Sunday, 31 October 2010

It's a good thing I don't do this for a living

Blimey! Anyone doing this cookery lark for a living must have the stamina of a marathon runner! I'm absolutely knackered! But everything is now done for tomorrow.

I started this morning with the quince and medlar jelly – it took far longer to boil than I expected and is setting only slowly. My fingers are crossed – it tastes lovely.

Then came the first chocolate bark – plain chocolate (72%) melted gently over water, with a teaspoon of espresso granules added while it was melting and then some finely chopped candied ginger before it was spread in a lined baking tray and sprinked with a very small amount of sea salt, to really get the palate going.

After lunch, I bashed on with the ganache for the chocolate cake – something was bound to go wrong this weekend and it was this: the thing split. So I had to hare round the corner and buy more double cream and start again. Second time lucky ...

That cake is now sitting in the fridge with it's rich coat on, waiting until tomorrow morning to be decanted into a cake tin for transportation to the office.

After getting the Boeuf Bourguignon going – I looked at the clock and realised that, with a two-and-a-half hour cook minimum, it needed to be in the oven – I set about the second chocolate bark.

So, melt more dark chocolate in one bowl and some white chocolate in another bowl. Strip the seeds out from two vanilla pods and decant into the two chocolates.

Take a lined baking tin and carefully pour the white chocolate into half the tray. Pour the dark chocolate into the other half and gently use a spatula to make them meet in the middle. Then have a bit of fun feeling artsy and creating patterns that Jackson Pollock might have appreciated.


Well, apart from the rest of the Bourguignon (mushrooms to prep, bacon to cut up and these, together with whole small onions to brown in butter before joining all the other ingredients in the oven for at least half and hour) and an apple and blackberry crumble that I have sort of promised The Other Half.

When I analyse what I've actually done, and when I read Bill's blog, about his training at Ballymaloe, I can scarcely believe how tired I feel: it's not even just mental, but I'm actually aching physically.

Not that any of this food is exactly out of place on Halloween – or Samhain, as Pagans know it; the time of year when light turns into dark. The dark, velvety richness of bitter chocolate; warming ginger and unctuous cream. And that's before we think of the Bourguignon, with dark flesh, root vegetables and fungi cooking slowly in blood-red wine. And the blackberries and apple, buried beneath a bed of flour, butter and sugar, waiting to drip their juices into the soft, brown sugar they're coated in.

All in all, perfect autumn fodder.

And with that, I will leave this post for today. Knackered, but with a sense of achievement. Not least because, only two years ago – or perhaps less even than that – I would have been completely intimidated by what I'd set myself to do this weekend. It hasn't gone completely according to plan (what ever does?) and it's involved it's tearing-hair moments – or tearing baking parchment moments – but while I've felt irritated at times and tired this afternoon, I've never felt that I've lost control. And that really is a personal step forward.

All that remains now is the eating and, tomorrow, the selling!

Saturday, 30 October 2010

The bake-a-thon gets underway

“First line your springform tin” might well be the most complicated instruction in the English language.

Oh yes, it might sound easy, but by the time I’d finally managed to do exactly that this afternoon, there was rather more baking parchment lying scrunched and torn on the kitchen floor than in the aforementioned tin, while the air had turned a vivid shade of blue.

This was well into the weekend’s bake-a-thon, but I can only hope that it was the apotheosis of the project’s fraught moments.

In a fit of charitableness a couple of weeks or so ago, I’d decided to take up a challenge from Greenpeace to raise money for that organisation through ‘flour power’: “bake a cake, not the Earth” runs one of the slogans.

Thinking something along the lines of: ‘Eh? I can raise money by doing something I enjoy and by making things that other people will like’! I signed up.

It’s worth noting here that my colleagues have enjoyed previous culinary treats – homemade chocolate bark and truffles – so this wasn’t a wildly optimistic appraisal. Indeed, once the news was out in our department, the first phrase on several pairs of lips was: ‘It has to involve chocolate!’ Even with this weekend to come, there was a frisson of expectation in the office yesterday.

And I’d picked Monday because … well, because it’s a Monday and because it’s the first day of November, so everyone probably needs a little cheering up. Add into that equation that it sits between Halloween tomorrow night and Bonfire Night on Friday, and it seemed perfect.

After my recent chocolate tart trials and tribulations, I had decided not to make any of those: too much work for too small a return anyhow.

So the first thing I chose was a ginger cake, using my mother’s recipe and which I’ve baked a number of times over the years. It’s carefully written out (with imperial measurements) in a hardbacked notebook that I bought something like 30 years ago in order to copy down recipes before going to college. There aren’t even half a dozen pages full.

It seems funny, after what I was writing about yesterday, to be contemplating anything my mother baked. But as I said then, there has always been, I think, a struggle going on within her. Perhaps the fact that neither my sister nor I were ever asked to help her bake was her concession to that Wesleyan attitude: ‘bad enough to make things they’ll enjoy, but let’s draw the line at letting them enjoy helping make such things’.

Not that I don’t adjust her original recipe. For goodness sake, it calls for “marg”! In my version, that obviously becomes butter.

One of the points that Greenpeace make about ‘flour power’ is that, if you can, it’s nice to look for environmentally sounds ingredients – so, for instance, is the flour organic?

Well, my flour has not been organic: shopping for baking basics in Waitrose earlier this week, I realised that there was a choice between their own-brand organic flour, which comes from a number of un-named countries, and their non-organic flour, which comes from their own farm in Hampshire.

I opted for the latter on the basis that I knew where it came from and that it hadn’t racked up air miles – and that their farm is run to good standards in general anyway. Besides, if we’re doing food ethics, then Waitrose is part of the John Lewis Partnership and is, therefore, a co-operative. Which is good of itself.

The sugar is fair trade. So is the chocolate and ground ginger. The eggs and cream and milk are all from farmers on Broadway Market and are from livestock that is kept to the highest standards.

Butter is from La Bouche and is unsalted and French. Baking powder and bicarbonate of soda are from Waitrose (I have no idea of their provenance beyond that).

Anyway, part of these were bought this morning, at Broadway Market – the weekly trip also having to provide the ‘ordinary’ food for the weekend too.

I picked up excellent frankfurters from the German deli stall to make a sauerkraut dish from Stéphane Reynaud’s Ripailles: Traditional French Cuisine this evening: a dish that is really more German than what we think of as French, but such is Alsace cuisine.

There were parsnips and apples to blend together for lunchtime soup. Plus braising steak from Wild Dartmoor Beef for a Boeuf Bourguignon tomorrow evening – I’ll pop that in a marinade later.

But then, because the very best laid schedules of mice and men are only there for the overturning, I spotted punnets of something unfamiliar at the Chegworth Valley Farm stall. On closer inspection, it turned out to be medlars – a fruit that was very popular in England in Tudor times, but fell out of fashion in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Now apparently, it’s possible to eat them raw, but only after the fruit has ‘bletted’ – or got almost rotten, as the man on the stall described it.

I didn’t know what I was going to do with them – although The Other Half, who was with me this morning, suggested a jelly – but decided that I couldn’t miss such an opportunity, so I picked up two punnets.

When we got home, the first thing I did after putting everything away was sit down in the garden with a coffee, a fag, Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook and Jane Grigson’s English Food, to see exactly what to do with the medlars.

Sure enough, a jelly proved to be the obvious thing. The only question was whether to follow the instructions of Ms Grigson or Ms Raven. The main difference was whether one chopped up the fruit before simmering to release the juices – or not. In the case of the latter, Ms Raven urges readers to resist the temptation to break up either medlars or quince, and simply simmer them patiently until they spilt all of their own accord.

I opted for this version and – after quickly photographing the medlars with a couple of quince and a pumpkin – piled the medlars into a large pot, together with the pair of quince I’d bought last weekend, covered them with water and set them to simmer.

Then came the ginger cake – I doubled the ingredients (eggs, Golden Syrup, sugar, butter, milk, self-raising flour, salt and ground ginger) and also sifted the flour with the salt, although this isn’t mentioned in the recipe. Later, I used a skewer to test that it was completely cooked – and left it until it was.

Unfortunately, it didn’t come out of the tin cleanly – I probably should have buttered it lightly. However, the taste is good, so after letting it cool thoroughly, I’ve cut it into nice chunks – it’s almost more like a parkin, which is perfect for this time of year.

After lunch, it was on to the chocolate cake – and lining that springform tin. After I’d achieved that – thanks to instructions found on the internet – the actual mix was easy.

Set your oven to 180˚C. Take 80g good quality cocoa powder and mix carefully with 300ml boiling water. The add 550g light brown sugar and 250g butter and melt over a gentle heat.

Meanwhile, sift 400g plain flour with 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder and 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda and beat four eggs.

When the sugar, cocoa and butter have melted fully, let the mix cool a little before beating in the eggs. The blend in the flour, mixing carefully until you’ve got a completely even colour.

Pour into your lined tin and pop in the oven. It’ll take between an hour and an hour and 45 minutes. Mine took the latter before the skewer came up easily clean. Then leave to cool a little for about 15 minutes before carefully removing from the tin and peeling away the parchment. Leave upside down on a cooling rack to even out the shape. The sense of triumph was huge.

That’ll be finished tomorrow.

Dinner was easy. My adjusted version for two people goes like this: take a chopped onion and soften in duck fat, before drained sauerkraut, eight juniper berries and some bay leaves are added. The recipe mentioned cloves, but I substituted more of George’s celery salt.

