Meet Jilly Goolden

PUBLISHED: 09:12 21 February 2014 | UPDATED: 09:12 21 February 2014

Jilly Goolden outside Trevor Mottram, the Pantiles

Jilly Goolden outside Trevor Mottram, the Pantiles

Rikard Osterlund

Why the Kent fan and wine expert loves Tunbridge Wells

You might find it hard to imagine in this age of seemingly endless cookery programmes, but not so long ago there was only one show consumers would watch for a regular dose of culinary kicks. And Kent girl Jilly Goolden was its undoubted star.

Wind forward 10 years. It’s 2014 and hardly a night goes by without celebrity chefs or haute cuisine hopefuls filling our living rooms with pretty much every aspect of modern cooking, bar the food itself.

As for Jilly, who grew up here in the Garden of England, she was one of the first; the doyenne of all things wine on BBC1’s trailblazing show Food and Drink.

It made a star of the bubbly, well-spoken presenter, who became renowned as much for her knowledge of plonk as her off-the-wall, flowery descriptions of grape and grain: a ‘whoosh of hollyhocks’, anyone?

Jilly helped the pioneering primetime show reach out to more than eight million viewers at its peak. While its success had 
an impressive 18 years timeframe, the 
legacy it created has been seemingly free 
of boundaries; these days we are a nation obsessed with every aspect of food and drink.

“I do think the programme made a difference to how people see wine, and 
I am incredibly proud of that,” she says.

“We were part of that really formative stage where people were discovering that wine was about so much more than just a flavour. We introduced the whole notion of provenance: where it came from, how it was produced, how much it cost, how you should drink it. They were fantastic times and I’ll always look back on them and consider how lucky I was to be a part of it all.”

The show also enjoyed the support 
of a burgeoning era of budget airfares and ever-expanding supermarket square footage. “Travel, I think, was a big factor,” she agrees. “Almost overnight, it became 
so much cheaper to get to different parts of the world. And when you visit somewhere different, you will always try the local tipple, so those experiences were exposing us to vast new areas of interest.

“But I have to say, making wine available in the supermarkets has been the biggest factor. It made it so much easier for women to put a bottle in the trolley with the bread and butter. And as women do the majority of the shopping, it was they who really started the wine revolution.

“Men were still driven by the beer culture, and back then beer was the most popular drink. Now it is wine, and that’s something else to be really happy about.”

Not content with her pioneering role in one of the consumer revolutions of recent decades – switching the perception of wine from an aristocratic, elite drink to something that the masses could enjoy – Jilly is going one step further. Always keen to extol her favourite tipple, she is spreading the word at her own home just across the border in Ashdown Forest.

Goolden’s Wine Room invites up to 14 guests at a time for an afternoon of food, good company and access to some of the finest ‘drops’ the world can put on show.

“To call it a wine school makes it sound 
a quite formal, and it isn’t like that at all,” she says. “The events are more like parties. And it is fabulous; we have 12 different types of wine to taste, with canapés and Champagne, and a spot of lunch. Everyone seems to enjoy themselves.”

Inviting strangers into your home is an opportunity many celebrities would rather pass up, but Jilly had no hesitation. “I think enjoying a wine has always been a really sociable thing. The room hasn’t been used since my children grew up and moved away to university, so it was just sitting there.

“My biggest fear wasn’t about having unfamiliar faces wandering around; it was more whether they’d enjoy themselves. But the first one went perfectly and we haven’t looked back. And to prove the universal nature of wine, we’ve been inviting in the widest array of people. There are those who know a lot about it, while others are exploring for the first time.

“And I think that’s what is great about wine, that whether you’re an expert or a novice, your opinion counts in equal measure. It’s all about what you – no one else – think of that distinctive Australian Cabernet Sauvignon, or that sweet Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley.”

Part of the appeal for Jilly, 54, is in keeping career and hobbies local. She has always been loyal to the area she loves and grew up in, very close to Ashdown Forest.

“Where we live has been the family home for decades. I still ride the same 
trails as I did when I was a child.

“I’ve always been in love with the space and greenery of Kent and Sussex. Both are rich in heritage and history and a real level of class. I don’t think there are any two counties like them in the rest of the UK.”

Jilly might have been expelled – “I’d say ‘asked to leave!’ – from the local convent, though looking back admits the experience provided an invaluable grounding in wanting to get ‘out there’ and achieve.

“I did learn I could do something with my life; it was an inspirational place, actually, although maybe not in the way they intended! It made me want to go and achieve something in the world, anyway.”

And achieve she has. Apart from her role as the UK’s foremost female wine critic, Jilly has proved a hit on reality TV, most notably taking to the Australian ‘jungle’ in I’m a Celebrity, Get me out of Here.

“I didn’t last too long and I was voted out quite early, but I was in Australia on the Gold Coast. There are worse places to be!

“Having a break so different to the norm really focused my mind. It was dreadful going without wine while I was on there, so perhaps that has made me more determined to make my new enterprise a success.

“Whenever I’ve been to Kent Farmers’ Markets I’ve seen a real passion in local people for produce and goods that come from nearby. It heartens me to see the country habits of old are coming back in, 
so the more I can work with the local community – even if I am just talking 
about wine – the better I feel.”

And to prove her allegiance to the county, Jilly requested especially that 
Kent Life took her pictures in the setting of her favourite shop: Trevor Mottram, the specialist cookware empororium on the The Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells, which 
also sells the wine glasses Jilly loves. n

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