Please ignore me

I am fiddling around with the settings on my website, which means that you may get re-emailed a whole load of my old posts. Please ignore them and accept my apologies. I have tried to switch this functionality off but I can’t. You can, of course, unsubscribe at any point …

A Waterford supper

We are on the border of Cork and Waterford, which presents us with a little problem, as they are, by convention, rivals. We went to Dungarvan farmers market today, which is small but perfect and quite a bit closer to us than Mahon Point. We made the mistake of taking some red Up Cork shopping bags, which earned us several dirty looks. We should have had some alternative blue and white Up The Decies ones instead. (Decies, pronounced Dey-sha, is the name of the ancient people of Waterford). I think Up The Decies sounds like a euphemism, but I am assured it isn’t.

Anyway, what the market lacks in size it makes up for in quality. O’Driscoll’s fish stall, which is also at Midleton and Mahon Point, had its characteristic queue. There was Barron’s bread and the vegetable stall run by Siobhan La Touche who honestly has some of the best-looking organic produce I’ve ever seen anywhere. Also, most of the stalls are run by people who actually look like farmers, rather than hapless morons from the early rounds of The Apprentice.

The result was a Waterford supper: fresh crab claws with garlic mayonnaise, followed by fried black sole, Ballycotton Queen potatoes from Willie Scannell and green beans from Siobhan’s stall. I’ve also made a granita with a punnet of sweet Wexford strawberries; the troops are getting restless so I’d better go and get it out of the freezer.

Fire and Knives is out

Much excitement – I am told that the latest Fire and Knives has come out, with my article on Jack Drummond and Elizabeth David in it. I know it is available at Books for Cooks and Foyles, but I’m not sure who else stocks it. It hasn’t reached Youghal yet, so I shall have to wait till I’m home for the great excitement of seeing my name in print.

Irish vs London Farmers Markets

A jolly interesting trip to Mahon Point farmers market today. It got me thinking about the difference between the Irish markets we use regularly (Mahon Point and Midleton, often cited as one of the best in Ireland) and our regular London markets (Notting Hill and Queen’s Park, the latter voted best in the UK this year). I am approximately comparing like with like.

The main difference is the Irish markets are not so restrictive in what they permit to be sold, therefore the choice is much better. Today we bought tomatoes, olives and Parmesan all imported from Italy, as well as lemon and bananas. We also bought local pork, fish, beans, salad, spinach, apple juice, bread, and mozzarella from Ireland’s only buffalo herd. There is masses of local produce, and things that can be grown or raised or made here are generally (I think) given preference. But things that definitely can’t come from Ireland are still permitted and clearly labelled as such. It means you can buy pretty much everything you want in one place, helping the market compete with the nearby Tesco in one important respect.

In London, LFM stipulates that everything must come from within 100 miles of the M25. Now, as a definition of ‘local’ it’s pretty meaningless. As I’ve written before, it covers all of East Anglia, up to Loughborough, round to Cardiff, down to Bournemouth and over to Calais. At a guess, it’s about 50% of the land mass of England, discounting the bits of Wales and France. If it’s about promoting local or regional specialities, that certainly doesn’t happen, with such a wide area covered. If it’s about food miles, that argument is not clear-cut. Granted, the produce at a London farmers market certainly won’t have been airfreighted, but the impact of a dozen small vans driving 80 miles to London is likely to be greater than the equivalent amount of produce brought in on one large supermarket truck. So, what’s the point of the 100-miles rule?

I’ve heard stallholders at Notting Hill grumbling about LFM rules on various occasions. One man I spoke to last week is decamping to Maltby Street market in SE1, which seems to be run much more along the Irish lines. The emphasis is on quality, not geography. If you are a very ethical shopper, you can simply walk straight past the imported cheeses, and of course you will be ignoring the coffee too. I am rather envious, and wish we had something similar near us. Does LFM, a for-profit company, listen to its customers – the stallholders – and their end consumers, people like me?