Add stock or boiling water to cover. Pop on a lid and leave for around 40 minutes on a low heat.

After that, pop in some diced smoked bacon and leave for a further 20 minutes. Then add a glass of white wine and some diced potatoes and give it another half an hour. Finally, pop some frankfurters on top and leave for another 10 minutes. Serve with some good German mustard. Very nice.

Not daring to stop for too long, I diced the beef, tied the herbs into a bouquet garni, crushed four cloves of garlic and lobbed them all into a bowl, sloshed in a bottle of burgundy and covered the lot with cling film. It’s now in the fridge, ready for cooking tomorrow evening.

The medlars and quince have long been taken off the heat and are slowly dripping sweet juice through a muslin-lined colander. I’ll nip to the corner shop tomorrow for granulated sugar – they have plenty of pectin themselves, apparently, and don’t needed preserving sugar.

For the third summer running, I lost weight while we holidaying in Collioure. For the first year, though, I haven’t out it straight back on after returning to Blighty. I suspect it’s all these weekends in the kitchen – I barely seem to stop for breath!

Don’t let that fool you though – tiring it might be, but I love it too. But thank goodness the hour goes back tonight and I get an extra hour's kip!

Friday, 29 October 2010

In danger in the devil's garden

Taking Wednesday off work, I journeyed into deepest, darkest Surrey – and all by a spanky new train service – to visit my parents.

It was an odd sort of a day; mentally exhausting. No rows or disagreements, but it was such an effort to make any conversation at times, with both of them dozing off at different moments while I wondered what subject could safely be used to fill in the silence.

And then there is also the matter of my mother’s cooking. For our evening meal, she took some chicken breast, diced it and cooked it in the oven in a dish with some broccoli and a ready-made sauce. I saw the empty jar but not the label and, to be honest, I couldn’t tell what the sauce really was – if it was anything much more than the sort of ‘white sauce’ she’d once have served with cauliflower.

On the side were some new potatoes, scrubbed and picked over with a knife for the smallest imperfection. It was bland but inoffensive.

Yet it took her around two hours to prepare. She doesn’t have a chair in the tiny kitchen, so she wasn’t exactly sitting down and secretly quaffing sherry. But every meal, no matter how easy, takes her such a long time.

I keep out of the way, while my father asks me, as though I can explain, why it always takes her so long.

Well, to start with, she’s no youngster any more. She’s slowed down a lot. But perhaps as obvious to me is that cooking has always been a chore for her – never a pleasure.

Oh, she took great care to ensure that her family were fed properly, with a varied diet, but I don’t think that it was ever really a pleasure. Then again, considering her oft-stated belief that: “We eat to live – we don’t live to eat”, this shouldn’t be much of a revelation.

I did manage, between both train journeys and then sitting in bed at night with a soothing cup of camomile tea, to finish reading Stewart Lee Allen’s In the Devil’s Garden: a sinful history of forbidden food, which may sound rather po-faced, but is actually very entertaining and informative.

Talking of the Victorians and their attitude to childhood – they were the first people to view children as inherently different to adults – and of Pye Henry Chavasse, a 19th century Dr Spock who penned that handy 1844 tome, Advice to Mothers on the Management of Their Offspring, Allen notes that the blandest of food was recommended for children.

Developing the theme, he goes on: “This sadistic approach to child nutrition was a perfect match for the theories of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who believed children were ‘natural atheists’ because they enjoyed nature instead of God.

“He recommended bringing this under control by reminding them that ‘they are more ignorant and wicked than they could possibly believe,’ and breaking their spirit at every turn.

“Withholding pleasant food was considered a particularly plum way to do this, because it trained them out of the expectation of ‘natural’ pleasure at the table.”

Now, as readers may know, my father is a (retired) Methodist clergyman – and from the particularly fundamentalist, evangelical end of Methodism (although he’s mellowed over the years). He even claims that, in the early days of his ministry, the aforementioned Mr Wesley appeared to him and gave him some advice on preaching.

My parents were never as intent on delivering a totally pleasure-free a culinary existence for their children as Chavasse or Wesley might have recommended.

Looking back, it was as though they obviously didn’t believe in eating the worst imaginable foodstuffs themselves or foisting such on their children, but it was as though there was a constant battle not to enjoy food ‘too much’.

Clearly, if one follows the logic of Chavasse or Wesley, the highest compliment available to one’s mother, after dinner, would be: ‘Yuk. That was bland and boring’.

Although perhaps that explains partly why my mother has, by and large, eschewed spices in her cookery and food – apart from Christmas cake, mince pies, Christmas pudding and hot cross buns? Although it’s equally true that, in the post-WWII years, British cooking in general was notoriously bland.

But what a way to spend one’s life – waging a perpetual war against experiencing ‘too much’ pleasure. It makes me think of the oh-so-religious guests in Gabriel Axel's film, Babette's Feast, determined to simply eat but not enjoy the feast that Babette cooks for them as a thank you. And how do you define what’s an acceptable level of pleasure and what steps across the culinary rubicon?

Personally, I find the following description by Allen of the Marquis de Sade’s perfect breakfast to be far more up my street: “The marquis recommends a simple breakfast: a plain omelet, served piping hot on the buttocks of a naked woman, and eaten with ‘an exceedingly sharp fork’.”

As I noted, this is a very enjoyable and fascinating book – but it’s also very moving in places, as in Allen’s descriptions of the food aspects of the US state’s genocide against the Native American peoples. After massive attacks on their diet, both in almost entirely wiping out the buffalo and in the onslaught against corn, a government-approved corn was allowed to be grown in the south west. It gave diabetes to a people who had no history of that disease.

His overall conclusion though, is interesting, as he suggests that the current situation in many Western countries, where food taboos have almost entirely died out, is not necessarily a good thing; that our obsession with unrestricted pleasure is not necessarily healthy.

Yet I suspect that there was an element here of trying to find something controversial to say at the end – of playing devil's advocate.

He had already discussed fast food, the culture of not cooking, of not sitting down to eat as a family, of TV dinners etc, and decided that such behaviours are not about pleasure, but quite the reverse, and are essentially part of a massive con by big business. One could argue that the ‘taboo’ for many of these people these days is the idea of spending time cooking and shopping more than once a week at the supermarket to stock the freezer. Such a ‘taboo’ can surely be seen to be not entirely disconnected from the taboo of taking too much pleasure in food?

Further, many people eat constant take-aways in front of the TV etc as a direct consequence of not taking real pleasure in food: the pleasures gained are often the 'artificial' ones of too much salt and sugar, which are added to compensate for poor flavour etc.

But even for real foodies these days, there are plenty of new ‘taboos’ – one might suggest eating fast food, for instance, is a taboo for many foodies.

For the environmentally concerned, there are questions of the carbon footprint of a foodstuff and whether it’s organic or not.

For many others, there is the issue of fair trade – of the actual producers being paid a decent amount and not being ripped off.

And indeed, for many foodies, these ‘taboos’ are also linked directly to greater pleasure: for instance, seasonal food is environmentally sound – but it also tends to be when the ingredients are actually at their best, when they haven’t been flown 6,000 miles between continents.

So it’s rather odd to imply that we have no food taboos any more. We simply have different ones. And as always, these vary according to what group we put ourselves in.

And for many groups who foist taboos onto other groups, they see themselves as above such rules. Class is a perfect illustration as, time and again, Allen reveals how, for instance, the upper classes fretted about what the lower classes ate and whether it would render them either slothful and indolent or overly aggressive. Yet of course they rarely felt inclined to worry about the same matters for themselves.

Now, it could be argued that a certain 'elite' attacks what are often working-class food choices for creating obesity etc.

But all in all, a cracking good read – and dangerously pleasurable.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Now we are one

Today, Loki and Otto are a whole year old.

Boisterous, cheeky, charming, manipulative, cuddly, devious: these are just a few of the adjectives that I could use to describe our youngest furry monsters.

But we were right: Boudicca has most certainly benefitted from having feline company – even though she possibly wouldn’t be the first to agree on that.

She’d had 16 months on her own after Mack died – we’d decided, on the basis of experience, that she should have some time to herself, to blossom in ways she hadn’t before. We decided – again on the basis of experience – that it’s best to introduce a kitten into a house with an established adult cat. The only question at the time was whether to get one kitten or litter mates – we opted for the latter so that, if Boudi had decided to give a newcomer a really torrid time, they’d have had sibling support.

Her ‘bored’ behaviour has all but disappeared – hardly any messing with the wooden tulips in the living room and not even much banging the sliding glass wardrobe doors in the bedroom: theses had become her default bored behaviours.

She even plays regularly with Loki – and very, very occasionally with Otto.

She has plenty to keep her occupied – particularly as all her assumptions about being Number 1 Household Cat are being rather mucked up by Otto’s considerations on the subject.

My little girl, having being named for Otto von Bismarck (when I still thought she was a he), is living up to her name rather well.

She may still love having big cuddles, but she never seems to have harboured any illusions about The Queen B’s status. However, unlike Boudi’s own tormenting of the late Trickie – who always considered herself a delicate old lady who wasn’t really a cat anyway but a small human in a fur coat who was put upon by cats – Otto’s undermining process is infinitely more subtle.

From very small she realised that sitting above Boudi and looking down at her would cause upset. So she set about doing it a lot.

Last night, after Boudi had hopped under the covers and was purring away in a tent created by The Other Half’s legs, Otto very carefully insisted on popping her face in to look, bringing forth irate growling and then Boudi’s rapid departure from the bed.

