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Anna Koska

1st December 2016

Interview: Molly Tait-Hyland
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

1st December 2016

Interview: Molly Tait-Hyland
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

For the past 16 years, Anna Koska has lived in East Sussex with her husband Marc and their three children in a rambling, ivy-covered house amid acres of verdant garden and woodland. Anna grows a riot of fruits, tubers, and leafy greens; she keeps bees and a motley party of independent chickens; at the time of our visit, she is rearing two beautiful (yet nippy) pigs. For her efforts, she is rewarded with inspiration as well as sustenance. Anna is an acclaimed food illustrator: her depictions of anchovies and onions can be found in countless books and her paintings are loved by many, including Nathan Outlaw and the Steins.

Her house bustles and feels slightly chaotic; lived in; a home. We perch in the cosy kitchen and admire a hanging wooden frame above the Aga which functions as both clothesline and homemade pasta drier. Teacups and strings of red chillies hang from hooks. A loaf of homemade sourdough sits on the counter. As we drink elderflower cordial and snack on nuts roasted with honey and paprika, Anna talks quickly, with intensity, about her wild, bird-filled upbringing in Cornwall.

We stomp down to the vegetable garden to pick things for lunch, accompanied by Chewy, a mischievous terrier, and Golly, a smiley, deaf black labrador. The plot – so much bigger than the average kitchen garden – is on the brink of explosion. Anna glares at the cabbage whites hovering over her treasured crop and points out the chard. “I never would have grown chard to eat, but I wanted to paint it,” she says, “and then I found recipes to fit it. Everything here ends up being painted in some shape or form.”

We stop by her studio, which is quiet, with a small window looking out on to green foliage. Back at the house, we sit down with Anna and her two youngest children Ellie and Jolly to eat frittata and tarte tatin with caramelised shallots. After, there’s ice cream and crisp, chewy muscovado meringues (Anna makes her own egg tempera so often has an excess of egg whites). She sends us on our way with a pot of honey and a paper bag of plump peas, not just an ingredient, but something to be seen and appreciated, to inspire.

Continued below...

Where did you grow up?

First a little village called Doveridge in Derbyshire. Then, when I was eight, my parents decided to up sticks and move down to Cornwall. My grandfather, an entrepreneur, bought an old manor house down there, in the middle of nowhere – Port Isaac was the nearest village. It had many outbuildings and one of them was a little renovated cottage. That’s where we ended up. To begin with it was really tough. My dad, bless him, worked tirelessly to establish an antique furniture restoration business. Eventually he got in with a crowd of art dealers and rich old ladies and started earning money, but for a long time we were quite hard up. My mum grew most of what we ate; dad raised poultry to eat and shot rabbits.

Was food important at home?

Yes, because it brought us all together (there was a bit of friction between my dad and grandpa). I didn’t actually concentrate so much on the food, although my mum cooked with such skill and consistency. She was adept at making something from nothing, and she would never consider throwing anything out of the fridge, that would be a failure.

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What kind of things did she make?

Fish was cheap so we had a lot of coley, conger-eel pie, mackerel, occasionally cod, a bit of dab [a flatfish]. We had offcuts of meat, so things like cow liver in tomato sauce with rice. I don’t know how she did it. We used to call it pipework, because it had all the venal system running through it, but mum made it so acceptable. I wouldn’t dream of saying it was disgusting. She was so imaginative and creative with our food, my brother and I never felt like we were having a troubled time.

Dad would feed young pigeons who had lost their parents by chewing up food, having a sip of water, then letting the pigeon put its beak inside his mouth

Did you keep animals at home?

We had a rabbit called Mrs Smith and she got mated by a wild rabbit. He couldn’t get enough of her, thought she was just enchanting. They had babies together, and one by one the babies got eaten. There were lots of chickens too, and guinea fowl, and geese. My father is a bird man; if people found sick birds, they’d say, “Jeremy, Jeremy, could you work your magic?” He would bring birds back from the brink of death with such tenderness. He’d feed young pigeons who had lost their parents by chewing up food in his mouth, having a sip of water to make it soft, and then letting the pigeon put its beak inside his mouth because that’s how it would be fed by the mum.

