On average Eat Like a Girl.com gets 50,000 hits a month. The Times listed it in its top ten international food blogs, and in September its author, Niamh Shields, is bringing out her first cookbook, Comfort & Spice.
How did she come to lead the way in the new digital era where bloggers are feared by chefs, revered by their readers and have their lives played out by Hollywood movie stars?
“I grew up with a very direct connection with food,” Niamh explains as we sit down to order at Hackney’s Geoffrey Museum café, not far from where she lives.
“I grew up in a farming area, half a mile from the ocean. We’d go fishing for mackerel when they came in August.”
Despite this rural heritage, neither of Niamh’s parents were interested in food, (her mother didn’t own a single cookbook). Describing herself as “quite an industrious child”, Niamh quickly learnt that she could eat all the cakes in the world provided that she baked them, so she collected cookbooks instead, a new one every year. This – reinforced by a convent education where home economics was compulsory – meant she left school fully equipped with the basics and a thirst to learn more.
At this juncture she might well have chosen to train as a chef, except that it just wasn’t the “done thing”. Instead she went on to university to study physiology – not really the “done thing” either but considered okay because she proved to be highly academic.
“I did physiology at university and that really informed the way I cook. So now, when I’m hungover, I look for potassium. When I get the winter blues in January I look for serotonin enhancing foods – like liquorish.”
During her time in higher education Niamh’s passion for travel – sparked by time spent in the US as a teenager – grew. She spent her summer holidays working in Sweden, Germany, France and Italy – where in Rome she “discovered the joy of putting potato on a pizza, which everyone back home was amazed by!”
But her path was still a scientific one rather than culinary and she went on to study a masters. Still cooking avidly for friends and family, Niamh believed that, so long as she lacked formal training, she couldn’t make a profession out of cooking it, “I just thought it was a hobby”.
In 2007, following a particularly bad day at work, (Niamh was working as a project manager for a publishing firm at the time), she decided to stop procrastinating and start blogging. She didn’t put her name on it, didn’t post it on Facebook, or any other social networking site, but just began wrote. Within two months the Guardian linked to one of her recipes – a spiced coconut soup designed to warm up a wet, miserable June.
From there the blog snowballed: “It grew really quickly and I really enjoyed it. For some people it’s jogging, for some it’s knitting, but for me – whenever I’ve had a bad day – I have to cook”.
Of course Niamh doesn’t just cook to let off steam, as she openly declares on Eat Like a Girl.com, when she’s not eating she’s planning her next meal and if she’s not talking about food, she’s cooking it. And what about the name? “I wanted to reclaim the expression ‘eat like a girl’”. With a strong emphasis on meat and hearty ingredients in general, Niamh wanted to do away with the stereotype of, calorie counting ‘girly’ like eating.
Which begs the question, why is the book not named after the blog? “I wanted it to be different, to offer something new”.
Comfort & Spice is part of Quadrille’s New Voices in Food series, and is coming out in early September. The book is not an extension of Eat Like a Girl.com but made up almost entirely of new recipes. Niamh describes it as a cookbook for “modern living in modern times”, with a mix of working week quick recipes, brunch ideas and longer recipes for the weekend.
She has tried to keep it free from obscure ingredients that are difficult to track down although, (as the name suggests), the user will need a decently stocked spice rack to cook many of the dishes. “I treat my spice box as a painting pallet and use it to liven up otherwise ordinary ingredients,” explains Niamh.
So what else is to come from the expat-turned-blogosphere star? “There’s an old Irish expression,” she says laughing, “if you want to make God laugh, than tell him your plans”.
Niamh will be doing a cookery demonstration at the Food Festival on Sunday, alongside James Ramsden of the Secret Larder Supper Club.
Bex Hobson is Blogger at Large for the Abergavenny Food Festival