The fact is, we don’t live in a small village on the fringes of the Mediterranean which boasts a unique goat’s cheese, the secret of which is only known to one peasant family, so the insistence on localism is silly. I for one want to have a kitchen stocked with rice, lemons, Parmesan, anchovies, and the odd banana. But equally I don’t want (or need) New Zealand lamb or king prawns from Thailand or Chilean apples or strawberries in December or green beans trimmed to a uniform 10cm and flown in from Kenya. There is room for a happy medium, along the Irish or Maltby Street model.

Surely the difference is obvious?

Back in Ireland

Hooray. Despite thick sea mist, we have been for the first swim of the year, and first tea on the beach, with flapjacks. I could post a picture, but really, mist is mist. At low tide this afternoon, there were people gathering winkles down on the rocks. Apparently these little black snails all get sold to France for inclusion in your standard plateau de fruits de mer; no-one in Ireland eats them. Also apparently, it’s only recently that people have started gathering them again. During the boom years, there were easier ways to make money. Now, it’s worth three people spending several hours in back-breaking work, filling huge plastic buckets full of winkles, then hauling them back up the beach.

I bought some mackerel which sadly wasn’t that fresh and got binned, and we’ve stocked up on Ballycotton Queen potatoes and McCambridge’s bread. The rest of the week is plotted out in markets: Mahon Point on Thursday and Midleton on Saturday. I’m already thinking about Frank Hederman’s smoked mackerel. Last year, Frank gave me half a side of smoked salmon as congratulations for the baby, who was just 9 weeks old at the time. I also can’t wait for Willie Scannell’s potatoes, Dan Ahern’s beef and Arbutus’s Grant loaves.

We’ve found some rock samphire, but we tasted a bit and it is too late: it had gone over to petrol. People say you have to get it before it flowers. Perhaps this year I will finally manage to dig up some cockles on the beach. Darina Allen says a muddy, sandy beach is best and we certainly have one of those. I’ve found some cockle shells which is encouraging. The elder is still in flower here, but I fear it is also too late to be of use for cordial or champagne, having already reached the smelling of wet knickers stage. And the borage is in flower too.

It’s lovely to be here.

Feeding babies

Imagine you are a lone traveller in an uncharted land. You find yourself amongst a tribe who seem to be broadly friendly, though you do not speak each other’s languages and have no certain way of communicating. One day, the head of the tribe straps you down and starts to feed you something from a bowl. You’re scared – at best it might be disgusting, at worst poisonous. Perhaps they’re not so friendly and are going to kill you after all?

Now imagine a slightly different scenario. Night falls, and the tribe gathers to eat. Everyone takes food from the same pot, and everyone eats the same thing. You watch them for a bit. They seem to be enjoying it, and so far no-one had keeled over. You’re hungry. You take a risk. Perhaps you can eat this food too?

They do it because they like to do it

So New York City has banned the sale of sugary drinks in sizes larger than 16oz – about one UK pint – in restaurants, cinemas and the like, though convenience stores can still sell larger sizes.

What’s so fascinating about this story, and all similar stories about fat taxes or restricting the availability of junk food, is what the people who are opposed to it say. It’s always couched in the language of personal freedom – “we don’t like being told what to do by the nanny state”, or “I am the best person to decide what’s right for me” or, in this case, “they do it [buy larger sizes] because they like to do it.”

These sound like fine principles, and as such I don’t really disagree with them. But when you look at the case of food and drink in particular, I think there is a counter-argument to be made. The soda-swilling, freedom-loving consumers are actually mugs. Sugar and caffeine are addictive. Bigger sizes mean increased profit margins, disproportionate to the increase costs of production. Someone, somewhere is getting richer whilst you get fatter and sicker. When you are seriously overweight and develop diabetes, how free do you feel?

I love my Rolser

In his book on Sicily, Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons, Matthew Fort writes about the experience of shopping in a market:

“There was something so voluptuous about the sheer abundance, something seductive and playful. It made me feel slightly drunk. It reminded me why I fell in love with food in the first place. Why is it that you can spend 20 minutes and £75 in a supermarket and come out feeling depressed? Why is it you can spend twice that in a market, feel your arms being pulled out of their sockets and your fingers cut from your hands by the weight of the bags you are carrying, and still come out sunny and exalted? Well, I do anyway.”

