Tuesday, January 29, 2008

In Defence of Food

Michael Pollan’s new book In Defence of Food describes in detail how food, our food, real food, has been stolen from us, commercialised by the business of nutritionism. Not nutrition, he points out, but nutritionism, a pseudo science that insists that food can be reduced to its component parts and then synthesised, recombined and sold back to us at enormously inflated prices.

Food, he says, is something that our grandmothers would have recognised as such. It is the whole carrot, not the beta-carotene supplement. It is the simple version of yoghurt, not the fat reduced, gelled, bulked, flavoured omega-3 substance with the corn syrup sweetener. It is real bread, made with whole grains, fresh yeast, salt and water and NOTHING ELSE.

And on the day when my newspaper announced a study by scientists at Oxford University into the links between eating junk food and violent behaviour he also makes the connection between this reductionist approach to eating and the fashionable and very very scary condition known as metabolic syndrome.

Last Tuesday 22 January BBC Radio 4 devoted its Case Notes programme to this disorder. You can hear what was said here.

The rocketing rates for obesity and diabetes are, says Pollan, a direct result of our Western Diet, which has allowed commercial interests and nutritionism – sponsored by those same interests – to hijack what we eat and in the process make a lot of us very ill indeed. But capitalism is also able to turn these problems to its advantage and sell us diet pills, diet books, spa treatments and heart bypass operations. Pollan estimates the cost to society in health care costs to be in the region of $250 billion a year for America alone.

I have an interest in all this because ten years ago I had bowel cancer and I had a good look at my diet to see what I thought could have caused it. A few years later a good friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, and again we found ourselves scrutinising what was in the fridge. We are coming down with studies about what we should eat, or drink, and every time a new one comes out we have to throw out the butter, or the red wine, or the margarine, or the chocolate, and start all over again. You would think they could get it right, but maybe, just maybe, there is more to food than the sum of its constituent parts. Maybe a carrot is more than beta-carotene, maybe it's its inherent carrotiness that makes it good for us.

A major culprit is the way we eat, or should I say consume, our calories. In front of the tv, in front of the computer, in the car, who knows what goes into their mouth? Could be cornflakes, could be the packet…and the less time we spend eating the more obese we seem to get, whereas people who spend two hours eating their lunch actually consume fewer calories. Go figure.

Pollan offers some advice; don’t eat anything your grandmother would not have recognised as food. Don’t buy supplements, buy the whole food. Eat more plants than meat (and if you have read his previous book The Omnivore’s Dilemma you will know why this is a good idea), and eat a bit less of everything.

Personally I find I’m becoming extremely narrow minded about food. I eat seasonal vegetables, some of which I grow myself. I never buy ready meals – because I find my teeth banging together in the middle in search of some integrity – and I don’t buy things with unpronounceable ingredients like ethoxylated diglycerides. I make my own bread so I know what goes into it and I try to ensure that my vodka is the purest I can find. Why on earth would anyone want to do anything else?

In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating by Michael Pollan

Published by Penguin Books


Friday, January 25, 2008

Raise your glasses please…

Yes, it’s Burns Night. All over the world people with only the faintest claim to Scots nationality will be getting in touch with their inner celt. People who never normally drink whisky, and wouldn’t dream of drinking it throughout a meal, are downing tots of expensive single malt and tucking into haggis and neeps as if it were a gourmet dish. Haggis, like Christmas Pudding, is one of those once-a-year, whether-you-feel-like-it-or- not dishes. And every year I think to myself “You know, this is not bad. I should eat this more often.” It helps that I really like neeps, or swede if you’re from the south of England, or turnip if you’re from the north of England. Very confusing.

Robert Burns has been getting a makeover recently, and not entirely to his advantage. Out goes the dreaming romantic at the plough, breaking his heart over a harvest mouse. In comes the upwardly mobile philanderer, loving and leaving endless maidens, usually pregnant. He supplemented his meagre farming income with a proper job as an exciseman and seriously thought about emigrating to the West Indies to manage a sugar plantation, complete with slaves.

