Musings of a Former Vegetarian (without a current label)

 

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I decided, age 11, that I wasn’t eating meat.  Not no more.  Not no how.  My mother was horrified and thought I would die of malnourishment.  To be fair to her, she learned to cook a few staple dishes: her version of a veggie paella (with burnt tomatoes that tasted surprisingly good) and a cheese, potato and onion bake.  We also discovered pasta – a never seen before carb’ in our potato dominated house.

As you will note, I lived!  I soon found out about various aspects of nutrition, which sparked a life-long interest (and various certificates along the way) in diet, food and cooking.  The average supermarket didn’t have ‘veggie options’ in the early 70’s and meat-spurners were forced to buy weird things from wholefood shops that were packed in brown paper bags.  You had to be creative and engaged to survive without turning into a lentil-eating, sandal-wearing hippy.  As an up-coming teen, that was definitely not a cool vibe.  Rose Elliot, and later Sarah Brown, were my lifelines.  I cooked every recipe in those original books, discovering the amazing array of plant based foods, without the need for weird things from hushed wholefood emporiums.

I remained a vegetarian for over 30 years, fairly strictly.  I was never a vegan, I relied on eggs too much, but I’ve since dabbled with vegan cooking and enjoy the challenge from time to time, although not as a permanent lifestyle choice.  Being a vegetarian definitely made me more adventurous than my meat and two-veg mates, though it by no means guarantees a healthy lifestyle.  Over dependence on dairy can be a recipe for weight gain, and eating vegetarian versions of junk food – pizza, chips, convenience foods – will leave you equally lacking in vital nutrients and  as drowning in surplus calories as your carnivorous counterparts.

I didn’t make a conscious decision to stop being a vegetarian. I simply decided to add a little fish protein to my diet at a time when I was unwell and needed to make an extra effort to look after myself.  I’m not saying that you can’t be healthy and look after your nutritional needs on a plant based diet – I did it for over 3 decades.  What I am saying is that for me, eating sustainably sourced fish was something that I incorporated into my diet and found I enjoyed.

When I moved to the Highlands of Scotland I decided to try wild venison.  A healthy and sustainable option for meat protein.  (The deer need to be managed, to some extent, to keep numbers supportable in the environment, and make sure weak herd members don’t starve in harsh winters. ) So, I enjoy some locally caught and butchered wild venison occasionally.  And occasionally is the key word.  My diet is still largely based around vegetables meals, with one fish dish a week and a meat meal very rarely.

There is absolutely no doubt that in the UK we all need to reduce our meat consumption.  The current levels are not sustainable.  There are issues with the conditions of animals reared in other countries. There are issue with transportation of livestock. There is also some question as to the ultimate healthiness of a high meat protein diet. Above all there are environmental issues with excessive meat consumption, where land is given over to growing meat, when it would be better used for growing crops. However, it is also true that there are areas of the UK where crops cannot be grown.  Some areas of the highlands are prime examples.  The land is designated as ‘rough grazing’ and the fact is that you couldn’t grow crops on it if you wanted to.  In this instance, ruminating animals are the best way of turning poor grassland into a viable protein source.  If we all reduce our meat consumption and concentrated on buying better quality grass-fed UK animals, we could do a lot better by our farmers, who often struggle to turn a living, never mind a profit.  Farmers in the highlands, along with crofters, have always struggled with the poor land and the harsh environment, if they were supported with better networks and better prices, we could be self-sufficient in beef and lamb, without the need for imports.

Raising meat well takes time and effort.  The inputs are greater and it costs more, but it is a better option than antibiotic laced, GM fed imports.  I appreciate not everyone can afford the price of an organic chicken or a slow-growing grass-fed piece of beef, but if you only ate it once a month, once every few months, it would make it more likely.

Many people will disagree with my stance, and that’s fine.  I’m not preaching for people to stop being vegetarians, or to become vegetarians.  I’m encouraging you to be conscious about what you’re eating and the implications it has for your health and the health of the planet.

