Saturday, 27 August 2011

Lobster smörgås

One of the consequences of branding myself as a 'foodie' is people assume that I can cook. That’s what occurred this evening as I walked into the kitchen before supper, and was casually tossed a chilled, cooked lobster along with the request (or was it an instruction), “you can do something creative with that can’t you?”

Now I would like to tell you that I eat lobsters all the time, but the truth is I may have cooked them three times in my life.  Still I had a quick look around the kitchen, and set about making a kind of improvised canapé, and if I am honest the result was not at all bad.  Here’s what I did.
Get all of the meat out of the lobster. (Twist off the claws and crack them with nut crackers or a tenderizing mallet, cut the body of the lobster in half from the head down to the tail and scoop out the pinky white flesh, discarding any brown gunk.) Cut the flesh into bite sized chunks and pop in a bowl.
In a saucepan, melt about 2 oz (60g) of butter and immediately mix this with the lobster flesh.  Add a couple of tablespoons of mayonnaise and mix well.
Thinly slice some sourdough bread, (rye bread or good quality whole meal would work too), and toast it lightly.
Butter the toast, and cut into pieces about 2 inches (5cm) square. Scoop the lobster evenly over the bread pieces, sprinkle with paprika and serve with lemon wedges. Delicious! And no real cooking involved.
So good in fact that I completely forgot to take any photos.  Only one thing to do, get another lobster!

Friday, 26 August 2011

Snape Maltings

Sailing barge on the River Ore
Alongside food one of my lifelong passions is history.  It has been a great pleasure ever since I settled in my adopted county to discover Suffolk’s rich heritage in food production.  Suffolk’s agricultural tradition owes a lot to the county’s location close to London, and its great communication links, especially by water.   Produce from Suffolk farms could be moved readily to the coast by the famous sailing barges on the county’s rivers: the Stour, the Orwell, the Deben, the Waveney and my own local river the Alde/Ore, and from there down the coast to the great metropolis.

For over a hundred years the Alde, which becomes the Ore when is passes Aldeburgh and turns south to Orford, was important in the transportation of one commodity in particular, malt.

Barley used in malting
Malt is produced by first starting and then stopping the germination of barley.  This process causes the barley to convert starch in to sugar producing the characteristic sweet tasting product which features in so much of our food, and even more importantly our drinks.  Malted barley is used in bread making and biscuits; it’s found in breakfast cereals and confectionery (think Maltesers and Mars Bars); it’s used for bedtime drinks such as Horlicks, Ovaltine or Milo, and goes into manufactured sauces and malt vinegar; it has been used in brewing since at least 2500BC, and forms the basis of the Scotch whisky industry, which still consumes 40% of Britain’s malt production today.

From the middle ages, most villages would have had a small malting house to supply local brewers and bakers, but in the nineteenth century improved brewing techniques allowed brewers to expand production and they demanded greater quantities of malt.  Large-scale maltings grew up to match the challenge and local malt houses all over the country closed down.  In Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), Thomas Hardy says of Weatherbury, “the ancient malt-house, which was formerly so characteristic of the parish, has been pulled down these twenty years”.
Grainstore at Snape Maltings

One of the winners in this industrialization of malting was the maltster and brewer, Newson Garret of Leiston.  Having bought a local grain and coal business at Snape Bridge he began malting barley in 1854.  Snape Maltings grew over the years to become a sizeable operation.  Garret’s malt was exported by boat to London and further afield to the continent.
Turning the malt
Malting the traditional way was labour intensive.  After three days of seeping the barley in successive changes of water, the grain starts to sprout.  It is then spread out on a malting floor where it it’s raked and turned by hand two or three times a day for about  five days.  At that point the barley is then transferred to a kiln where it’s dried to stop the process and allow the malt to take on colour.
Snape Maltings
From the 1940s onwards large pneumatic machines were gradually adopted for drying malt. These machines employed far less labour, halved the processing time to around five days and allowed much greater scale of production. The industry entered yet another phase of consolidation and Snape’s days were numbered.

Today Britain is still the third biggest producer of malt in the world after China and the USA, making about 10% of global output.  British malt is exported to over 80 countries and is used by 14 of the top 20 brewers in the world.  Suffolk is still a big grower of barley.

Suffolk grows a lot of barley

However Snape closed its doors in 1960 and is now used for a variety of purposes including a famous concert hall and venue of the Aldeburgh Festival.
Sailing barges no longer plough majestically up and down the river to Snape at high tide.  But if you half close your eyes you can still see wagons drawn up under the grain hoists, and if you breathe deeply enough you might just be able to sense an “atmosphere laden with the sweet smell of new malt” as Gabriel Oak once did.