The Queen B’s old riposte would have been to smack the impudent kitten. But the impudent kitten in question long ago revealed that she could smack back. So now there is much chuntering and grumbling as Boudi becomes less and less obviously top cat; and doesn’t know what to do about it.

Even Loki, who is less clearly involved in the business of regime change, is undaunted. Having realised that she can now get on top of the bedroom bookcases, she half chases Boudi up there at night, into what was once the latter’s place of sanctuary and safety from junior furballs. No longer. Cue more feline grumbling.

One could almost believe in karma.

Not that this is surprising, if you take on board the idea (and it’s only an idea, with no real scientific basis) that a cat of a year old is, in human terms, about 15 or 16. In other words, Otto and Loki are teenagers.

Now, brownie points to all those who spotted the reference to AA Milne in the title of this post.

Being well brought-up children, my sister and I had AA Milne books at home. I don’t particularly remember the poem referenced in today’s title, but I do remember – and can quote chunks of – the following poem.

With which spurious link, I give you:


James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his Mother,
Though he was only three.
James James said to his Mother,
“Mother,” he said, said he;
“You must never go down
to the end of the town,
if you don't go down with me.”

James James
Morrison’s Mother
Put on a golden gown.
James James Morrison’s Mother
Drove to the end of the town.
James James Morrison’s Mother
Said to herself, said she:
“I can get right down
to the end of the town
and be back in time for tea.”

King John
Put up a notice,
“Lost or stolen or strayed!
James James Morrison’s mother
Seems to have been mislaid.
Last seen
Wandering vaguely:
Quite of her own accord,
She tried to get down
To the end of the town –
Forty shillings reward!”

James James
Morrison Morrison
(Commonly known as Jim)
Told his
Other relations
Not to go blaming him.
James James
Said to his Mother,
“Mother,” he said, said he:
“You must never go down to the end of the town
without consulting me.”

James James
Morrison’s mother
Hasn’t been heard of since.
King John said he was sorry,
So did the Queen and the Prince.
King John
(Somebody told me)
Said to a man he knew:
“If people go down to the end of the town, well,
what can anyone do?”

(Now then, very softly)
Took great
C/o his M*****
Though he was only 3.
JJ said to his M*****
“M*****,” he said, said he:

AA Milne

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

A little bit of Heaven and Earth

After the sophistication of Sunday's dining experience, it was time to come back down to Earth a little on Monday.

Although even doing that was not without a plethora of Continental influences.

On Saturday, I'd picked up a big piece of black pudding from the market. Now for some strange reason or other, the British have relegated black pudding to the status of a breakfast ingredient – and mostly in the north west of England. Which is really rather a shame. Good black pudding is wonderful.

In France, it's boudin noir; in Germany, blutwurst (but rotwurst in Thuringia). In Belgium and the Netherlands, it's bloedworst and beuling respectively. The Italians – well, the Tuscans at any rate – have buristo, the Spanish morcilla and the Portuguese morcela.

In Iceland, there's blóðmör, while blodpudding goes down a treat in Sweden, mustamakkara delights Finns, verivorst does the same for Estonians, krovyanka hits the spot for Russians, krov'yanka for Ukrainians, kiszka or kaszanka for Poles and krupniok for Silesians.

Hungry Hungarians dine on véres hurka, Bulgarians on karvavitsa, while krvavica does it for Bosnians, Croats, Serbs and Slovenians.

In Romania, the traditional sângerete comes from Transylvania, while the Czechs enjoy jelito.

And that's without moving beyond European borders.

I find all this completely fascinating – although it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that so many peoples have reached similar culinary conclusions about ingredients, particularly when we’re looking at food that is traditionally eaten by ‘poor people’, for whom making the very most of a piece of meat, for instance, is economically vital.

I’ve eaten ‘black pudding’ in three places outside the UK: in France, Germany and Spain.

In Barcelona, we were in a restaurant one evening – earlier than ‘Barcelona time’ (which means dinner usually starts at 10pm). The restaurant was quiet. We ordered olives to start, and a bottle of red wine.

The young waiter brought the bottle and then tried to uncork it. The cork broke and dropped into the liquid.

Seeing this, the maître d’ came over and apologised (although there was nothing to apologise for). He returned a few minutes later with another bottle, rolled his eyes as though the poor young waiter was to blame and, making great dumb show of it, rolled it carefully on the table before pulling the cork and pouring.

Then he produced miniature black puddings as an extra – and complimentary – starter. They were lovely.

In Germany, it was less successful. Lutter & Wegner was a disappointment, although it might not have been helped by my choosing black pudding in May, just because, after being handed the English menu, I could order the dish by its proper German name: ‘Himmel und Erde’ – ‘Heaven and Earth’; apples and potatoes and black pudding.

I have not eaten black pudding in a restaurant setting in France, but a number of times when self-catering.

So Monday's black pudding, while hardly a boudin Catalan, was served in a rather un-British way, as a main meal.

It demands very little – well, some thinly sliced onions, cooked very slowly and gently, plus apples: there have to be apples. Slice thinly and core, then fry gently in butter.

On the side, after braving the half-term crowds at John Lewis to finally find a potato ricer, was a mash of suede and carrot – and the ricer really does make it a lot, lot easier.

It may be simple food, but you can see what the Germans mean about such a dish being a little bit of Heaven and Earth.

Monday, 25 October 2010

A touch of France in downtown Hackney

Now it probably isn’t the case in France, but it’s quite easy, on this side of the Channel, to get a bit evangelical about food. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for such ‘evangelism’, then foodies here would not have the same choices that they do, particularly given the swamping of British culinary life by supermarkets in the last 40 years.

Broadway Market has a touch of the evangelical about it – not in some sort of proselytising way, but simply by being there in the face of the un-relenting march of supermarkets, and Tesco in particular.

Before the market got underway, I could walk to at least three Tesco stores and two Sainsbury’s. Now, six years on, I don’t know what the figure for Sainsbury’s is, but you can double the one for Tesco.

It wasn't the easiest thing to get up and running. The council initially tried to block the market opening at all – despite their own quarter-baked ‘plans’ over some years failing to produce anything but further evidence of their own incompetence: on one notorious occasion, they tried to start up a Saturday flower market with just a couple of raggedy stalls – despite the presence, just 10 minutes walk south into Tower Hamlets, of the legendary Colombia Flower Market every Sunday!

Yet once the market was established as successful, the council tried to weigh in and take control. Fortunately on this occasion, they maintained their record of failure.

Obviously the market was set up for people to sell their produce – and make money. But there has always been an element of something else in the equation too: a belief in good food; in seasonality; in local produce.

Now local isn’t always easy when you’re in the middle of a big city like London, but it can mean at least looking at produce from within the UK.

Les Trois Moutiers is a small village in the heart of the Loire. Ed and Max, who work at the wonderful French deli, L’eau a La Bouche, on Broadway Market, had been there on holiday and had spent much of their time cooking, thrilled by the produce that they could find on the doorstep.

Thus was born the inspiration for an evening in September that aimed to showcase the very best seasonal produce, sourced from as near to the deli as possible.

Unfortunately, on that first occasion, we were sitting in a train, travelling back through France to Blighty.

But when they announced another such evening for yesterday, I decided to forego the City v Arsenal match (a sound decision, as it turned out) and go with The Other Half L’eau a La Bouche for Les Trois Moutiers II.

We had no idea of what we’d be eating until we arrived – the promise was an aperitif, followed by five courses, each with wine matched by Stephane Cusset, the owner of L’eau a La Bouche.

First up was a wild mushroom consommé – served with tempura mushrooms that were garnished with sea salt. The idea was to eat one of these battered, salty mushrooms and then a spoonful of the soup.

Now I am no expert on consommé – I’m struggling to think of another occasion when I’ve eaten it – and I know that at least two other diners thought it needed further reduction, but the taste hit when I took my first slurp was amazing: intense mushroom flavour; clean and unobscured by anything else. I watched The Other Half’s face as he tried (he loves mushrooms) and saw what I imagine was a reflection of my own expression from a few moments previously.

All the mushrooms came from a specialist mushroom stall on the market.

The dish was paired with a pinot noir – a full-flavoured but light red, with an almost smoky taste coming through: perfect for autumn.

After two courses, Stephane gave us a brief explanation of the first wines, which was really welcome. Indeed, the opportunity to try several wines in one session is something I’ve never done before: it was a fascinating learning curve.

The second course was Alder-smoked eel, with a small poached chicken’s egg, some wilted spinach and a little sausage.

Having built a smokery in a garden to do their own salmon for September’s meal, Ed and Max had asked market fishmonger Vicki to get them an eel. It was, they explained later, “touch and go” and her boat had only got one right at the last minute.

After a earlier practice session, when the eel had slipped everywhere as they’d tried to skin it, this had been smoked on Saturday night (Ed’s dedication to the cause was such that he was doing that instead of celebrating his girlfriend’s birthday – she got to come to the meal with friends though).

It was lovely. The eel was a good texture and the smokiness was nice and light; the sausage was crisp and tasty; the egg perfectly poached and the spinach just wilted enough – very nice combinations.

This was paired with a chardonnay – lovely and light, and developing well with honey coming through.

These descriptions of the wine are only my own impressions: I made a serious effort to really think about each one and understand what the tastes were. Even if I’m not going to write about something, my mind demands that I find words to describe something to myself, so that I can understand and categorise it better.

