Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Supermarkets: a new totalitarianism?

Just a few days ago, the city of Bristol saw rioting for the first time since the St Paul’s riots kicked off back in April 1980.

It wasn’t triggered by ncreasing racial tension, poor housing and alienation of black youth.

It didn’t start because of the government’s cuts to public services or as a wave of radical republicanism in the face of media hysteria about the impending marriage of the heir to the throne.

The cause was simply the scheduled opening of a new Tesco Express in an area of the city that is known for being a bit ‘counter culture’, which outraged commentators in the days since have told us really means People Who Take Drugs, which in turn neatly implies that the local reaction can simply be dismissed as having no justification.

But what on Earth would cause such a response to the opening of a small supermarket?


In 1950, supermarkets in the UK had approximately 20% of the country’s grocery shop, while independents and cooperatives had approximately 80%.

By 1990, in just 40 years, this was almost reversed.

In early 2007, when Joanna Blythman updated Shopped: the shocking power of Britain’s supermarkets (first edition, 2004), Tesco alone had 32% of the country’s total grocery shop.

In the interim, as independent businesses, farmers and other producers have gone out of business, the wide, natural variety of what we grow to eat in our own country has been massively reduced: which as anyone who knows that one of the central causes of the Irish Potato Famine was the dependence on a single type of potato will know, is not A Good Thing. And contrary to the claims of supermarkets’ defenders, it is not indicative of choice either.

For some time, many people have had the idea that there are problems with what has happened – phrases and words such as ‘clone town’, ‘trolley town’ and ‘Tescopoly’ have found their way into the language for a reason – but Blythman does a very good job of putting flesh on the bones of the sentiments that accompany such linguistic newcomers.

Over several years, the Competition Commission has made a number of attempts to uncover the truth about the relationships between the big supermarkets (those with a minimum of 8% of the nationwide market) and their suppliers, but it found that most were too fearful to talk, except under the protection of complete anonymity.

Blythman herself later found the same thing.

But the stories are the same, with the large multiples:

  • driving down the price paid to the producer (including farmers) – not once, but time and time and time again;

  • finding all sorts of ‘creative’ ways to hand costs back to the suppliers (such as handing back ordered goods after incorrect forecasting by the supermarkets of the quantities of a product required by the supermarkets themselves);

  • inding all sorts of ways to charge the producer for things (such as in-store promotions);

  • delisting suppliers for next to no proper reason with no proper warning;

  • refusing to give suppliers proper, written contracts.

  • Supermarket buyers regularly reject produce that is perfectly okay – cauliflowers that ‘are not white enough’ is just one example from an anonymous farmer, while Ginny Mayall, an organic farmer from Shropshire, is quoted as telling BBC Good Food magazine that she was informed by a supermarket that she supplied that they wanted bigger potatoes. So she planted some. Then they said the potatoes were too big – and rejected them. It cost her £30,000 at a stroke. They were fed to cattle.

    And all this is without mentioning the issue of quality. We may already know that supermarkets are obsessed with the cosmetic appearance of fresh produce over its taste – the Elsanta strawberry is a perfect illustration of this – but the book contains plenty of further illustrations, from tasteless but visually ‘perfect’ tomatoes to experiments to breed any russet out of Cox apples.

    And then there are the suppliers who have been specifically told to cut quality – because it’s too expensive.

    Producers in the developing world fare no better than those over here.

    But Blythman also explores the issue of the damage that supermarkets have done to our culinary heritage and to our ability to cook or even understand food.

    In 2003, Tesco’s own press department issued – with a breathtaking lack of self-awareness – the news that only 17% of those aged between 21 and 35 had heard of common cuts such as briskets and loin, let alone knew what to do with them; those aged between 36 and 50 did better with 68%, but the 51 to 70-year olds came out tops by some way.

    It’s hardly any surprise. As Blythman points out, younger shoppers have had less chance to experience independent butchers (ones with staff that actually know something about the full range of cuts, unlike supermarket staff who tend to be bumped from department to department and have very little such knowledge).

    Supermarkets do not employ – as a general rule – properly trained butchers (or fishmongers). Blythman’s own experiments in stores around the UK reveal that it’s difficult to get anything other than what is already on display, and almost never anyone who could prepare a cut for you.