Snape Maltings

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Foragers' Diary - Part Three

I was delighted this week to pick the first blackberries of the year.  Not a huge amount yet but this is only the start.  Blackberries are a staple crop of the country larder.  If you can stand a few scratches and don’t mind risking purple stains on your best T shirt, they will be in season now until October in hedgerows all over the country. Commercially grown varieties are available but for me nothing tastes as good as the wild fruit.

By tradition in Britain, blackberries should not be gathered after Old Michaelmas Day on October 11.  A profusion of legends connect the bushes with the Devil on that day, who is said variously to curse them, spit on them, or even urinate on them.  In reality as the autumn weather becomes damper and cooler the fruit often become contaminated with moulds which look unpleasant and can be mildly toxic.  There's a lot of picking to be done before then though.
Blackberries are delicious in pies or puddings, and since they are normally available in large quantities I'm looking forward to making jam or perhaps a seedless jelly, to store some of that late summer sunshine for the winter.

They are also extremely good for you; they are every bit as nutritious as the much vaunted super food blueberries, which are not native to Europe but just have better PR.  Blackberries, available right outside your back door, are rich in vitamins A, C and K.  They contain significant amounts of folic acid, Omega 3 and Omega 6, and the essential mineral, manganese.  They are a rich source of antioxidants believed by many to be preventatives in cardio vascular disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and even cancer.
Entirely fortuitously, when I returned home with my harvest, a neighbour had very kindly given us a bag of Bramley cooking apples. 

Bramleys are a fine old English variety which are too sour to eat raw but perfect for cooking.  That’s because they have a higher acidity level and lower sugar content than dessert apples.  All apples tend to lose flavour when cooked, so the Bramley retains a stronger, tangier tasting apple after cooking.  Also, while some dessert apples can go a bit rubbery when cooked, Bramleys turn into a characteristic golden fluffiness which melts in the mouth.
I’m sure most people know that blackberry and apple makes a great combination, the tartness of the apple contrasting nicely with the sweetness of the blackberries.  There was nothing to be done but to make another crumble.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Snorkers! Good oh!

Here’s a personal confession, I love sausages.  I like them fried, grilled or roasted. I like big fat ones, I like skinny chipolatas and I like square Lorne sausage cut in to slices.  I like them as part of a full English breakfast; I like them slow cooked in a kidney turbigo; or even as cocktail sausages served cold on little wooden sticks. Wrapped in bacon and cooked around the turkey, they are my favourite part of the entire Christmas lunch.  I would rather sit down to a good plate of sausages than a steak!

I am not talking here about chorizo, salami or kalberwurst, all of which are perfectly fine and have their own place in the food pantheon, but right now I am concentrating on the good old British banger.