The main course was belly pork, with braised fennel and puréed potato, with a crab apple sauce on the side, itself topped with two candied fruits.

I was a tad worried about the fennel, given my dentally challenged state, but it was perfect and delightfully easy to eat. The pork (Old Gloucester Spot, from a south-west farmer, via Richard, a farmer himself who has a stall on the market selling his delightful Dartmoor beef) was excellent, with the crackling delicious (I managed to eat that too). The candied crab apples were a surprise delight – and a nod to Halloween.

The fennel and crab apples were apparently from the organic fruit and veg stall on the market.

I seem to have missed the latter being available, after looking for and asking after them for years. My mother’s mother had three trees in her garden and we used to get a couple of carrier bags full every year. My mother would make them into a clear pink jelly that went superbly with sausages.

Stephane provided a wine from Provence with this (explaining that matching wine to fennel is particularly difficult – presumably because of its aniseed taste). It had big berry flavours, with caramel to finish and was scrummy.

Then it was onto the cheese – at least the homemade quince jelly gave the cheese-hating Other Half something to eat with bread while I was noshing at the lovely selection.

I’ve mentioned before that I love Cheddar and that my Cheddar of choice is Davidstow. Recently, on a Saturday expedition to L’eau a La Bouche, Max had given me a taste of some Keen’s Cheddar. That went down well and, having bought some, I spent a week taking shavings off it so that they’d just melt in my (almost) toothless mouth.

On Sunday, we had a Montgomery Cheddar – and wow! Stephane commented when he was introducing the 2005 Bordeaux that went with it (“mostly from Merlot”), that it was a complex taste and – well, wow! Really nutty, but without being dry or too hard.

Then there was a bleu d'Auvergne (a classic French blue; lovely and creamy and with a nice saltiness); a Mont d’Or, a soft seasonal cheese from France (and Switzerland), which is made between 15 August and 15 March, and sold between 10 September and 10 May. Stephane has it in the shop now until just after Christmas. It was dripping off the side of the slate platter on which it was served – and was lovely spread onto thin slices of bread.

And finally, an Italian cheese that Max had bought back from a visit to his mother who lives over there: mild and very pleasant.

Fortunately, none of this was rushed and none of the portions were too big, so I managed to get through everything – including quite a lot of the cheese. I’d never tasted any of them before and all were lovely – with the Montgomery Cheddar a revelation.

And then dessert: a quince sorbet to cleanse the palate, followed by white chocolate and pistachio ice cream with roasted plums. Lovely.

The dessert wine was beautifully sweet – almost honeyish. I leant across to The Other Half and said: “Riversaltes?”

And then Stephane told us it was a 10-year-old Banyuls – and nodded in my direction. Not quite total recognition, but only a few miles out!

Ed and Max emerged to a round of applause – and to tell us a little about the ingredients and the process.

A few minutes later, chatting with a buzzy Ed outside, as he drew on a welcome fag, he explained that not only did the kitchen not have a range – after all, it was only designed with coffee shop catering in mind – it only has one hob, they’d had a power outage at one point and had even used a sandwich toaster as a second ‘hob’ at another stage.

For goodness sake – that’s about the level of the kitchen in the staff canteen where I mostly work, and they don’t manage to produce anything even remotely close to the same quality. Never mind that, the canteen staff are supposed to be trained and, as we found out on Sunday night, neither Ed nor Max are trained cooks.

What they achieved was excellent anyway – given all those considerations, it was bloody remarkable!

We waddled home; full, mellow and very, very satisfied. Les Trois Moutiers II had been a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

When the chips are down

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that I was Heston Blumenthal’s greatest fan: any interest I might have entertained in the man frequently described as the country’s ‘best chef’ was pretty much finished off by his Guardian column some years ago, which notoriously included a recipe for fried eggs that involved cooking the white and the yolk separately.

And I cannot claim to be particularly inspired by the sort of dishes that are served at his highly lauded restaurant, The Fat Duck. Snail porridge is one example.

And then there are what I think of as the gimmicks: for instance, serving a scallops dish with an iPod in a conch shell playing sea sounds for the diner.

‘Molecular gastronomy’ is apparently the name for the cooking bit of this – a term coined in the late 1980s by French scientist Herve This and Oxford University professor Nicholas Kurti.

Perhaps the most famous exponent is Ferran Adria, at El Bulli near Barcelona (he spends six months of the year in a laboratory in the city, apparently), while such luminaries as Wylie Dufresne at wd-50 in Manhattan, and Grant Achatz of Alinea and Homaro Cantu of Moto, both of which are in Chicago.

I suspect the thing about the fried egg annoyed me so much because this really is everyday food: I’m quite prepared to spend hours in the kitchen for things that require it, but a fried egg never has been, is not now and never will be haute cuisine: it’s quick, everyday fodder.

Earlier this year, “the UK’s top chef” joined up with Waitrose, a chain of quality supermarkets that are part of John Lewis – in other words, a co-operative. Delia Smith was also part of this big new advertising campaign – Britain’s “best-loved cook”. An intriguing combination.

I was browsing the Waitrose site the other week and came across a Blumenthal recipe for cream of mushroom soup that actually caught my attention.

It caught my attention particularly because of the garnish – dried mushrooms that have been roasted, then blitzed and pressed through a sieve to leave a powder.

The thing is, you look at that and think: ‘Well it’s hardly complicated and I can see that it would add a really intense zing to the final soup’.

So I tried it today. I modified the soup a little – not completely puréeing it, as The Other Half prefers his soups to have some texture – but it had oodles of flavour and the powder really did add something.

For dinner, I’d decided to do chips. Now this might seem a rather strange way to plan a meal, but faith needed to be regained for the humble chip.

Yesterday’s lunchtime had demanded something more substantial than soup or a sandwich since we were meeting a friend for a post-work drink. So I nipped down to the North Sea Fish Bar to pick up chips (one portion between both of us), a chicken and mushroom pie for The Other Half, scampi for me and a pot of mushy peas to share.

As always, I soon wondered why I'd bothered. The art of the hand-cut chip seems to have disappeared and the scampi wasn’t anything to write home about. Yet this has a reputation as a good fish ‘n’ chippy, with an attached restaurant that does good trade (and isn’t cheap).

But frankly, it’s no better or worse than Faulkners in Hackney, which has also somehow acquired the status of being excellent.

The last time I had really good fish and chips was some years ago in Hull, in a really old-fashioned place, with plastic gingham tablecloths, thick sliced bread to make chip butties and tea in white mugs. The fish was sensational; the batter superb. The mushy peas hit the spot exactly and the chips? Well, needless to say, they weren’t out of a freezer.

There used to be a brilliant chippy next to the bus station in Piccadilly, Manchester, but that’s gone the way of all flesh, replaced by characterless glass and polished metal.

My father would sometimes drive to a chippy in Mossley to bring back fish and chips for a Saturday lunch. I remember it as a glorious treat.

But somewhere along the line, the English have gone off fish and chips – or at least lowered their ideas of what is good about it. A world of fast food outlets, with their skinny ‘fries’, has left us with barely even a memory of what good chips are.

Gastro pubs do their bit. But I’d decided to cook my own – something that I probably only do about two or three times a year.

I don’t follow Heston’s recipe – which involves cooking them three times. But I do use Delia’s method, which means cooking them twice.

Peel your potatoes and cut them into chips – not too thick. Pop them in a bowl of cold water and leave for half an hour – this gets rid of some of the starch and also helps plump them up. Drain and dry thoroughly.

Get your vegetable oil (or lard) hot enough that a cube of day-old bread with brown in it in a minute. Put the chips in carefully and cook for around 4-5 minutes. Remove carefully to a plate and then let the oil get back to its previous temperature. Pop the chips back in and cook for another 2-3 minutes – watching that they don’t get over-cooked.

Remove them to a plate with kitchen paper on it and serve as quickly as possible – chips don’t take kindly to being left around.

Lovely – soft and fluffy in the middle, beautifully crisp on the outside.

That meant that this morning’s main shopping question was what to serve with them. Now I didn’t want to deep fry fish too, but was wondering about grilling or roasting some fish.

Then, as I was walking up Broadway Market, Andy waved at me from the new game stall and I popped over for a chat.

Inevitably, I also found myself looking at the produce and, when I spotted venison burgers, the choice was made.

As I mentioned in that post about game, many people believe it's all – and always – expensive. These burgers were four for £4. Two were more than enough for us for a meal, so the others have gone in the freezer.

Now apparently, a spot of Googling informs me that the price of a McDonalds burger meal is nearly a fiver, which people seem to consider is cheap (it comes with ‘fries’, a drink and your bun, after all).

But let’s see: £1 for a meat patty made from top-notch meat, plus a few pennies for the potatoes, a bit more for the oil to cook the chips (about £1.50 per person and assuming it only gets used once) and let’s be generous about the frozen peas I served (it was a generous portion) and say 50p per portion. If I’d wanted, we could have each had a top-brand fizzy drink for 50p (assuming I hadn’t bought in bulk).

So being generous in my estimates, our meal was less than a McDonalds meal and would still have come in cheaper even if I'd added a liquid equivalent – so why do people think that McDonalds is expensive, but that markets such as Broadway Market are insanely expensive?

And that’s without even mentioning the issue of quality – and honesty, I’d back my chips against McDonalds’ ‘fries’ any time!

When and how did this massive con happen?