But I used to live just down the road from the Burns farm, and a low miserable place it was, along with all its neighbours. Annan, on the Solway, was a place where they built clippers until the early part of the twentieth century, and those ships must have whispered to him of faraway places with much better opportunities, and weather.

The dialect in which he wrote is another reason why folk love him; he holds up two fingers to the swanky language of more acceptable poets, and if you can understand his lines that makes you a bit of a rebel, along with him. When I arrived in the South of Scotland it was 1960. We had nuclear power stations and everything. My first day in school the rest of the class stood up and, one by one, recited the poem they had learnt.

“The bairnies cuddle doon at nicht
Wi muckle focht and din.
O try and sleep, ye waukrife bairns
Yer faither’s comin in…”

I had only moved about seventy miles north from England, but it felt like a different planet.
For the following week we all had to learn a Burns poem, To a Mouse, and all this time later it is still etched in my memory, the language lilting and strange, and even to my ears then a cut above the bairns above.

“Wee, sleekit cowerin timorous beastie,
Oh what a power’s in thy breastie
Thou need nae run awa sae hastie
Wi bickerin brattle
I would be laith to run and chase thee
Wi murderin pattle.

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken nature’s social union
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle at me
Thy poor earth born companion
And fellow mortal.”

Robert Burns may have died because he drank foul water from the Brow Well, or because he had a heart complaint, or from the excesses of alcohol, it isn’t really clear, but 50,000 people came out onto the streets of Dumfries in July 1796 to see his funeral cortege pass by. He was 37 years old.

Nobody in their right mind would think of making a haggis from scratch, but if you are really that way inclined you might find this article interesting.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Hot pot

I’m sure everyone knows the background to the famous Lancashire hotpot; it’s one of those dishes that was prepared in the morning and put into the baker’s oven after the bread came out to cook long and slow and be ready at the end of the day. It’s a hearty warming dish for a cold day and maybe the men took it down the mine wrapped in a blanket as I have read, or maybe the mill women with their shawls around their shoulders and their clogs sparking on the cobbles collected it from the baker on their way home to feed hungry families. I always thought it was the latter actually but it could be both.

I looked up various recipes for Lancashire Hotpot, which I remember from my childhood in Cumbria where we had it for school lunch (yup, those were the days!) and I’m interested to see that the early 20th century recipes mention oysters, tucked under the final potato layer, as well as kidneys. But the surprise was that there was a special pot in which to cook the hotpot, a tall straight sided crock, in which the long boned mutton chops were stood on end to cook slowly all day with onions and maybe a carrot or two. The only illustration I can find comes from Food in England by Dorothy Hartley, published in 1954. She describes how the vegetables are packed in around the chops and the lid put on to cover everything until 15 minutes before the end of the cooking time when you take it off to let the potato topping brown.

If you haven’t got chops that will stand on their ends any other manageable cut of lamb or mutton will do fine. And this is a hearty dish so you shouldn’t be using your best olive oil for it – dripping is the thing.

Melt the dripping in a pan and fry a sliced onion until soft.
Put the onion in the bottom of a crock with a bay leaf.
Brown the meat on either side and add to the crock.
Add kidney if you are using it, then a sliced carrot and some sliced mushrooms. Season as you go.
Make a gravy by adding a spoonful of flour to the fat in the pan and stirring in about a pint of brown stock.
Arrange sliced potatoes over the top of the meat and vegetables and pour the gravy over. Finally sprinkle a teaspoonful of sugar over the potatoes and put to cook slowly in a medium oven for a couple of hours.
15 minutes before the end of the cooking time take the lid off and allow the potatoes to brown.