Sausages are one of the oldest forms of processed food.  They were known to the ancient Greeks and also the ancient Chinese, and in Nero’s time there was even a Roman festival dedicated to sausages.  They have always been about making use of, shall we say, the less appetizing parts of an animal.  There is a famous story of President Theodore Roosevelt reading The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 muck-raking account of the Chicago meat packing industry, over breakfast one morning.  When he got to the part which describes what went into a sausage in those days, he got up and threw his sausage out of the White House window.
What's in a sausage?
Things have changed since then.  In fact Sinclair’s book was instrumental in bringing about America’s first Pure Food Laws.  However there is still an enormous variation in the quality of sausages.  Under European regulations enacted in to UK law in 2003, there are minimum quantities of meat stipulated for sausages. To be labeled as ‘Pork Sausages” for instance, the minimum is 42% pork meat, for other meats the minimum is only 32%, and for chicken sausages that may be as little as 26%.  The rest is usually made up of bread-rusks, vegetable protein or mechanically recovered meat (MRM), which is no longer classified as meat under EU law.
But wait! The EU definition of “meat” might surprise some people. Meat is now described as “skeletal muscle with naturally included or adherent fat and connective tissue” (that means rind, tendon, sinew, skin etc.)  There are separate regulations limiting the amounts of fat or connective tissue that may be included in “meat”.  So for example the meat in a pork sausage may be as much as 30% fat and 25% connective tissue. In other words the minimum amount of lean pork flesh in a “pork sausage” could legally be as little as 19%. (45% of 42%).  This, by the way, is a vast improvement on the old UK legislation and stands testament to how the meat industry has cleaned up its act significantly since the BSE scandal.
However, none of this means that sausages are bad.  The message is to buy good quality sausages from a reliable source.  A quick survey of my village shop revealed three brands of sausages on the shelves:
Richmond Irish Recipe Sausages  4.60 / Kg) contain 42% pork meat. Pork fat (10%) is separately listed as an ingredient.  That means that together with the 12.6% fat allowed under the “meat” label, they are potentially as much as 22.6% fat.  The ingredients also list rusk, vegetable protein and other additives.
Walls Thick Pork Sausages  5.01 / Kg) contain 61% pork meat and also list wheat rusk, pork fat and potato starch among the ingredients.
Lane Farm’s Brundish Pork Sausages  9.34 / Kg)  contain 80% pork meat.  These also carry the RSPCA’s Freedom Food mark providing assurances about how the pigs were reared.
 In fact, as a local (Suffolk based) business I can tell quite a lot about the origin of the meat, whereas Kerry Foods, which owns both the Walls and Richmond brands, refuses to state country of origin saying it would “add cost” and “jeopardize their brand position”. Say what?  Yes that's right, they are effectively saying that if they told us where their meat comes from it might be bad for business.  Draw your own conclusions.
By the way, as a point of comparison Tesco Value Pork Sausages (£1.06 / Kg) contain only 32% Pork
The facts of the matter are that mass-produced, factory made sausages are likely to contain less meat, poorer cuts, more fat and more additives than small scale, local produce.
Personally I would always recommend you buy sausages from your local butcher.  He more than likely makes them on the premises from meat which he butchers himself.  He will be happy to tell you where he gets his meat from and what he puts in his sausages, and tellingly, he probably eats his own product.
I checked this theory out at The Suffolk Butcher in Orford.  He offers a variety of flavours including plain pork sausages, but also innovative combinations such as ‘Pork & Ginger’, ‘Pork, Leek & Stilton’, ‘Pork and Apricot’, or ‘Hot and Spicy’.
“They are all made from the same basic pork sausage meat,” he tells me, “then I add whatever other ingredients I need.”  At this point he opens a number of plastic containers to show me dried ingredients, leeks, apricots and Stilton cheese.
“All our pork comes from Bramfield Meats in Halesworth,” (about 20 miles away). “I use only pork shoulder, about 85% visual, lean meat.  You’re welcome to come and watch if you like but you’ll need to get up early.  I make sausages at 07:00 a.m. every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.”  (The butcher is closed on Sunday and Monday and Wednesday is a half day.)
And the price?  £4.85/Kg.  It really doesn’t have to be expensive to eat well.

Richmond Irish Recipe
Pork (41%), Water, Pork Fat (10%), Rusk (Wheat), Potato Starch, Soya Protein Concentrate, Ingredients Less Than 2%: Salt, Flavourings, Stabilisers (Diphosphates), Guar Gum: Antioxidant: E300 & E307, Preservative: Sodium Metabisulphite, Colour: Cochineal.

Walls Thick Pork Sausages
Pork Belly (40.5%), Pork Shoulder (21%), Water, Rusk (Wheat), Pork Fat (3.5%), Potato Starch.
Ingredients Less Than 2%: Soya Protein Concentrate, Salt, Yeast Extract, Dextrose, Flavourings, Stabilisers (E450(i) and E450(iii)), Onion Powder, Preservative (E223), Spice Extracts, Antioxidants (E300 and E307), Herb Extract, Colour (Cochineal).

Lane Farm Brundish Pork Sausages
Pork (80%), Water, Rusk, Salt, Flavour Enhancer E621, Preservative E223, Stabilisers E450 E451, Dextrose, Antioxidant, Spices, Herb extract.
Tesco Value Thick Sausages
Pork (32%), Water, Rusk (Wheat Flour; Salt), Pork Fat, Pork Rind, Potato Starch, Salt, Wheat Protein, Stabilisers (Tetrasodium Diphosphate, Disodium Diphosphate), Dextrose, Wheat Flour, Preservative (Sodium Metabisulphite), Antioxidant (Ascorbic Acid), Spice Extracts, Colour (Cochineal), Dried Herb.
Filled Into Non-UK Beef Protein Casing. 

Suffolk Butcher, Orford -  Pork Sausages
Pork (85%) (lean shoulder cuts), Water, Rusk, Seasoning, Preservatives

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Kids Size Me

Obesity is one of the main preventable causes of death in the world.  It’s a growing problem in all western countries and in many it is reaching epidemic proportions.

I was interested therefore to read about an initiative in Ireland aimed at encouraging children to eat a healthier diet and develop a more sophisticated enjoyment of good food.  Apparently, even in these recession hit times, 72% of Irish families eat out with the kids at least once a month.  “Kids Size Me” is a program being jointly run by The Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) and the Nutrition and Health Foundation.

