Looking back at what happened in 2023

Maria on beach looking out to sea in Sierra Leone

Reflecting on the passing year is not just a customary tradition, but an invaluable opportunity to appreciate the milestones, challenges, and growth that has shaped our journey. As we stand at the threshold of a new chapter, it’s only fitting to cast a glance back at the experiences that defined the past 12 months.

In this ‘year in review’ I will unravel the threads of 2023, connecting the highs and lows, achievements and lessons learned, and the moments that left an indelible mark on me (Maria Bradford) and Shwen Shwen.

A Year in Review

Q1 2023 (Jan to March)

I was writing my cookbook throughout 2022 which was quite a stressful and emotional journey that got a bit more intense towards the end. Come January 2023 I needed to top up on inspiration, keep learning and take a brief interlude before the year got too busy.  I flew out to Cyprus, to visit some carefully selected villages and traditional product workshops to taste a variety of Cypriot delicacies.

Travel often serves as a source of inspiration, a means of professional development, and an avenue for cultural exchange for me as a Chef. It allows me to continually evolve, bringing fresh ideas and experiences back to the kitchen.  I visited Cambodia the year before and was thrilled to receive a signed copy of “Nhum” from Chef Nak in January 23.  Furthermore, I was pleased to be featured in Kent Life magazine in an interview piece entitled “Why we love cooking in Kent” in January.

In February I was delighted to support Action Against Hunger at London’s Oxo Gallery with their free exhibition of stunning photography from South Sudan by award-winning photographer @petercatonpix .  The incredible photos highlight the devastation caused by years of extreme flooding in South Sudan and how, with Action Against Hunger’s help, local communities are adapting in the face of the climate crisis. That month, Sainsbury’s Magazine also featured my Rice Bread recipe.

In March I featured in Inside Kent magazine again celebrating all that is great and good about the garden of England and in the same month I shared the cover of my debut cookbook ‘Sweet Salone’. The inspiration for the cover came from Sierra Leonean Country Cloth. Country cloth or (“kpokpo”) is a centuries-old traditional textile of Sierra Leone. Woven on a drop spindle, using locally sourced raw cotton and ink from tree bark, country cloth was the traditional garb of paramount chiefs and had varied uses as hammocks and bedspreads.

Once again I would like to thank the amazing Dave Brown @apeincltd @jimmylazergram (a.k.a White boy snap snap) who designed this cover. He’s an award-winning designer and photographer who travelled with me to Sierra Leone for location photography.

Q2 2023 (Apr to Jun)

I was pleased my products/services got a mention in Preneur World, Specialty Food Magazine and Delicious Food mag in April and I also received my very own copy of Sweet Salone in April.  In May I contributed a quote to BBC Good Food about Sierra Leonean-style braised beef short ribs.

In May I had the pleasure of attending the @fortnums Food and Drink Awards (Grabbed a selfie with Rick Stein, who has been an inspiration to me). These awards champion the achievements of the UK’s current and emerging writers, editors, publishers, photographers, broadcasters and personalities who encourage us to enjoy, explore and experience more about food and drink through their work.  I had a ball.

On a sad note.  Our beloved Cotton Tree, the historic symbol of Freetown, in the capital city of Sierra Leone broke at the trunk on Wednesday, 24th May 2023 due to a heavy storm that brought it down. For something that has been a constant my whole life, a living thing that must have seen so much of humanity and our story, it felt like a family member passing on.

In May, I attended Food Season at the @thebritishlibrary_ I thoroughly enjoyed listening and learning more about the creativity, versatility, and rich history the speakers had to offer. It’s clear that there is now a movement with momentum that can spotlight stories, people, and places in the Black food community. I’m so proud I can play my part, represent Sierra Leone on the UK food scene, and meet so many wonderful people.  I joined a panel on the topic of ‘Smashing the Food Hierarchy: Re-Evaluating the World’s Foods’ with @dees_table and @akokomi in conversation with @mels_place_east . This panel was followed by a topic many West Africans can get quite passionate about ‘The Journey of Jollof’. Jollof is an institution that has evolved across borders and is eaten across West Africa: the different ways in which it is enjoyed says a lot about the different nations, tribes, and movement across the region. It was a delight and a privilege to join @littlebaobabuk and @akwasibmensa to talk about jollof in our respective countries of Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Ghana.