If everyone became vegetarian tomorrow, or next week, it would not save the world!  Many vegetarians eat soya, which has its own set of ethical issues.  The UK would not return to some mythical ‘green and pleasant’ land.  It is more likely to become a barren place of housing estates, out-of-town shopping centres and miles of tarmac.  In the highlands, where some of the grazing animals contribute to environmental schemes, the land would be overrun with non-native species and gorse, the deer would run riot, and new forestry would be under threat.  The natural world has a delicate balance and humanity has intervened for centuries, impacting it for both good and bad.  Without management, many highland species of plant and animal life would not survive.  Already threatened by habitat loss, they would struggle even more with herds of wild deer and sheep rampaging across the countryside.

Eating is both an ethical and political issue these days.  There is much to despise in modern farming, and there is also much to admire: there is good husbandry and bad; people who care about the environment, and people who don’t.  As consumers we need to encourage the good practices by demanding high welfare, slow growing, grass fed, non GM fed animals.  We need to be prepared to eat less meat and pay more for it.  We need to shun cheap imports that out-compete our home-grown meat on price, but not on quality.

So much of my life has been spent as a vegetarian that I still think of myself as such.  Most of my meals continue to be plant based, and when I do eat meat protein, it is always locally sourced, usually from someone I know personally.  We don’t all have the luxury of those choices, but we do all have the responsibility to think about what we eat and where it comes from.  My way of eating doesn’t have a label.  It’s individual, and so will yours be – flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan, carnivore – it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s a thought-out position.  That will mean you’re doing what you can with the resources you have, to eat well – for you and the planet.

 

 

 

 

Food ethics, security and sustainability is a huge topic.  If you want to find out more, the food ethics council is a good place to start:

http://www.foodethicscouncil.org

The Great British Breakfast

wp_20160319_001Or not.  At its best a morning repast in the UK can be something sublime.  At its worse, well, it’s a disgrace quite frankly.  I’ve stayed in B&B’s up and down the UK and generally have some great experiences.  My preference is to stay in a B&B rather than a hotel as you generally get better service, ‘vfm’, and the personal touch that is lacking in many larger establishments.  Travelling in Scotland over the last 30 years I’ve had some fab breakfasts – and some dreadful ones.

Let’s do a bit of myth busting: no 1.  The price you pay is no indication of the quality of the breakfast you will receive.  I’ve stayed in some fairly pricey places and had mediocre meals.  The converse is also true.  No 2. Just because someone is serving ‘local produce’ does not mean that they can cook it!  I’ve had some lovely fresh local food with exceptional provenance which was ruined by careless cooking.  You know the sort of thing – bouncy eggs, burnt sausages, dried out beans.

If you’re paying to stay somewhere overnight and having a breakfast, then the establishment should be judged on the quality of that meal.  It’s 50% of the equation after all, yet standard tourist board ratings take no account of this.  You get points for facilities and matching furniture, but if you serve bouncy battery eggs, it doesn’t seem to have an impact.  The fact that somewhere has a hairdryer and Wi-Fi seems to carry more importance than whether they provide a decent breakfast.  Frankly if I’m staying away from home I’m interested in starting the day off with something I can actually eat.

I’ve stayed in two establishments recently, out of necessity; one was a fabulous house with a large bedroom with a balcony and many luxury features.  The host was friendly and helpful, but none of these things mitigated the fact that she couldn’t cook and was using poor ingredients.  If you’re running a B&B shouldn’t you at least be able to cook an egg?  The bread was a cheap frozen supermarket loss-leader and so dry that I couldn’t eat it.  As a semi-vegetarian I am frequently disappointed with the breakfast offerings at most accommodation and usually rely on an egg or bread to get me through, so when that fails to be edible I do get somewhat antsy.