And so do I. But the whole bag thing was a problem, even when we switched from the lethal plastic variety to Daunt Books bags with their wide canvas handles. No matter how many bags we took, we were always struggling and smacking children in the face every time we turned round. I began noticing the French and Spanish families who came to the market. Almost always calm and collected, they didn’t seem to mind towing a shopping trolley round with them, the kind we associate mostly with grannies. Even the men, with their loafers and cashmere sweaters tied round their shoulders, pulled them round happily. So we followed suit and acquired a Rolser.

I love my Rolser. It folds flat and hangs in the hall all week, till Saturday when it pops into life. I can fit a whole weekly shop into it and it takes just one hand to steer. We have worked out a route through the market, so the meat and heavy things are bought first, then fruit, salad and eggs last. It slots in the boot of the car and trundles into the kitchen when we get home. This is the highlight of my week: I unpack the Rolser and plan what I’m going to cook, for the next few days at least. Absolute heaven.

If you shop in markets a lot, you definitely need a Rolser. A cute basket is no good. They are a bit like picnic hampers: totally pointless. If you only ever picnic about two feet from your car, then a hamper is fine, but if you actually want to walk any distance to your picnic, a hamper is not your friend. What you need is a backpack. But that’s another story.

Secret Eaters: the problem with food diaries

I was rather horrifically gripped by Secret Eaters on Channel 4 last night. If you missed it, it’s a new series where a camera crew (and private investigators) follow you round for a week to find out what you are really eating. Last night we followed Jill and Stuart to find out why they couldn’t lose weight even though they believed they ate sensibly.

Despite the prurience of the format and the annoying presenter who tried to inject drama into EVERY! SINGLE! SENTENCE! it did reveal a fascinating truth. When Jill filled out a food diary for the week, her average daily calorie intake came to about 1300 calories. But when you totted up what she actually ate, as revealed by all the hidden cameras, the real figure was something like 3000 calories a day. Her mystery 5-stone weight gain isn’t such a mystery after all.

The bigger point is this: many, many studies of what people eat rely on participants filling in food diaries. This is an astonishingly inaccurate way of collecting data, as Jill’s experience shows. First, people forget what they eat very quickly, and second, we always under-report the bad stuff, over-emphasise the good stuff, or simply lie. The very fact you are taking part in a study probably influences what you eat as well.  Any conclusions based on data gathered like this, such as the baby weaning study I wrote about a few months ago, must be treated with so much caution as to be virtually meaningless.

I can see why researchers use food diaries: it is very difficult to gather accurate information about what people really eat (unless you are Channel 4 and use secret cameras and PIs). They don’t have many other tools at their disposal – shadowing your subject 24/7 isn’t really an option. That’s why prisons and schools are so useful for dietary experiments, as you have so much more control over what food your subjects have access to.

I wonder if this is why you get so many contradictory headlines about diets – particularly of the ‘red meat/wine/coffee will kill you/make you live forever’ variety. If the data used in these studies is so flawed, it’s really not surprising you can draw any conclusion you like from it.

Fish or coffee?

I noticed this weekend that James Knight of Mayfair, the recently-closed fishmongers on Notting Hill Gate, has been refurbished and turned into … Pret a Manger. Strictly speaking, Pret has simply expanded, Blob-like, from its premises next door, and now occupies a double frontage just as you come out the south exit of the tube.

I am a great fan of Pret a Manger. As Mary Portas said in her recent review of high street chains, their coffee is consistently the best and the staff are always fast and friendly. They were also amongst the first to switch to organic milk (Rachel’s) and Fairtrade coffee. And the Notting Hill Gate branch was very cramped. It is our regular pit-stop after the market on a Saturday morning, and there were never enough seats. Portobello-bound tourists lingering long over their guidebooks got the hairy eyeballs from impatient regulars like me waiting for seats.