In his very entertaining and informative In the Devil’s Garden: a sinful history of forbidden food, Stewart Lee Allen discusses (amongst many other things) the issue of ‘appropriate’ foods for the working class. Some were banned because they were seen as likely to produce sloth (although they were fine for the aristocrats, on the grounds that they were entitled to a life of doing nothing – France and white bread is a perfect example of this).

But the thought of the plebs getting the idea that food could be sensual and wonderful was not to be tolerated.

Just as ancient Sparta, with its national dish of ‘black broth’ – pork stock, vinegar, blood and salt – “banished citizens who enjoyed eating”, Allen suggests that “both today’s fast-food outlets and Spartan mess halls are/were designed to discourage lingering over dinner and eliminate the need for people to “waste” time cooking for their family.

“And, like the Spartans’ legendarily bad food, many of these convenience foods are so unpleasant they even make work look good. They’re also immensely profitable for the corporations who produce them.

“Perfect: American workers now pay more money for worse food so they can hurry back to jobs they hate.”

He has a point about the big con at the heart of all this.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard people in my little bit of Hackney complaining about Broadway Market. Local Trotskyists, showing a remarkable lack of interest in actual facts, spent ages shouting about how the council – which had not set it up, had not funded it and doesn’t run it – should have built a community centre instead. ‘Instead of what?’ one asked.

There was no ‘instead’. A group of private individuals and traders and producers got together and got the market going. It didn’t replace anything. Apart from dodgy property dealings by our local council, which saw two long-term shopkeepers pushed out (and which market stallholders helped campaign against), nothing has been lost.

Local people now have more choice than they had six and a half years ago when, as a famous bit of local graffiti had it: "Broadway Market – not so much a sinking ship as a submarine". In those days, if you couldn't get what you wanted at the one butcher, one chain baker, one very limited fruit and veg stall and the one independent general store, you had no choice but to tramp to one of the supermarkets that have taken over the area. Now, we have a realistic choice of where we shop, because we have genuine alternatives.

Yet some continue to believe the myth that it’s all criminally beyond their means. Unlike McDonalds or any other fast-food joint. Obviously.

Why do I bet that the con isn’t as effective across the Channel?

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Comfort food for icy times

Two icy blasts chilled Britain today – and only one was to do with the weather.

Chancellor George Osborne unveiled his much-touted comprehensive spending review: the government’s plans for cutting the deficit.

With a straight face, he consigned almost half a million public sector workers to the dole queue – and that’s before the impact on the private sector is factored in, with analysts predicting the same number of job losses there too as a direct result of the cuts.

I remember the recessions of the 1980s – particularly the second one. I lived in the north west of England then. I lost my job – and then my home. Yet I was one of the lucky ones. With no dependents, I was able to move to London to find work. Metaphorically speaking, I ‘got on my bike’, as Norman Tebbit so eloquently put it at the time. All that I lost were my friends.

But those experiences created my core politics. And while I cannot see any immediate threat to my job now, I am well aware of the damage that is done by such decisions to individuals, to families and to communities.

And while, as I mentioned, there may be no immediate threat to my own work, I still find myself looking over my own shoulder, thinking back to the poverty – and yes, it was poverty – and to the loss of self-worth and confidence: such things are shattering. Poverty and unemployment are not fun or romantic.

Until the 2008 banking crisis, the Conservatives had given no indication that they considered public sector spending in the UK to be out of control – indeed, they promised to match the levels that it was then at.

But just over two years ago, an extraordinary thing happened: after several months of the banks and financiers being roundly condemned for their irresponsibility, incompetence and greed, the deficit became the fault of public spending. It happened over just two weeks – just two weeks at the end of summer, before the conference season: a massive change of tack.

Yet prior to the then Labour government bailing out the banks, the deficit was little different to that of the previous Conservative administration in 1997. And assorted international finance agencies had no issue with it either.

And in the years since 1997, we’d had a distinct shortage of stories about people dying on trolleys in hospital corridors. Perhaps that’s what the problem was?

Plenty of people – and that includes reputable economists – think that we now face a very real danger of a double dip recession or of going further, into a full-blown depression.

Some are starting to point out the myths of the neo-liberal economics that many Western countries – and the US and UK in particular – have been subjected to over the last 30 years.

These are myths that still seem to dominate thinking. The Labour government fell for them completely – the ‘Third Way’ was an effort to allow a totally ‘free’ market (in the belief that that was A Good Thing), while attempting to ‘correct’ anything negative with increased public spending. It didn’t work.

The idea of ‘trickle down’ is nice, but there is no evidence that it works. Indeed, since 1997, the gap between rich and poor in the UK has widened more than it was before.

Today’s announcements included things that we have already heard: for instance, while the government plans to build more ‘low cost’ housing, it will reduce funding to councils, which will have to find the extra money for all this new building by increasing council house rents to ‘market’ levels.

This doesn’t remotely acknowledge that the median wage in the UK is around £21,000 per annum. Or that when private housing developers, as a condition of planning permission, have had to provide ‘affordable’ housing to ‘key workers’, it’s still far from affordable for most.

Let me give you an example. On my road in Hackney – the second poorest borough in the country – we’ve had two new, private housing developments in recent years. On the larger of these, half the flats were designated for ‘key workers’ and sold at half price. But the starting price of a non-‘key worker’ flat – and this was a flat with one bedroom – was £250,000. So a one-bed flat for a ‘key worker’ would have been £125,000.

Now it’s generally been considered that a sensible mortgage should be no more than three times your annual income. So for a £125,000 mortgage, you need – sensibly – an income of at least £41,666. And the median wage is £21,000? In other words, there are plenty of people earning less. How are they to sensibly – and presumably, responsibly – get a home, even at these sort of reduced rates?

Well, forget having a family if you haven’t got a household income of at least £60K – perhaps this is really just a scheme to reduce population?

But the point is that the figures, quite simply, do not add up. Then again, insane mortgages, a housing shortage and ‘the market’ were huge factors in creating the mess that we’re in in the first place.

Mr Osborne also announced that secured tenure in council housing will be cut – apparently, you’ll only get a guaranteed five years in a council home now before you’re suitability for such charity is re-assessed.

In the last few days, 35 business leaders weighed into the debate, egging on the chancellor to swing the axe – and claiming that they’ll easily be able to create lots more jobs to take the place of those lost. Which will mark a huge change in their job creation records of recent years.

But then again, higher unemployment means that you can get away with offering people less money and worse conditions. It might be a coincidence that some of the companies that these business leaders are in charge of make a percentage of their profits by buying cheap goods from abroad, made by workers who are paid little and work in poor conditions with little regard, for instance, for health and safety.

Or perhaps not. Those business leaders know from the experience of their own companies’ profits – and their personal pay packets – that insecurity (as long as it’s not their own) pays dividends.

Just when did we decide that job and housing security are not good things? When did we reach the conclusion that ‘the market’ should not serve people but visa versa?

I’m not talking about people all being paid the same wage. I’m not saying that no company should ever be able to get rid of someone who swings the lead. Goodness, I’ve worked alongside lead swingers (when they could be bothered turning up) and have no sympathy for such people.

But I really would like to know just when we decided that Joe and Joanna Public do not deserve security and a decent standard of living.

Yet now the message seems to be that we cannot expect our savings to produce much and indeed, that we should spend instead of save.

It depresses me that decent people, doing decent jobs – and not for a huge sum of money – will be cast onto the scrapheap of unemployment or expected to work for even less.

The latter will be – is – the result of much privatising services: after all, how do you make a profit (the first responsibility of a private company) from, say, care for the elderly, if you can’t cut the costs? And since the main costs in such situations are people, then that is the cost you have to cut.

We’ve seen it already: carers only being given 10 minutes to deal with a ‘client’ – it takes more than 10 minutes to bathe someone, possibly to take them to the toilet or to feed them. But no: 10-minute appointments help to create profits.

Or school dinnerladies taking cutlery into their school because their private employer won’t provide enough – and don’t laugh, because it’s happened with Compass in Sheffield.

Or hospital infections such as MRSA and c-difficile, which held a party to celebrate when privatised hospital cleaning services shed half the workforce.

And yet, the people who actually caused the record deficit are let off. Would you seriously expect that, if someone came into your home and damaged it, you should pay and not them? Yet that, in effect, is what’s happening. The bankers’ bonuses are already back to 2008 levels and likely to exceed them soon – even though the banks, being a law unto themselves, are damaging the economic recovery by refusing to lend to small businesses and help them.

I want to live in an humane world – is it really too much to ask? Right now, there is an iciness around that is a million miles from humane.

But I won’t leave you on that note: the weather has turned cold too. Cold and gloriously bright in London today. A first taste of winter.

I’m wearing layers for the first time in months. And comfort food is required. Nothing too ambitious, though: thinly sliced potatoes are soaking, before being layered in a dish with butter and seasoning, and drenched in cream. Yes, this is a night for dauphinoise.

And to accompany that? Well, I’m going to open a can of confit de canard and cook that. The instructions on the can – which is from France (where they fight for their lifestyle rather more vigorously than here – vive les travailleurs!) – suggest serving with “potatoes or green vegetables”. Oh hell – I may get thoroughly ambitious and boil a few frozen peas as a garnish.

And after that – some of the chocolate tart that finally turned out right: but I’ll tell you about that another day!

In the meantime – wrap up as best you can against the chills, my friends. And spare a thought for all those that are tonight worrying that their livelihoods are about to go tits up – just in time for Christmas.

I feel a sense of nostalgia for the 1980s – the only thing’s that’s missing is Norman Lamont telling those of us that were losing our jobs and homes that: “unemployment is a price worth paying”.