How hard can it be to provide a creative vegetarian option?  Mushroom pancakes, stuffed mushrooms, cheesy tomatoes, would a daring huevos rancheros be too much to ask?  Clearly it is.  How about a nice loaf of homemade soda bread or some Scotch pancakes?  I could cope with that.  If there is a vegetarian option – and generally there isn’t – it consists of Quorn Sausages or their equivalent.  Now I know I’m fussy.  Some people love these sausage substitutes.  Not me.  I don’t eat sausages or bacon and don’t need something that has the flavour or texture of them on my plate in the morning as it’s likely to make me boke.  Make a Glamorgan sausage and freeze them or I’ll give you the recipe for my chestnut sausages, which cook from frozen.  These options are cheap and easy and there really is no excuse not to do something for those of us who represent between 7 and 10% of the population.

There are glimmers of light.  A recent stay in a small B&B before getting the ferry to the Western Isles delivered up a well-cooked breakfast using local ingredients, including her own hens’ eggs.  OK, there were no veggie options, but the eggs were good and the bread was a nice seedy grainy offering. I’m not asking for the world here, just a bit of thought and a bit of care about what you’re doing.

A friend of mine opened her own B&B earlier this year and has made a point of serving vegetarian and vegan options.  She kindly indulged me by asking for my recipes for various things, and by all accounts the veggie options are proving very popular.  It can be done.  It takes a bit of thought, a bit of effort, but if this is your business, your source of income, wouldn’t you want to do it well?  It can actually be a selling point, especially when there are so few places serving decent vegetarian breakfasts.

The most recent breakfast faux pas was not a B&B but a local establishment specialising in local produce and offering a Sunday breakfast until lunchtime.  My partner and I thought we’d treat ourselves whilst on an errand.  It turned out not to be too much of a treat.  Bacon so hard and melded together it was inedible, over-cooked eggs and microwaved black pudding.  All in all, not a success.  Needless to say we won’t be going back there.

The only experience I’ve had which was worse was in a B&B in the Lakes which offered ‘speciality breakfasts’.  I’m still not sure what the ‘speciality’ was, possibly how terrible the breakfasts were. The breakfast room was locked and guests were only allowed in at the appointed hour.  The ‘speciality’ changed every day.  One the first day it was oatcakes and on the second day it was boiled eggs.  Hard.  Without toast.  There were no options; you got what you were given.  I was so outraged I actually complained to the tourist board.  As the business was being sold on they felt disinclined to do anything.  Maybe the owners were disillusioned with the B&B business.  I was certainly disillusioned with my Cumbrian breakfast.

I’ve not ‘named and shamed’ here, but I confess I am sorely tempted.

I suppose there should be some balance. I’ve had some great breakfast in some great places: a lady in Shetland that makes her own yoghurt and muesli, a couple of guys on Skye who make their own bread and jam, and serve generous well-cooked portions of local salmon, eggs, sausages and bacon.  It can be done.  It should be done.

Breakfast can be a fantastic meal, so here’s a plea to all the B&B owners in the UK to put the ‘Great’ back into the British breakfast.  Please.

 

 

Bracarina House is run by the lovely Heather and Robert Forbes.  They pride themselves on the quality of their home and serve delicious vegan and veggie breakfast.

Vatersay House is run by amazing hosts Brian and Andy.  The breakfasts, which include many homemade elements, are fantastic.

Box of Delights

Organic Veg Box
Organic Veg Box

The red van draws up by the kitchen window, and I know something is about to be delivered.  The excitement of a parcel arriving never dulls for me.  Before you protest, I don’t have a rampant internet shopping habit, it’s simply that I live in what the census would describe as ‘an isolated rural hamlet’, and the niceties of shopping civilisation are a long drive away.

Of all the things that arrive, the Friday delivery is my favourite.  I can’t wait to rip off the tape and reveal the goodies inside.  It might surprise you, if you don’t know me, to note that it is not clothes, shoes, household furnishings, or indeed, any commodity that might generally be thought to inspire glee, but rather a box of freshly picked, mostly UK grown, organic fruit and veg! As I peel back the tape and the prise open the cardboard and packaging, it feels like Christmas; even though I obviously know what I’ve ordered, the suspense is palpable.

