Creative Cooking

VegNo, I’m not going to talk about the Michelin starred creations that look so picture perfect, not Master Chef, and certainly not the unstoppable trend for ghastly coloured cupcakes and macarons!  What I am talking about is the creative cook in all of us.  Better people than me have  tried to get the nation to eat healthier –  for which read cook more from scratch, eat less meat, don’t buy ready-meals- so I’m not about to embark on that particular head-banging exercise.  I’m talking more, well, creatively than that!  If we could get more in touch with our inner,  creative, foodie selves, then I think cooking might be a bit more fun.  Didn’t you try and make, or at least eat weird combinations when you were a kid?  Didn’t you experiment with mud, or wild brambles and penny chews, or strange ingredients in birthday cakes?  Ok, so may be it was just me! My particular penchant was for an extreme sweet and sour of Marmite and strawberry jam, yes on the same piece of bread I’m afraid!  Whilst my much older self might turn its nose up my 12 year old uncouth youth, there was something experimental and searching in my younger self, unbothered by opinion, food trends, marketing ploys and fashions.  I was just a kid who liked to try stuff!

I’ve spent my life making and trying food, and I’m thankful I’ve never really lost that experimental edge, but it can easily be knocked out  of us by parents (you can’t eat that!) peers, and unfortunately our own desire to conform.  Recipes can be very constraining:  I know people who have searched for days to find a particular ingredient for a celebrity chef’s recipe, and been close to panic if it can’t be obtained at their local supermarket.  I’m not anti-celebrity chef’s per se, and admire the efforts of Jamie Oliver, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in particular, but I’m not sure how much they contribute to people actually making and cooking food.  I don’t want to stereotype, people from all  walks of life have given up on the chopping board; working with the amazing palette that nature provides us with.

Today I ‘invented’ a chutney – Harvest End chutney- all sorts of bits and bobs that wouldn’t be enough on their own, but combined with some orchard fruits and the staples of sugar and vinegar, should make a passable condiment.  It wasn’t difficult; I know the basics of chutney making.  Lunch is a ‘leftovers buffet’, not because I can’t think of something else to eat, but because I hate wasting food and love finding new and creative ways to use up leftovers.  What food does the average household throw away each year?  Something like £300 -£400 I believe.  Being more creative with leftovers would certainly save us money and go some way to addressing issues like landfill and food shortages. Cooking more creatively would in general, I think, help us to personalise our food; to use what we have to hand: what we’ve grown, or what a  neighbour has given us, what we have at the back of the freezer or cupboard or the salad drawer in the fridge, what’s cheap and good at the local market.  It would give us the familiarity with raw ingredients that we lack, and educate our taste-buds to experience unusual  flavour combinations, to find out what we like – and don’t- and what works.  Age old and classic combinations will always have a place, along with the cook books, but I think losing our fear, and discovering our creative side in the kitchen would have a big impact on our cooking, as well as actually bringing some of the fun back to the kitchen.

Give us today our DAILY BREAD…

…And forgive us our sins – which are many as far as our daily loaf is concerned.  I’m not interested here in the religious or historical significance of bread, important though I’m sure it is, but more in the nutritional value of something that a large proportion of the population still rely on as a food staple.  If you doubt this fact, the statistics bear witness:  according to the flour advisory bureau  99% of households buy bread and the equivalent of nearly 12 million loaves are sold each and every day.

Andrew Whitley, the original owner-baker of the Village bakery in Melmerby, Cumbria, is right when he wrote that ‘bread matters’ in his 2006 book of the same name. If we are eating that much of something, it certainly does matter not only what’s in it, but how it is made.  If you are not familiar with the ‘Chorleywood Method’ of bread production, you may want to acquaint yourself with the basics, as it’s the way the majority of our bread is made, whether by the supermarkets or your local baker.  The bread you can buy locally may be freshly made and baked, as opposed to the supermarket loaves, which despite their appetising smell, are generally frozen, but the method will probably be the same, unless you are fortunate to have an artisan baker in your neighbourhood.  I don’t propose to go into the method here, but suffice to say that over 80% of UK bread is made using low protein wheat, an assortment of additives and high speed mixing.  This produces the volumous pappy light white bread that so many Brits today favour.

As those of you who make your own bread will know, all that a loaf needs is four ingredients: flour, water, yeast and salt; fat can be added, but it is not essential.  You may like to consider that the modern loaf can contain up to eight additional ingredients including an array of ‘enzymes’ which have no nutritional value and aren’t required to be included on the ingredients list because they’re considered as ‘ processing aids’.  They are made from a range of delightful products such as pigs pancreas and fungal bacteria, often produced by genetic  engineering (yum).  The reason they are there is to delay the staling process, increase the volume, and generally assist the industry to make a cheap, long keeping, palatable product.  You decide if that’s what you want from your loaf!

The continentals have a different approach : the French put the ‘daily’ back into bread and will queue to get it.  Bread is designed to be made and eaten fresh,  not kept for a week before turning mouldy!  I know the arguments for convenience, but to my mind it’s time to claim back our national loaf.  Not everyone will want to get stuck up to their elbows in dough a la Hugh Fearnley -Whittingstall  or Jamie Oliver, and make their own, but bread machines are a great alternative for the time poor or less confident, and turn out a decent product.  At least you can control what goes into it, and the time it takes to make.  I’ve had my bread maker for 7 years, and wouldn’t be without it.  Prior to that I made bread by hand, on and off.  I worked full-time and managed a family and household as well as doing a part-time college course; I am not of the ‘domestic goddess’ persuasion, so I feel sure it should be within the grasp of most of us to make and bake our own bread.