    This is just one illustration of how the claim that supermarkets provide choice is a myth. They provide what they want to provide.

    Supermarkets, she points out, deliberately stock primarily prime cuts. And they also deliberately stock lots and lots of ready-made meals. There’s a reason for this – or rather, a number of reasons.

    The book quotes suppliers explaining that supermarkets don’t actually like dealing with fresh produce: it has a limited shelf life and is delicate, for starters. But it’s also nowhere near as profitable as a product that has had ‘valued added’.

    It’s easy to see why ready meals have such added value – you can charge a lot more for something that’s actually rather small than you could for the individual ingredients. Indeed, I’ve shown this in a previous article here.

    But perhaps the most farcical example that the author provides is that of Sainsbury’s, which took the original convenience food, the apple, sliced it, dipped it in a vitamin C solution and bagged it in those pillow bags that contain modified air to, in this case, stop the flesh of the apple going brown. And then charged double the cost of an apple for it, marketing it as a convenience food.

    Does any of this matter?

    Well, the UK has the lowest food bills in Europe. Our food buying is dominated by supermarkets (that 80%) to an extent that does not occur elsewhere in Europe: elsewhere, supermarkets are more of a compliment to independent shops – not a one-stop replacement.

    We have greater, and rising, obesity – including amongst children – than anywhere else in Europe. The only place that is comparable in the West is the US, which also has rising obesity and a shopping landscape dominated by big supermarkets and one vast one.

    Any coincidence?


    But here we hit a little problem.

    If we start saying that, for instance, the treated apple is just a rip off, then are we also not also deriding the intelligence of the shoppers that fall for such marketing?

    In 2004, Dominic Prince, writing in the Spectator, conducted his own experiment. Buying the same basket of goods from a market and independent shops as from his nearest Tesco, he found that the latter cost him 42.98% more. Every little helps. He also concluded that several items from the supermarket were of inferior taste.

    “We are all being done,” he wrote. “We are being misled, brainwashed, cheated and we don’t even know it’s happening.”

    In the same month, an investigation by the Sunday Times found that supermarket shoppers, buying in bigger sizes in the belief that it saved money were actually paying up to 30% for the same product in smaller quantities. It found a ‘bulk penalty’ at Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Safeway, Tesco and Asda.

    It’s no sneering to point out this con – and that is precisely what it is. The only argument that can be made for knowingly paying higher prices for ready meals is the time convenience factor.

    If fewer and fewer people really know how to cook from scratch, it’s doubtful that many would attempt to claim that as some sort of progress. Yet clearly is of benefit to supermarkets.


    But we've touched on the issue of the US, so let's look a little more closely at that and specifically at Wal-Mart – the US supermarket giant that also now owns Asda in the UK and has outlets around the world and growing (a model that Tesco is attempting to follow).

    In The Wall-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman (2006), the author finds many of the same issues that Blythman details in her work.

    He finds, like her, that the opening of supermarkets brings about the closures of smaller business over the course of the first years after opening.

    He found a survey that showed that Wal-Mart causes increased poverty in areas that it opens in.

    Wal-Mart’s downward pressure on prices pushes companies out of business and jobs out of the US. It also, Fishman concludes, teaches us a false way of thinking about cost in relation to quality.

    If Wal-Mart can sell you a $99 lawnmower, which fails to start the following year, you can just chuck it out and buy another. Why would you spend nearly $300 to buy a Snapper machine that will last for years?

    If Wal-Mart persuades Levi Strauss to make cheaper jeans to sell in its stores (Levi Strauss agreed to this because it was losing business to Wal-Mart’s ultra-cheap jeans), then what does that do to our understanding of quality and the cost of real quality?

    How many people now accept this as a routine way of buying white goods? No longer do we expect something to last for years, but pretty much accept that it will last less time than a similar product a few decades ago, and then we’ll simply buy a new one when it breaks down (and there is nowhere to get it repaired and no longer any parts being made with which to repair it).

    It’s not a particularly environmentally sound approach, never mind the long-term financial cost to ourselves. It doesn’t actually take very long before those $99 lawnmowers cost us more than a real investment purchase would have.

    But then again, decisions taken in the UK and US in the 1980s to de-industrialise and switch to a service economy mean that retail now has considerably increased importance to the national economy (there’s a reason that quarterly retail figures make the news headlines these days and that cheap credit has been made so widely available).