But but but. On Notting Hill Gate, from memory, I can recall 2 (perhaps 3) Starbucks, EAT, Pret a Manger, Cafe Nero, Apostrophe, Le Pain Quotidien, and one or two independents. There’s also an Itsu, McDonald’s, KFC, Nandos, Pizza Express, Frae, and a few fried chicken / kebab shops. It’s wall-to-wall coffee, takeaways and fast food, of varying quality, from one end to the other. This isn’t a high street, it’s a food court. It’s what I would expect to find in an airport, albeit a windy one with buses driving through the middle of it.

In the most recent edition of Fire and Knives, Ralph Bullivant writes about his Saturday morning shopping rituals in Birkenhead. He goes to a fruit and veg shop run by two Iranian brothers, the original Birkenhead Market for the fish stalls, an Asian supermarket and a sixth-generation butcher that has been in business since 1844. In doing so, he tells us a lot about Birkenhead, its past, its decline and its current residents. A trip to the supermarket may have been easier, quicker and possibly cheaper (though not always). But it would offer no connection to the people, places and history of Birkenhead, and all the richness that brings.

If we lose all our food shops, particularly the smaller, independent ones, we lose much more than a place to buy our food. We lose fragile threads that connect us to our neighbours, our past, our culture, our sense of belonging. We all become alienated travellers, gliding past identikit outlets, using brands and logos to navigate our way through new yet always familiar landscapes.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Two weeks ago, with much excitement, Christchurch Fish arrived in the Notting Hill Farmers Market, an event I had been looking forward to for weeks. There were ugly scenes as fish-mad shoppers converged on the stall soon after 9am. I think they were a bit overwhelmed: they didn’t have their filleting station set up and the traffic warden was trying to ticket their van. I bought two mackerel for £3 and the man forgot to both take my money and hand me my fish. But the fish was good: huge crates of fresh blue lobster and brown crabs, bream and mackerel and sole. We’re going back for more this week.

A weekly round

I am increasingly interested by the idea of a repertoire in cooking – not just a number of dishes that you have under your belt and can produce reliably, like ballet solos – but also the sense that your weekly cooking has a shape to it. Perhaps repertoire isn’t quite the right word – your weekly round, let’s say.

Consider this:

Sunday – roast
Monday – cold meat
Tuesday – mince
Wednesday – soup
Thursday – freestyle
Friday – fish
Saturday – freestyle

And back to Sunday again. Someone mentioned this list at the weekend, and I’ve read it somewhere, and when I can be bothered I will look up the reference. It is possibly a generational thing; usually it is older people who remember or still use such a plan. Also, to an older generation, fish on Fridays was a given, a tradition we have largely lost.

My point is that this plan is almost always mentioned in a derogatory way. How awful! Having to eek out the joint for three or four days till there’s nothing left but watery soup. Thank god for teriyaki salmon, thai green curry and takeaways pizzas.

Except, of course, there is more to it than that. Depending on the skill of the cook, and the quality of the ingredients, there is no reason why this plan couldn’t give you several entirely delicious meals. It’s economical and, most importantly, it saves the cook from having to think too much. If you have a basic pattern (albeit one that can accommodate lots of variety) it makes planning, shopping and cooking much simpler.

What would a modern weekly round look like?

Fish is back on the menu

Hooray – my verbal harassment of the people from London Farmers Markets seems to have paid off (or maybe it is just coincidence) but apparently a fish stall is coming to our market:

My mother would be very cross if I didn’t mention that it was her who spotted it and took the photo.

From Sherry of the Border

As our funny English friend calls Jerez de la Frontera. It’s a literal translation – the Arabs called it Siris, the Spanish pronounced it Jerez, the French spell it Xeres, and we English, with our talent for foreign languages, turned it into sherry.

In Jerez, the streets are planted with orange trees for decoration, the equivalent of our municipal beds of clashing geraniums. The last of the oranges are on the trees now and, as they fall on to the pavements, the children use them for practising their football skills. Only English visitors scurry about collecting unblemished specimens to turn into marmalade, a habit the Jerezanas entirely lack.

