Ed Balls: Food, finance, football, fancy footwork and finding a remarkable canary-coloured past
- Credit: Steve Adams
Ed Balls is well on the way to national treasure status – morphing from academic economist and Labour politician to a man as comfortable in Strictly sequins as presenting hands-on documentaries in a care worker’s uniform. But his dream job has always been to play for Norwich City and even as chairman of the club he fantasised about that appeal for him to race to the rescue of a beleaguered team.
“I had my first Norwich kit when I was five,” said Ed, who was born in Norwich in 1967, into a family which had supported Norwich City for generations.
He went on to become chief economic advisor to the treasury, secretary of state for children, schools and families, shadow chancellor of the exchequer, and now teaches economics at top universities in Britain and the USA, but Canary to the core, Ed still fantasises about a glorious substitution in yellow and green.
“The thing I most wanted to happen from when I was very little was that tanoy call!” he said. “Even when I was chairman I always thought I should take my kit just in case they were short!”
Ed’s earliest memories are of growing up in Bawburgh, near Norwich. There were family holidays to Sheringham, Sunday worship every week at the Norwich church where his parents, Michael and Carolyn, had met, and his mum’s Sunday roast. So many of memories centre on food that when he began putting together favourite family recipes for his eldest daughter to take to university, the collection eventually grew into an engaging memoir.
Appetite, published by Simon and Schuster this summer, is a feast of favourite family recipes and stories. Every chapter is a menu of family togetherness, famous names and political triumphs and travails, served with an impressively wide range of ways of embarrassing his children and lashing of self-deprecating humour.
We learn about the dinners his mum taught him to cook, and how he makes them for her now. “Sunday roast is an important family tradition, but it’s also one I love to share,” he says. “The night before the general election in 2015, when I lost my seat and my political career suddenly ended, I cooked roast beef for all my exhausted campaign team...When I was eliminated from Strictly Come Dancing the following year and invited my partner Katya over with her husband Neil, I chose roast beef to welcome them into our family.”
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The book already has some very famous fans. It is a recipe book endorsed by Delia and a memoir shot through with humour endorsed by Stephen Fry - who says it's: “Just wonderful. This is food writing as it should be: a triumphant mix of childhood memories, family feasts, political machinations and always good food.”
Delia says: “To be a really good cook you have to be passionate about really good food. Ed is such a person and in this delightfully different book the passion shines through.”
Ed laughs: “She basically says that I like eating a lot, which is probably accurate! I have talked about cooking and food with Delia for a long time. For my generation she was the first TV chef. When she said she liked my book, that was great!
“The second-best Delia endorsement I could have, other than she wanted to sign me to play football, is that she likes my Yorkshire puddings!”
However, Delia was not quite as convinced by his take on her Christmas goose recipe which sees him cooking it outside in a barbecue every year. “She looked at me quizzically!” admitted Ed.
Ed moves from school lunches at Bawburgh, (“good and stodgy,”) to the meals he cooked to impress girlfriend, and now wife, Yvette Cooper.
Ed and Yvette became the first married couple in British history to be in the Cabinet together and when the first of their three children was born Ed took on all the family cooking, from weekday favourites to Christmas dinner for all the extended family, and some very elaborate birthday cakes.
As befits a political family, there is plenty of debate when they get together, about everything from current affairs to football and when Ed was chairman of his beloved Norwich City Football Club, from 2015 to 2018, he said: “I was regularly forced to explain that I neither picked the team, dictated the corner routines, or personally took the penalties.”
He ends the football food chapter not with the match day pie he cooked for Mary Berry on Sport Relief Bake Off (when he didn’t dare counter accusations of a soggy bottom by explaining they are de rigueur for football pies) but with the strawberry pavlova he makes for family meals in Norwich after a game. “I think there is no better consolation after an unlucky home defeat than a big pavlova, oozing with fresh, whipped double cream and fresh fruit,” he said.
Appetite reveals the power of shared meals to bind families together through generations, and to express life-long love which even pierces the cruelties of aging and dementia.
It was food which helped alert Ed’s family to the devastating impact of his mum’s dementia. She lost the ability to cook, and then to cope at all without full-time specialist care.
