Flavours with Fliss Freeborn

“Fliss Freeborn is one of the best young writers I have ever come across.” These are the words of Jay Rayner – so be in no doubt that the Fortnum & Mason Cookery Writer 2023 has flavours aplenty in her new book Do Yourself a Flavour. Words by Melissa Blease. Photography by Luke Albert.

I’m a student and I don’t know a single person who uses their student cookbook for anything other than a laptop stand. Because of their inherent uselessness (the cookbooks, not the students), hundreds are transported, unused, from one flat to the next and, upon graduation, are taken to a charity shop, where some aunt will erroneously deem it the perfect gift for the unsuspecting fresher.”
That’s a direct quote from a feature by award-winning cookery author, food journalist and more Fliss Freeborn, as published in The Guardian in 2021.

Compare and contrast that quote with this one, published on Ebury Books’ website just two short years later: “If you’re a young(ish) person who wants to expand their kitchen repertoire beyond pesto-pasta and beans on toast, then you’re in luck: Fliss Freeborn’s new book Do Yourself a Flavour is full of 75 recipes to take your cooking to the next level.”

Hang on! Isn’t that just another way of saying that Fliss has written… a student cookbook? “No it is not!” says Fliss, in a tone that’s emphatic as a denial can get. “When my agent asked me if I wanted to write a student cookbook, I said absolutely not, for all the reasons outlined in that feature. Students have a reasonably tight budget and probably a small kitchen, but that situation is applicable to many people! I believe that mine is the first cookery book written for young people that’s not deeply, deeply patronising”. And if anybody has the skills, experience, genuine love of food and personality-laden, enthralling style to write such a book, it’s Fliss.

Having grown up in Cornwall, Fliss – now aged 24 – flitted up to Edinburgh University in 2017, and has lived in Glasgow with her partner since 2022. During her time in Scotland, she considered quitting university (but didn’t), considered undertaking a social media and marketing internship with an outdoor company (a plan that was interrupted by the Covid crisis), churned out content for a “battery company” in Dundee and lived in a van travelling around Europe with her boyfriend for six months. But throughout it all…

“All the time, my food writing thing was bubbling away under the surface of everything I did, or wanted to do,” says Fliss, who started her blog Student Cuisine for the Gloomy Teen (studentcuisineforthegloomyteen.com/author/flissfreeborn/) in her first year at university.

“I’d been writing my blog for a number of years, just for me, just for fun, and just because I loved it,” says Fliss. “I had the link to my blog on my Twitter bio, and one day I retweeted something that Jay Rayner had posted with something snarky underneath it – just a little joke, nothing bad. And he clicked on my bio, saw my blog, read it, and shared it to his, like, 373,000 followers. He tweeted, “I read a lot of food blogs, most of them are rubbish, you should check this one out”. And then he sent me an email and said, “Fliss, you need to do this for a living.” And then, he put the links to my blog in front of a literary agency who asked me if I wanted to write a book and here I am, about to publish one! It’s been an absolutely mad journey, but it was genuinely the most exciting thing ever, ever!”

I really got into the freedom of cooking, and experimenting, so the book is full of all the recipes that I’ve made my own, for years

But surely there was a lot of hard work to tackle, in the midst of all the excitement?
“Actually, the book sort of fell out out of me,” says Fliss. “My parents never explicitly taught me how to cook, but I learnt by osmosis; never anything fancy, just variations on pasta bolognese, shepherd’s pie, that kind of stuff. My dad used to do a lot of cooking but then my parents split up, and I took over in the kitchen from around the age of 13 or 14. I wasn’t the primary cook but I used to do a lot of the shopping with my mum too, so I was used to checking prices and planning meals from an early age. As a result, I was very practised at cooking when I got to university, where I discovered all kinds of things like halloumi and hummus that I’d never had before. I really got into the freedom of cooking, and experimenting, so the book is full of all the recipes that I’ve made my own, for years; they’re kind of failsafe, really!”

Now it has to be said – and forgive me for this, Fliss – Do Yourself a Flavour would indeed be a great gift to tuck into that starter box of coffee, pasta and tinned tomatoes that every student takes off with them to pastures new at the start of a new university term; given student budgets, they’re not going to be able to rely on Deliveroo for sustenance… nor social media for inspiration.
“There’s an abundance of food content out there, but many of the recipes on TikTok or Instagram simply don’t work”, says Fliss. “Meanwhile, Food Tech has been absolutely decimated in schools, parents don’t have the time or the resources available to cook ‘properly’ at home, and loads of those overwhelmingly beautiful social media images or choreographed TV shows are just perfomative. My book explains recipes in a way that’s funny and entertaining, but also practical and useful”.

Of all those recipes, Fliss cites her Mussel Linguine as an enduring favourite. “It takes a not-too-expensive supermarket ingredient that a lot of people look past because it feels really fancy: those mussels that come pre-cooked in white wine and cream,” she says. “I fry off garlic, cherry tomatoes and some lemon zest in a bit of olive oil, then add the mussels to warm through while the pasta cooks and serve it with more lemon juice and fresh parsley. It’s really simple, but it feels really glamorous – great date night food! I kind of have this compulsion to experiment and eat different things all the time, but that’s one of my recipes that I go back to, time and time again.”

Given Fliss’s refreshingly super-friendly, distinctly down-to-earth skill for enthusing even the most seasoned of home cooks, it has to be asked: might a TV show be the next obvious step? “I’m one of those people who are constantly on the go and looking for the next thing to do, so I feel like I could do it,” says Fliss. “But it would have to be done my way! My absolute food hero is Keith Floyd; there were even a couple of programmes where he’d eat what he’d made and say, ‘oh actually, that’s not very nice’ – you’d never get that on TV these days; it all has to be, ‘oh, this is the most orgasmic, delicious thing I’ve ever put in my mouth’ every time, and I really hate that! But whatever happens, I’m psyched about what’s next; as Jay Rayner said to me, ‘remember Fliss, what you’re doing is a marathon, not a sprint’…”. And we all know how important food as fuel is, don’t we? Fliss Freeborn has her future in food fuelled up.

Fliss will be introducing Do Yourself a Flavour: 75 Easy Recipes to Feed Yourself, Your Flatmates and Your Freezer (Ebury Publishing, £17.99) at Toppings Books, Bath on Tuesday 26 September: toppingbooks.co.uk