Before you consign this article to the bin -though I would rather the compost heap- let me explain further.  This time of year is not known for its wondrous abundance of fresh fruit and veg – most of the root veg are stored over winter, and there’s certainly no local fruit about, however, we are just beginning to see the first peeps of asparagus, and the blush of the first rhubarb; and purple sprouting broccoli –vastly superior to calabrese, in my view, the bog standard green broccoli on sale in supermarkets- is coming on stream, a saviour in the gap between the winter veg and spring greens.  New season Scottish carrots are making an appearance, and the cauliflowers are superb.  The local herb growers are producing the first bunches of the year, and this week I allowed myself a treat of the first lot of artichokes (albeit from Italy).

As I solicitously unpack this seasonal cornucopia, my mind starts racing with all manner of meal ideas, tasty treats and recipes.  The delectable artichokes will be devoured for lunch tomorrow, with a garlic and herb oil, and maybe some bread, plucked leaf by leaf, until the prize of heart is discovered, and divvied up for dunking; the cauli and coriander will make a delightfully fragrant curry along with store cupboard chickpeas, and the rhubarb, of course, will make a healthy, oaty crumble.  The possibilities are endless, and my imagination takes flight!

I generally get a local organic veg box each week from The Natural Vegetable Company, but this is only available when I can collect it from town – an 80 mile round trip which is unjustifiable when I’m not at work.  Otherwise, my Friday order from Real Foods is the norm.  The company has been established for 50 years, and excels at supplying fresh local organic veg from their Edinburgh store.  Although they do stock some imported items, their extensive fruit and veg list is based largely on UK suppliers, often local, so the list is predominantly seasonal.  For me, this is what makes the deliveries so exciting: the first rhubarb and asparagus, the last of the Seville oranges – for a whole year- and when the time is right we will get the first strawberries and Scottish raspberries.  It’s inspiring.  The same can’t be said of the supermarket fruit and veg aisle, and whilst I won’t make this a ‘bash the supermarket’ moment, there is no way they can compete with the freshness and vitality of this calibre of fresh produce.  You will see exotic items from all over the globe, no doubt, but the quality is dubious –even though they may be the same shape and size- and the flavour is always a disappointment.  A strawberry ‘fresh’ from a plastic punnet, is nothing like a ripe, un-refrigerated berry, carefully packed and rapidly shipped to the dribbling-mouthed recipient.  For organic veg you will probably find that the price of a box from a local box scheme, or a local supplier, or farm shop selling their own produce, is very favourable compared to supermarket equivalents, and very often cheaper. 

I would encourage you to give an organic veg box scheme a go.  If you live in Scotland you can order from Real Foods, though if you’re concerned about food miles try a local scheme.  Other national suppliers include Abel and Cole, and Riverford, both of whom I can recommend.  Give it a go, and you could soon have your own box of delights racing its way to your door!

Bottoms Up!

Dave and Si Sumo Hugh with Salmon 

I think there must be some trend at large that until now, I have been unaware of.  It concerns the antics of men of a certain age, or to be more precise, male cooks of a certain age, who appear on TV.

My TV viewing repertoire is generally limited to programmes about food, horticulture, and some drama.  I’m not fussed about ‘reality TV’, soaps, sex or violence, although please note that I am no prude, and will see just about anything live on stage no matter what the ‘material of an adult nature’. 

I do like a good cooking programme though, especially if there are some cultural elements involved, or a type of cuisine I would like to experiment with, so the recent series, Skandimania, presented by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and the Hairy Bikers’ Asian Adventure have hit the mark on   both counts.  What has perplexed me about these programmes is the inclination of these presenters to get their kit off, especially as I’m usually eating my dinner when the programmes air!  The sight of Mr FW’s bare bottom easing into an outdoor tub, or Mr Myers and Mr King in the altogether, dipping into an Asian Jacuzzi, is not my idea of tea-time viewing pleasure.  Apologies chaps, I have nothing against your nudity per se, but I do object to bare bottoms when I’m eating (and in fact I’m not sure I want to see those particular bare bottoms at any stage).  I don’t think I’m being ageist, anti-chefist, or have stereotypical ideas of what the human body should conform to, I just don’t want to see bare bottoms – anybody’s bare bottom to be honest- when I’m chomping on my tofu and mung beans!

