21 Sep 2008: Amy Raphael goes to Somerset to watch party girl-turned-foodie, Daisy Garnett, in action on the Aga

Past the grey monoliths of Stonehenge, up a twisting country lane, down a bumpy track, through a white gate and straight into the country idyll that is Cannwood. A grand Queen Anne house overlooks a garden decorated with giant plant pots, a converted cow shed and a vast silver sculpture. Within 10 minutes of arriving at Daisy Garnett’s family house in Somerset, I am presented with strong coffee and a delicious omelette. It’s a pretty perfect place to be on a sodden Sunday morning in August.

It’s barely 10am but the extended family is already crammed into the farmhouse-style kitchen, leafing through the papers and crunching toast. Garnett, 36, is already prepping lunch, chopping strawberries and sprinkling them with sugar while working out what needs to be picked in the vegetable garden. A British journalist whose first job was as a staff writer on American Vogue, Garnett was asked last year to write a book about learning to cook while sailing the Atlantic. Cooking Lessons is an absorbing read, progressing from Garnett’s tales of roasting her first chicken (upside down, in a reluctant galley oven) to becoming an accomplished home cook.

The interspersed recipes are mostly borrowed from Garnett’s ever-expanding collection of cook books, which numbers the River Café series, Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson, and the Ballymaloe Cookery Course, which Garnett refers to as her ‘bible cookbook’; she did a course at the prestigious Ballymaloe Cookery School in East Cork last year and learnt how to deal with difficult fish and intimidating sauces. There are also recipes given to her by friends, and dozens of simple but useful personal tips, from just the right amount of pasta to cook per person to buying carrots and potatoes still covered in dirt (it seals in their flavour and means they haven’t been washed in heavily chlorinated water).

It is five years since Garnett moved back to London from the small sailing boat, and in that time she has become obsessed by food. At one point in the book she admits that she grew up thinking of cooking as ‘something other people did’. Yet, when her sister Rose recently returned from a trip to Rome raving about pine-nut ice cream, Garnett spent ages trying to work out how to make it herself. The recipe appears at the start of the book, and it’s certainly inspirational for those of us who think ice cream is something other people make.

Back to the Sunday morning kitchen. Garnett’s mother, journalist and writer Polly Devlin, wonders aloud when her third daughter, Bay, will go into labour. Without waiting for an answer, she goes off to her study to write. Rose, a journalist and film producer, is peeling the skins off individual broad beans with her father, Andy. Rose’s young sons, George and Frankie, talk about food and football while her husband Tom Browne, an actor, screenwriter and director chats to family friend Tom Cairns, a theatre, opera and film director. Opera Tom peers out of the window at the dark grey clouds racing past and announces that we will be just fine to eat outside. The Toms and Garnett’s boyfriend Nick, who works at publishers 4th Estate, discuss when to fire up the barbecue to cook the beef. They consult Garnett, who is podding peas.

The Garnetts are a busy family. Until he was diagnosed with MS, Andy was an engineer and inventor who rebuilt Cannwood (a near ruin when he and Polly bought it in 1983). Their land has expanded from nine to over 100 acres and it’s an oasis of wild beauty: an overflowing vegetable garden protected by carrier bags recycled as scarecrows; a meadow with rare orchids; a fruit cage; a herb garden. Then there’s the tennis courts, the swimming pool framed by roses and a grotto created in the stump of a burr elm. Animals abound, from hens and geese to cats and dogs.

Years at Cannwood have taught Garnett to use seasonal and local food by seeing what’s on offer in the garden or at the market. It has little to do with following fashion; she says it’s just the sensible way to cook. And she’s keen to point out that although she has only become immersed in cookery recently, she has always been a good eater. In fact, she became interested in cooking in New York, some time before the boat trip. It was Stateside that she realised that cooking could actually be pleasurable.

There she met Nell Campbell, co-owner of two New York restaurants, and through Nell met Rose Gray of the River Café. One long weekend on Shelter Island, Garnett watched Nell, Gray and other friends make fish stew. She ate her first bruschetta, discovered Maldon salt and sourdough bread. She learnt from Gray that good quality Italian olive oil is a core ingredient of good cooking, that sprigs of herbs are no use – that Gray wanted ‘fistfuls of thyme, marjoram, oregano and mint. Campbell was sous chef to Gray. I was galley slave,’ says Garnett, laughing. ‘I learnt so much from watching. In fact, I didn’t realise how much had soaked in until I started to cook myself.’