Put Simply it wants restaurants to offer a range of half-size portions for children off the adult menu at half price.  I’m pretty sure that was normal practice about 40 years ago, but seemingly the situation today is very patchy with many restaurants demanding full price for anything on the main menu.  What has become normal of course is the Kid’s Menu, comprised of exactly the kind of high fat, high salt, low fibre dishes that are doing them so much harm: chicken nuggets, fish fingers, pizza, burgers and the ubiquitous chips.

Ireland has one of the worse childhood obesity levels in the world.  10% of children aged 5 to 12 are clinically obese and many of them will be set for a lifetime of weight related problems.  This scheme won’t change that on its own, but by showing children that food can be so much more interesting than chicken nuggets it may just make a dent, without denting their parents’ bank accounts.
Maybe next they could run an initiative to get adults to eat grown up food too!

Monday, 22 August 2011

Open the Box

If you like the idea of buying ethically but don’t have the time to visit a farmers market, why not get the food to come to you?  The first vegetable box scheme was set up in 1992.  There are now over 500 box schemes in the UK delivering fresh fruit and veg, and sometimes meat and dairy products too.

These schemes are usually operated by the growers or small co-operatives of growers.  They are designed to add value and support the local food economy by giving the farmer a greater share of the money spent on food. Many schemes are run on a local or regional basis, delivering food direct from the producer to the consumer. Other schemes operate nationwide by linking a network of growers under a single marketing banner
Produce is sourced locally, greatly reducing the need for packaging, storage and transportation and most is farmed organically – without the use of synthetic fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides.
Typically the contents are not selected by the customer, but are chosen by the box scheme provider on the basis of seasonality and availability.  In the past this led to criticism that producers used the schemes to dump poor quality or hard to sell produce, but with increased competition the quality these days is generally excellent.
Patrick and Caroline Cooper of Greenwich are typical box scheme customers.  I asked them about their experience.
Which scheme do you belong to?
CC: We get a Fruit&Veg Box every week from RiverfordOrganic Veg.  That contains seven different vegetables, not including potatoes, and three fruits depending on the season.   It costs £16.35 per week and delivery is free.
Does that cover all your fruit and veg needs?
CC: No. I think that box size is supposed to feed 3 people and we are a family of six.  It probably provides about 60% of what we eat and I top up from the Co-op.
PC: Our kids just love cucumbers!  We get through several cucumbers a week and no scheme could cater for that.
 How important is it to you that’s it’s organic?
CC: If I could I would buy only organic food.  For me it’s just common sense.  You want the food you eat to be natural and not have any nagging doubts about what it might be doing to your body.
What’s the best thing about the scheme?
PC:  You get to discover all kinds of vegetables that you wouldn’t normally buy.  I think everyone gets into a routine about shopping; they just buy the same things every week.  But we’ve had vegetables like Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, black salsify.  I had to Google these things before I could cook them!  I love that it expands your horizons.
CC:  It’s great that there’s an alternative to shopping in supermarkets.  There are hardly any green grocers left in Greenwich but box schemes allow us to buy ethically produced, local produce without thousands of food miles.  Also I love the fact that the box comes midweek.  If stocks are running low from the wekend food-shop I know I can always knock up a meal based on fresh veg.
What are the drawbacks?
PC: You really notice the ‘hungry gap’.  There are long weeks through the winter when the box seems to be full of nothing but root vegetables .
But then there’s the sheer joy in the spring when you start getting new season vegetables.  You can really understand why medieval people had all those food festivals to celebrate the arrival of certain produce. 

The Soil Association provides a list of certified organicbox scheme providers broken down by region.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

A Piece of Cake

I see on the FARMA website that Britain’s recently rekindled love affair with home baking continues.  Sales of baking products (flour, sugar, vine-fruits, decorations and home-baking kits) are up 11.2% year-on-year.  Not only that, but we are buying these products more frequently too, with an average of 10 purchases per year.
This continues a trend first observed by Mintel in 2006.  At that time they reported that the market had grown 25% in the previous five years, and predicted a continuation fueled by nostalgia.
Certainly that is something I recognize.
When I was very young our evening meal was always called ‘tea’ and consisted of bread with cheese or jam, and followed by the most mouth watering selection of cakes, biscuits and other homemade delicacies.  My mother baked every day, or so it seemed, and she turned out a never ending stream of goodies: sponge cakes, chocolate cakes, fruit cakes, fairy cakes, date and walnut loaf, chocolate éclairs, scones and meringues.  Being Scottish there were many regional specialities too including scotch pancakes, empire biscuits, shortbread and coconut pyramids.
Today there is nothing I enjoy more than a slice of cake with afternoon tea.
Other factors may also be at work of course, the recession for instance.  Baking can be an enjoyable and cheap pastime, and in an era of thrift, homemade cakes and pastries are affordable luxuries.
The addition of cooking to the national curriculum in 2008 may also be having an impact in reviving basic skills.
Whatever the reason, an increase in home cooking is to be welcomed.  Anything which increases people’s understanding and enjoyment of food is likely to lead to an increase in quality and that’s good for everyone. Another slice anyone?