So, more interesting cooking shows please, but less flesh!

And it seems I’m not the only one who’s noticed; another blogger has made reference to Dave and Si’s propensity to get their kit off, here: http://slowrisinglifeform.blogspot.co.uk/  graced with a lovely cartoon

The Liberation of Being Messy!

Some people enjoy messing about in boats. I relish messing about in the kitchen.  And mess, it generally is when I have one of my cooking days. John Torode of Masterchef fame would have a fit!  But it’s the ‘messy’ bit that’s part of the fun!  I am not a neat and precise cook.  I bastardise recipes: I conjure and create, adjust and titivate, strip down, reduce, add and enjoy!  I don’t often mess up a finished dish; thankfully I have enough cooking experience, training and general nowse to know what I’m doing, for the most part. So whilst my chaotic cooking sessions could never be neat and ordered occasions, they still have a background of sanity and shape – although anyone who has ever lived with me might well disagree. 

With cooking, for me the creating is half the fun, and the eating of course the other half.  The journey is definitely as important as the destination.  People who cook out of necessity rarely enjoy it.  Like kids who invariably end up with sticky mitts, and many chefs and pâtissier, I enjoy getting stuck in with my hands, feeling the ingredients and textures, telling with my sense of touch when something is ‘right’. It’s a dimension of cooking that weighing and spooning and machinery can’t give you.  Like the constant tasting that chefs do to check a dish, using your hands can bring something important and elemental to cookery.  OK, so you don’t need to make a mess to use your digits and enjoy cooking, but it can be very liberating to have flour on your worktop and your hands, spats on the cooker, and a pile of washing up – and no spoons left in the cutlery drawer.  You can clear up at the end.  It’s no big deal!  Give it a try one afternoon when you fancy a baking or jam making session, no one will know, and you might even have some fun!

 

A Kind of Alchemy

I’ve blogged about bread before: the naff content of the average chemically laden commercial loaf; the virtues of making your own bread.  But this is different.  This is sourdough!

I’ve made sourdough bread before of course – a white loaf, a rye bread, a wholemeal- but I never really paid much attention to it.  I was irritated that it took so long for the starter to be ready, that you had to make a sponge before a dough, that it took so long to rise.  Patience has never been one of my virtues. 

It’s been over a year since I made my last sourdough starter, and hence my last sourdough loaf, and this time it’s been different.  This time I have marvelled at the process, the chemical changes that take place, the fact that wild yeasts, which I can’t even see, are slowly working their magic, and yes it is still SLOWLY.  The process can’t be speeded up at all.  It can’t be mechanised into some time-saving shadow of itself, and that is part of the beauty of it. 

The starter has to be fed and watered, nurtured daily into a glooping primordial soup of something very messy and initially at least, not very lovely.  Those of you who like the smell of fermenting beer will probably love the initial stages of a sourdough, given that that’s what it smells like; unfortunately it’s not a smell I enjoy!  As you continue to care for your culture it morphs into a fruity smelling liquid.  It’s quite amazing really.  These microscopic organisms harnessed from the air, the same organisms that used to make wine, and is some cases still do, transform flour and water into something you can make tasty, chewy, crusty bread with.  Time and love are the magic ingredients which change these ‘base’ items into something precious.

It isn’t a difficult process: you weigh, add, mix.  You wait.  It take no more than a few minutes a day to do.  When the starter is ready you add more flour and more liquid to it to make the ‘sponge’.  You wait.  When the sponge is ready you add the final batch of flour, the final quantity of water and then, like a normal dough, you knead it.  This will take 10 minutes or so of your time.  You wait again.  You knock it back like a deflated football and shape it into the final stage, your loaf of choice, and then you must wait.  Again.  A sourdough loaf will rise, every bit as well as a loaf made with commercially produced yeast, but it will take its time.  It is the time that produces the flavour and texture of the loaf.  It’s the time that makes the gluten more digestible to the human gut.  In total you may have spent half an hour or so making your sourdough loaf, but you will spend the half an hour over 7 – 10 days rather than one!