I don’t know why this dish works so well cooked this way, but it does. Mutton would be better than lamb but lamb is good. Don’t be tempted to do anything any more fancy than the above – no garlic, no rosemary, just salt and pepper, and that final scatter of sugar. The correct thing to serve with it is a dish or a glass jar of pickled red cabbage. Which I don't happen to have about me.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Wassailing, Somerset 2008

In the days when Christmas Day was celebrated on 5 January Twelfth Night was celebrated twelve days later on 17 January. This date is now known as Old Twelfth Night and is a traditional date for festivities throughout the cider making counties of England.

Glastonbury holds its celebration in the wonderful fourteenth-century Abbey Barn which is part of the Somerset Rural Life Museum. The fun involves drinking cider, eating cake, and trudging out to the apple orchard to make a libation and to scare away the evil spirits. So everyone turns up on a cold damp evening wearing wellies and warm jackets. The really nice thing about this event is that there was a real whiff of authenticity about it. The Master of Ceremonies was Bernard Coulter of the Somerset Levellers Band who swept us through the history and evidence and the claims for tradition with a healthy and scholarly scepticism and then launched us into some of the old wassailing songs with gusto. When I tell you that one of them is about the time when the Danes were a menace locally and how King Alfred got rid of them you will understand that we are going back a bit! We have long memories in Somerset!

First comes the cake, Somerset Apple Cake, handed round to everyone. It is moist with apple and spiced with cinnamon and crackling with brown sugar. Someone will find a bean in their piece, and they will become the King or Queen of the Wassail and be crowned with a wreath of green leaves. They are entitled to issue an edict – our King wished everyone to be happy for the night – and their reign lasts until midnight.

Led by the King, holding a triple handled wassail cup filled with cider and a two pronged fork with a piece of toast soaked in cider, we process out to the orchard. The cider is sprinkled around the base of the apple tree, for a good harvest to come; the toast is placed in the boughs, for the robin; and a shot is fired into the branches, to ward off evil spirits.

Then we all go back into the barn, for mulled cider and dancing and you’d be amazed how light footed you can be with wellies on your feet and cider in your belly!

Somerset Apple Cake

12 oz self-raising flour
a pinch of salt
8 oz margarine/butter
½ teaspoon cinnamon
6 oz caster sugar
4 oz sultanas
1 lb cooking apples, finely chopped
3 eggs
a little milk
a little demerara sugar

Rub the fat into the flour and salt. Add the sugar and cinnamon. Make a well in the mixture and drop in the egg and fruit. Mix well; if the dough is a little too stiff, add some milk.

Place in an eight-inch greased cake tin, and sprinkle a little demerara sugar on the top.

Bake for one-and-a-half hours, in a moderate oven (Gas Mark 4/180°C/350°F). Allow to cool slightly before turning out onto a cooling rack.

This cake is better if you wrap it up in foil or waxed paper for a day or two.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Marmalade – a long cut

I usually avoid any recipe that tells me its method is easy. Easy generally means short cuts; easy like as not means dried, packaged, microwaved, deep frozen and processed; garlic granules, tinned potatoes, frozen mixed veg are easy, and none of them improve a meal.

For years I have used the same old marmalade recipe, and now the page is so stained it is becoming impossible to read, so I looked for an alternative. I don’t want to make a different marmalade – I want to stick to my favourite dark coarse cut – and I don’t want grapefruit or ginger or whisky in it, but I’m prepared to try another method, just this once. Very rarely does easy offer a genuine benefit by suggesting a long rather than a short cut, but this marmalade recipe, from the blessed Delia Smith, does exactly that.

The fragrance of the house during marmalade making is a once a year pleasure, as are, I suppose, the windows streaming with condensation and the general chaos of pips and fruit and stickiness. But it does take quite a long time, and you do need to pay attention. Start it in the evening, after work, and you’ll still be there at three in the morning. Delia has devised a method which fits in well with ‘our busy modern lives’ and can be taken up and paused and dovetailed with other things in a leisurely way. A long cut.