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Local Food for Local People

One way to guarantee that your food is fresh is to buy it straight from the producer.  I buy as much as I can this way.  It not only tastes great, but also makes me feel good, because buying direct is about so much more than freshness.

There are many different ways to buy direct ranging from: farm shops, farmers’ markets, CSA schemes, box schemes, PYO etc.  They all form part of the local-food economy.
Localism is one of the guiding principles of this blog. So why does it matter?
Economic benefits

In the last fifty years food and farming has become a global industry dominated by big food companies and retailers.  Just after World War II farmers in Europe and North America received between 45% and 60% of the money spent by consumers on food.  Today that figure stands at just 7% in the UK and only 3.5% in the USA, although it is still 18% in France.  For example a US wheat farmer receives about 6 cents from each dollar spent on bread.  That is about the same as the packaging.  The real profits from food go to the processing companies and supermarkets.  That represents a huge drain from the rural economy, which unsurprisingly has been in steady long term decline

Buying food directly cuts out the middle man and puts more money in to the pocket of the producer.  Also, the evidence is that money spent directly on food has a greater stickiness within the local community and circulates for longer within the local economy. In text book terms, money spent on food has a high multiplier value. One study looking at an organic veggie box scheme in Cornwall calculated that every £10 spent on the scheme generated £25 for the local economy compared with £14 when the same £10 was spent in supermarkets.
Another study in Devon found that 38% of food producers engaging in direct selling activities created new jobs as a result.
In North America many farmers now sell 100% of their produce through framers markets.  In Britain direct outlets are vital to support the emergence of small scale producers, often specializing in rare breeds, organic production or heritage varieties, who would otherwise be unable to break into the national distribution chain, which is only interested in volume producers.
Social benefits

While farmers have felt the pinch, (or is it more like a crunch?) from supermarket buyers, they have had to adopt industrial methods of food production to drive down their own costs, and become more efficient just to survive.  The results have been catastrophic. As factory farms and associated monocultures bring about the despoliation of the environment, they employ fewer and fewer people and of course they are implicated in successive food scandals from BSE to salmonella in eggs.  Two opposing views have developed.  In the wider public there is an image of farmers as ecologically destructive, subsidy junkies who will produce toxic food if it turns a profit.  Farmers view the public as ignorant townies who interfere in the rural way of life while demanding cheaper and cheaper food.  “Don’t criticise farmers with your mouth full!” they snarl.

Direct outlets reconnect the producers to consumers and allow a two way engagement.  The farmer can hear, and even feel at first hand, the concerns of consumers, and customers can learn about the realities of food production in the twenty first century.
The public needs farmers to be custodians of the countryside and to act in a responsible and sustainable way.  Farmers need to be able to make a living with dignity and respect from their communities. We all need healthy food.
Environmental benefits
The other big benefit of local food is its environmental impact.  In the USA it has been estimated that a typical food item travels 2000 miles from the field to the plate causing damage to the environment and generating unnecessary carbon emissions.  Processed food uses more packaging: plastics, cellophane and polystyrene, which of course all have their own environmental impact.

Food from a farm shop comes relatively naked, and the only food miles are the ones you use getting the food home.
Love the food
Of course the best reason for buying local food is that it really does taste better.  At my local farmers market I get homemade pies, jams and pickles that never make it to any shops.  I get more choice and it’s fun, a real social occasion. Many stalls let you sample sausages, cheeses, wines etc. and several will be offering hot food to take away.  Ostrich burgers, wild boar sausages, delicious farm-made lamb curries bring a whole new dimension to fast food. Above all I enjoy the experience of seeing fresh food displayed at its best.