There is a brief lull in the Jerez calendar at the moment. Semana Santa (Holy Week) has just finished, and in the main plaza they are still dismantling the stands that were used to watch the various processions go by. In a few weeks it will be Feria, the gypsy festival of horses and flamenco, eating and drinking. We saw a vast acreage of tents being erected on the outskirts of town in preparation.

I gazed with longing and wonder, not for the first time, at the beautiful Eiffel-designed fish market in the centre of town. This city, with about 200,000 inhabitants, supports a market with around 40 separate fishmongers. Some had specialities – hake, or tuna, or sardines, for example – but many sold a bit of everything. We bought prawns, small clams, dogfish and cuttlefish for a seafood rice. The fishmongers were complaining that trade was down because the bus service into the Plaza had stopped running. The city of Jerez is, apparently, 1bn Euros in debt. Teams of economists and documentary makers from all over the world come to Jerez to study the southern European debt crisis – just how do you rack up a debt of 1bn Euros? But the upshot is the bus drivers and the cleaning ladies haven’t been paid, so they have gone on strike. The man who sold us the dogfish said the good news was the bus drivers had all been sacked (so that’s alright then) and new ones recruited, so the buses should be running again soon. But how will they be paid?

Delia knows best

So I was looking up the recipe for Rillettes de Tours in the complete Delia and I came across this in the intro to the section on Starters (p85 of my edition):

“Hors-d’oeuvre means literally ‘outside work’, which reflects the attitude of most nineteenth-century French chefs, who preferred to sub-contract the tedious job of preparing it.” 

After my musings a few weeks ago about this phrase – Before the Eggs – I now realise I should of course have consulted Delia straight away. Are there any of life’s questions to which she doesn’t have the definitive answer?

The rillettes turned out pretty well too.

Stomach-first to Spain

I’ve been skipping about in the sunshine to top up my vitamin D levels – as much as one can skip when pushing a buggy, that is. I went out to buy Claudia Roden’s new book on Spanish food, inspired by the coverage in last weekend’s Observer Food Monthly. We’ve just booked a late Easter weekend in Jerez and I like to travel stomach-first.

Was your father a butcher too?

In 1963, Elizabeth David was recalling the writing of her first book: “Even to write words like apricot, olives and butter, rice and lemons, oil and almonds, produced assuagement. Later I came to realise that in the England of 1947, those were dirty words I was putting down.” 

Now, if those words were shocking when they were first published in the early 1950s, consider this. Last week I was looking for a lamb recipe in Jane Grigson’s English Food (1974) and I came across this at the start of a recipe for a saddle of lamb: “The butcher will have prepared the saddle by slitting the tail and curving it over, with the two kidneys between the tail pieces and the saddle, the whole thing skewered in place with a couple of wooden cocktail sticks. One warning – for this kind of high-class butchery it is wise to go to an experienced man of mature years, and if his father was a butcher before him, so much the better.” 

This sounds as exotic and unlikely to me today as all those lemons and almonds would have done back in 1947. We have gained and lost so much in 65 years. I long to go into a supermarket and ask one of the young men stacking styrofoam trays of mince into a chiller cabinet whether his father did the same job before him.

Jack Drummond and Elizabeth David

Writing most of this evening about my two favourite people. I now have something resembling an article on them, to be zapped off to some august publication shortly. I don’t have much of a hook for it though – perhaps the fact that this year marks 20 years since ED died (May 1992) and 60 years since JD died (August 1952) would be enough?

Before the eggs

When I was little and came across the phrase hors d’oeuvre for the first time, I asked someone what it meant and they told me: before the eggs. The reasoning was that the dishes marked hors d’oeuvre came at the start of the menu, and were followed by egg dishes, such as omelettes and the like.

Even when I began French and learned that eggs were oeuf(s), I reasoned that oeuvre must be an antiquated form of the plural, preserved only in this particular phrase. The fact that the French for before (avant) bears no relation to hors (without) didn’t put me off either.

Many years later I finally worked out that hors d’oeuvre were, literally, without work: little dishes requiring less effort to prepare than the main courses of the meal. Since then, I’ve always found this the most helpful culinary designation. Starters should be low-effort: some cured meat, a little cheese, olives, some sliced or salad vegetables, possibly some bread.