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We had a buzzard that would sit on the chest of drawers in the sitting room and shoot out three-metre poos – they’d wham across the dining room table and land on my A-level biology. We had crows all the time, and a jackdaw that would clean your teeth for you. Everyone thinks, ewww disgusting, but it was the most hygienic bird. This is my dad. It was like living with Gerald Durrell.

Did your mum teach you how to cook?

Never. She’s like me, the most awful cook to learn from. I’m always banishing people from the kitchen. The only thing I ever used to be allowed to do was make these biscuits called “melting moments”.

The first meal he cooked for me was fish en papillote. It was exquisitely steamed. I knew I had to do something so I made this spinach roulade. It was so 1970s

How did you get into illustration?

I always really enjoyed art but it was seen as a soft subject and I was encouraged not to do it. So I did sciences at A-level and scraped through with miserable results. But art was something I always liked doing, something I always did as presents for people. I was doing different jobs – secretarial work, temping, chaperoning on film sets, theatre – and then my husband said, “You really should do something with this – and if you give me another line of Les Miserables I’ll shoot you.” So I put together a miscellaneous portfolio, a real bugger’s muddle of charcoal, pen and ink, watercolour, cartoons. A lady at Penguin agreed to see me. She looked through my portfolio and said: “Don’t try to show you can do everything, no one can. In order to remember you, publishers need to be able to hook you up on one particular thing.” So, I chose food.

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Why?

It was the most beautiful thing to draw. I couldn’t think of anything more relevant and real. And no one was illustrating food – I thought there was a huge window. As soon as I made that decision, I trailed publishing houses in London with my new portfolio. A small publishing house called Anness Publishing took me on.

What was the first book you illustrated?

Cooking for Babies and Toddlers. They were the most primitive illustrations I’ve ever done – that was the style – but oh my god I was so chuffed. I was 24. It was a dream come true. Marc was having a hard time with his business so I was really proud to be supporting my husband. And it just got bigger and bigger and bigger. Then children popped up and everything stopped.

They have lovely meat and perhaps for the best sausage rolls in the county (I kid you not). A visit always feels like you’re dipping into another era.
Anna on her favourite local food shops and restaurants

How long have you and Marc been together?

Twenty-eight years. We met at Paddington Station and got engaged three days later. It was pretty outrageous because I’d sworn I wouldn’t get married until I was in my 30s – I was 20. We had a Cornish wedding and my mother grew everything for the day.

What were the first things you cooked for each other?

When we first met, he did all the cooking because I couldn’t cook for toffee. The first meal he cooked for me was fish in paper – en papillote. It was exquisitely steamed. He’s a real attention-to-detail man. I knew I had to do something so I made this spinach roulade. It was so 1970s.

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Did it turn out okay?

Amazingly it didn’t collapse on me. But what on earth was I thinking? He would have been so happy if I’d done a couple of pork chops and steamed some vegetables. I can remember how it tasted – really bland. From that point on I started to learn. I began baking bread. My mum didn’t want to teach, but like it or not you do soak up the rhythms of people cooking and gardening around you.

Could you talk me through an average day?

I get up at 6.30 and feed the starter (we call it Tom the Belcher) and cook the kids’ breakfast, usually fried eggs on sourdough. They all run up the stairs and I go out and take my Instagram shot…

Don’t panic, is my main kitchen wisdom. What could possibly go really, really wrong? It’s not life-threatening.

Do you Instagram every morning?

I do because it gets me started, in the right frame of mind. If I can find something beautiful at the beginning of the day, then – I know it sounds really lame, but it sets the scene. Then the kids are all running around doing their teeth, grabbing their schoolbags. We pile up the lane in various states of disrepair. If I’m really gasping for a cuppa, I’ll take it with me. Then I’ll meander back and go and feed the pigs, pick up the eggs (saving one for the egg tempera) and feed the dogs, so everyone’s alive and kicking and happy. I might go wandering past the bees on my way down to water the vegetables. I grab some fruit and then it’s off to work. Usually I don’t have more than fruit and tea for breakfast.

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When do you start work?