This time I have enjoyed the process.  I haven’t stressed or fretted. There’s something relaxing in a product you can’t hurry.  I have let nature take its course, and I am sure that both my loaf and I will be the better for it!  Is it worth the wait? You will only know if you try it!

I Love Greg Wallace!

Well actually, he’s not really my type, but I do love  his greedy antics on BBC’s MasterChef programme!

I’ve never been much of a follower of ‘serial TV’ partly because I’m rarely sat on the couch week after week on the same night, but also because I am easily bored and  irritated by TV Shenanigans.  As a general rule, I dislike the new breed of cheap production reality TV. However, I   think MasterChef is genuinely different, and I would like to examine why I think this.

For a start the show, in varying formats, has been around for many years, with a variety of presenters.  Resurrected in 2006, I believe, as MasterChef goes large, it raised itself in the consciousness of a new audience, but it wasn’t really until the forerunner of the current show in 2008 that viewer numbers started to pick up and rise  to the meteoric 5 million of today’s show.

There are now 3 variants of the show: MasterChef the professionals, Celebrity MasterChef and MasterChef amateurs, the original show.  I have to confess that I  watch all 3!  The celebrity show is my least favourite, mostly because I have never been into the cult of celebrity, but also because I have rarely heard of the  people who enter, and feel they do it to revive flagging careers rather than for any real love of, or talent with, cooking.  There are exceptions and  I felt Phil Vickery  was a worthy celebrity winner (or perhaps I just have more of a penchant for sportsmen than  other  ‘celebrities’!)

MasterChef has clearly launched itself as a brand, and all the machinations of marketing and pimping that brings with it.  There are TV clones in 25 countries as well as various live shows throughout the UK.  This is one of our successful UK exports, and perhaps I don’t need to be too  purist about it.  Most people will watch it because it’s nail-biting and riveting, rather than because they want to enter the competition of quit their jobs to become a chef, it is entertainment after all, but the reality is that there has been a surge of interest and new blood, in a profession that has to date not had the best of reputations.  When I was at college training, courses were invariably undersubscribed.

Ash Mair, the winner of the last MasterChef The professionals competition may be 34, but the other finalists were under 25, and it is refreshing to see new young blood entering the bastions of stuffy haute cuisine.  It was also refreshing to see someone like Ash, who cooks true to his influences and passions, winning out.

As a previous entrant -of the old style competition- and a trained chef, I have more than a passing interest in the show, but it is I believe, the journey of the contestants that draws people who have no particular interest in the foodie world; that transformation from ordinary cook to inspired talent; the building up of culinary confidence and self belief, along with the experience itself; the reality that with hard work and effort, dreams can come true.  I think this is the crux of the matter for me.  The show doesn’t support fools and shirkers, it doesn’t offer fantastic prizes for doing daft things, or pots of money for exhibiting knowledge, or having a bit of luck, it is based on good old fashioned hard work and enthusiasm, and I think this shines through in most of the competitors, professional and amateur alike.

The hosts and judges are inspired choices for this new format  show.  I think it’s important to have a non-cook like Greg on board.  Mr Wallace know his veg, and his puddings of course, but he also know what he likes, and what he’d be prepared to eat out, and is not afraid to say so.  John Torode, as a restaurateur and chef, has direct experience of fine dining, but offers a fair critique of any honest grub.  Flavour can still win the day.  Michel Roux Junior is a consummate professional, but demonstrates genuine interest in and concern for his fledgling protégés.

I have eaten ‘posh nosh’ at some first class restaurants, including a couple with Michelin stars, and it’s interesting to see the behind scenes thought and work that goes into some of the creations.   I genuinely believe that most of us don’t want fancy food that has been deliberated over, most of the time, but  I don’t think it does any harm to raise the bar, to educate the punter and the professional that there is more to dining out than steak and chips.  In the UK we have suffered for too long with a reputation for some of the poorest, and most expensive food in Europe, indeed the world, and it is not a record to be proud of.  It is still eminently possible to go out to eat and pay a reasonable amount of money for something that you could turn out at home, actually in a lot of cases, something far below the standard of what you can produce at home!  As someone who eats mostly vegetarian I am regularly disappointed at the lack of imagination, and fresh ingredients, employed  in making vegetable dishes.  Seeing our aspiring chefs cooking Japanese, Thai, Indian, Mauritian, and an eclectic range of vegetarian food is both interesting and encouraging, and for me personally quite motivating too.

