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!


The inter-connectedness of Things..

Not a very exciting blog title I feel, and a difficult subject  to write on because it’s potentially so overwhelming.  We are micro-organisms in gargantuan, unknowable universe on the one hand, and on the other we are hugely powerful beings with massive responsibility, co-opted to share the world’s resources in a fair and equitable manner.

Some people I’m sure would dispute the latter statement, and not just hedonists and naysayers, but many people who find life a struggle through circumstances of poverty, ill health or lack of opportunity, and others who don’t think or care, or don’t care to think!

It’s easy to get stuck in our own ‘sloughs of despond’ and feel that we are powerless to help ourselves, let alone anyone else!  What can we do about corruption, or war, or the arms trade, or child prostitution, habitat loss, poverty or global warming?  Thankfully there are individuals and organisations that are working to achieve positive outcomes in these areas and more besides, and millions of us worldwide who support them.  What concerns me is the lack of coherence.  We understand that people power, especially through the power of the internet, has the potential to change things, but we often fail to unite and harness the elemental might that comes from a single voice and a single direction. Third sector organisations do a massive amount to alleviate suffering both globally and locally, and sometimes such as in times of crisis, they work together towards a single objective, which is both laudable and necessary, but is not enough.

We are all trying to fix something which is beyond repair.  Peel away one bad layer, and another takes its place.  The whole is rotten and can’t be rescued.  The earth will recover ultimately, once humanity has been erased from its surface, but if we want to be part of the on-going story of planet earth then we need new paradigms for living.  We have the knowledge, intellect, skill, and physical ability to change and renew, to start again, and we need the heart and will to do so.  Politicians, economists, financial institutions, corporations, as well as individuals, need a new purpose and identity, part of the whole.  People in power are afraid; afraid of losing their power, of becoming insignificant, and they are right to fear because the peaks and troughs of our societies do need to be levelled.  There is no need for famine, poverty, inequality, we have the resources to re-distribute wealth, in all nations of the world, through a new economics that values people above profit: in business, in banking, in trade, in politics; we become truly human, truly powerful when we acknowledge our greed, frailty and mistakes and determine that we will change things – together.

The analogy of a pebble in a pond setting off ripples across its surface is useful, if limited.  The butterfly effect is perhaps over-used and equally simplistic, but it helps to convey how seemingly disparate elements are related.  The reality is EVERYTHING is connected to everything else!  Cheap food in the UK means mono-culture, animal suffering, pollution, habitat loss, reduction in bio-diversity, lack of food security, food miles, oppression of the poor in other countries and rural poverty.  An economy that is based on the need to grow and expand infinitely is one doomed to failure.  A world where farmers go bankrupt whilst supermarkets gain huge profits is not sustainable;  a world where money has become  an electronic blip – extendable  if you are rich and concrete if you are poor – is in danger of losing any grasp on reality at all:  It is not only the farmers who will be bankrupt and suicidal.  Food is a hugely political issue these days, and when you have financial corporation’s dealing in it, diminishing its value by ‘betting’ on its chances in the future, then you really have lost the plot!

The reality is that every financial decision and purchasing choice I make has repercussions, not only in my local community, but across the globe.  This is about far more than being a concerned or ethical shopper, as trendy or good as that may be, it is about reclaiming worth for ourselves and our fellow planet dwellers, making money real and its benefits percolating throughout communities; about valuing what’s real and lasting in relationships, in the natural world, and not being exclusively governed by ‘the bottom line’.

Of course, not everyone will get on board, those who have a vested interest in the status quo, who keep their fingers crossed and ‘fiddle while Rome burns’, but we don’t need everyone on board, just enough to reach tipping point.  Change will come.  It has to.  We can either be a part of it, and acknowledge our place in the world, or we can act with self-interest and greed, failing to acknowledge that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.  It will be a shock to those people when the world swallows them up and spits them out!

I don’t have the answers.  No one person or organisation or political ideology does, whatever they may say, and that’s the positive part – we all have a section of the jigsaw that makes the whole picture, only by collaboration and co-operation can we piece it all together.  I am not a pessimist, but I do believe we need a revolution to take place on a global scale – financial, political, social, and personal.  Global warming, the rise in food costs, and the current turmoil in the financial markets of Europe and beyond are not isolated happenings, but intimately connected to the way we live our lives as nations and individuals. 

I acknowledge that my grasp of this topic is woefully inadequate and ill-informed.  Thankfully there are much better minds than mine working on solutions to the challenges we face. What I do know is that change is both necessary and inevitable – and it will be better to ride the crest of the wave together than crash and burn on the beach alone.