    We need to spend – it’s almost our patriotic duty. Indeed, only last autumn, a senior figure at the Bank of England urged us on to the high streets to spend, rather than saving our money (with negligible interest). Who’d a thunk it?

    But in a way, our spending is still not quite enough. The reason that the likes of Tesco and Wal-Mart cannot stand still, cannot say, ‘okay, we’re making enough profit, we don’t need to open ever more stores’ is that if they do that, their share price will be hit. They need to grow for the Stock Market.

    So when these behemoths drive other, independent businesses to the wall, it doesn’t matter economically. Unlisted businesses could almost be viewed as economically inactive: clearing them out of the way as the listed giants take their business is like today’s version of the enclosures, driving the self-sufficient into the industrialising urban areas to make them ‘economically active’.

    They are the insignificant collateral damage of the growing might of a handful of mega corporations.


    I suspect I’m not alone in having entertained a rather naïve idea that supermarkets, while far from ideal, were ultimately really rather benign. But that charge for growth – at any human or environmental cost – is far from benign.

    But as cultural commentator Jonathan Meades put it in his review of Blythman’s book, she “demonstrates the proof of what many of us have long suspected – that supermarkets practice a douchly tyrannical form of totalitarianism”.

    If you think of totalitarianism as control over the total, then it becomes clearer what he means.

    This is a new stage of capitalism, made possible by the de-industrialisation, deregulation and globalism that were paramount in the political and economic ideology of the 1980s, an ideology that has, for the moment, become the orthodoxy: ‘there is no alternative’.

    Fishman is nobody’s leftie: he wants to believe in Wal-Mart as an all-American success story; as shining with what he considers to be great American values. But there is great discomfort in his story as he uncovers the truth behind the low, low prices that he and others pay in stores.

    Just over a week ago, The Other Half and I dined with neighbours, one of whom is a Romanian who escaped from the Ceaușescu regime. Her family also got out, and many of them made their way to the US, where she visits them regularly.

    It was intriguing to hear her describe how she sees the US as being very similar to the Romania she fled. For instance, the culture of absolute dedication to the company – not least because of the fear of losing your health insurance (if you’re lucky enough to have any) – is something she sees as a form of totalitarianism.

    And perhaps one only needs to think of company towns to take that analogy further. Indeed, in many places, Wal-Mart is the largest employer in an area.

    How can you fight against it?


    In Bristol, campaigners against the new Tesco pointed out that there was already one a few minutes walk away.

    They got petitions signed (with substantial majorities of signatories against the new store). They did a survey that showed the same response. They took the legal route to objecting.

    But councils, as Blythman shows, are terrified of saying no to a supermarket giant. They’re terrified because they know that the supermarkets don’t believe in taking no for an answer. They keep coming back, appealing and appealing again, costing councils hundreds of thousands of pounds – money that councils would really rather not spend.

    And if they have to sweeten the deal with promises of a few flats or a new sports stadium, then they have the financial power to do exactly that, just as they have the financial power to crush prices.

    In chasing after the benefits (for their profits) of ‘economies of scale’, the biggest of these corporations have lost any human dimension.

    As both Blythman and Fishman point out, it’s not even as though shopping in these industrialised big boxes is even a pleasant experience.

    Blythman’s book is deeply depressing. Fishman’s is not much better, even though he desperately wants to have his faith in Wal-Mart renewed.

    But as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says of the former: “Don’t read it and weep. Read it and change the way you shop”.

    • You can find out more at Tescopoly.

    Sunday, 24 April 2011

    Getting passionate about meatballs

    I love meatballs. There are no two ways about it – I love them: it's as simple as that.

    And not just because meatballs are great food – which they are – but because it was one of the first things that I really felt that I could make well.

    That was thanks to a recipe that my friend George gave me: a version involving paprika and sherry, and with the nuggets of tastiness cooked together in their sauce with small potatoes.

    I've tried other versions since and those too have worked, and I still regularly cook that Spanish-style one. But tonight, it was meatballs with a tomato sauce and pasta, and for the first time, it was cooked without as much as a single glance at a recipe book and absolutely no recourse to the scales or a jug or anything else to measure with.

    So, here's what I did.