Monday, 18 October 2010

It wasn't all bad

Despite the best efforts of those wretched tarts to leave me feeling that the weekend was a culinary disaster, it was far from all bad.

There were two small tuna steaks in the fridge that had been bought in midweek but then remained unused. They needed eating, so I decided to try something a little different.

Using the basic idea from a recipe in Gordon Ramsay’s A Passion for Flavour, I decanted goose fat into a small pan, heated that and then added the tuna. There was just enough fat to cover. Phew!

You then allow the fish to cook for around seven minutes. In the meantime, I’d taken three large but getting-past-it tomatoes, and skinned, de-seeded and diced them for a concasse.

But on a day that, for the first time this autumn genuinely required the adjective ‘cold’ rather than simply ‘cool’ or ‘chilly’, raw tomato was not really on the menu, so I heated it gently with a little olive oil and some Maldon sea salt, making sure that it's held its shape and texture.

Served simply with bread and a dollop of the confit de thyme that I’d bought from the cheese stall in Collioure – made, as it turned out, by a British ex-pat who had gone to Roussillon to make a new life – it proved a very tasty lunch. The confit de thyme is a clear jelly, with a light taste – rather like apple, I thought. It sometimes seems to me that confit is a word that's used in all sorts of ways, making it really rather confusing: but whatever the etymology, it tasted jolly nice.

As I said, the day was cold. It had started brightly, with the cats all determined that we should get up as soon as it was light so that they could spend some time outside. This involves a concerted effort by all three girls – almost working together – which is never repeated on the following morning. It seems that on Sundays, our felines kindly allow us a lie in.

Given the declining temperature, it seemed entirely appropriate to contemplate the first erwtensoep of the season – a Dutch pea and ham soup, in effect.

As I've become more and more of a foodie, I've started finding it utterly fascinating how different countries have similar dishes. I know it's hardly rocket science when they're similar in terms of climate and produce, but it still intrigues me.

The UK of course has pea and ham soup, the Germans have erbsensuppe: the latter was made as erbswurst during the Franco-Prussian War; one of the very first instant food, invented by Johann Heinrich Grüneberg in 1867. Knorr still make it. Take that, Napoleon III and your infernal margarine!

In a similar vein, the Dutch have a dish called stamppot, which is based around mashed potatoes. Which makes me think of British bubble and squeak or the Irish colcannon. But let's get back to erwtensoep.

There’s actually three sorts of meat in the recipe I’ve got, but since there are only two of us, I skipped the pork chops.

After leaving some dried split peas to soak for a couple of hours, I rinsed them and plopped the lot in a large pot with some water to cover. It’s crucial at that stage to add the water, because the next thing you want to put in is a peeled, diced celeriac, and unless that goes straight into liquid, it’ll start discolouring very quickly.

Add a couple of peeled, diced carrots, some bacon you’ve cut into bite-size pieces and bring slowly to a boil. Then simmer gently for an hour and a quarter. You need to give it a stir occasionally or else the split peas, once they really start turning into mush, will stick to the bottom of the pan and make one hell of a mess.

At that point, add a couple of chopped leeks and some frankfurters that you’ve chopped into bite-size pieces. Leave for 15 minutes and there you have it.

Erwtensoep is wonderful cold-weather food – we almost lived off bowls of the stuff and glasses of gluhwein at New Year in Amsterdam nearly two years ago. With temperatures dipping well below freezing, it finally made me realise the point of mulled wine!

As for the soup itself, it’s traditionally served with an accompaniment of rye bread spread with mustard and topped with smoked bacon. The picture above was taken on that Amsterdam trip.

And after that little effort, there was enough in the pot to ensure an easy lunch for both of us yesterday too.

Which left last night's dinner. In keeping with the sense of darkening, cooler days, I made the first kidney turbigo of the season, crammed full of gorgeous kidney loveliness.

In other words, in spite of the best efforts of those delinquent tarts, it was actually not a bad foodie weekend at all.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

A rather tart aftertaste

The last few days have been something of a tart nightmare. As I sit here now, shirt covered in so much flour that you’d think I’d been doubling as a giant’s rolling pin, I’m managing to type with fingers (and anything else remotely crossable) crossed.

Thursday’s citrus tart was a disaster. Yesterday’s chocolate tart was a disaster.

One of the things that strikes me, reminiscent of Julian Barnes’s A Pedant in the Kitchen, is a feeling that I know bugger all about what I’m doing.

That’s not simply the point that baking requires more pedantry than much else in the kitchen – you can’t hope to ‘get by’ without weighing and measuring properly, for instance, but also because, as Barnes revealed in that collection of a regular weekend column he had written for the Guardian that it’s also a sense of pedantically wondering exactly what a recipe means.

If it says to chop something ‘finely’, then just how fine is fine?

In the case of the last few days’ tart fiascos, I’m left trying to analyse just what went wrong.

Thursday was a disaster from beginning to end. Of my understood mistakes, the first was in not trusting my instinct over the pastry.

It had been in the fridge since I’d made up a batch for the previous weekend’s tart tatin. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I had been wondering why that pastry had collapsed and crumbled so much. Possibly it wasn’t mixed thoroughly enough. By Thursday evening, when I pulled it out of the fridge to thaw for rolling, there were some such doubts, and it had crossed my mind that I should bin it and start from scratch.

But ‘waste not, want not’, as the old adage goes. And I really do not like waste. So on I went, blindly baking a tart case that was more patchwork than a thing of well-rolled neatness.

After that, came the mistake of assuming that, when the Gordon Ramsay recipe read that ideally, the tart should be baked at the lowest possible temperature – but that most ovens barely managed below 120˚ – I thought that, since mine does, I should do exactly that and bake it at the lowest temperature. That didn’t work either: I ended up with an unset filling that was burnt on top.

Yesterday, I made a new batch of pastry. I took my time – even more so than before. The pastry case wasn't perfect, but better.

And then came the chocolate filling. I brought a combination of cream and milk just to boiling point and then poured it on the chocolate (70-odd % cocoa solids), exactly as instructed. Stirring vigorously, it was soon mostly melted, but some lumps stubbornly remained, so I popped the bowl over a pan with a little simmering water in it. Hardly dismal technique.

At the last, almost as though I turned away for a second and missed it, something happened and the mixture became lumpy – almost like tar. Hoping optimistically that it was still worth salvaging, I decanted it into the pastry case and basked as per the recipe. But when I'd finished, there was a sticky, oily liquid around the tart tin on the baking tray and, when I gently pressed the tip of my finger onto the filling, it came up oily too, flecked with brown.

Today, I took even more care. I whisked the cream and milk into the chocolate instead of using a spoon – absolutely as per the recipe. You add a beaten egg (or two, depending on the quantity) after that, before popping it into the pastry case. Everything seemed fine at this stage. The texture was fine – smooth and silky, if a little thick. Into the oven it went and I was feeling so much more optimistic. I licked the bowls in appropriately greedy fashion. Lovely.

And so I started writing this blog entry.

But when the tart came out, the same thing had happened as yesterday. Some time during the cooking, the texture had changed and, around the tart tin, was more oily liquid – although not as much.

I can only assume that something has split.

The recipe works – I've done it before so I know it does.

The eggs are as fresh as I can get. The flour is good quality and fresh. The milk and cream are fresh. So what is the issue? The chocolate seemed to be fine, but it's not the same chocolate that I've used before. Is that what's caused the problem with the chocolate tarts? But if so, why? If I don't know the answer to that question, can I avoid it happening again – or put another way, what do I need to do to avoid it happening again?

That's what I mean about pedantry: I lack the knowledge – the expertise – to be able to confidently analyse what has gone wrong, but I also have the sort of mind that is frustrated at not knowing precisely.

Still, at least today's pastry was an improvement.

And I shall be back.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

All booked up

It has been a fun day in the book department, with a stream of titles arriving for me from Amazon, which is in danger of becoming my biggest vice.

First post this morning brought two copies of Judi Dench's new autobiography, And Furthermore – one of which is earmarked for my mother for Christmas – plus Finishing the Hat: collected lyrics (1954-1981) with attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes by Stephen Sondheim, together with The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man and Mark Kurlansky's Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world.

My editor took a slow look at this stack, ignored the last one and announced: "You're really a gay man". Well I suppose that's one way to look it.

This afternoon's post produced Cheese: A Global History by Andrew Dalby – my goodness, there's a whole mini library of such one-food histories from Edible – the 700-odd page History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, Salt: A World History by Kurlansky (what price he does one on salted cod?) and In the Devil's Garden: A Sinful History of Forbidden Food by Stewart Lee Allen.

You see what I mean about my Amazon vice? It's just so easy – especially when they start picking up your 'trends' and suggesting things you never even knew existed before.

The food books were ordered as a job lot, after I dared to go looking for Kurlansky's book about salt: Amazon took a hint, saw an opening, and started suggesting assorted other food titles. The others were a response to assorted long-term interests.

Is it really gay to love Sondheim?

Anyway, rather later, back at home, I hauled out a cling film-wrapped ball of pastry that I'd made rearlier (one half of what I'd made for my small tarte tatinlast weekend). Inevitably, it needed a little thawing, but while that was happening, I re-arranged (yet again) my kitchen bookshelves to take all the latest additions to my food library, and listened to Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George.

