The Captain Cooks

Traditional Basque wisdom has it that “to know how to eat is to know enough.”

This bit of insight introduces a cozy, appealing, and easy-to-follow cookbook which, despite the title, has unexpectedly wide appeal: Delicious Dishes for Diabetics by Robin Ellis.

Robin Ellis. The name, understandably, is familiar.

Fans of Fawlty Towers (and I’m sure there are many among the followers of this website) will remember “A Touch of Class,” the first episode of that classic television series. In it, Ellis played Danny Brown, the Cockney lawman with a convenient fluency in Spanish who saves the day. That’s the episode where Basil (John Cleese) is embarrassingly bowing and kowtowing in his attempts to impress a purported aristocrat.

In 1975, soon after his appearance in that landmark television series, Ellis went on to star in Poldark, one of the most successful British adaptations of all time. This romantic saga, set in Cornwall at the end of the eighteenth century, was based on the novels of Winston Graham and, as Alistair Cooke noted in his introduction to the series broadcast in the United States, it provided “the time for the party to settle in to a spate of loving, dueling, poaching, smuggling, wenching, and marrying, not to mention banking and copper mining.”

Following in the tradition of The Forsyte Saga (1967), the original Upstairs Downstairs (1971), and The Pallisers (1974), Poldark was enormously popular and, indeed, was recently voted by PBS viewers to be included in the list of the ten best series ever broadcast on Masterpiece Theatre. The role of Captain Poldark made Ellis a very big star and a serious heartthrob around the world. Speaking recently in an interview about that time in his career, Ellis recalled, “I was just a bit embarrassed by it. I remember one time I was visiting the Aldwych Theatre, in London, and there was a crowd of Irish schoolgirls with their two nuns and they chased me around the theatre, with the nuns trying to catch up. I hid up in the upper circle because I couldn’t really deal with it!”

Be that as it may, to this day fans of the series, of Ellis and, indeed, of the fictional Captain himself, follow his activities with rapt attention, even devotion.

Robin Ellis was born in January 1942 in Ipswich, England. He began his theatrical career at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where he read history and acted in more than twenty plays. Since then, and in addition to the aforementioned Fawlty Towers and Poldark, he has appeared in many other television roles, the Merchant Ivory film version of The Europeans, and several West End productions including the beguiling Sylvia by A. R. Gurney.

Now, more than thirty years after playing the good Captain Poldark, a lifelong interest in food has led Ellis to a new role—that of gourmet and cookbook author.

Ellis credits his mother, Molly, with inspiring his interest. “Molly loved to cook and to entertain,” he writes. “Thanks to her I grew up enjoying well-prepared simple food, eaten with family and friends around the kitchen table. . . . Those convivial meals with my parents were the start of my love affair with food.”

In Making Poldark: Memoir of a BBC/Masterpiece Theatre Actor, Ellis shares further autobiographical tidbits:

I learned to cook at my mother’s knee. That’s about where I came up to the first time I remember being allowed to lick out the cake bowl. What ambrosia it seemed, that delicious, buttery mix—crunchy with undissolved sugar—that clung to the sides of the big, brown bowl.

My mother made all manner of cakes. Fruit cakes with icing for festivals like Christmas, sponges for Sundays and scones for special teatimes.

One such tea ended with a ticking off for me—or should have.

Auntie Rita—no relative, I’m sure—was due at 4 pm for tea and scones (how times have changed!). Ma was flustered and as the hour approached she sighed to herself, loud enough for big ears to overhear: Oh, Rita’s the last thing I need . . .

The front bell rang and I ran to open the door. There was Rita. “Mummy doesn’t want you to come to tea today, Auntie Rita!”

I don’t think we ever saw Rita again.

Alas, Molly Ellis died of a heart attack linked to her long struggle with Type 1 diabetes when she was only sixty-seven. When Ellis himself was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, in 1999, he naturally took his condition seriously and substantially adjusted his own way of eating. “I’ve always loved food,” he says, “and have always cooked, so we’ve always eaten well. I didn’t want to change so I began to adapt a bit. White bread and rice had to go. I read a book by Michel Montignac who said you should never diet. You just need to develop a new way of eating. Rather than feeling deprived this opened up new culinary paths—the discovery of the sweet potato for instance.”

Delicious Dishes for Diabetics is a small and friendly paperback that really does make for mouthwatering reading and provides a little bit of show business chitchat. Introducing Donald’s Cold Cucumber Soup, for example, Ellis writes: “Donald Douglas, who, as Captain McNeill, chased me in vain, through many Poldark episodes, has finally come to terms with the hopelessness of his pursuit and, in fact, lives close by. He’s much better at making soup than he ever was as a soldier and, as a way of letting bygones be bygones, has given me permission to include this wonderful summer soup!”

