Derek was a great broadcast journalist with an interest in anything and everything. He honed his skills at Radio Malaysia in the 1950’s. Returning to the UK he worked in both TV and radio before convincing the BBC to air a weekly programme about food, Radio 4’s The Food Programme. It is for this that he is most widely remembered, although Tomorrow’s World, You & Yours and The Today Programme fans will remember his contributions to them too. His unforgettable voice!
The Bad Food Guide grew from an article on The Today Programme about the poor food on offer in so many hotels, guest houses and restaurants. Departing tourists were known to comment on ‘unforgettable scenery and totally forgettable food’. Derek railed against garnished descriptions on menus which were complete over-egging of the food that was actually served, undermining attempts to get the consuming public to think a little more about provenance. Another rant of his was how could peas in a packet be labelled ‘garden’ peas when they had been grown in huge fields and nowhere near a garden? These are problems which remain with us today.
I have been told many times here in West Sussex, the sunniest county in Great Britain (and one with the most potential for growing food if only we would stop growing houses), that supporting local food producers is best tackled through tourism. This was what Derek did: he explored the artisan producers and food traditions around the country and celebrated them, driving tourists from home and abroad to make food a real part of the holiday. He did this through The Food Programme and television, both in England and his beloved Scotland. Subsequent series with cooks and chefs have built on Derek’s work, but possibly only Keith Floyd has come even close to having the same impact as Derek on the small screen. It is all about knowledge, a desire to learn and share - but also about the fun and conviviality of food and drink. Derek was a master of it all.
Derek spent his holidays at Portree on Skye, beloved from his childhood. He was hugely concerned about communities and their viability. With the coming of the road bridge to Skye the island is much more accessible and yet, in the winter, communities such as that at Staffin in the north of the island are isolated, with a poor local economy and little to keep the community together. I wonder what Derek would have made of the Staffin Community Trust and it’s plans to create viable food related businesses in this beautiful and remote area to keep the community alive? Development of the pier so that it can be used in all tides will allow pleasure craft access to the area. It will also facilitate regeneration of the shellfish industry and a new salmon farm will come on stream in the fast-flowing tidal waters around the island. The Torabhaig distillery, under the guidance of former Scottish rugby star Finlay Calder and ownership of new spirits company Mossburn Distillers, is under development at an old farmstead at Cnoc. This will realise plans of the late owner of the steading Sir Iain Noble (my maiden name - I am sure we must be related somehow!) and his widow Lucilla remains on the board of directors of the project. Of course there is some resistance to any development in an area of such outstanding beauty but the countryside has to be lived in to survive. Derek knew that. With a café and visitor centre at the distillery it could become as useful a community facility as, for example, the Orkney Brewery centre in the Northern Isles.
Derek Cooper was beloved by his colleagues. He was an inspiration to the Guild of Food Writers as our President, encouraging active lobbying on food policy. For me he stood for honesty in food. He was not about top end dining and expensive food. He championed simple, natural foods and ingredients. For him it was the provenance and the freshness that was important, along with the skills to know what to do with it (although he himself was not much of a cook). Communicating good food was his business and his wonderful books and recordings are his legacy.
The Derek Cooper Award for Investigative Journalism is one of the Guild of Food Writers Awards that will be announced this year on Tuesday 9th June 2015. Good luck to all who have entered in any category, but especially this year for the award in Derek’s memory.