Rather interestingly, I had spotted a story this morning on the Beeb about food and sound. It appears that sound affects how you taste food: fascinating. Although it cannot be blamed for the staggering blandness of today's lunch when, at a loss for what else to eat, I got a jacket potato from the deli bar (posh description for our staff canteen) with cottage cheese, and ended up salting it ludicrously just to give it some sort of taste. To think that I used to consume the stuff by the tub!

Of course, it does bring to mind Heston Blumenthal and his "construction of ’sand’, scallops, seaweed and foam", served while listening to sounds of the sea on an iPod in a shell at The Fat Duck. Perhaps he actually has a point.

But whatever, the Sondheim certainly seems conducive to cooking.

Anyhow, this is a Gordon Ramsay recipe – so I'm not going to reproduce it here in detail, since it's too complex.

But as an overview, you blind bake the pastry case, as is usual in such dishes. Then you take orange juice – and somewhat less lemon juice – and boil to reduce by half. Then you measure out caster sugar and beat with egg yolks (less than the recipe stipulates, because, as a total size queen, I always have XXL eggs and not medium unless I have specifically planned a baking session) and some grated zest of the lemons and oranges.

Let the pastry case cool, then fill carefully with the citrus mix and bake for 40 minutes or so.

I want a bigger kitchen: I need more storage space for all the sugars and vinegars and oils etc. And that's before I consider how much the kitchen is becoming my natural habitat and therefore obviously should be bigger. And I also want a mixer – one of those lovely retro – but bloody sturdy – ones, because that'll make life so much easier when I bake, although I have no idea where it could be stored.

In other words, I just need a bigger home.

However, baking is cooking for pedants: none of that Jamie Oliver stuff of just throwing in unmeasured ingredients. Accuracy is essential. Perhaps that's why I actually like baking as much as I do ...

But then again, what I'm doing tonight is certainly being done without a calculator.

So what else can I say?

Well, I've committed to fund-raising for Greenpeace's 'flour power' campaign, and my colleagues are already getting excited and demanding that whatever I cook has to involve chocolate: so I'm having a big think. Should I bake – as per the campaign title – or should I do chocolate, as my colleagues apparently want?

The citrus tart is still cooking – but otherwise, I think it's a question of: 'watch this space'.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Spread it thick

Food history is a fascinating subject, but you could be forgiven for imagining that for butter to make an interesting entry in any such history, it would have to be spread pretty thin.

Oliver Thring’s entertaining and educative Guardian blog about the great war between butter and margarine proves that’s not the case.

There were plenty of things that I didn’t know, but perhaps the most shocking was that we can blame – of all people – the French for the abomination that is marg.

Thring writes: “Margarine was formulated in 1869 by one Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, who was responding to Napoleon III’s call for a butter substitute to feed the soldiers fighting the Franco-Prussian War.”

Or as The Other Half points out, to be accurate, we can blame Napoleon III. You see, that’s what comes of trying to turn back a republic into a monarchy. I knew that the right side won in that little conflict.

For years, margarine has been peddled on the basis of being healthier than butter. Well, healthier in a sort of completely-artificial-and-containing-nasty-things-that-aren’t-very-good-for-you sort of way.

After all, this is something that, until recently at least, contained trans fats, which are not nice at all and can contribute to a large range of illnesses, including cancer. Which might make you lose weight, but probably isn’t on most people’s list of preferred diets.

The processes that are used to make margarine (and lengthen the shelf life of some cooking oils) cause trans fats to occur. A quick check of food labels will tell you if a product contains any: if the label mentions ‘partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils’, ‘hydrogenated vegetable oils’ or ‘shortening’, then it’s likely to contain trans fats.

The process of making margarine also makes it grey in colour: strip out all the fat and you strip out the lovely yellow: it needs artificial colourants added or else absolutely nobody would eat it. After all, imagine spreading something grey on your toast!

And whatever they try to tell you, marg does not taste like butter. Not even close to it. Butter is a little taste of luxury – which is precisely why, as Thring points out, it was on the church’s list of Things You Mustn’t Eat on Fast Days.

Nothing beats proper butter on a crumpet, dripping unctuously down through the holes and deep into that glorious floury squishiness, getting all over your fingers and all over your mouth and running down your chin.

While some people swear by unsalted butter – and so do I, for most things – crumpets, for me, require the salted variety: not any old salted butter, mind, but the sort with crystals of sea salt in it.

It’s about pleasure. Total, indulgent pleasure.

Butter has never claimed that it’s a health food – although perhaps it should. After all, if you really think about it, what’s healthier – pleasure or a monastic lack of it?

In his book, The World Turned Upside Down, historian Christopher Hill talks of ‘the death of sin’ as the English Revolution produced a massive growth in radical thinking, with people from right across the social spectrum shucking the ideas that had previously held sway.

‘Sin’, of course, is useful for controlling people – certainly in conjunction with ideas of heaven or, perhaps more saliently, eternal damnation.

At a time when few people live with the total conviction in such a concept, does that mean that we’re free from ‘sin’ now, that sin really is dead?

The reality is that we’ve replaced the authority of the church on ‘moral’ matters with the power of the mass media: celebrities ‘named and shamed’ for daring to step ‘out of line’. Which usually translates as: ‘they had sex in a way that we do not approve of’.

In the UK, the News of the World (appropriately nicknamed The News of the Screws) sells by revealing people’s secrets: who had sex with whom and how. It’s titillation for the readership, followed by the absolution of pointing fingers and nodding heads when the naughty celeb has been humiliated enough.

After Max Mosely won his case against the rag in question, Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, bemoaned the court’s decision, stating quite explicitly that such personal revelations were important because they allowed people to be morally held to account.

Somewhere along the line, the honourable peer seems to have missed the point that such publications are bought because they titillate and because the readers then get to judge and metaphorically chuck a few stones – neither of which are renowned Christian values.

But in our modern world we have other sins too. And, since many sins are, by extraordinary coincidence, to do with pleasure, food is far from exempt.

As my mother used to intone: “We eat to live, we don’t live to eat”. Roughly translated, this meant that we should be careful not to take undue pleasure in things; food should primarily be regarded as a fuel, thus helping to avoid the dodgy sensual pleasure to gained from it.

Let’s bring this forward into our era, where the revelation of people’s sexual proclivities and activities is somehow perceived to be a service to morality – presumably on the basis that is might scare others into ‘behaving’, lest they too be humiliated by some gutter-scraping scandal sheet.

What we also have now is the ‘sin’ of being overweight – for which one can also be vilified and humiliated: media, government and medical obsession with the issue over a number of years has pretty much created a bully’s charter where the fat are acceptable targets.

I know of one person, for instance, who was approached in a shop by a woman who started telling him that, as a rather large individual, he should select the jar of diet mayonnaise instead of the full-fat one that he was examining at the time.

The culture of dieting has been with us for some decades, but now it has this extra impetus. And thus butter is considered unhealthy, while a completely artificial product, with or without downright unhealthy trans fats, is considered healthy. And the companies that manufacture marg spend millions spreading their gospel and even trying to convince us that it tastes just like the real thing.

If you’re worried about your consumption of saturated fats, then cut down, don’t cut out. Just as research is increasingly revealing that there is far more to weight issues than being greedy (for instance, recently-published work has suggested that a virus is involved in some people at least), there’s more to saturated fats than people imagine.

We tend to like foods that are high in saturated fat because they’re comforting and pleasurable. Think cheese, for example. And butter, of course.

But those things also help us to feel satisfied quicker than if we were eating other ‘healthier’ foodstuffs. And some research has suggested that, in order to reach the same level of satisfaction, we’d end up consuming more calories of the ‘healthier’ foodstuff.

When women diet, the first things they tend to knock off their personal menus are dairy products, which is not unconnected to the lower levels of bone density found in dieting women. Fancy some osteoporosis later in life girls? Well, at least you’ll be slim, with brittle bones.

From a health perspective, food is all swings and roundabouts anyway. Take those French again – they eat more dairy produce than absolutely any other nation on Earth, yet have a lower rate of heart disease, which seems completely counter-intuitive on the basis of what is drummed into us Brits.

Research suggests that red wine counteracts the unhealthy aspects of all that wonderful cheese.

So hang on a minute – you get to drink red wine and eat more cheese than anyone else on planet Earth, and you don’t get the heart disease that you’re promised by government, medical professionals and media in the UK?

Now admittedly, the French do have higher rates of liver disease. But do you really want to live longer if doing so requires that you live like a puritan?

The price of the new ‘sins’ might be humiliation – the new ‘heaven’ appears simply to be the possibility of a slightly longer life with less pleasure than if we all just used a little bit of commonsense and ignored those who would have us eating an exclusive diet of rabbit food and minced cardboard. The possibility – there is no certainty in this – of adding a few years to our lives has turned dieting and denial of pleasure into a sort of food version of Pascal’s Wager. In terms of butter, it gives a whole new meaning to spread betting.

A modern heresy, you say? Well, possibly – in the UK (and probably the US) at least.

It is, however, a heresy that I for one will continue to enjoy.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

All up to scratch

One of the delights of coming to work each morning – and there are plenty – is finding out what has been delivered for you that day.

The problem, you see, is that if anything is due to be delivered to your home by a company other than Royal Mail, and you’re not in but they won’t deliver outside of work hours or only for lots of extra money at weekends, then it can be a nightmare to collect it (particularly if you don’t have a car) or have it delivered at a time that actually suits you.

People might complain about the postal service, but it is a service and it's a great deal easier to deal with and more geared to customer satisfaction than certain private delivery companies that I could name, which most certainly do not work on the basis that the provision of a service is paramount.