I’m usually in the studio by 11, which sounds terribly late but there’s quite a lot of animal maintenance to do. It’s nice because you’re doing a very physical thing that is wholly unrelated to everything else that’s happening up here [points to her head]. Then I do maybe three or four hours in the studio, which means I’m always late for lunch. Recently lunch has been tinned sardines, which I adore to distraction, or jars of anchovies – and now the tomatoes have come along. I always have bread, and maybe a frittata of some description because we have so many eggs.

What’s your favourite meal of the day?

Dinner. Or a fry-up on Sundays. Sausages in first; the eggs are cooked in the juices of the sausages; then a bit of fried bread as well. The kids are really into slugs now…

Er…

We call slugs the mushrooms when you cut them up and fry them off.

Do you enjoy cooking?

I absolutely love it. Especially if I know what I’m doing in advance, but I don’t mind the idea of having to make something up as I go along.

Do you have any good kitchen wisdom?

Don’t panic, would be the main one. What could possibly go really, really wrong? It’s not life-threatening.

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Do you use recipes?

I do but I tend to bastardise them, using whatever is in the vegetable garden or in my cupboard. Invariably the recipes are beautifully written, someone has taken a lot of time to make the point that this is an important ingredient, but if you don’t have it… Our nearest shop is probably eight miles away. You do have to hike it a bit.

What is your ultimate comfort food?

Currently, lemon drizzle cake. And these… [Anna leaves the room and returns with a large jar] Almonds and hazelnuts rolled in our honey and paprika.

On The Menu

Lunch with Anna, Ellie and Jolly Koska
East Sussex, July 2016

To eat:

Honey & paprika roasted almonds and hazelnuts
Caramelised shallot tarte tatin
Ruby chard, chorizo and potato frittata »
Garden salad
Muscovado meringues with burnt honey & thyme ice cream »
Sourdough, honey & hazelnut ice cream
Raspberries

To drink:

Elderflower cordial, fizzy water
Planeta La Segreta 2014, Sicilia

Your garden is really impressive. Do you spend a lot of time out there?

Absolutely. I go down at the beginning of the day. And after work, when the kids are half an hour away on the school bus, it’s down here to find out what I can do for the evening meal.

You have a lot of choice at the moment…

Almost too much, but it’s really inspiring. There are some things I grow because they look beautiful and I’ve found recipes to fit them. Chard was one of those. I never would have grown chard, but I wanted to paint it. Same with kale. It’s how I started doing the big oil paintings. I would say, “What do I have in the garden?” Onions were the first. Everything inevitably ends up being painted in some shape or form.

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When did you get back into illustration?

About four or five years ago. The first thing I did was call up my old contacts, but they’d all left London to run smallholdings in the Cotswolds and pop out children. What made coming back so much easier was Instagram and Twitter. They give you access you’ve never had before – you can talk directly to the authors and commissioning editors. Now, most of my work comes through Twitter and Instagram.

Which illustrators inspire you?

Charlotte Davidson Knox. She did the most beautiful book of exquisite paintings of fish. I looked at it and thought, I want to be that good. And Elisabeth Luard does things I could never do. It’s so relaxed: a dash of watercolour and there’s a leaf… What a skill.

When I paint food, it doesn’t need to be abstract. I have always wanted to show something to be beautiful in its true state

Why do you call yourself an illustrator rather than an artist?

I attended an art taster at college. The teacher made it clear that, in her view, artists were meant to be flamboyant people who did a subjective interpretation of their surroundings. What I really wanted to do was absolutely representational, I didn’t want to do surreal. I felt completely invalidated and out of my depth, having to do what she wanted us to do rather than what I loved and wanted to get better at.
The most surreal I get is a freestanding fig without a shadow underneath, so it looks like a clockwork orange kind of thing. I admire and love abstract art but it’s not me. When I paint food, it’s in its raw state because it’s something extraordinary, it doesn’t need to be altered. I have always wanted to show something to be its most beautiful in its true state – and not try to make it beautiful by making it something else.

For more about Anna, go to annakoskaillustration.com

Follow Anna: Instagram | Twitter

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Posted 1st December 2016

In Interviews

 

Interview: Molly Tait-Hyland
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

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