In this series, Rebecca Shearer speaks to the people who have helped shape Scotland’s food and drink industry, and finds out more about the role that fine fare has played throughout their lives and career. Here, she catches up with foodie and trained chef Catherine Devaney…
Her own catering business Harper and Lime, which was established in September 2018, took a hit at the start of lockdown, before pivoting into delivering eye-catching and tasty afternoon teas to our doorsteps.
But before this was all possible, Catherine started out by training as a lawyer. Here, she looks back on where it all began, at her favourite food memories from throughout her life and career.
Having been born and raised in Dundee, Catherine was used to home-cooked, traditional family food and often played a part in creating her own.
“I grew up in Dundee, where my dad is from (my mum is from further up the country, in the north-east). We all love food in the family and we all ate very quickly, so if you wanted seconds, you had to move really fast!
“I have an older sister and brother but they are 10 and 11 years older than me so by the time I was six they were off to university. So a lot of the time it was just me at home with mum and dad.
“My parents were both teachers but we always sat round the table to eat and it brought us together. I think my mum enjoyed cooking and her food was quite a traditional mix of veg and staple dishes like mince and tatties, Scotch broth, roast chicken and lots of tatties.
“There were also little flashes of what was classed as ‘sophistication’ in the 1980s, for example Saturday night was always spaghetti bolognese. To this day, mum and dad still have that on a Saturday night. For dessert it would be the height of luxury as we’d have some sort of frozen dessert such as profiteroles or a frozen apple strudel.
“And that would be a typical Saturday night for us when I was about seven or eight – it just felt really comforting. We didn’t always talk much at mealtimes but it still felt like a connection.
“Sundays would usually be about a slow-cooked beef dish of some sort. I don’t think I understood until I was much older that you can cook beef pink as, when I was a child, it was cooked all the way through.
“My parents wouldn’t have it any other way and the upshot of that is that my mum would make an amazing brisket with meltingly tender beef and still makes it today. We didn’t eat a lot of fish other than at parties where my granny would poach a whole salmon and decorate it with cucumber slices, but that’s about as far as it went with fish.
“Mum wasn’t much of a baker but my granny was so I guess my mum taught me to love cooking but my granny taught me to love baking. I remember standing by my granny’s Raeburn in her kitchen and making bannocks, which we’d make a lot, as well as jelly. There was one particular time where there was a snowstorm and I was up at my granny’s. We made orange jelly and set them on a try to sit outside for a bit and to set in the cold. I just remember seeing this tray sitting outside with the orange jellies on it.
“She also taught me how to make a lot of cupcakes by weighing an egg and the weight of butter, sugar and flour on her old traditional scales. She also had this amazing spice cupboard and used to collect all the little spice jars, but when I was little I would play shops with them! The smell of it was so evocative and not long after my granny died we went to see the house before it was sold and the last thing I wanted to do before we left was smell the cupboard.
“Where my mum would often be busy cooking, I was more hands on at my granny’s. Mum would show me what she was doing but she was busy as she was a working mum. Granny had a lot more time so she would let me play around with food.
“Every summer my cousin would come up from England and we’d stay with our granny and get to cook a whole meal. We’d make a big thing out of it – my granny’s friends would come over and myself and my cousin would prepare everything. It would usually be things like a platter of cold meats and salads. But we would set the table and make it all beautiful – I loved that whole process of planning a meal, making it and seeing people’s enjoyment of it.”
After attending St John’s High School in Dundee, Catherine then left to study law at university, taking her love of home cooked food with her.
“In my early teens I discovered fast food and so probably ate a lot of rubbish. It was the 1990s and we used to hand out at the McDonald’s on Dundee’s Reform Street. Then I got my first part-time job at McLeish’s delicatessen, which I don’t think it’s called anymore – it had a delicatessen on one side and a fish counter on the other.
“I was the Saturday girl at McLeish’s and that was my first job to do with food. On my breaks I would have a freshly baked baguette with honey roast ham and coleslaw, which was really simple but always takes me back to being a teenager again.
“Then when I went to uni in Edinburgh I was a waitress in Pizza Hut during the summer holidays and at Christmas – and I would eat far too much pizza with pepperoni and pineapple, which is still my favourite pizza topping today, much to my husband’s disgust.
“During my first year at university I stayed in halls of residence and the meals were just stodge. There was no opportunity to cook as we didn’t have our own kitchen. But then when I moved into a flat in second year that was amazing as I could start to cook for myself again.
“I think at that time I thought I was quite an accomplished cook, but looking back what I was cooking was really quite basic. We loved having people over for dinner and make simple things like chicken breast with soft Philadelphia cheese wrapped with bacon but we thought it was quite sophisticated. Homemade banoffee pie also featured a lot, as well as pasta.
“In my third year of university I went to study in Montreal in Canada and the food started to get a bit more cosmopolitan at that stage. It was quite a revelation for me as, in Edinburgh, student law parties would consist of warm wine and crisps – if there was anything at all. Suddenly, in Montreal, the student parties had caterers who would come in with sushi and sashimi in the middle of the party!
“After being in Montreal I went travelling around Canada and there was a meal I specifically remember that I had in Prince Edward Island. It was the longest bus ride to ghetto Charlottetown and took about three days. I travelled on my own and I went to a cafe where I had Blue Island mussels with fries and a cold beer. It was amazing. I remember sitting there in the evening sun and just thinking ‘I’ve arrived!’.
Despite still being involved in law, Catherine continued to work in the hospitality industry at weekends, during the summer holidays and at Christmas, widening her experience and knowledge of food.
