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Anyone who saw Ed Balls, former Cabinet minister and “Gangnam Style” Strictly star, crowned BBC Celebrity Best Home Cook earlier this year will have realised his appetite for success.
It was a contest he clearly wanted badly to win, panicking over his hollandaise for his salmon en croute and fretting over what he was going to do with butternut squash, which he’d never cooked before (but which he transformed into a melt-in-the-mouth coconut butternut squash Thai curry).
“I didn’t want to go out in the first week,” the ex-politician concedes. “I really wanted the judges to like the things that I cooked for my family. I didn’t want Mary (Berry, one of the judges) to say that she didn’t like my mum’s lasagne.”
Balls, 54, attributes his culinary skills to his mother, as we chew the fat over his new memoir Appetite, dedicating the book ‘for my mum, who taught me to love cooking … and my dad, who taught me to love eating’.
Indeed, the book is more a celebration of food within assorted portions of his life – from his grandmother’s shepherd’s pie and his first trip to a restaurant in the 1970s, to the bland food he experienced in Westminster and his lunches and dinners with Tony Blair (who knew what polenta was) and Gordon Brown (who didn’t).
Meanwhile, as he cooked at home (when after the birth of their first child his wife, politician Yvette Cooper announced she was no longer going to do it) the family meals proved as stabilising as his butter sauces.
It’s a mouth-watering read, interspersed with recipes around which he bases his anecdotes, including roast beef (his favourite meal, taught by his mum), slow-cooked pulled pork (cooked for his wife’s constituency Labour party barbecue), American pancakes (gleaned from his many trips to the US) and banana bread with cream cheese icing (THE comfort food during the pandemic).
Yet, cooking has not been his only pastime, indeed passion, over the past few decades. One thing about Balls, he doesn’t do things by halves.
He doesn’t just run, he runs the London Marathon (three times); he doesn’t just go for a hike, he climbs Kilimanjaro (for Comic Relief in 2019); he doesn’t just learn the piano in his 40s while shadow chancellor, he takes exams and plays Bach’s Goldberg Variations; he doesn’t just do the salsa on Strictly, he does it “Gangnam Style”.
“You’ve got to take these chances when you can,” he insists. “For some people the phrase mid-life crisis can feel like a negative, but actually I’ve just been loving mine and I’ve kept it going for a good 10 years now – and want to keep it going for another 10.
“I’ve been having two piano lessons a week (during lockdown) just because I really enjoy it. I’d never thought about climbing Kilimanjaro, but when they said, ‘Do you fancy climbing Kilimanjaro with Little Mix and Dani Dyer?’ I thought, that would be great.”
He left politics in 2015 when he lost his Labour seat in the Morley and Outwood constituency in West Yorkshire to the Tories but has not looked back. Today, enthusiasm trips off his tongue as he feasts on the opportunities that have arisen since.
Balls seems to be having a ball. After leaving Westminster, he joined the celebrity circuit, although he likes to play that down.
“It’s not a phrase I would ever use to describe myself,” he explains evenly. “I’ve done Strictly and the (Celebrity) Best Home Cook and Would I Lie To You? but if I said to my three kids, ‘Am I on the celebrity circuit?’ they’d say, ‘Oh my God! Who are you trying to fool?’ It would get short shrift in our household if I ever suggested it.”
Did he ever consider that doing Strictly would lessen his political kudos, that he would be remembered for his “Gangnam Style” salsa with Katya Jones rather than his contribution to the Treasury and British politics?
“I’d come out of politics. I didn’t know what I was going to do next or that the TV avenue might open up for me. When Strictly asked, I was going to say no, and I told Yvette, who said, ‘You’re mad to say no because you’d enjoy it and people would enjoy seeing you have a go’.
“I was worried that it would be the end of me doing anything else other than that and I rang Jeremy Vine who had done (Strictly) the previous year, and he said it was easily the best thing he’d ever done in his life and had never stopped him doing the serious interviews on his Radio 2 show.
“He said, ‘If you want to be governor of the Bank of England it might be harder, but other than that you’ll be okay’. And with the stuff I’ve done since, the audience lets me chat about the state of politics or the economy or Covid, and also then talk about the cha cha cha, the salsa, and lasagne recipes.”
His BBC series Travels In Trumpland allowed him to explore the rise of populism, racism and identity, but also allowed him to do more light-hearted things. He’s currently making a BBC documentary about the social care crisis, working in care homes in Yorkshire, taking part in everything from personal care to karaoke. He can get important messages across without being party political, he agrees.
Does he miss politics?
“I miss our time in government. We were in government for 13 years. I was at the Treasury for eight years and ended up being in charge of schools and children’s policy and it was the hardest and most important thing I’ve ever done.
“I miss that, but I don’t miss being in the House of Commons and shouting across the despatch box. I don’t miss being in opposition. I’m not hankering to go back and rejoin that.”
The former shadow chancellor has chosen not to stand as MP during two subsequent elections since he lost his seat.
“My preferences have been to carry on making TV programmes and writing books and doing new things. With Lord Eric Pickles, I chair the Holocaust Memorial Foundation and I teach at King’s (College, London) about the Treasury and economic policy.”
His biggest regret, he says, is not being around enough for the children when they were little and he and his wife became the first couple to be appointed to the Cabinet, when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007.
They spent a huge amount of time travelling on trains between Castleford, West Yorkshire (Cooper’s constituency is Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) and London.
“I regret that I wasn’t around enough when they were actually quite keen to have me there. The irony is that by the time I was around a lot more, they’d got to the age when they weren’t so sure they were that bothered.”
Balls himself was born in Norwich and moved with his family to Nottingham when he was eight. The son of a zoologist, he has a younger sister and brother – and he recalls that they never visited a restaurant until he was 10, as his parents thought eating out was ‘indulgent, wasteful and not for people like us’, especially as his mum was a good cook.
Inspired by Delia Smith’s Cookery Course, and with the help of his mother, a butcher’s daughter, as a schoolboy the young Ed would make bolognaise sauce, blackberry and apple crumble and other comfort staples, until he left home for Oxford University and later Harvard, when he made up for lost time by eating out a lot.
The cooking resumed when he started living with Cooper – and the rest is culinary history.
Meanwhile, the happy mid-life crisis is continuing. He’s recently completed his sailing practical and theory exam, made a lot of bread (the edible kind) for the family and taken up yoga. He has trained a vine on a pergola and written his foodie memoir.
“You never know what’s going to happen next until it happens,” he enthuses. You can almost sense him licking his lips.
Appetite by Ed Balls is published by Gallery Books UK, priced £16.99. Available now