Writer, presenter and wine expert Olly Smith talks to Rebecca Pitcairn about his favourite chef, working with Gary Barlow and a love affair with his adopted home county of Sussex
When Olly Smith pops up most weekends on Saturday morning television, he has that awe about him of someone who is buckets of fun – the type of guy you’d love to spend an afternoon with, down the pub.
Unfortunately for me, this interview didn’t take place in Olly’s favourite local (which, he tells me, happens to be The Swan in Lewes); nevertheless, with his jovial tales and bright outlook on life, it certainly reinforced the notion that Olly is great company.
As one of BBC’s Saturday Kitchen’s wine experts, Olly has been entertaining and educating viewers with his wine and food pairings for over a decade and has rubbed shoulders with celebrities including Bill Bailey and Stanley Tucci and top chefs such as Sabrina Ghayour and, his personal favourite, Gennaro Contaldo.
“He is just so full of warmth and passion, whenever I am in his company I always feel energized. Somehow, he radiates good cheer and I’m grateful for his friendship and kindness all these years,” says Olly, who travels from his home near Lewes to the Cactus studios in Clapham for the live show.
But the Saturday Kitchen set is not the only place Olly gets to mingle with the stars. Now in its 12th series, his podcast, A Glass With, has seen him interview global music stars, such as Sting and Pink, as well as Hollywood actors like Sam Neill and legendary British comedian Dawn French. “Dawn was a wonderful guest on A Glass With and she also invited me out for a curry afterwards, which was both delicious and a hoot in equal measure,” he says of the Vicar of Dibley star.
When Olly is not tickling the taste buds of TV viewers and podcast listeners with his celeb friends and infectious enthusiasm for food and wine, or researching and writing content for foodie magazines or his books – he’s written six including his latest chart-topper, Home Cocktail Bible – he likes signing himself up to be a contestant on celeb versions of TV game shows, such as Michael McIntyre’s The Wheel and Pointless.
“I love appearing on game shows. I managed to win Celebrity Mastermind with my specialist subject, Withnail and I, and I’m appearing on the 13th series of Tipping Point in support of local Sussex charity Rocking Horse, who do tremendous work supporting the healthcare of under 18s across the county,” he says.
The award-winning drinks writer also travels the globe in search of the world’s best tipples and as P&O Cruises’ resident wine expert, joining guests on board specially-selected cruises to offer tasting masterclasses.
“This year has been rather extraordinary as I’ve been working with Gary Barlow on board,” the 48-year-old beams. “I even got to sing with him on stage…among the entire auditorium singing happy birthday to a guest on board, but still, I reckon it counts!”
Despite all his globetrotting and socialising in celebrity circles, Olly admits he is never happier than when he is back in Sussex, where he has lived for over 20 years with his wife, Sophie.
“Sussex is indeed a place of deep love for me,” says Olly who is originally from Darlington in County Durham and grew up in Jersey. “Sophie was born and raised in Brighton and we met in our teenage years, so I spent a lot of time in the county until we moved back full time in 2000. In and around Lewes has been our home ever since.”
The couple now live in a cottage on the fringes of Lewes with their two teenage daughters, Ruby and Lily, and their beloved dog, Busby. “There’s a bit of poetry to our eldest daughter, Ruby, being born in the same hospital as Sophie, The Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, and Lily arriving with great style on our kitchen floor in Lewes,” Olly says of two of the most memorable moments of his life.
This Valentine’s Day, Olly and Sophie celebrate 21 years since another milestone moment in their Sussex love story – the day they got engaged. “Yes, I proposed to Sophie on Valentine’s Day. Some may think it irredeemably naff, I just knew she’d never expect it and my surprise proposal paid off,” explains Olly, who says date night for the couple is usually “somewhere down the garden with a bottle of ace wine and nibbles galore”.
“On Valentine’s Day, usually we open a cracking bottle of Sussex fizz,” he adds. “This year it’ll be my old favourite Breaky Bottom which is grown and made near Rodmell: memorable name, unforgettable wine.”
The couple enjoy spending time in the kitchen together too – which is handy seeing as Olly has to test his food and wine pairings out for Saturday Kitchen ahead of the live show. “Thankfully Sophie is amazing in the kitchen and whenever I get my hands in a twist she is there to gently keep all my recipe testing on track,” says Olly, who before getting into wine was a scriptwriter for animated TV shows such as Pingu and Wallace & Gromit. “Pairing the wines is great fun, never quite what you expect but always instructive and when I find a real bargain I get particularly excited to share it with as wide an audience as possible.”
The places Olly Smith raises a glass to
“Most Mondays I’m up on the Downs with my dog Busby, it’s a regular fixture in the diary.”
“In the winter it’s hard to beat a pint of Harvey’s Best by a pub fire. The Swan in Lewes is just bliss, especially while sipping from a dimpled jug.”
“I am gasping to go to The Crab Shack in Worthing, which I hear is off the chart, and I adore the beers at the Beak Brewery in Lewes. Sugrue South Downs wines are also a thing of beauty.”
“I’d love to raise a glass to the sad loss of Ciaráns’ in Hove, one the county’s greatest neighbourhood restaurants, which was forced to close due to the hike in energy prices. I hope Ciarán Nugent and Ciarán Jones rise again this year to bring something special to Sussex, as their talent is remarkable.”
You can listen to A Glass With at ollysmith.com. Olly’s next book, World Atlas of Cocktails: Travel the World of Drinks Without Leaving Home, will be published by Quadrille in September and is available to pre-order now RRP £20