Is it also economical?  In North America I think it is. Various studies have found that in the USA farmers markets are between 10%  and 18% cheaper than supermarkets for comparable items. In the UK it is not so clear.  Ten years ago, one study by the University of the West of England found that prices of organic meat and poultry were 37% higher at supermarkets, with organic vegetables being 33% cheaper at farmers’ markets. However since then the organic sector has grown and prices have fallen.  But this research reflects a key fact, that the quality of food at a farmers market is usually higher.  If you are used to buying factory farmed meat and battery eggs then yeah the prices at your local farmers market could be a shock.  Maybe some day I will blog about the high cost of cheap food. 
My suspicion, based on personal experience, is that farmers markets in the UK do still appeal mainly to middle class shoppers, who are not so price sensitive.  In other words they could be cheaper and the farmer would still get a healthy profit while expanding the overall market.  But that’s free enterprise for you. 

I am fortunate that in my area there are many small holders who regularly sell surpluses from their back gardens or allotments.  The prices are great and vegetables are dug up freshly each day.  I wouldn't buy eggs in any other way.
Obviously I have no control over what is available, and you have to lose the supermarket obsession with uniformity and ‘perfection’.  I don’t mind a few spots on my courgettes, and I have eaten turnips that would have had Baldrick sniggering for a month.  But they taste great!

I need to acknowledge my debt to two papers in preparing this article:
Some Benefits and Drawbacks of Local Food Systems, Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment & Society, University of Essex, November 2001
The Economic Benefits of Farmers' Markets, Simon Bullock et al, Friends of the Earth, August 2000

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Lost in France

Think of France and the odds are that you will think of food.  Whether it be a classic coq au vin; wonderful, auberge style terrines; or delicate crepes served at a roadside café, France has for many years been synonymous with good food.  For a whole generation brought up on dreary, post-war British cuisine, France was a place you went to get the good stuff. 
I remember touring holidays with my family back in the seventies when we learnt to seek out the famous Routiers signs above restaurants.  Even French lorry drivers, it seemed, ate better food than the British middle class!

As Britain succumbed to the seemingly Anglo-Saxon addiction to fast food, American style restaurants and convenience meals, France, or so we believed, stood against the tide of globalization and the slide into mediocrity.
I was disappointed therefore, to receive two news stories from la belle France this week, which indicate that things are changing for the worse.
The first is a report by AP of a new vending machine dispensing freshly made, warm baguettes.  The machine, designed by Jean-Louis Hecht, a master baker from Hombourg-Haut in North Eastern France, is intended to appeal to late night revelers, shift workers or anyone else who is unable to buy bread during the day.  There are 33,000 bakers in France and many of them bake bread repeatedly throughout the day to ensure freshness, but it is almost impossible to buy bread in the evenings or during public holidays.
Jean-Louis Hecht aiming for world domination
The new machines have divided opinion in France, but the fact that they exist at all is a sign of the times and Hecht, who pronounces them ‘the bakery of the future’, claims to have sold 4,500 baguettes during July.  "If other bakers don't want to enter the niche, they're going to get decimated,” he says, and goes on to envisage his machines being installed across Europe and even the USA.

Obviously I haven’t tasted the bread, but I have reservations about whether dough stored in the machines for up to 72 hours and baked in a matter of seconds can really be as good as a hand crafted loaf.  Yet his analysis of how convenience can drive quality out of the market is depressingly accurate and familiar.
The second story is from Le Monde and I would venture is closely related. Chain restaurants, it says, now account for 20% of the entire French market.  Although chains represent only 4% of the number of establishments, they claim almost one in every five Euros spent on eating out.  McDonalds, Subway and the Belgian giant Quick lead the field. Subway opened 57 new outlets in 2010, more than one a week, while MacDo, as it is universally known in France, added 37 new branches including one at Le Louvre.
Longer opening hours and the effect of the financial crisis on people’s pockets are ascribed as the drivers responsible for France finally succumbing to this global trend.  The article claims that the French are still emotionally attached to the ideals of traditional gastronomy but once again it seems money (and convenience) talk louder.
Food in Britain has improved massively in the last thirty years.  I am optimistic enough to believe we have turned a corner and are fighting back with a distinctive British cuisine based on localism, quality and ethical sourcing.  In fact I plan to highlight some of this in future contributions to this blog.  I realize this quiet revolution is still in its infancy, but there is reason to be hopeful.  Let us also hope that France does not have to slip as low as we once did before remembering what made French food great in the first place.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Foragers' Diary - Part Two

I mentioned in my last foragers’ diary that foraged ingredients were making their way into top end restaurants.  Well nothing is currently trendier than samphire (Salicornia europea).