In summary, you don’t juice the oranges and then cut up the peel, you poach them whole, let them cool and then scrape out the insides. Then you cut up the peel. See what I mean. Easy. The insides come away with all the pith and pips, which is the pectin bearing bit, and the skins are left thin and tender and won’t go all hard when you add the sugar. (I do have one complaint; she tells you to boil the stuff for far too long once the sugar is in, but you can be the judge of that. I will tell you my version.)

1 kg Seville oranges
1 unwaxed lemon
5 pints water
2kg granulated sugar

Put the fruit into a preserving pan with the water and bring slowly up to simmering point. Cover the pan with a double thickness of foil and reduce heat so that the fruit poaches very gently without the liquid evaporating. This will take about three hours. Remove pan from heat and allow to cool.

When fruit is cool enough to handle (I left it overnight) remove from liquid with a slotted spoon. Cut fruit in half. With a spoon scoop out the flesh, the pips and the pith and put into a medium saucepan. Discard the lemon peel but keep the orange.

Add 1 pint of the poaching liquid to the saucepan. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Allow to cool a little, then put into a sieve lined with a large square of muslin. Allow to drain.

Meanwhile, cut up the orange peel as thin or thick as you like and put back into the remaining poaching liquid in the preserving pan. If you feel you lost a lot of the liquid during the poaching now is the moment to redress the balance.

When the fruit and pips mixture has drained take up the corners of the muslin and twist really really tightly so that the pectin is squeezed out. Discard the detritus. Add the liquid to the preserving pan. Leave for several hours or overnight.

When you are ready to take up the cooking again, warm the sugar through in a low oven for about 10 mins, then place the preserving pan on the stove, start heating it and pour in the warmed sugar all in one go. Let the sugar dissolve slowly and completely, then boil hard until a set it reached. Start testing in about 45 minutes.

Allow the marmalade to stand for ten minutes to let the peel distribute itself evenly, then fill clean warm jars and seal.

This makes about five pounds of dark marmalade that absolutely zings with the sharp tang of Seville. Not to everyone’s taste, but certainly to mine.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sic transit

Someone died. Someone I never met, and did not know beyond a couple of exchanges of emails, but someone who was part of a profound change in my life.

How long ago was it exactly? Fourteen years or fifteen? I was married to a man who spent a lot of time in California. Life was tough for me and my daughter, left behind in the dank English climes while he spent his time beside the swimming pools. He was wheeling and dealing on our behalf, or so we thought; and we bided our time, waiting for the call to the sweet life. Instead we heard that he had just had a child with his Californian lover. Our family life was over.

His idyll lasted long enough for her to bear him two girls; he lied about our marriage and tricked her out of thousands. She threw him out in the end. He returned to England and we haven’t spoken in years.

We just heard that she has died. Her two girls are fourteen and twelve. It wasn’t her fault. None of it was her fault. Her daughters are the half sisters of my daughter, and, singleton that she is, she loves them as the sisters she never had.

It would be too simple to say that had things been different we would not have lived such a frugal life for so long. Maybe it would have been even more limited. Certainly we became the authors of our own destiny, for better definitely, not for worse. But from a life of comparative luxury we certainly came to know how to make things go round.

From that time I remember some things most strongly; there we were, in a gamekeeper’s cottage that would, under other circumstances, have been deemed romantic. Our heating came from a wood fired stove. Each morning in the winter I pulled wellingtons on under my dressing gown and trudged to the wood heap to keep the fire smouldering. Not very romantic. I daren’t let the car revs slow as I took my daughter to school, for fear it would stall, as it often did. Sometimes there was flooding, sometimes gales howled around the eaves of the little cottage, sometimes there was an evil black ice over all the roads.

But the farming people hung braces of pheasant on our door handles for us to pluck and dress, and up the road was a house where they kept hens, and we got our eggs from them, fresh as you like. And one day we had new laid eggs and we found ceps in the wood, a whole lot of them. Next day we told rich friends about our omelette and their eyes grew great.

