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: https://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!

 

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

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.

Why I’ve Decided to Start Blogging

BeautyDo I have anything interesting to say?  Well that’s probably not a question for me to answer, but if I had to, it’s a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’.   I probably have the potential to be as interesting as the bloke who cleans the public loos, but not quite as interesting as the butler to HRH -it all depends on what grabs you.

What grabs me varies from day to day, but recurrent themes will be cooking, gardening, nature, writing, crafting, organics, justice, and the general state of stuff.

Just now, I’m enraged that so called ‘civilised’ nations can still be executing people; I’m overjoyed at the beauty and deliciousness of my red cabbages, and delighted that the sun was shining earlier.  It’s all important – to me;  And isn’t that half the point of this blogging caper – sharing what’s important to you, hoping that other people hold similar ideals, and that somehow this potential sharing dialogue can make a difference and might actually matter?

Well maybe that’s all a little grandiose!  Here I am anyway.  My first post on my own blog. Here we go…….