Q3 2023 (Jul to Sept)

In July I was on BBC Radio with Cerys Matthews. The most popular digital only radio show in the country. It was indeed a joyous exploration of music, poetry, and food, and it was an absolute pleasure to spend time chatting to Cerys and share my playlist with her. It was great to learn she knew about S. E. Rogie and has heard Dr Oloh. I made fonio with spiced roasted butternut squash and pine nuts (page 78 of Sweet Salone), which went down really well with the team.

I then held not one, but two consecutive supper clubs in London for Fortnum and Masons. There’s a lot of synergy in our approach and dedication to providing the best tasting food by ensuring that we use only the finest ingredients and production methods. This is a shared value and why I love collaborating with F&M in London at their Food & Drink Studio on the 3rd Floor in London’s Piccadilly Store, where they offer unmissable masterclasses and intimate dining experiences hosted by some of the world’s best chefs.  Including little ol me!

13th July was the publication day for Sweet Salone.  I want to express my deepest gratitude to the team that helped imagine it, shoot it, design it, and publish it. Thank you to all the wonderful cookbook enthusiasts that have bought it too.

Come the end of July there was a nice mention of the book in Waitrose Magazine, Delicious Magazine, Food and Travel.

In August, I catered for LABRUM and fellow Sierra Leonean, Creative Director Foday Dumbuya, who was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design in May 2023. The event was to mark the launch of a limited edition collection with Irish beer brand Guinness on 7 August 2023.  In the same month I appeared on channel 4’s Sunday Brunch TV show and Kent Life Magazine did another feature on ‘What Maria did next’.

Podcasts have become quite popular over the last few years and in September I was pleased to join CAFOD the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development on theirs and also the wonderful ladies from PodaPoda Stories and the Brooklyn Book Festival in the USA.  Towards the end of September I was featured in NatGeo Travel.

Q4 2023 (Oct to Dec)

I had an unforgettable day in October back in Sierra Leone. This book launch home coming is a 360-degree adventure as I grew up not far from the British High Commission in Freetown. From play cook business in a broken-down car in front of our house in Tengbeh Town to a debut cookbook launch, standing side by side with the High Commissioner. Sierra Leone and England are both homes to me, and both have moulded me into the person that I am today.

It felt great to be back home launching ‘Sweet Salone’ my debut cookbook. Seeing my friends, family, and supporters gathered together to celebrate this milestone was truly heartwarming.

Thank you to the amazing team at Hello Sierra Leone for once again championing the home coming of ‘Sweet Salone’. To @jewlsandtravels I couldn’t have done this without you. @royal_ifab thank you for being fabulous and PR extraordinaire in Sierra Leone. ‘Watin na TV appearance den, look at pack’.  I’d also like to say a big thank you to AYV Media Empire Sierra Leone.  It was a pleasure to join a number of TV and Radio shows back home.

Thank you, Rosaline Thomas, for flying all the from England to Sierra Leone to support me. You empower me effortlessly, thank you.  Back in the UK the book was once again featured in Waitrose Magazine.

Every year on October 11th, the International Day of the Girl is celebrated worldwide. This day is dedicated to recognizing and empowering girls across the globe, raising awareness about the challenges they face, and advocating for their rights and gender equality. Since its inception in 2012, this observance has become a catalyst for change, highlighting the importance of investing in girls’ education, health, and well-being.   I was privileged to visit EducAid’s Strong Girl Incubator (SGI) project in Sierra Leone that provides girls and young women who are vulnerable to dropping out of school with the knowledge, skills and confidence they need to successfully join mainstream secondary education.  While in Freetown I visited the Aurora Foundation and their wonderful Sweet Salone Pottery Project.  Please do visit their online shop. 