I can’t really see her as the author of misfortune. Without her things would definitely have been different and it is not often that you can see so clearly the place where the road took a different turn. I never knew her, and I might not have liked her, but her girls are sisters to my girl, and they have lost her. And I have never had such eggs again.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Today, Sunday, is a day about which stern weather warnings have been issued. I don’t think I have ever heard a weather forecaster actually tell me to stay indoors with a good book, but that is what they advised us to do today. Seems like a good day for a daube.

I love the way the French use the name of the utensil in which a dish is cooked to describe it. Marmite, casserole, terrine, pot-au-feu come to mind, as does daube. Alan Davidson, in his monumental work The Oxford Companion to Food, tells us that the daube originated in 18th century Saint-Malo where they were a speciality and included artichokes, celery, pork cutlets, goose as well as beef, and the foodstuffs, once cooked, were removed to be eaten without the sauce and often cold, in the jelly. With the sauce the correct French name is en compote. So Boeuf en Daube, the one remaining familiar dish, should by rights be Boeuf en Compote. I will cook mine in the black oval cast iron cocotte that I use for just about everything.

Next but one to Daube in Davidson’s fine book is David, Elizabeth, to whom I automatically turn first for recipes for this sort of thing. I have several of ED’s books, though not all by any means, and I was surprised to find that daube features at length in only one of them, French Provincial Cooking. She rightly says that there must be scores of different recipes for daubes in Provence alone, and how you make it is largely a matter of what you have.

I chose to use topside, sliced and marinated overnight. Put the oven on at 290ºF.
Into the pot goes:
Olive oil to cover the surface of the pot
A couple of slices of streaky bacon, sliced
1 onion, sliced finely
1 carrot, sliced diagonally
1 tomato, skinned and sliced

Arrange the slices of meat on top, overlapping, and bury a flattened clove of garlic in the centre, plus a bouquet garni that includes a thin slice of orange peel.

With the pan uncovered, start the cooking on top of the stove on a moderate heat.

Strain the marinade into a small saucepan and add to it a large glass of red wine. Bring to the boil and simmer long enough to boil off some of the alcohol. Pour over the meat, cover the pot with foil and then a tight fitting lid and put into the oven for about 2 ½ hours. After no more than half an hour the scent of wine and oil and herbs and garlic starts to penetrate the house, bringing a delicious perfume of Provence to cold and windy old England.

With the daube safely tucked up in the oven it is time to sit down to read, of which more anon.

Serve the meat with a little of the sauce and perhaps, says ED, a persillade of finely chopped garlic and parsley, with an anchovy and a few capers. Or add some stoned black olives to the pot half an hour before the end of the cooking time.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Two for lunch

Last week I had a lovely experience; I met a friend for lunch and we ordered food and talked about it. The venue came with expectations, which were, in the end, not entirely fulfilled by the kitchen, but the experience far outweighed the result. The conversation started with the bread. I had brought some olive oil as a gift and we wanted to taste it, so we asked for bread. The place had modest pretensions, but pretensions all the same, and we were disappointed when the bread was white and soft and floppy. As blotting paper for the very excellent oil it did the job, but barely. And yet if the bread had been half decent we would have gladly paid extra for it. Why don’t restaurants understand that it is probably the first solid thing that you taste, and it sets the tone for everything else. It’s not hard – you can leave it to do its own thing overnight and bake it first thing in the morning. People would come for the bread alone.

Anyway, we then ordered three starters for the two of us, for a test. My friend was considering booking the place for a foodie event and we wanted to see what they could do. We tasted, and considered, and put our heads on one side, and had another forkful.

“Not enough seasoning”
“Too bland”
“Too smoky”
“Don’t like the spices”
“Love the spices”
“Delicious dressing”
“Is this supposed to be cold?”
“Great lentils”
And then on to the treacle tart…
“Do you think there is marmalade in this?”
“I always put some Seville oranges into mine”

And then the coffee...

"How are they making it?"
"They've got a Gaggia machine"

All in all the repast was adequate, but not outstanding. But we spent two hours talking about it non-stop, with just a few side trips to discuss cheese and how to tell the ripeness of sloes. Two hours! Two hours of serious and considered discussion. I don’t think anyone overheard us, but we were lost in a private passion.