Not everyone who gets to the finals of MasterChef will go on to be a successful chef, but it is interesting to note that out of the seven amateur winners, all  but one is working in the food industry in some capacity, some in their own restaurants.  The runners-up appear to be similarly successful, and all 3 finalists from 2010 and 2011 are working in food.

Most of us I suspect,  would not want to spend 12 to 16 hour days in hot kitchens being shouted at by head chefs, under pressure to perform and produce near-perfect results time after time.  You have to be a certain type of person to want to do that for a living.   We can all aspire to be better cooks, to try new things and be bothered about how something looks as well as how it tastes.  Who was it who said ‘you eat first with your eyes’?

I think MasterChef appeals to a range of people – those who like to cook for sure, but also those who like to eat, who enjoy food, and revel in the colours and flavours of something well made.  It will also I feel sure appeal to those sadistic souls who enjoy seeing people suffer, put through their paces in the most gruelling of challenges.  Let’s face it, competing in MasterChef is no stroll down chef row!

We have our favourite competitors, and we follow them, we ‘put money’ on the person we think should win, and we’re elated or disappointed, respectively, when they do/don’t.  The programme has a reality, a passion and drama to it that is missing from a lot of programming, reality or otherwise, and for this reason I think it tugs at something elemental in us.  It has proved life-changing for many of the contestants, and it genuinely shows us what we believe, but are rarely brave enough to follow, that if you have a dream and you’re prepared to devote yourself to that dream, then it can become a reality.  MasterChef is definitely the stuff that dreams are made of, and that’s rare today, never mind for a TV show!

Photo Credit BBC Worldwide

The Art of Perception

I’ve recently finished reading the ‘Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’ by Aimee Bender, and would definitely recommend it as a good read (although please note that this is not a review of the book).

It’s an interesting take on the familiar – the pain, sadness, poignancy and humour of family life; the difficulties of growing up, and the cognizance we all develop about those closest to us that sometimes we wish we hadn’t.  If you’ve not read the book and think you might like to, I won’t spoil the surprise entirely.  Rose is a perfectly ordinary eight year old who, on the night before her ninth birthday, discovers she can taste her mother’s emotions when she bites into a chocolate-lemon cake that her mother  has made for her.  This unusual talent is both a gift and a curse for Rose, and food suddenly becomes contentious – a  threat and a challenge, as well as a way of understanding the world.

It’s an interesting premise.  As someone who has a better than average sense of smell  and taste – the two inextricably linked of course – I know that I can detect things that other people may not.  The nuances of flavour in a tea or a wine for example, but also more malodorous scents that for others may be less noxious.  As a child I could never walk through a department store without gagging, and even now, strong perfumes have the potential to give me a headache.  Perhaps these heightened senses always have a down side as well as an up.  Unlike Rose, I can’t smell whether you’re having an affair, or whether you’re sad or angry, but I could probably tell what you’ve eaten, drunk, smoked, or sprayed, for what it’s worth!

We may not all have heightened senses, but we all attain an awareness of our environment and the people in it through interpreting and organising sensory information, be it from one or all of our senses.  Someone who is unable to see has to rely on their remaining senses more than those of us who are sighted, and I suspect this changes the way they perceive the world  and the people in it.  Someone who is unable to see what you look like is unlikely to judge you by your designer shoes and handbag, or lack of.  I’m notsuggesting that it’s a benefit to be blind, or that we should go around sniffing everything, of course not, but it could be beneficial to feel and appreciate our surroundings more, to take notice of our perceptions and to be more intuitive and less judgmental.

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.