“After uni, once I’d returned to Edinburgh, I worked as a waitress at a seafood restaurant on Frederick Street. That was my first real introduction to seafood. One evening the chef gave me some leftover seafood to take home and I ended up making a seafood pasta with lots of mussels and squid for my first serious boyfriend on our first proper date.
“Working there was my first insight into a proper kitchen but I was really scared of the chef and none of the waitresses were allowed in the kitchen. We stood at the pass and would never speak. It was quite an intense place to work.
“Coming out of uni was when I was first introduced to ‘proper restaurants’. My sister was married at this point and her and her husband would take me out for dinner to nice restaurants in Edinburgh. I definitely started appreciating the whole restaurant experience a lot more.
“After I graduated I went to do my law training with a firm in Edinburgh and then moved down to London for the second year. I think things started to get a bit more interesting food-wise at this stage, too. I worked for a partner in London who loved Fergus Henderson, whose restaurant is all about the ‘nose to tail’ eating.
“The partner used to take us out to Fergus’ restaurant St John in Smithfield every time we’d completed a big deal. The whole team would get to go out and I had never seen food like it before. But it was exciting.
“I had the freshest langoustines I’d ever had and woodcock, which was a little bit daunting at 21. They’d serve it with the head still on and the woodcock’s innards would be served on toast on the side. And then you’d have to scoop out the brain.
“That combined with the restaurant feeling fresh and really pared back, it opened my eyes to a different way that food could be.”
“I worked as a lawyer until my youngest daughter was born, who’s now seven, then went back for a year and realised it was an almost impossible career to continue in with small children. I then had my second daughter, who’s now five, and when I was off on maternity with her I hadn’t consciously made the decision to change to a career in hospitality but I knew I didn’t want to go back to law.
“It really didn’t take long for the one thing that has been a constant throughout my life (which is cooking) to come to the forefront. So my career in hospitality emerged from there, quite gently and organically as I was loving cooking for my family.
“I was so passionate about getting the girls interested in food. So when they were little and learning how to eat, I never gave them mushed up food and put them straight on to proper food as soon as I could, such as whole vegetables.
“I was trying to be as adventurous as possible when cooking for them as I think six-month-old babies are actually quite adventurous anyway. But I was really into the family cooking at this point.
“So I started a food blog which I loved writing for and photographing the food and I loved cooking, but I didn’t like the blog side of it in the sense of trying to get followers for it. But I channelled a lot more energy into cooking.
“Then I began thinking ‘how can I make this into a career?’ and how could I take it forward? So from there I decided to go back to college and trained as a chef at Elmwood, which was about four years ago.
“The lecturers at Elmwood were just fantastic and if you’re passionate and keen they have so much time for you and so much to give. I learned an incredible amount there and it was really quite eye opening.
“While I was there I did a stint at The Newport Restaurant working under Jamie Scott. That then led to an opportunity to go and work for Jamie part-time when I left college. I’d never thought it was possible for someone in my position – with small children – to be able to go and work in a professional kitchen of that calibre. Jamie gave me that opportunity, which was absolutely incredible and the chefs who work there are such a great support and are so giving of their time.
“After working there for a short period and learning a whole skillset I was able to set up my own catering business, Harper and Lime. Since September 2018 we started off doing smaller events, private dining and bespoke catering. Then earlier this year, just before lockdown, we were moving into larger events but everything has since been cancelled.
“It left me thinking about the future of the business. Funnily enough I’ve managed to pivot the business and the afternoon teas we now deliver to homes began as something to get me through lockdown have been so popular that we are looking to move into ‘delivered catering’ for the foreseeable.
“I genuinely can’t see that event catering will be back to the way it was for at least another year so if I can move towards a ‘deliveries’ model, which there seems to be an appetite for, then that’s fantastic. It fits with family life as well.
“The challenges of lockdown made me come up with something that actually works really well around having the children and I’m excited for the future.”
Summer Strawberry Tarts
For the pastry:
- 50g caster sugar
- 125g butter (at room temperature)
- 1 free-range egg, beaten
- 200g plain flour
- Pinch salt
For the creme diplomat filling:
- 500ml milk
- 1 vanilla pod or a few drops of vanilla essence
- 4 egg yolks
- 125g caster sugar
- 75g soft flour
- 10g custard powder
- 750ml double cream
- First, make the pastry. Cream the butter and sugar. Gradually add the beaten egg, mixing after every addition. Add the flour and salt, one spoonful at a time. Mix lightly until smooth.
- Shape the dough into a block (it will be very soft) and wrap in cling film. Put it in the fridge to rest for a couple of hours or overnight.
- Roll out the pastry to 3mm thickness, then cut out rounds and gently press into small fluted tartlet moulds. Prick the bottoms with a fork.
- Line each tartlet mould with cling film, fill with baking beans and bake blind at 190°C for 14-18 minutes. Remove the baking beans and cling film and cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container until ready to fill.
- Next, make the creme diplomat filling. Bring the milk and vanilla to the boil, then allow to cool slightly. Whisk the sugar and egg yolks until pale and thick. Add the flour and custard powder and beat to incorporate.
- Strain the milk and gradually add to the egg mixture, whisking as you go. Pour the mixture into a clean pan over a low/medium heat and bring it back to the boil, whisking constantly. As soon as it starts to bubble, turn the heat down low and whisk until very thick and smooth. Transfer to a bowl, sprinkle with caster sugar and cover with cling film. Chill in the fridge.
- Once chilled, whisk the mixture with 750ml double cream until it stands in stiff peaks.
- Chill the mix until ready to fill the tarts, then pipe into the individual tart cases, top with a halved ripe strawberry and brush with strawberry glaze.
Read more in this series…