Just as his mum inspired his love of cooking, she helped inspired his latest television documentary. In Inside the Care Crisis with Ed Balls he spends a fortnight as a care worker in a residential home, “I live in, I do everything,” he said. “I always thought I knew what personal care was but I don’t think I understood how intense and difficult, but also how human it is. And then people say these jobs aren’t skilled. People say, ‘You are just a carer, all you do is make tea and wipe bums.’ The gulf between our perception and the reality is so wide.”
“I was in government when we sorted out money for the NHS, but we probably didn’t do enough for social care.”
The programme shows an emotional reunion with his mum, in her Norwich care home, after many months of not being able to visit because of coronavirus restrictions. The pandemic also left his dad on his own for many months and Ed said it was daily Zoom calls and a new-found love of Japanese food delivered from favourite family restaurant Shiki, on Tombland, which got him through. And football, of course. “There aren’t many institutions which bind families across generations, and bind you with people you don’t know,” said Ed. “Football and Strictly are quite similar in that way. If I’m wearing a Norwich scarf in London, other Norwich fans will say hello. And bus drivers wind down their windows to ask if I’m still dancing.”
His immediate reaction, on being asked to do Strictly, was to back swiftly away. “Why would someone who had been a politician and now teaches at Harvard and King’s College, London, go on a dance show?” he said. “But when I went home and mentioned it to my wife she asked how I could possibly turn it down.”
And so the man who lost his seat in 2015 found his dancing feet a year later.
“The only way to do Strictly was to completely throw myself into it. You really have to put caution and worries to one side and go for it. And it becomes quite liberating!”
He went on to win Celebrity Best Home Cook and last week co-hosted Good Morning Britain for three days. He also recently appeared in Richard Osman’s House of Games – and the karaoke machine he won is destined to entertain the residents of the care home he joined as a temporary member of staff. “The offer to do House of Games came up when I was working in the care home,” explained Ed. “Simon, the chief nurse, was desperate for one of those prizes. He has a sideline as a white-suited Elvis.” Ed joined him belting out Elvis songs for the residents. “Afterwards we changed back into our uniforms and got on with the medication round!” he said.
And has he got a favourite Elvis karaoke song? “Of course I have! Can’t Help Falling in Love - that was a song Yvette and I had at our wedding.”
However, there is one show he has said he could never do - because of a childhood experience in Norwich. “My dad was a lecturer at the University of East Anglia in the late 60s and early 70s and I used to go there with him on a Saturday. He was a biologist and he would go and check the animals. One day I put my finger in a cage and got bitten by a rat.” It led to a phobia of rates which means he will never join Ant and Dec in the jungle.
So what is his main job now? “It’s a pretty wide range of things!” said Ed. “Being in government was the hardest thing I ever did. And it was the best thing.
“These films about social care are a different way of raising important issues. It’s a different way of doing something purposeful. Doing documentaries where you try to get under the skin of something, on the inside, is very satisfying.
“There are lots of conversations going on about what we do next.”
He is next on our screens on November 30 in the latest series of the BBC ancestry series Who Do You Think You Are. He assumed the story would be rooted in Norfolk - but was astonished at the canary connections researchers uncovered.
He knew his dad’s family had run a market garden and his mum’s family had a butcher’s shop in Norwich, but he is soon following his family tree out of county for a grim glimpse into the life of an assistant ship surgeon.
“Both stories they use in the film are the struggles of early 19th century Britain and they are intense and emotional. On my mum’s side the whole story is about Norfolk agriculture. But it’s complicated in ways I wasn’t expecting and we end up in Norwich Castle,” said Ed, whose political career was based on wanting to make the world a better place and found a deep connection with the agricultural labourer ancestor tried for defending his community.
But Ed’s absolute favourite part of the research did not make the final cut.
“On my mum’s side in the 1860s, 70s and 80s my great great grandfather was a premier breeder of Norfolk canaries. He bred and showed and trained canaries. He won prizes. To find out my great great grandfather was a Canary too, well before the football club has been established. For me that was easily the most exciting bit. I end up filming that standing in centre circle of Carrow Road.”
Ed’s frequent trips back to Norfolk are focused on family, football and food and, once a year an activity which Ed is convinced is an ancient county tradition.