    For two people:

    Take around 150g of pork mince and 150g beef mince. To these add, one thick slice of stale bread that has had the crusts removed and been blitzed into breadcrumbs.

    Add a good teaspoon or two of paprika and around the same of dried oregano.

    Meatballs don't need to have egg added – this is a myth (and the same goes for burgers too). Thankfully, this was a hint that George included with that recipe and it's never served me wrong. After mixing together the ingredients, keep your hands just moist and roll into balls about the size of a walnut. The above quantities gave me 10 and a baby one.

    Gently heat some butter in a large sauté pan. When it's starting to foam and you can smell that lovely aroma, add the meatballs. Don't move them around; let them caramelise. When one part is done, turn them gently and so on, until they've got a lovely, golden surface. Remove to a plate.

    Next, add a chopped onion, a chopped stick of celery and a finely chopped clove or two of garlic to the pan and soften gently. If you need it, add a little more butter or some olive oil, although apparently it's also a myth that adding olive oil stops the butter burning – but that's why you need to go gently (thank you, Raymond Blanc).

    When all this has softened, add a tin of plum tomatoes (preferably ones in their own juice). If you only have a tin of complete ones in the cupboard, just cut them up roughly in the pan.

    Rinse the tin out with hot water and add that (no need to waste that juice and no need for any stock). Check the taste and add salt as required. Grind in plenty of black pepper, add some more paprika and a little touch of dried chili, then a good squeeze of tomato purée.

    Next up, a glug of milk – yes, you read that right. Tinned tomatoes are great – no less a culinary luminary than Escoffier championed them – but they can be a touch acidic, so the milk will counter that, and you won't even notice it. Finally, a teaspoon of brown sugar.

    Stir it all gently – and taste again – bring to the boil and add the meatballs. Cover and turn the heat down to a minimum. Give it 20 minutes.

    Then cook your pasta. I used linguine, with a recommended cooking time of 11 minutes. But since visiting Italy last year, the realisation has dawned that such timings do not actually produce pasta as you find it there. It might be supposed to be al dente, but in Italian reality, that doesn't seem to mean what is produced when you cook something for the time listed on the packet. Or not in my experience.

    So it needs a minute or three more. While that's happening, take the lid off the meatballs and sauce, and turn up the heat.

    Take a colander and rinse it under hot water before decanting the pasta in it to drain. Plate up the pasta.

    By this time, the sauce will be velvety smooth, with chunky bits. Blanc says not to cut onion two finely if you don't want it to melt away but to give you some texture.

    And that is that.

    The meatballs were light and the sauce full of layers of flavour – the paprika really adds something. That was a darned good dish.

    And if I loved meatballs before, I think it's even more the case now. Because cooking like this – without a recipe, without scales – is what Nigel Slater talks about. Now, finally, with some real knowledge and understanding, and some experience, I can cook with passion rather than simply by rote.

    Friday, 22 April 2011

    A dish full of spring flavours

    After such a long winter and with spring barely seeming to have sprung, we now seem to have leapfrogged most of the latter and landed straight in to the summer.

    So the start of the Easter weekend meant a need to consider far lighter food than one might, just a few short weeks ago, have expected.

    Perhaps it was predictable that, on a bank holiday, I woke barely half an hour later than I would for a working day. And once awake, there was no going back to sleep again.

    So the coffee was brewed and Jamie’s Italy was dragged off the shelf in the hope of finding inspiration.

    It followed after only a limited amount of pleasant browsing. A risotto.

    Now, regular readers of this blog will possibly be a bit surprised at that, since I’m something of a risotto fan, but I’d spotted an idea for a really fresh, seasonal version of a dish that seems infinite in its versatility.

    This dish used artichoke hearts, lemon and mint.

    I had been meaning to go to Borough Market, but since that wasn’t due to open until noon, I pottered up to Broadway Market first with the aim of getting a few basics in. And it soon became clear that I could buy everything I needed today right there.

    So, to the risotto. I didn’t follow Oliver’s recipe to the letter, using it as a general guide.

    Take a large shallot and a stick of celery and chop them finely. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan and pop the vegetables in to soften.

    To this was added a few finely chopped cloves of fresh garlic: lovely stuff.

    Pop some stock (chicken or vegetable) in a saucepan and bring it to the boil.