Thankfully there is a resurgence of interest in ‘real’ bread and community bakeries have set up in various places, providing tasty and nutritious loaves to local people who may not have the time, skill or confidence to do it themselves.  The ‘Real Bread Campaign’ has been a major player in raising awareness of the poor quality of our national loaf, and encouraging the artisan bakery movement.  The bread may be more expensive than supermarket loaves, but there is no comparison in taste and texture. Having the cheapest bread in Europe is not necessarily a positive accolade.  As the price of wheat rises and supermarkets are forced to increase the price of basic commodities such as bread, maybe it’s time to look at the alternatives.  At the very least we could campaign for something more worthy of the name bread than  the nutrient poor, tasteless, air-filled, time-rushed technological loaf which adorns the shelves of the majority of our supermarkets.

 

Turn It On

We do it every day, and often.  We turn on the tap and expect that water will flow: clear, fast flowing, germ free.   Arguments about chlorine, organophosphates and oestrogen residues aside, we are clearly fortunate to have fresh running water readily available.  For over 800 million people in the world this would be a luxury, imagined only in their wildest dreams.

I’m as likely to take water for granted as the next person, albeit I do my environmental duty by rain water harvesting and re-using grey  water.  Recently, however, I was forced to confront reality when my water supply became erratic, and then ceased altogether.  Living at over 100 metres above sea-level has it issues for utility supply, especially water.  The water is pumped up the hill and then distributed to the main risers, and into the property under normal pressure.  Sometimes the pump, which seems to function erratically at best, stops working – result: no water.  On one particular week recently the supply was on and off, and then just off.  We were lucky to be supplied with 2 litre bottles of drinking water, lots of them, courtesy of Scottish Water, but turning the tap on and expecting to see water running was futile, as was thinking that you were going to be able to shower or bathe anytime soon!

We take things for granted. We are human; we have an enduring capacity to get used to just about anything – what was novel and delightful yesterday is common and mundane today.  We are born of generations who accept technology as a given.  I am old enough to remember the mid-seventies drought, and collecting water from stand-pipes, and I hope I am wise enough to recall how fortunate I am to be able to turn on my tap and get water on demand.

Accordingto Tearfund,  the Millennium Development Goal – aiming to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015 –  is decades off schedule in many parts of the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, we are set to miss the water target by 20 years and the sanitation target by nearly 200 years.  According to the charity WaterAid over 2 million people die from water related diseases every year.   In a world where one in eight people in the world doesn’t have access to this essential resource, at the very least shouldn’t we be grateful that we have water on demand at the turn of a tap?  Well, most of the time, anyway!

Magic Beans

Borlotti beans No, not a prelude to the pantomime season.  I loathe pantomimes.  Yes I do! Yes I do!  Although the ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’  folktale itself is quite compelling as a story, for me the magic of growing is a far more magical, and ultimately profitable, experience.  Who wouldn’t be mesmerised by bean stalks curling their way around canes?  Six foot, eight foot; sky high if you like!  Delicate little plants that turn into sturdy, bountiful, bearers of long green pods that taste divine in all their beanie loveliness.

As a child I was always fascinated by anything you could grow from seed: the obligatory cress on the windowsill of course, but also flowers,  tomatoes and many other wonders.  My family weren’t hot on ‘grow your own’ even though we had a huge 160 foot garden, but somehow I got the bug.  I’m not sure if it was uncle Ray’s veg patch or the allotments I spied from the other side of the park, but something lodged itself in my psyche.

I’ve never lost the utter wonder of growing something from seed, especially if it’s something edible!  How do mammoth squash and courgettes emerge from tiny seeds, no bigger than a finger nail?  How do huge leeks form from  a black spec twist of peppercorn?  It is nothing short of amazing.  It doesn’t matter if I grow things from seed for decades, I don’t think I will ever stop being in awe of the determination of nature to shoot up and out – abounding abundantly.

I’m not particularly green-fingered. Not everything germinates, and not everything that germinates produces a crop.  The runner beans were a disaster this year, and the courgettes missed the sunshine terribly (as we all did in this northern neck of the woods), but that didn’t stop a bountiful harvest, which as I write, approaches 180 kilos ..and counting.

I count myself lucky that I’ve always known where my food comes from – I know that peas don’t come from the freezer  section of the  supermarket, and I can identify a carrot or swede, or even more exotic delights such as aubergine.  That’s because although my parents didn’t grow fresh vegetables, we did buy and eat them, usually from the local market.  It’s heartening to see projects such as food for life  teaching young people where food comes from, getting them involved in cooking, eating, and even growing  it.  It’s perhaps sad that we need such
initiatives.  In an age where we can be so disconnected from nature, encouraging people to ‘grow their own’, and giving more children the opportunity to experience the power and wonder of nature first hand can still provide that little bit of magic.  O yes it can!