Livvy Cawthorne is an evangelist for Northumbrian produce and recipes. Not only that, but she’s notorious in these parts. “I introduced pesto to Berwick-upon-Tweed,” she tells me, with a firm nod.
I’m sitting in her kitchen at a lovely battered oak table and watching in quiet awe as she rustles up not one but three dishes: pan haggerty, pearl barley “risotto” and stovies, all hearty, rib-warming fare, perfect for slow cooking and made entirely from ingredients sourced in the area. The onions come from a farm five miles away, the potatoes from Carroll’s Heritage Potatoes, which is six miles away, and the cheese is from Doddington Dairy, again on her doorstep. She has so much energy she’s the sort of person you think could and should be running the country.
She’s a mum of four, a business woman, and entertaining to boot. She’s a bloody marvel. “I’m one of the Horncliffe Hookers,” she tells me, with a twinkle. “We meet up once a week for proggy matting [making traditional rag rugs]. The eldest hooker is 82.”
Livvy is not from Northumberland. She’s a farmer’s daughter from Wiltshire, but as a teenager, she answered an advert in the Lady for a cook, and up she came. “I didn’t know anything,” she confesses. “I didn’t even know if a grouse was a fish or a bird.”
She joined Young Farmers, got married, improved her cooking with the help of cookery books, and gradually realised that cooking local food and promoting it was going to be her calling. “Local, artisan food can be better than organic,” she tells me. “This is a poor area. People won’t pay for organic. But they’ll be more inclined to buy a cheese if it’s from the farm up the road.”
Livvy also works for Crabtree & Crabtree, a local holiday home rental company. For an additional fee, she will go and cook guests’ meals. She’ll even look after the kids. “I often arrange welcome hampers,” she tells me. “All local produce. I get most of it from The Green Shop in Bridge Street in Berwick. It’s run by a great big hairy man. He just sells local. And he’s survived the recession by doing it.”
Jackie Maxwell, who runs Doddington Dairy, pops in. She’s bearing a box of her own cheeses and ice-cream. I’ve never heard of Doddington cheese. It’s delicious.
“Has Livvy told you what she always carries in her handbag?” asks Jackie. I shake my head.
“I never go anywhere without three cloves of garlic and a packet of yeast. Just in case.”
“There’s vampires in Northumberland,” whispers Jackie, with a wink.
“I’m using leeks in this risotto,” Livvy tells me. “If you prefer, you could use an onion. There’s men of a certain type in these parts who are mad about growing massive leeks and onions. There are endless competitions.”
“I heard,” Livvy adds, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, “that to get your leeks really massive, you have to go out and pee on them in the night. Now then, bread!”
I confess that I’ve never made my own bread. She’s appalled. “Right,” she says, grabbing a bowl. “Come here. I’m going to teach you how to make a yeast-free loaf you can make every day for the rest of your life.”
I mix the flour with some bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar and then, after chucking in some milk and a good pinch of salt, I bring the mixture together into a rather gloopy dough. Livvy takes it, pats it into a thick circle then chucks it into a hot pan. “Keep your eye on that,” she tells me.
Except I’m too busy eating Doddington cheese and I don’t keep an eye on it. Ten minutes later I hear Livvy yelling, “Oh my god, We’ve burned the bread!”
It’s a retrievable disaster, though, and as we sit down to eat everything we’ve made, Livvy cuts me a slice. I can’t lie. It’s so dense it should probably have its own category on the periodic table but it is, technically, a loaf of bread and Livvy keeps assuring me it “really should be like that”.
I believe her. I think I’d believe anything Livvy told me.
• Livvy has a B&B, Chain Bridge House (01289 382541, chainbridgehouse.co.uk, doubles ?90), near Berwick-upon-Tweed, where she runs cookery courses (from ?50 for a two-hour lesson). Crabtree & Crabtree (crabtreeandcrabtree.com) provided Emma’s accommodation at The Boathouse in Norham (sleeps up to 10, from ?1,300 a week)