For diabetics, for their friends and family, and for just about anyone else who wants to eat healthy and delicious meals, Delicious Dishes for Diabetics offers a variety of wonderful recipes. Here, to literally whet the appetite, are three recommended especially by the good Captain himself. The introductory notes are his own.

Salmon Fishcakes

Serves 2

A recipe based on one by Nigel Slater. I have always loved fishcakes—must be the comfort food factor kicking in—but these days of course the fact they usually contain 50 percent potato causes trouble for me as a diabetic. This recipe solves the problem by leaving the potato out! The dill and the grain mustard make the fishcakes special and they sometimes serve as a tasty starter. If you keep them small and cook them quickly, they’ll be crisp and brown on the outside and still succulent inside.

Yogurt Sauce

2 small containers (about 5 fl. oz. each) plain low-fat yogurt
1 teaspoon grain mustard
Good pinch finely chopped dill (from the main bunch)


400 g/1 lb skinless salmon fillet checked for bones
1 egg white
1 tablespoon chickpea flour (of course, plain flour works as well)
1 teaspoon grain mustard
Juice of 1⁄2 lemon
1 bunch dill, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil

  1. Mix all the yogurt sauce ingredients and refrigerate until you are ready to eat.
  2. Cut up the salmon fillets in roughly equal-size pieces. Put these in a mixer and pulse three or four times. Avoid working them too much and producing slush at the end. You could just cut them up in small pieces if this suits better.
  3. Put the salmon in a bowl. Turn in the egg white and the flour, and then the mustard, lemon juice, and the dill. Season with salt and pepper.
 It’s a good idea to taste the mix for seasoning at this point—the dill and the salt should come through. Refrigerate if not using immediately.
  4. Heat the oil in a frying pan and, using a dessert spoon, scoop out a dollop and make a ball. Put this in the pan and flatten it gently. Cook on a medium-high flame, crisping and browning the outside while making sure the interior cooks through.

Serve with a fennel salad and the mustardy yogurt dipping sauce on the side.

Fennel Salad with Parmesan Shavings

Serves 4

Fennel salad from the book is a good counter to the richness of the salmon.

4 medium fennel bulbs, tough outer layers removed, but soft green tufts saved
4 tablespoons olive oil

1 lemon, juiced and zested

Parmesan cheese shavings

Salt and pepper

  1. Halve the fennel bulbs and lay the cut sides down flat. Slice these halves finely and put them in a bowl.
  2. Whisk the oil and lemon juice and pour over the fennel bulbs.
  3. Add the Parmesan shavings.
  4. Season generously but with care.
 Turn the salad over several times to coat everything in the mix.
  5. Turn into a serving bowl. 
Sprinkle the chopped tufts of the fennel, some extra shavings of Parmesan, and the lemon zest on top and set aside to marinate for perhaps an hour if there’s time.

Charlotte’s Chicken Tagine

Serves 4; for 6 or 8 add a few extra pieces

Our friend Charlotte Fraser—a wonderful cook and author of Flavours of the Sun—put me on to this popular and simple chicken dish. It’s spicy and delicious and a good dish for company because it gently gets on with cooking itself and needs only rice as accompaniment.

1 large chicken, jointed in 8–10 pieces
3 onions, peeled and quartered
2 medium fennel bulbs, cored and quartered after removal of tough outer layers
6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon each turmeric, cumin, paprika, cayenne, and ground ginger
1 teaspoon saffron threads
Salt and pepper
228 ml/8 fl oz/1 cup vegetable stock
Olive oil
Good handful green olives
1 preserved lemon (rind only), cut in strips
2 tablespoons coriander or parsley, chopped

  1. Put the chicken pieces in a casserole or, even better, a tagine if you have one. 
Pack in the onions and fennel pieces.
 Sprinkle over the garlic and spices. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Pour over the stock and drizzle over some olive oil.
 Bring to a very gentle simmer. Carefully turn over the contents in the liquid.
  3. Put the lid on and cook for 1 hour, basting occasionally. The chicken pieces should be sumptuously meltingly collapsed when ready.
  4. Add the olives and lemon rind and continue cooking for 10–15 minutes more.
 Add the coriander or parsley just before serving with a steaming plate of brown basmati rice.

Thank you, Robin Ellis, for being good Captain Poldark and all those other characters. And thank you for the mouthwatering suggestions!

Issue Twenty Two