It’s a choice few nine year olds would dither over: an afternoon at the circus or a family visit to a culinary showcase.
It was the weekend of the third Tynemouth Food Festival being held in its new location in the coastal village’s historic priory and castle. At the same time Planet Circus was drawing in the crowds just along the road at Beaconsfield overlooking Longsands beach.
Lily Hanson was faced with deciding between food fun in the rain or clownish capers in a heated, and importantly given the weather, dry big top.
The youngster didn’t take long to choose: Tynemouth Food Festival won out. In fact, the King Edward Primary School pupil along with mum Jacqueline and dad Paul went on to spend an enjoyable two days at the festival sampling the street food and chatting to the 50 or so local producers who had set out their stalls.
The family from North Shields hadn’t intended to go back twice. But Lily hadn’t had her fill of pulled pork sandwiches, fish wraps, freshly made pizza and gooey homemade cakes.
Lily is something of a rarity in an age when all most kids seem to want to eat is mass produced burgers, fizzy pop and sweets: a budding foodie.
Her favourite dish is octopus (although she struggles to find it on the wet fish counters and admits she has yet to master cooking it properly) and her preferred pastime is eating out at some very grown-up restaurants.
She chats about the merits or otherwise of food as enthusiastically as others her age discuss the latest teen band or electronic gadget.
It’s a passion that is taking over her young life. The last few school holidays have been spent in London with her mum sampling the capital’s culinary hotspots. Originally the trips south had been designed to introduce Lily to London’s world class museums and art galleries, but the pair were soon side-tracked by the delights of Gelupo, an ice cream parlour in Soho that Lily gives a resounding 10/10, and Dishoom in Covent Garden with its Indian take on British classics that scores a respectable 9/10 from the young epicurean.
Lily especially likes ‘the Bombay café in London’s’ breakfast menu with its egg and sausage naan rolls with chilli tomato jam.
Jacqueline, a 46-year-old civil servant, is already planning her and Lily’s autumn half-term trip – a few days at the BBC Good Food Show in Glasgow.
If it all sounds a tad pretentious for a nine year old to be so interested in food, it’s anything but. Lily is just naturally drawn towards cooking and eating – and sharing her young passion with others.
She already has a Twitter account, the aptly named I Love My Bait (monitored by her mum, of course. “I’m Lily’s secretary,” she says with a laugh), where she chronicles her adventures in food.
Her Rapunzel gingerbread house won the children’s competition in last year’s Gingerbread House Challenge in Newcastle.
And she enjoys cooking at home and has already developed a favourite family recipe – Lily’s Fish Dish – and is harbouring hopes of one day appearing on Junior MasterChef.
Ultimately, she would like to be a top chef when she leaves school.
Lily hasn’t yet asked for a kitchen to be built in the bedroom of her terraced home in the style of 15-year-old American teenage chef prodigy Flynn McGarry, who exudes the confidence of a veteran and dreams of getting a Michelin star, but it might not be long before it’s on Santa’s Christmas wish list.
Ask Lily why she likes food and enjoys spending her spare time eating, drinking and breathing it, and she looks momentarily nonplussed. It may be the gargantuan homemade chocolate brownie she’s wading through at Tynemouth’s Dil and the Bear café that’s put her off her stride, but she seems genuinely perplexed by the question.
Press her further and she says: “Because I like food.” She pauses and having thought further adds: “It’s probably the fact that mum cooks so much and what she cooks is really nice.
“I’ve always helped mum cook and done the peeling, chopping and mixing. I have this kind of fish pie thing that I love to cook. We call it Lily’s Fish Pie. We got the recipe from a magazine but I’ve made it my own,” she adds proudly.
“I also do Sunshine Soup for my dad. It’s carrot and butternut squash and is very bright and cheerful.”
Jacqueline has never baulked at letting Lily loose in the kitchen – although she admits husband Paul, 49, who is deputy chief executive of North Tyneside Council, is slightly less accommodating, preferring to cook on his own.
“I’ve always encouraged Lily,” she explains. “It is tricky when kids are young as they do make a lot of mess. I have a friend who can’t bear to have her daughter in the kitchen because of the chaos.
“But I believe cooking is a life skill and Lily likes food. She is brilliant in the kitchen now and all that early investment has paid off.
“My own mother didn’t cook much and as a result I am largely self-taught. I would hate to think that Lily had left home unable to cook and fend for herself.
“Lily is very competent in the kitchen. She knows how to use a knife safely, she has opinions and she likes experimenting.
“I started her off at around three years old with mixing things like cupcakes and by the age of five or six she had progressed on to helping prep meals. Now at nine she is quite capable of cooking a meal on her own.”
And sourcing ingredients too. She is a big fan of North Shields’ Fish Quay.
The Twitter account started as a jest. “Mum and dad made a joke about me really liking food and mum said I should have a Twitter account and call it I Love My Bait as I love my food so much.
“Two months later I was on Twitter. I Tweet about where I’ve been to eat and what I’ve thought of the food.”
Jacqueline was slightly nervous about letting her daughter loose on Twitter. “But she is growing up in the internet age and she had a desire to say something about food and her experiences.
“We are great believers as a family in only saying something when you have something to say, and Twitter is short and sweet.”
Lily did a live Twitter feed from Tynemouth Food Festival with ‘selfies’.
As a young lady with plenty of foodie opinions, where are her favourite places to eat out in the North East?
“I love My Shanghai in North Shields and the fact you can eat as much as you want. And the Gate of India in Tynemouth is really nice. I love the chicken korma. That’s a definite 10/10.
“Yo Shusi is fantastic in Fenwick in Newcastle. I love getting all the dishes off the conveyor belt and then seeing dad’s face when he gets the bill and realises how much I’ve eaten!
“And Garden Kitchen in Eldon Garden is nice. Their homemade lemonade is good and I like the picnic meals which are served on a mini picnic bench. That’s really cool.”
Is there anywhere she doesn’t like? Lots of places, but she’s too discreet to name names. She doesn’t like what she calls “New York food,” however.
She does know where she wants to eat, though. Kenny Atkinson’s new House of Tides on Newcastle Quayside is high on her list of places along with a few Michelin starred eateries in London.
If she gets her wish the chefs should be prepared for Lily to make an unannounced visit to the kitchen. She’s very probing when it comes to food – in fact, almost as nosy as the clown she did eventually get to see at the circus.
Proof in Lily’s case that it’s possible to have your Tynemouth Food Festival cake and eat it.
Lily’s Fish Dish (Serves four)
Knob of butter
500g smoked haddock fillets, skinned
300ml creme fraiche
2-4tsps Dijon mustard
150g Gruyere cheese, grated
4tbsps or so of panko crumbs (or breadcrumbs)
Salt and ground pepper to season
Pre-heat the oven to 220C/fan 200C/gas mark 7.
Wash and then wilt the spinach in a frying pan with the knob of butter. Press out any liquid and spread over the base of an oven proof dish.
Sit the fish in a layer on top.
Grate the cheese (I get mum to take over this task when I get bored) and mix with the creme fraiche and mustard. I use four teaspoons but you can adjust to taste. Add some black pepper and a pinch of salt (just a little pinch as the smoked haddock is quite salty).
Spread this mixture evenly over the fish.
Sprinkle the breadcrumbs on top.
Bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes until golden and bubbling.
Serve with crusty bread.