Samphire, the name is believed to be a corruption of the French herbe de Saint-Pierre, grows all round the coasts of Northern Europe, and St Peter is the patron saint of fishermen. This succulent native plant has a number of alternative names including sea asparagus and glasswort.  From the middle ages until the nineteenth century it was used in the manufacture of glass and soap as a source of soda (sodium carbonate).

Samphire has been eaten as a vegetable for centuries.  You can harvest samphire all through the summer months from June to September.  It can be eaten raw in salads where the stems have crunch and a pleasantly salty flavour, or steamed, where it resembles young spinach.  It was also commonly pickled in vinegar.  In Britain it is usually served as an accompaniment to fish I imagine because of its maritime association.
Samphire growing on a tidal estuary in Suffolk
The Suffolk coast is serrated by a number of broad tidal estuaries which produce wonderful salt marshes, the ideal habitat for samphire to grow quite naturally.  Fortunately one such estuary lies only about two miles from my home and this quiet spot is a perfect location to pick handfuls of fresh samphire.

The stems which are emerald green, reach about 10cm.  It’s a fairly messy business squelching around on the black mud, but if you’re lucky you can wash it off in the sea somewhere nearby.
Once you get it home you will need to pick it over, discarding any roots and any woody bits. I normally lose about half of the total volume in this process.  After that simply wash it well to get rid of any grit and sand, drop the samphire into a large pan of fresh boiling water, you won’t need to add salt.  Let it cook for three to four minutes. Drain it, season it with pepper, toss in butter or olive oil and lemon juice, and serve at once. 
One claim, to which I cannot personally attest, it is supposed to be a natural carminative!

Saturday, 13 August 2011

For the Birds

I am ashamed to say that I am not always a strict respecter of rights of way. While I do always follow existing tracks, and I consider myself to be a considerate user of the countryside, sometimes the most interesting discoveries are to be found just off the designated footpaths. Besides it adds a certain frisson to know that at any moment a gun toting farmer might appear and tell me to “get off of my land!” I suppose the trouble with this approach is that you might blunder inadvertently in to something you don’t understand. Perhaps that is exactly what I am about to do now.

In the course of a recent ramble, some way from the nearest footpath and hidden from view of the general public, I encountered a corvid trap containing three large crows. I have long been aware that farmers shoot crows but it was nonetheless quite shocking to be confronted by these clearly agitated birds thrashing around in the cage. Now I am not squeamish about killing animals when the case requires it, nor am I sentimental about nature or farming, but I do start from a position that all species have a right to exist and we should respect that unless there is a sound argument against, so I decided to find out more.
The day I returned with my camera there was a solitary crow.

The site of the trap was in bushy scrub between two large fields filled with sheep and recently born lambs. Shepherds have long accused crows of killing newborn lambs or pecking out the eyes of ewes whilst debilitated in the act of labour. On the other hand there were pheasant chicks being reared in a nearby coppice and again corvids of all descriptions, including magpies and jays are accomplished predators of ground nesting birds, taking both their chicks and eggs. To confuse things even further, the site was barely half a mile from a nearby island bird sanctuary which is an important nesting site for avocets and many other sea birds, managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Could they have legitimate reasons for wanting to control numbers of crows in the area?
To begin with let’s take a look at the issue of lambs. One report I read quoting from the Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture and Animal Husbandryspoke of vicious attacks on new born lambs by ravens. Although the same article stated that of seven lambs attacked only two, both of which were “comatose” when attacked, showed signs of damage. Furthermore it states that little crows, although happy to eat the placentas, did not chase the lambs.
Another study based on Scottish hill farms published in The Journal of Applied Ecology found that of 297 lambs found dead on the hill only 17% showed signs of crow attack and further concluded that most of these would have been on the point of death before being attacked. It estimated that only one in 850 lambs born might have survived but for crow attack.
I did not find any definitive research to counter this view that carrion crows present an almost insignificant danger to healthy sheep or lambs.

It seems that DEFRA, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, is currently running a trial cull of crows and magpies in an attempt to stem the decline in songbird numbers. DEFRA’s figures claim that between 2003 and 2008 farmland bird populations fell by 7%, whereas predator numbers including sparrowhawks, magpies and crows have doubled in the past 30 years.
Naturally the cull is controversial. It is supported by an organisation called Songbird Survival, but opposed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) which believes that changing farm practices are responsible for the decline. Moreover some people discern clear links between Songbird Survival and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. The GWCT not only sells the Larsen traps used for catching crows, but is allegedly funded by the commercial shooting industry; also it has been a longtime advocate of culling magpies and other corvids which interfere with game bird rearing.
There is no question that magpies, crows and other corvids are ruthless and efficient predators responsible for the death of thousands of birds each year. That is just how nature is. There is also circumstantial evidence that while predator numbers are rising, songbirds and other small species are in long-term decline. However there is no evidence that any of these facts are related.
Just over a year ago, yet another player, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) published what it described as “the biggest ever analysis of songbirds and their predators” in the Journal of Applied Ecology. This report concluded that for the majority of the songbird species examined there is no evidence that increases in common avian predators or Grey Squirrels are associated with large-scale population declines.”