But also isn’t it interesting how you persist in believing something when all evidence points to the contrary?

Little changes

I’m fully immersed in the world of Jack Drummond – dietary pioneer and architect of rationing – more shortly. But as I think about this, I am struck by how little has changed in 70 years.

Taking a not-very-scientific sample of stories off the BBC in the last three days, we have Progress on Food Industry Health Deal Slow, Why is bread Britain’s most wasted food?, and Study links womb environment to childhood obesity.

To save you reading them all, let me summarise, in order. The food industry has been slow to sign up to Andrew Lansley’s voluntary code to inform customers about the amount of calories, transfats etc in their products (funny that). People throw away a lots of bread because it is cheap and people over-buy (some dispute about artisan bread vs Chorleywood process bread).  The quality of a woman’s diet during pregnancy is a good predictor of the health of her future child (no shit Sherlock).

These are all problems that would be achingly familiar to Jack Drummond. In the depths of the second world war, he came up with a series of measures that tackled these problems and improved people’s diets overnight. Yes, people couldn’t buy as much butter and sugar and bacon as they wanted, and wholemeal bread was widely resented. But mothers and children got free extra milk, orange juice, vitamins and cod liver oil. And, I think crucially, he had the power to make the food industry toe the line in the name of winning the war.

If he were alive today, at the grand old age of 121, I think he would be astonished to see so many of the problems that pre-occupied him still with us today, and in some cases, getting worse. How can it be, with 70 additional years’ research and a much greater degree of affluence, that we stumble on as if his work never existed?

Thomas Jones stars again

So I went to look up exactly what Sir Michael Wilshaw said today about raising literacy standards – available on the Ofsted site – and I discovered that he gave his speech at Thomas Jones Primary school, the outstanding local primary I wrote about back in January. How exciting and interesting to have such a centre of excellence on our doorstep.

His emphasis seems to be on strong leadership, high expectations of both pupils and teachers, and lots of systematic phonics teaching. It all sounds like good stuff. But I wonder again about dyslexics – up to 20% of the population – and whether this approach works for them. Do you adjust the methodology (and if so, how) for children who learn in non-standard ways?

Those aren’t medlars

It seems yesterday’s BBC article on forgotten foods has prompted lots of responses – 25 foods readers would like to revive. Whoever was responsible for the pictures has obviously never seen a medlar in their life, as they managed to put in a picture of something another reader immediately identified as a loquat.

Isn’t this interesting? Even the BBC journalist writing or illustrating an article about forgotten  foods is a bit clueless. We’ve still got a long way to go. Incidentally, I blogged about medlars back in autumn 2009. If you want to see what a medlar really looks like, try this: Medlars.

Photokeratitis

I have, according to Wikipedia, photokeratitis, or snow blindness: too long on the slopes yesterday with inadequate sunglasses. It’s likened to sunburn of the cornea. I felt my way through Geneva airport this morning hiding my eyes as if being pursued by the paparazzi. I have been unpacking in a darkened house with my skiing goggles on, and I still need them now in order to look at the screen. What a plonker.

Alla boscaiola

Did you know boscaiolo means ‘woodsman’ in Italian? And therefore, any dish alla boscaiola means with mushrooms? It’s exactly the same as forestiere in French.

I was led to this because, a few nights ago, we were having dinner at a lovely chalet called Chez Merie in Le Miroir, very near the French/Italian border. After supper we found a game on the table near the open fire (over which our gigot had been cooked, and the last few cote de boeuf were sizzling). It consisted of a round wooden board, a bit like a shallow dish, with some pockets around the edge. Each pocket had a different score. In the middle was a spinning top and four ball bearings. When you spin the top, the ball bearings ricochet off and, if you are lucky, drop into the pockets. It was the best sort of game, as it required no instructions and was instantly addictive.

A little googling this evening lead me to Board Game Geek where it is named as boscaiola. It doesn’t seem to be that well-known, so perhaps it is local to this part of the world. My mind is filled with images of trusty woodsmen whittling boscaiola boards during long dark evenings in the Alpine winter.