I recently found myself in the pub next to a group who had come in together from something they had all been doing. It turned out to be bell-ringing. They laughed and joked and talked about peals and rings and changes and Plain Bob Minors or some such. It was a joy!

Why do these snippets amaze and delight and yet the braying of city types is such an aggravation. I suppose, or at least I like to think, it’s because the passion is real, a private world of total fulfilment.

I’m not sure that the place will get my friend’s event, but it was huge fun!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Good things from Catalonia

Just before Christmas I was in Barcelona. I had a couple of things on my shopping list, one being some good Iberian jamón and the other being a nice bottle of Pedro Ximenez sherry. It’s always lovely when you buy these things from people who really care about what they are selling you. Yes, the jamón was the most expensive in the jamóneria, but it tasted like silk, and the expression on my face made the jolly round jamónista break into laughter. And I did taste about four others just to make sure.

I like sherry, but I’m of the manzanilla disposition, dry with a salty zephyr of the sea somewhere, and a bowl of almonds. I had never actually tasted a Pedro Ximenez (named for the grape, it’s not a brand). So we went off to a wine shop in the barrio where my daughter lives. The barn like building had wooden floorboards dark with age and its gloom was increased by shelves stacked high up the walls with bottles, cases piled in the middle so only one person could pass, and along one wall big wooden wine barrels. The only light came from the open doorway and there was a constant stream of pushy old ladies with plastic bottles to be filled from the barrels.

We found a few bottles of PX and asked for advice. It’s not cheap, this stuff. Some of it is very expensive indeed and the assistant felt it was a bit too special for us! So we made our choice and he went out the back to get the bottle, returning with an additional one. He explained that this second bottle was a bit more expensive than our chosen one, and held slightly less – 500 ml as opposed to 750 – but it was of a higher quality and he thought we would like it. Never was a truer word spoken. If you ever get the chance to buy a bottle of this you will not regret it. It’s called La Sacristía de Romate

To call this elixir sweet is to completely miss the point. Dark brown and concentrated, it tastes like fudge in a bottle, with overtones of chocolate and coffee and raisins. As a pudding wine it more or less is the pudding! I was delighted to see that on Christmas Day people who don’t ordinarily drink sweet wine reached for the bottle for second helpings with alacrity.

It was just as we were about to pay for the sherry that I caught sight of a hand chalked sign on a slate on the wall. It was notifying customers that the new Catalonian Siurana oil was available. What a piece of luck! This was mid December, so it was pretty much hot, or in fact cold, off the presses.

I don’t know why we don’t make more of a fuss about oil. We are quite happy to pay a whole lot of money for it, but I don’t know anybody who actually tastes the stuff in the bottle. Try it. Taste a teaspoon, all by itself, not with bread. If you haven’t bought a bottle since November it will be from the 2006/7 harvest and by now it will be old and stale – in fact the correct word is rancid, which seems a bit strong but there you are. Anything from the most recent harvest will have a best-before date of 2009.

There are hundreds of different kinds of olives, and my favourite just happens to be the little Arbequina, which is what the Siurana oil is made from. The new oil, from the early part of the harvest, is green and grassy fresh, fruity, clean and supple, with just a hint of pepperiness at the end, half way down your throat. I quite like that peppery kick in oil, as long as it isn’t accompanied by bitterness. Later pickings give oil that is soft and golden, smooth and almost sweet but never bitter. Truly the most delicious of oils to my mind.

A great book about olive oil, with notes about tastings, regions and producers is Olive Oil by Charles Quest-Ritson, part of the Eye Witness Companions series from Dorling Kindersley . This really is a terrific piece of work; just opening it at random I came across a note that tells me that fresh olive oil contains a chemical that works like ibuprofen – I didn’t know that! If you are at all interested in the amazing variety of olives that the world produces you will find this book fascinating.

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