    When the vegetables are softened, add your risotto rice (I used around two small handfuls for two people – you don’t need a lot, just around 45g per serving) and let it absorb the oil.

    Then add a glug of booze – Noilly Pratt or Vermouth are perfect. It’ll fizz and hiss and give off the most glorious aromas.

    Let that absorb and then start adding the bubbling stock, a ladle at a time. You don’t have to stir every single minute, but you do need to keep an eye on it.

    Check the seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed.

    When that stock has been absorbed, add another ladle and keep on doing that until the rice has reached its capacity.

    Now at this point, I usually give it up to 10 minutes with a lid on the pan and the heat turned down.

    I had quartered four artichoke hearts from the deli and added these, along with a squeeze of lemon juice and some grated zest before doing just that, so that the ‘chokes had the time to warm through.

    Once that’s done, add butter. I usually add a spoon of crème fraïche, but it struck me that, with the sharpness of the lemon, some sweetness would be a good balance.

    Then all that remains is to tear some fresh mint into the mix, give it a gentle stir, and serve.

    And that really is rather good.

    Thursday, 21 April 2011

    Off to the Fens

    It has been a crazy week – brilliant in many ways, but nonetheless crazy.

    And while there hasn’t been much to report on the food front, the time has not been without its moments on that score.

    Having said farewell to the old offices last Wednesday and recovered with an asparagus-hunting trip to Borough Market on Thursday, Friday brought a new challenge on the work front.

    My mission for the day was to catch a train to Peterborough, meet up with shadow chancellor Ed Balls, follow (and observe) while he hit the campaigning trail and my photographer photographed, then get in a car to Kings Lynn with him, his assistant and a driver – this offering the longest time available to do an actual interview for one of UNISON’s journals.

    An hour later, after crossing into the flat country of a region I’ve never seen before, past farms with hand-painted, roadside signs offering asparagus for sale, we were in Kings Lynn itself. It might not have quite been The West Wing, but the interview was in the bag; the experience had been an interesting and pleasant one. But it was just turned 2pm and food was required.

    Two sizable streets lead away from the square where we’d pulled in. One was Clone Town, but the other was a step back into times long gone. Running parallel to the river Ouse, as it wends its way gently to The Wash, it includes an arts centre and two or three eateries.

    Finding a restaurant I liked the look of – it served a tart with local brown shrimps – I was stymied by the discovery that many such independent places close at 2pm. Which is entirely fair enough.

    I wandered down the shopping street, looking for anything that didn’t represent Clone Town. There were maybe three shops I spotted, including a small cookshop, which actually provided me with a decent sized piping bag and the largest, plain nozzle I’ve been able to find. But the only obvious places for fodder were fast food joints. I wasn’t actually on the verge of collapsing from starvation.

    And so, as I wandered, I found myself back at the far end of the first street I’d explored.

    Once more at the arts centre, I decided that the café there would simply have to do. In the event, it offered the promise of a “Norfolk ploughmans,” which seemed ideal.

    The menu said that it came with either Stilton, Cheddar or ham. I asked which of these was the most local – it did describe itself as a Norfolk dish, after all. The waitress seemed slightly confused. The ham, she told me, was from a local butcher, who seemed (if I understood her correctly) to either have a farm or get his meat from a local one.

    The Stilton obviously wasn’t local. The Cheddar possibly, if it was simply a reference to the process of cheddaring. I asked if I could have a little of each of the ham and Cheddar.

    I knew she was slightly thrown by my question because I overheard her, a moment or two later, commenting to a colleague. It simply wasn’t a question they’d heard before.

    In the event, the ham was a little dry but very tasty and the cheese wasn’t bad at all. The real revelation was the salad, which was tasty and impeccably fresh. In other words, worth eating. And the pickle was enjoyable too.

    Thus sustained, I set off to find the railway station and head back to town.

    It was a journey that dragged a tad, on a slowish train with few carriages and lots of passengers – several of whom seemed to think that holding a personal conversation on their mobile phone, loudly, is a good idea.

    I spotted a number of birds, however, as we sped through the countryside. A grouse and a pheasant, I think – both at the edge of fields, near hedges and trees. And Ely's cathedral looked incredible.