I did an online cooking class for Milk Street, based in Boston USA. Then CN Traveller, the essential guide to inspirational travel, featured what I do and featured Sierra Leonean cuisine. This magazine is known for breathtaking locations, stunning photography, and independent travel advice. This is what makes Condé Nast Traveller the authority in its field and the premier lifestyle magazine for people with a passion for travel, adventure, culture, and new ideas.

Towards the end of October I attended an event run by Rory’s Well Foundation who are working sensitively and ​co-operatively with local communities in Sierra Leone.  They are doing an amazing job so please do check out their website.  From clean water to bee farming, rice farming, women’s farms and vocational education and training, I am looking forward to collaborating with them again in 2024 and beyond. 

In November I attended, The Sierra Leone Arts & Culture festival (#SLACFest ) at Brixton House in London and also the Afro Arts Production Event.  Events like these are important to me, it’s an opportunity to contribute to the vitality and resilience of our community in the UK. National Geographic Magazine then featured an article from me on Sierra Leone at the end of November 23.

Ending the year with 50,000 followers on Instagram was a milestone I was pleased to meet.  I have put a fair amount of effort into content creation since 2017, and community engagement. It is great to see the growth and success of Shwen Shwen but most importantly I am keen to construct a platform on which others can build.  It’s important we continue to foster a more inclusive and equitable environment. The food & drink industry will benefit from diverse perspectives, talents, innovations and I am certainly keen to keep nudging Sierra Leone up the food hierarchy and to ensure Sierra Leone has its place on the world food map.

In December I established my YouTube channel and my TikTok account so please do like and subscribe for all that is coming next.

I did some filming with the wonderful Fats Timbo. We cooked Fish Huntu and Cassava Leaf Plassas together.

What happens next in 2024?

In the New Year I will release a new conversational cooking project called “Kam mek wi it!” where my guests choose a couple of dishes from Sweet Salone that I cook with them, while chatting and having fun.  It was a lot of fun and will start rolling out in 2024.  I love my job!

Between Christmas and New Year, I collaborated with Karma Drinks. They are on a mission to be the world’s most ethical soft drink and have established The Karma Foundation where 1% of revenue from every Karma Drink goes to Cola nut growers and their communities in Sierra Leone.  Shwen Shwen and Karma have a lot in common, from my family history as Cola nut traders from Guinea right up-to to my grandmother today in Bandajuma, Bo, but also on our quest to be a force for good.  In 2024 I’ll be doing some more collaborations with the great people at Karma.

Looking forward to January….on the 9th January at 7.30pm I will be cooking Plantain Pie at The Sevenoaks Bookshop in Kent.  The Bookshop opened in 1948, when Basil and Frances Krish bought John Richardson’s secondhand bookshop and renamed it The Sevenoaks Bookshop.  I’m looking forward to meeting lots of lovely people then.

I am flying off to Kigali, Rwanda.  Don’t worry that nasty Suella Braverman is not removing me, for being a proud migrant, #iammigrant.  I have been invited to run some cooking tutorials and spend time with some adventurous foodies in East Africa and I cannot wait.  I’ve never been to Kigali or Rwanda for that matter but I have heard all about the warm and welcoming nature of the Rwandan people.

With a bit of help I have scheduled a number of Shwen Shwen, High Tea events in 2024 at my studio in Kent.  I’ll be sharing an Eventbrite link shortly.

I am really excited for what else 2024 has in store for Shwen Shwen and me and I cannot wait to keep sharing Sierra Leonean culture, cuisine and produce with the world!

Wishing you all a Very Happy New Year for 2024

Maria xx

Maria on TV show Maria on TV showMaria on TV showMaria backstage with Cerys sampling her food Maria in radio studioChannel 4 logo in studioBBC Wogan House signMaria and Family at book launchVideo Clapperboard for TV show Maria appeared onMaria on bench in Sierra Leone