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Amy Willcock… on being the AGA Goddess & revolutionising the WI

Amy Willcock… on being the AGA Goddess & revolutionising the WI

Aga cookery expert, WI judge and professional go-getter, Amy Willcock talks about her career since moving to the Island and her plans to get the Isle of Wight County Show back on track.

“I came to the Island 18 years ago when my husband Jeremy Willcock and his partner John Illsley bought the George Hotel in Yarmouth, but I’m originally from Chicago. We’ve lived in this house for 16 years and my Aga is 14 years old.

“When I bought it the nearest Aga demonstrator was miles away and I said “I do a lot of cookery demonstrations,” and they said that to be an Aga demonstrator required very high standards.

“They said, “come up to Telford,” where they taught the demonstrators, and we’ll see what happens but it was like dead men’s shoes – there were only a certain number of demonstrators in the UK. But I went and it was all one to one in the factory and you saw an Aga being made from the casting to leaving the depot, but it was all very prescriptive with no allowance for individuality.

“I said, “thank you very much but I won’t be demonstrating in any of your shops,” because you had to do their demonstrating. Around 14 years ago we had started seeing Jamie Oliver on our screens and people didn’t want to make their sort of stuff: stews, jam roly poly and the biggest thing they made was a Swiss roll.

“So I produced my own demonstration. Risotto was something they had never cooked in an Aga – they’d use the top of the Aga and it would take 45 minutes, which would kill your Aga. If you want to simmer something you put it in the simmering oven. When you cook in an Aga it’s an 80/20 split (in the Aga to on the top of the Aga).

“So I started converting menus to Aga cooking. I said “I’m going to do them in my house,” which is the way I’ve always done demonstrations, and that was the start for me.

“I started writing for Aga’s website and their publisher Ebury saw what I was doing and asked me if I’d like to write a book. It’s not my natural medium to write but you just get on with it –it was a fantastic learning curve.

“I was promoting At Home with Amy Willcock (her 6th book) and it was Christmas and they said can you give us five tips for the New Year and I said, “join the WI” (Women’s Institute) and then someone sent me an email asking how you join the WI and I thought I’d better find out.

“I found them online and there wasn’t a Yarmouth WI so I said I’d start one. I said to my friends, “We’re starting a WI and you have to join,” and within a year we had 147 members.

“I met a wonderful woman called Jill Davis who had been something super duper in IBM and she was a godsend who made sure everything we did was absolutely kosher.

“We started it five years ago next January and had over 60 people to our first open meeting even though it was snowing – people came from head office, we couldn’t believe it.

“We didn’t’ know that the WI had been approached by the BBC to make a documentary and they needed a new group – we were a gift to them because we were on it. We were challenging the way in which the WI had been doing things.

“They were being told that they had to pull their socks up and they didn’t like it. I had really rude letters in the County Press and I was attacked in Sainsbury’s for using a Sainsbury’s bag, by a woman at the checkout. The woman was so vile – she was shaking with rage.

“One of the things that came up was the judging at the WI. We had comments cards that we didn’t understand on our entries. We were outraged and we found that everyone was complaining across the country and I wrote and said, “this is totally non acceptable.”

“So they asked me to sit on the National Education Committee of the WI and overhaul the judging system.  Then I went on the Cookery Judging course and it was fantastic and I finally achieved my Cookery Judge Badge from the NFWI (National Federation of Women’s Institutes). Then I had to repeat the whole thing in preserves so that now I’m a NFWI Cookery and Preserves Judge.

“The County Show is my next big adventure. It will be on Saturday June 16th 2012 and has a new name, The Royal Isle of Wight County Show, and I’m on the executive committee and I’m Chair of the Show Committee and we’re recruiting new members for the exec committee.

“In the last two months the change in attitude and passion has been fantastic, the whole thing has turned a corner. The reason for the County Show is to raise money for bursaries for people to go to agricultural college and I’d like to think that in three or four years time we could fund one student to go through a two-year course.

“We’ve got our silver out – we’re a Royal society and Queen Victoria gave a lot of our silver, which we are going to display in the member’s enclosure and present the trophies.

“We’re not just a County Fair we’re the agricultural community’s show-case and we need them to support us. I hope people will put on their best tweed suits and straw hats and come along.”

And you can be sure that if Amy is involved it will be a success. Watch this space…