    But as we crawled back into the dismal mess that is currently King’s Cross station, and I fought through crowds and building work to get outside, desperate to get home and flop in front of the telly, it was with a nagging feeling that perhaps the country isn’t as bad as unattractive as I’ve thought for many years.

    Thursday, 14 April 2011

    Bring on the asparagus

    Sat on a wall at Borough Market, late this morning, quaffing fruit juice and with the sort of feeling that you imagine is reserved for children on Christmas morning, it dawned on me that this was the sort of moment that renders the idea of ‘seasonality’ as a mere affectation utterly groundless.

    In the shopping bag next to me were a small bag of Jersey Royals and two bundles of English asparagus.

    I’d felt the same utter delight last year after a fruitful search for the same items. I knew, then and there, how they would be cooked. I knew too, how much they would be enjoyed. And on both occasions, they came with a joyful sense that the long, dark winter was truly behind us

    And so much of that pleasure comes from the wait; the long months without such culinary jewels.

    Setting aside any ethical issues (and there are a few) of buying imported asparagus, if you ate it throughout the year, why would you feel any such pleasure at the start of the English season?

    Surely the only coherent reason would be that you knew that asparagus grown here has less distance to travel and is fresher. And, therefore, tastes a deal better.

    In which case, why bother eating the imported product for the rest of the year?

    Seasonality gives us these real pleasures. It gives us a sense of time and place. It helps to give us a sense of rootedness; of belonging.

    Asparagus – or to give it it’s proper name asparagus officinals – is a cousin of the alliums, onions and garlic, and has been used as a medicine and vegetable for thousands of years: it features on an Egyptian frieze dating back to 3,000BC.

    Indeed, there’s a recipe for cooking it in the oldest surviving recipe book, De re coquinaria, Book III, written by Apicius in the third century AD.

    But the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans not only ate it fresh when in season, they also dried asparagus for use in winter.

    In many places, white asparagus is more popular then the green that we’re familiar with. In Germany, spargel is a delicacy that is celebrated with relish throughout the short season: restaurants add special extra menus to make the most of it.

    My menu for this evening was as simple as possible. I may get experimental as the season develops, but at this stage, I want my asparagus to be pretty much neat.

    So, the potatoes were scraped and then boiled whole.

    Some farmed salmon fillet was placed in a small sauté pan with a little Vermouth and a couple of bay leaves, lidded and left on a low heat for around 10 minutes. And those glorious green spears were carefully snapped and then laid into a pan with boiled water for four minutes.

    Actually, they could have done with a minute less. Every year, it’s as though I have to learn again exactly how little cooking asparagus needs. But the taste was wonderful.

    The only thing I added was a lemon butter: grated zest, mixed into unsalted butter, rolled in a little foil and bunged in the freezer to firm up.

    Nothing else was required at all.

    • You can find out more, including recipes, at British Asparagus.

    Plus, grilled asparagus and hollandaise, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall asparagus recipes.

    Tuesday, 12 April 2011

    The best laid plans of mice and cooks …

    There were plans for Monday night – food plans. The reduction of a small amount of Sunday’s chicken stock, with the addition of a couple of things, including fresh orange juice and zest, and tarragon, which would act as a dressing for some of the cold chicken.

    That was going to be served with new potatoes (possibly roasted and crushed with oodles of garlic) and some fine beans that I found on Broadway Market on Saturday – the first English ones of the year.

    But it came to pass that, only a short while before my scheduled departure from the office, the word want out that our presence was required in the bar at 5.15pm.

    Now, this was, to say the least, unusual, since the staff social club’s bar only opens on Tuesdays to Fridays. What was going on?

    You may recall that the bar, in its current incarnation, is nearly at an end, as we ready ourselves to move into a new building, where a café bar will be run in the early evenings, not by volunteer bar staff, but by the same people who run the staff ‘deli’.

    Tomorrow night is the final, FINAL hurrah, but since several of the regulars are, even now, en route to a brief sojourn in Sicily (hopefully not to run into any dodgy Godfather types), Monday provided the sole remaining opportunity for a final get together – on the pretext of making presentations to Sam and Ben, the club treasurer and chief bar steward.

    That the book club were also meeting to discuss their reading for the past month, while assorted national executive committee members also popped in over the course of the evening ensured it was a lively affair.