Devlin appears and sternly tells a pug called Archie to stop his ‘gothic cough’. She looks at Garnett, who has tears in her eyes as she grates fresh horseradish. ‘What’s she been telling you? She’s a born cook. Really, she is.’

As her mother takes vegetable peel out to the hens, Garnett mixes crème fraiche from London’s Borough Market into the horseradish. She is feeling slightly up against it. Today’s lunch, for 11 adults, including the military historian Sir John Keegan and his wife, who live locally ‘has to be ready at around 1pm. I have to say that having a deadline makes the whole process less relaxed.’ Most of the time, Garnett cooks at home for Nick. They rarely eat out (‘it’s so bloody expensive!’) and never fast food. ‘My version of a ready-made meal is a bit of prosciutto and cheese with bread. Or I put loads of oil in a frying pan, add tomatoes and some basil, let it simmer and you’ve got amazing pasta sauce with no sugar and minimal salt.’

The skies are ominous but everyone is determined to eat outside, where a large canopy billows above the table. It’s just past 1pm and the food starts to emerge from the kitchen. The meat comes from Borough Market and all the vegetables from Cannwood – apart from the potatoes. There’s seared beef fillet and rump steak, the fresh horseradish, new potatoes with parsley and mint, homemade mayonnaise, roast beetroot (cooked in their skins with generous helping of smoked Maldon salt and scattered with thyme) and a warm dish of broad beans, fresh peas, courgette and prosciutto. Immersed in the elementary pleasure of eating, everyone is silent.

Garnett announces that pudding will be meringue roulade with strawberries and cream, mulberry and berry ice cream and sorbet. The mulberries are from Garnett’s Brixton garden while the red and black currants and raspberries all come from Cannwood.

I ask Garnett if she ever has kitchen nightmares. ‘I was making meringues in a hurry yesterday. I turned on the grill instead of the oven and they ended up all black on top. They smelt delicious, like burned sugar. Everyone thought I was making crème caramel. I was like, “No, I burned my bloody meringues!” I always come clean.’

Just as we are finishing coffee and eating Turkish delight, the heavens open. For once, no one much minds. We are all just thankful that, while sailing home from America, Garnett realised cooking was something she could do, too.

Daisy Garnett’s Cooking Lessons: Tales from the Kitchen and Other Stories is published by Quadrille, £12.99. To order a copy for £11.99 with free UK p&p go to the Observer bookshop or call 0870 836 0885.

Daisy’s meringue from Ballymaloe

Meringue roulade
Serves 8-10

For the meringue:

4 egg whites
225g caster sugar

For the filling:

300ml cream, softly whipped (do not overwhip or it will seem like butter)
A couple of handfuls of strawberries
1 dtsp sugar

Preheat oven to 180°C/Gas 4. Hull and halve or quarter the strawberries, depending on their size. Sprinkle with a dessertspoonful of sugar, and leave for half an hour or so (longer is fine).

Place the egg whites in the spotlessly clean bowl of a food mixer. You can whip the egg whites by hand but to get them really stiff will require a lot of whipping. If you have a food mixer, use it. If so, break the whites up with the whisk, add the sugar all in one go and whisk to a stiff peak. This will take about 7 or 8 minutes. If you are whipping the whites by hand, whip them till they are stiff first, then add the sugar in about three goes, whipping all the time, till the egg whites become glossy and stiff.

Line a 20 x 30cm swiss-roll tin or a baking tray with sides with tin foil. Brush the tin foil fairly liberally with a non-scented oil such as sunflower or groundnut oil. Spread the meringue into the tin and smooth it out to the edges. Bake for 15 -20 minutes, until slightly risen with a brittle crust on top. Put a clean tea towel on your work counter and, as soon as you take the roulade out of the oven, turn it out straight onto the tea towel quick smart. Carefully remove the tin foil and allow the meringue to cool.

Spread the whipped cream carefully over the meringue, but not right up to the edges, and scatter the strawberries and juices on top of the cream. Have the wide edge of the meringue nearest you, as the roulade should be rolled up from this side. Have a large flat serving plate between you and the roulade and roll the meringue up and on to the plate using the tea towel. Decorate as you wish. I like to use sprigs of mint and wild strawberries if I have any.