of old-school Cockney fare – local cockles, winkles, crabs, shrimp and smoked salmon, served with brilliantly bog-standard but generously buttered white bread.’
These were the staples of Jamie's childhood picnics by the sea. ‘It's a really homely place,’ he continues, ‘with a handful of proper pubs where you can get a pint before buying your seafood and a bag of hot chips to sit in the sun with.’
Barely a ten minute drive further east is the bustling seaside town of Southend, where Jamie's paternal grandparents also ran a pub.
Restocking bottles for them would earn him a couple of pounds to spend on arcade games on the seafront, a favourite pastime that has now been passed on to his children.
‘It's a vibrantly spirited town,’ he declares with passion. ‘It's gone through some highs and lows in its time, but has now become a brilliant family destination for some gaudy, retro fun. With its arcade games, fish 'n' chips and Rossi ice cream, my kids always love it!’
Further north is ‘old school’ Mersea Island, where Jamie has often enjoyed the ‘amazing wildlife and some of the best seafood along the coast’.
‘It's a beautiful corner of Essex,’ Jamie reminisces. ‘When you're there, have lunch at The Company Shed, a gruff, rickety restaurant which looks a bit like a weather-beaten shack, but sells the freshest, most beautiful fish around.
‘Just a five minute walk and you'll come to the West Mersea Oyster Bar for more delicious Colchester Natives
– in season from September to April,’ he enthuses. Jamie's recommendation from the menu? ‘Try the Dover sole with shrimp butter if it's on – simply delicious!’
Another worthwhile stop-off is the market town of Great Dunmow, where, at the tender age of 16, Jamie did his first ever stint of work experience at The Starr restaurant. The drive continues past the, ‘colourful little town of Thaxted’ and onto the, ‘chocolate box village of Arkesden’.
‘I love its old thatched houses, little winding river and my local pub, the Axe and Compasses,’ Jamie reveals. ‘Run by the Christou family, they're still doing a great job, serving tasty food and beer.’
Finally, we come full circle as we arrive back at the village where Jamie grew up, and where he and wife Jools share a weekend home to this day.
‘Our last stop is in Clavering – my parent's pub, The Cricketers,’ he concludes.
‘My dear mum and dad have been running this lovely old place
for the past 40 years and, while it's still a real locals' pub, people come from all over Essex for a meal and a pint.’
They are attracted, of course, by the distinctive Oliver brand name, but the vegetables on the pub's menu come direct from Jamie's monumental garden, while fresh supplies of duck, pork and beef are all reassuringly local too. To this day, Jamie is still personally responsible for sourcing olives and charcuterie for his father. It's no surprise then, that Jamie assures us the food is ‘consistently good’.
‘The chefs love to mix it up a bit,’ he confides, ‘from fresh sourdough breads that my dad makes every morning to epic mains and ridiculously good desserts.’
As he concludes his whirlwind tour of his home county, Jamie’s passion for Essex is clear, as is his call to action!
Fellow residents of Essex, slide your keys into the ignition and prepare to follow in Jamie's footsteps on your own family trips, searching for the best culinary experiences around. They are around the corner in Essex.
LEFT: Seafood from Mersea Island
ABOVE: Jamie Oliver
LEFT:The Company Shed on Mersea Island