The family gather every Easter Sunday to throw eggs over their house. “My dad has always done it. You have to do a lob and it has to go quite high. Every year, or every other year, someone catches an egg. But if you don’t catch it just right it just explodes,” he explained. “I’m banned from doing at my in-laws so we can never have Easter Sunday there! When I was filming Travels in Euroland with Ed Balls in Germany at Easter I told them it was a Norfolk tradition. In 100 years time there might be whole swathes of eastern Germany throwing eggs over their houses.
“I do believe it’s a Norfolk tradition. But if not, it’s a good tradition.”
No wonder the world needed an Ed Balls Day to commemorate the time he accidentally tweeted his own name. Charismatic and engaging Ed wears his formidable intellect lightly, as ready to use food and television as politics and economics to make things better – and still available as an emergency Norwich City player.
What are you reading? I have just read Colm Tobin’s The Magician, an imagined story of novelist Thomas Mann. It’s brilliant. My next read is my cousin’s A Furious Devotion, the life of Shane MacGowan, by Richard Balls.
What are you listening to? I listen to a lot of live radio. Radio 2, 3 and 4, a bit of Times Radio. And a very, very good friend of mine, who was in my team as minister of education, is also a very good singer so I’m listening to his The Clown and the Cigarette Girl on Spotify. (A collection of folk songs written and performed by Kevin Brennan, MP for Cardiff West.)
What are you watching? Succession, because it’s really brilliant. And I have just watched the Netflix Scandi-noir Borderlands which is even better than The Bridge.
An extract from Appetite, a memoir in recipes of family and food by Ed Balls - including his pavlova recipe:
"The food in the Norwich City director’s dining room is excellent
every week and all the recipes are Delia’s own. I was there for
pretty much every game when I was chairman and still pop in
for lunch every now and then in my role as vice-president and
club ambassador, an honour I share with fervent City fan, Sir
Stephen Fry. They regularly serve beautiful fish, tasty casseroles
and an excellent Thai curry before the game, and the half-time
sausage rolls and cakes are legendary. They also do terrific
desserts, including ginger puddings, lemon meringue pie and
a particularly good pavlova. These days we are back sitting in
the stand and only occasionally go in the directors’ box, but I
will often make pavlova to eat when we get back to my parents’
house after the game. You have to plan ahead if you want to
cook it yourself, as they’re much better if they have time to cool
and dry in the oven, but I think there is no better consolation
after an unlucky home defeat than a big pavlova, oozing with
fresh, whipped double cream and fresh fruit – preferably
strawberries or raspberries."
• 8 egg whites
• 450g caster sugar
• 1 tsp vanilla essence
• 600ml double cream, whipped
• 1 tbsp icing sugar (optional)
• Strawberries, raspberries or any other soft fruit, washed,
chopped and sprinkled with caster sugar
1. Turn the oven on to 170°C/325°F/gas mark 3 and cut a
piece of greaseproof paper big enough to cover a large
2. Separate eight eggs and put the whites into a bowl (the
yolks can be used for a Hollandaise sauce if you fancy Eggs
Benedict). Using an electric mixer, beat the whites until you
have stiff peaks – the egg white should stand up straight
when you fluff them up.
3. Now add the sugar slowly into the whites, beating thoroughly with the electric mixer throughout. The whole
process of adding the sugar should take about 8 minutes,
at the end of which you will have a very thick and silky
mixture. Then add the vanilla essence and gently mix in.
4. With a tablespoon, dab three blobs of the mixture onto
the baking tray and then lay over a piece of baking paper
so it is held in place. Dump the meringue onto the paper
in the centre of the tray and shape so you have a dip in the
centre where the cream and fruit will sit. You can decide
how high or low and wide to make the meringue.
5. Put the tray into the oven and immediately turn the
temperature down to 130°C/250°F/gas mark 1. Leave the
meringue in the oven for an hour and a half and then turn
off the oven entirely. Leave the meringue to cool in the
oven for another couple of hours.
6. When the meringue has cooled, carefully turn it upside
down – I use another baking tray to support it as you
turn – and gently peel off the paper; then turn it back onto
a big plate or board. Whip up the cream – you can add a
tablespoon of icing sugar if you like, but you don’t need
it – and spoon it into the hollow of the meringue; then
pile the fruit on top.