Thus the easiest thing is often to have things delivered to work, in the knowledge that you can guarantee that someone will be able to sign for whatever it is.

Today, that meant a rather large – and heavy – box containing a swanky new cat scratching post.

The old one had done sterling service for around 10 years, but when its very aim is to be scratched, it isn’t going to last for ever. It was tatty enough as it was when, on Saturday morning, as The Other Half and I reclined in bed, drinking coffee and with me contemplating the weekend’s fodder, a loud crash was heard from next door in the living room, speedily followed by two kittens racing into the bedroom.

Otto in particular was looking back though the doorway with that famous feline expression that combines total surprise with a slightly shifty: ‘it woz nuffink to do wiv me, Guv’, which always provides a quick indicator of just exactly who it was to do with.

A visit to the living room quickly revealed the problem: a glass bowl, which had been sitting quietly on top of one of our lower book shelves, minding its own business, for some years, holding white gravel, sand and some long-dead cacti, was now on the floor, having clearly decided to commit harikari – out of boredom, one assumes.

The glass was unbroken, but the contents were everywhere – not least, all over the scratching post, which stood below it. Tidying up later, it became obvious that this was going to be the least easy thing to clean up, simply because most of the material on the bases was long since rather ragged and the dirt had got under it and into the carpet itself.

After thinking about replacing it for some months, but doing nothing about it, it seems that Otto had decided to force our hand by taking matters into her own paws.

We dismantled the thing, threw it out and then trawled the net for a replacement. And so here it is.

The timing is rather good too: two weeks on Thursday, the kittens will be a year old. So it’s an early birthday present.

It remains to be seen whether Boudi deigns to be interested in it – it hasn’t been high on her agenda since the kittens discovered it, just a matter of a couple of days after their arrival last December.

Loki and Otto thoroughly enjoyed the old one, playing on it (and playing with the little ball that hung from it), fighting on and around it and sleeping on it (and in a 'furry' tunnel that hung from part of it). Scratching posts are far more than just a post for scratching – they're combined gym and entertainment centres for cats.

I admit that I am looking forward to seeing their response to the new one: how long will it take before one or other of them masters the little ladder? Will they clamber through the hole in the middle? Will they like the fact that it's apparently impregnated with catnip?

Ummm. Catnip. Or cat drugs, as we know them. Not all cats respond to catnip and they usually have to be over six months of age before they respond.

Mack adored the stuff and would go completely bonkers for it. His sister, Mabel, was never remotely as interested and neither was Trickie, who followed her. We brought some home from the Columbia Road flower market once – six plants to put into the garden. Before we'd even got the garden door open, Mack had hurled himself into the bag and was rolling madly all over them. Amazingly, they survived that and recovered once they'd been planted out.

Apparently catnip is the only drug known that has two opposite effects, depending on how it's consumed. Sniff it, and cats get a high. Eat it, and the opposite happens.

When we open the box tonight, we shall find out just what they all think.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Great minds – or something like that!

And just an incredibly brief extra post to point you to the newest addition to the links column, to Bill's Ballymaloe Blog, which I was pointed out to me on the basis of today's post about game.

A great blog – and a great post today.


Game theory

When I was a child, we never had game at home. No, I don’t mean Monopoly or Snap, but the likes of partridge or grouse or venison or rabbit. I have vague memories of a family Christmas visit to an elderly and frankly, barking, female parishoner for dinner, and I seem to recall that she served pheasant. But I don’t remember anything about it.

Watching cookery programmes in recent years, I’ve become increasingly interested in trying my culinary hand with game. So I’ve had a couple of attempts with rabbit (nothing spectacular) and an odd one of the game birds – including woodpigeon – plus venison and duck.

Thus far, duck is the only game bird that I’ve had real success with. Years ago, The Other Half and I would have a whole duck for Christmas – it was plenty for two. But we bored of that, not least after reaching the conclusion that there’s wasn’t much to duck legs, that you could buy two breasts for a lot less than whole bird and that they were easier to cook too.

It’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve discovered confit de canard – the most perfect way to use duck legs. And I’m currently trying to find a supplier in London of duck legs so that I can do my own (there are apparently as many ways to confit duck legs as there are people who do it) – or if that’s not possible, I’ll settle for a supplier of the ready-made thing, to be taken from their bed of fat and bunged in the oven until piping hot and the meat is simply flaking away from the bone.

Oh, confit de canard, served with potatoes dau-phinoise, may be the most fabulous comfort food in the whole world!
The one pictured was not bad – although not quite flaky enough for my taste – and was served at Café Rouge opposite the Lowry in Manchester just over a week ago.

That's a rather solid slab of potatoes dauphinoise that you can see with it. The glass of house red that went with it was, it should be noted, singularly poor and went unfinished.

That said, I’m also rather fond of magret de canard, where you get a pan scorchingly hot, score the duck skin on a breast, salt it and place, skin side down, in the pan: press down with a palette knife.

You don’t need to add any fat, because that’ll come streaming out of the skin within moments. Indeed, you’ll need to carefully tip some of the fat out after a while, using your palette knife to hold the meat in place while you do so.

Cook them that way for about 10 minutes and then turn and cook until the flesh is just brown, then flip back.

Some instructions say you should pop them in the oven then for around 10-15 minutes. I prefer my duck to be a little pink in the middle – and indeed, that’s the way I’ve always had it in France. But if you prefer it cooked more, then that’s easy enough to do.

To give you more of an idea, the website French Food and Cook gives 10 minutes skin side down, then five to eight minutes on the flesh side, before putting the meat somewhere warm and deglazing the pan with some cognac, which you then flambé, before adding sour cream and then popping the meat back in for two to three minutes.

I’d cut the cognac bit and just serve with something like redcurrant jelly – you really cannot go far wrong.

And then there’s venison. If memory serves, the first time I tried venison was around five years ago, when I did it for Christmas lunch, served with a chocolate sauce from a Gordon Ramsay book, which had to be started a day before when I made a beef stock to serve as the base. The chocolate works really well, by the way – although it does have to be proper chocolate (at least 75% cocoa solids) and not the sugar and dairy fat excuse that we call ‘chocolate’ in the UK.

And venison it will be tonight – fillet, to be seared in a hot pan: again, you want venison pink in the middle.

I’ll be serving it with a blackberry sauce, together with puréed potato and pear, mixed with crème fraîche and watercress, which has previously been warmed and puréed. And there’s probably be a few carrots on the side.

There’ll be good red wine too – possibly a bottle of Chocolate Block, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a hint of Viognier, from South Africa’s Western Cape. It’s not available in huge quantities, so I picked up all three remaining bottles in the John Lewis wine hall recently while I had the chance. It will complement the meat beautifully, I think.

A few years ago, we had a game stall on Broadway Market, but that ended tragically when the stall holder killed himself.

Just in time for the start of the new season, Andy Waugh has launched The Wild Game Co on the market, selling produce that’s “fresh from the Highlands”. I picked up the venison on Saturday and am contemplating pheasant in the near future.

But it struck me that, in the UK generally, we still seem to think of game as rather posh food.

Yet in France – and other parts of Europe – la chasse, hunting and then eating what you’ve caught, is still an accepted part of life; and not just life for ‘posh’ people.

So why is there such a difference?

Well, I suppose it’s a very long time since ‘ordinary’ Brits (certainly the English) hunted for food. Working class blood sports were frowned upon for a long time and banned, while aristocratic blood sports continued until relatively recently. It became very much a class thing.

But then too, in France there was never the kind of enclosure of land and the deliberate policy of deforestation to force people into ‘economically productive’ lives. One of the results in the UK has been a paucity of land on which ordinary people could hunt for food.

In the same way, we no longer have any real culture of foraging for food: across the Channel, many pharmacists have a sign in the window telling you that they’re qualified to say whether the mushrooms you’ve picked that morning are safe to eat.

One of the results seems to be a sense of divorce from food production – and from food. Of course it’s always going to be more the case in cities, but it was still something of a surprise (and yet not entirely) to read a survey a couple of years ago that revealed that many inner-city children do not realise that meat comes from an animal.

But then again, I’ve been in supermarkets and seen adults who cannot identify celery or rhubarb.

And then there’s the faddiness of our food culture: rabbit was one game animal that used to be enormously popular up to and through WWII – you’ll still hear older people raving about rabbit pie. Of course, the introduction of myxomatosis into the UK after the war didn’t help, but try getting rabbit from your butcher now.

It’s particularly surprising that game seems to be seen as such an exclusive food when you think that these islands seem to be rather rich in a wide variety of game.

But then again, we have tremendously rich seas with a vast variety of fish and shellfish, yet Britons notoriously eat a very, very limited range of what is available. We export vast amounts of spider crabs and monkfish, for instance, while many people will scarcely move beyond cod, despite its endangered status (until very recently) and the consequent high price.

Mind, herrings used to be popular – until shortages drove them off menus. There has been no return, thus far, in mass popularity in the UK since the humble herring recovered.

There’s cost, of course – or perhaps that’s more a case of perception of cost. I’ve had a pack of diced venison for a casserole that’s cost just £2.50. Nobody can call that expensive.

And then there’s the whole supermarket culture, where you’ll be lucky to find any game outside of Christmas, which if nothing else, belies the real length of the season and adds to a sense that game is an expensive luxury.

Still, whatever the reasons for game being viewed as such a luxury on these shores – and all this is just game theory, if you will – I for one am game for a bit of game!