 See Positive Money for some helpful information and debate on economics

Living in the Lap of LUXURY

Always associated with increased affluence, what people regard as luxury has varied down the ages.  What your multi-million pound earner regards as luxury purchases may be far cry from what you or I might regard as luxury; their new Aston Martin, or a property in Puerto Rico, might equate to our spa day and a special bottle of wine, but the concept is the same.  The more expendable income we have the more affordable luxury items become.

I didn’t regard our family as poor: my parents both worked, and they owned their own home; we ate nutritious food and went on family holidays, usually in the UK.  Chicken was initially regarded as a ‘special roast dinner’, and salmon was regarded as a luxury item, for special occasions only.  As time passed, these products became more common fare and eventually we regarded them as everyday foods.  Today these commodities are probably cheaper in real terms, than they were when I was young, but at what cost?

Today many things carry the ‘luxury’ tag: holidays, cars, confections, baked goods, even ready meals!  Luxury has become almost synonymous with a higher priced version of a standard product, which may have similar ingredients, and was probably produced at the same manufacturing plant.  I am not intending to write an expose of supermarket ready meals and their up market ranges, I’m sure there are plenty of examples already out there, I’m more interested in the concept of luxury itself; how what was a luxury product of yesteryear is an everyday product today.  In many respects luxury and premium brands are no more than a marketing concept, appealing to our snobbery and one-upmanship; that desire to be better than our neighbours, and have the latest and the best, and maybe it was always thus.

In the 17th century sugar was a luxury afforded only by the rich, a century later tea was the same.  It was only in the Victorian era with improved transportation, and industrialisation, that once expensive and difficult to obtain items became more commonly available and more affordable.  Ironically in many places, although the poor had largely monotonous diets, the inclusion of home-grown vegetables, and the rarity of butchered meat , meant that very often the richer classes, who ate lots of meat and not many vegetables, had a nutritionally poorer diet than those with considerably less wealth.

Today that inverse relationship is even more perversely evident with the richer western societies consuming vast quantities of meat, refined foods and sugar, and suffering from type two diabetes,  obesity, heart disease and cancer in epidemic proportions.  We may have plenty of luxury chocolates, desserts and ice-cream, but our new found wealth is playing havoc with our nation’s health.

Many of the brands we associate with luxury, such as haute couture fashions in particular, are often made in poorer countries where people can work in dire conditions for meagre earnings, and the same can be said for many so called luxury products; the same sorry story of our luxury being someone else’s exploitation.  The history of the empire, indeed of ‘the West’ is littered with conquest, sublimation and acquisition at the expense of indigenous populations.  I’m not sure how far we’ve progressed.

At a time when population numbers are at an all time high, and we’re unsure about the sustainability of our present lifestyles, maybe we need to re-evaluate what we regard as  luxury.  If some of the nightmare scenarios actually come to pass, currency will lose its value, and food will again become the basis of exchange.  In a future with little oil, luxury vehicles will have no value, and many of the products we currently regard as desirable will become as useless as a chocolate poker.  You only have to go back to the rationing of the second world war to understand how people valued what had once been every day, but became scarce.  The black market in sugar, eggs, meat and stockings is well documented!

I’m thinking that perhaps a time is coming when everyone, not just transition towns, the green movement, and climate change proponents, will have to start changing the way they think about goods; where they come from and how we value them.

I was lying in the bath this afternoon, thinking about this blog article.  For me a nice hot bath has always been a luxury.  I am conscious of my water use and employ water saving devices, as well as reusing grey water.  I do not use car washes, I don’t run water when I clean my teeth.  Where I live, we are often without water due to issues with the pumping station, so it is something I’m acutely aware of.  In the UK water is not a big issue, but it is in other parts of the world, and it certainly could be in the future, so one day not too far away a bath may be a luxury for you too.  There are other things like meat which fall into this category – our appetite for animals flesh has increased astronomically over the last 20 years, but the production of meat on land that could grow food for people is not sustainable, and meat may one day again become a luxury commodity.

We are a nation of tea drinkers and barely spare a thought for how this reviving brew is made, or where it comes from.  We place little value on an item that was once stored in locked chests and fought over!  I genuinely appreciate my pot of fair-trade loose leaf afternoon Assam tea, and enjoy the ritual of it.  It doesn’t take too much effort to restore an appreciation for something that has become common and every day, but none the poorer for that, except perhaps in our perception of it.  I’m not sure who said ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ but there is certainly an element of truth in it.

In appreciating those things we do have which were once luxuries, in re-evaluating the cost to the planet of our current luxuries, and increasing desire for the acquisition of things, we might actually stumble upon something better and more meaningful.  The value in simple pleasures, in things that can’t be bought, and a true awareness of the wealth which we all have regardless of our economic status.

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.

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.


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!