So it seems that while we continue to find all kind of villains in this story, including cats, squirrels, sparrowhawks and corvids, the most likely culprit affecting the decline in small bird populations is still man.
In any case the trap I found clearly has nothing to do with the DEFRA cull, since that is restricted to sites in Hampshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Herefordshire and the Scottish Borders.
The BTO report does agree that “in some situations, predators of nests, chicks and full grown birds do affect the abundance of avian prey species”. Could the island reserve be such a situation? Well I take it from the RSPB’s opposition to the cull that they are not behind the trap I saw. In any case I believe the large numbers of gulls on the island would present a much greater threat to nesting sea birds than any crows venturing across the water.
So where does that leave us? Well it seems there is no evidence to justify killing crows in order to protect either sheep or wild bird populations. Perhaps there is some local benefit to the pheasant chicks, but in any case these are long since flown from the nursery. So I conclude that the farmer is trapping crows simply because it’s what country folk have always done.
While I deplore the cruelty and the pointlessness of it, I doubt if the numbers involved are significant and it is unlikely to have any appreciable effect on the local wildlife one way or another. Two things do bother me however. Country folk often complain that townies don’t understand the countryside and are resentful when for instance they instigate a ban on hunting or seem insensitive to the effect of fuel prices rises on agricultural communities. But the needless killing of beautiful and innocent birds does the countryside lobby no favours. Moreover large corvid traps often catch more than crows. Birds of prey such as marsh harriers are also carrion eaters, and if one of them ends up in a trap it’s a matter for yet another official body, the police.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Foragers' Diary - Part One

Foragers' Diary – Part One

It’s much easier for me to say what I am not than to describe what I am.  I am not some sort of eco-warrior; I am not a professional cook or writer; and I am not an activist.  I am not even very interested in joining things, preferring to plough my own furrow much of the time.  Certainly I am not a hardcore forager.  Foraging has become extremely trendy lately with several books written on the subject, and foraged ingredients now featuring in many high-end restaurants.  More humbly I see articles on the web from people who make salads out of roadside plants or eat snails caught in the garden.  Well, that is definitely not me!
However I am very interested in garnering nature’s bounty where I can.  I do view the countryside as a potential source of food.  It ticks all the right boxes for me being fresh, local, seasonal, traditional and FREE.  Who doesn't like getting something for nothing?  So from time to time I plan to update you on my success in getting a free feed all courtesy of the Suffolk landscape.
When I first settled here back in April it was right in the middle of the "hungry gap".  The hedgerows were a riot of colour and the evidence that summer was just around the corner was everywhere, from hares boxing in the bare fields to busy nesting birds.  But there was hardly anything to eat.
Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum)
OK, there were nettles which are quite versatile, and a plant I had never seen before called Alexanders, which seems to grow abundantly in these parts.  I guess the description in Wikipedia which says it has a flavour between celery and parsley might have put me off. Neither of these are high on my list of favourites. Although I suspect if I am still here next year I won’t be quite so fussy.

In fact I had to wait until July to plunder my first treasure.  I picked two beautiful bowls of wild cherries in Tunstall Forest.  They were smaller than bought cherries but very sweet and delicious and I would have picked more except I couldn’t reach.

Today the hedges and trees are full of promise, and I look forward to gathering blackberries, sloes, elder berries, chestnuts and crab apples in late summer and early autumn.

For right now however the big story is plums.  Wild plums of every hue seem to be growing all over the place.  There are bright green or yellow plums, rosy pink plums and rich purple plums evident down almost every lane or path I take.  I see on the web a fair bit of discussion about whether these are true plums or damsons or bullaces.  I am not qualified to say but it seems likely there has been a great deal of hybridisation over the years so maybe names don't actually mean very much.

Anyway I picked some as an experiment. Again they are smaller than commercial varieties and disappointingly tasteless to my palette.  Additionally many of them seemed to contain a single small grub or maggot, so as I stoned them there was quite a lot of wastage.  But I added plenty of sugar and stewed them up to make a crumble which will serve as tonight’s pudding.