    But by the time we got home, I was hardly much inclined to much in the way of food prep – buttering two slices of bread, slapping a load of cold chicken in between them and sprinkling with salt (chicken sandwiches absolutely require additional salting) was the height of culinary endeavour.

    Tonight, because this is the first of two planned final bashes, I have no concrete plans. We shall just have to see.

    But in the meantime, if any of you are curious enough, here is a little pictoral homage to the almost-closed-for-the-last-time bar, as appeared this afternoon on the blog of our club icon, Colin.

    It may explain why Cloud Nine will be missed. Or then again, it may not!

    Monday, 11 April 2011

    Weather to warm up the pleasure muscle

    A whisper of cloud in the blue and the sun warming the body, all the way to the bone. Bright pink blossom waving gently in the merest of breezes. It was a glorious weekend.

    Not that the enjoyment in our neck of the woods was limited to me and The Other Half alone: the cats were thrilled to bits too. The kittens went scatty both mornings, as we sat outside with coffee, relishing the peacefulness.

    Otto made several dashes up one fence into next door’s garden, which seems to be her Schleswig-Holstein. Loki too was full of wild-eyed mischief. Next time, I’m naming cats something like ‘Fluffy’. Boudicca, by and large, remained aloof.

    I took the chance to sit out with them, finishing Joanne Harris’s Chocolat, which I’ve now read at least three times.

    It’s a wonderful book – and one that reveals new things every time I pick it up.

    This time, I was particularly aware of the idea of having to stop running from the past before you can move forward. Both Vianne and Reynaud are in this situation, as well as Josephine. The question – and it remains at the end – is whether any or all of them can do this.

    As always, it makes me cry in a number of places – and yet this is a deeply life-affirming novel, and one that celebrates pleasure (including food) and life itself.

    In ways that I had not seen before, it seemed much more personal than on previous readings, bringing to my own somewhat nomadic childhood and the impact that that (along with other things) influenced.

    But lifting the theme of food from it, this was a chance to build on Thursday’s development of taste and looks.

    Because I was running low on stock, Saturday was a day for roast chicken. The bird was stuffed and cooked as per the River Café East Two recipe I use (three hours on a low heat, then half an hour on high, with Vermouth added for the final stretch and butter massaged into the skin).

    The weather was so utterly fabulous and summery that it was also the perfect time for a salad of courgette, sliced into thin ribbons and dressed with honey, lemon juice, olive oil, seasoning and tarragon leaves. It’s a lovely light and fragrant dish.

    I also did Provençal tomatoes. These were big, beefy fruits, halved, de-seeded and dried out carefully, then sprinkled with a mixture of salt, pepper, nutmeg and sugar before being filled with a layer of finely chopped shallots and topped with masses of fresh, fragrant herbs and garlic, also finely chopped.

    They go into a hot pan, skin side down, for two minutes, and then you throw in a slug of wine or stock or water. Turn the heat down, lid the pan and leave for 10 minutes.

    Take a spoon and a palate knife and carefully turn them, keeping the shape and the filling in place as much as possible. Add a drop more liquid if required. Lid the pan again and cook for a further 10 minutes.

    Now mine had rather collapsed on Saturday (hence the absence from the photo), but they’re still seriously tasty.

    And as a garnish, I’d more aïoli and also some tapanade, which brought plenty more big flavours to the plate.

    That was followed by a rhubarb syllabub, which freshened things up again.

    There is pleasure in eating food and there is pleasure is cooking it. And this was a day when the very weather gave an enormous dose of pleasure too.

    Friday, 8 April 2011

    Godless, but unafraid of the vampires

    On a glorious evening, I let myself into the flat last night to find that usual junk mail included an eight-page leaflet that told me, in no uncertain terms, that this could not be a happy home.

    A ‘happy home’, apparently, requires the hand of God in bringing a couple together in the first place (not lust or transitory pleasure: shucks); marriage is de rigueur, together with commitment to God (and actually being Christians), submission by the woman to the man, submission by the children to the parents …

    Those who do not fulfil these criteria are, I’m afraid, doomed to the misery of the ‘unhappy home’.

    You get the gist. This delightful little item had no return address on it, although it had been produced by some group in the US.

    I think the very anonymity of whomsoever had paid to have it delivered (it can’t have been part of a mail drop paid for from the US, surely?) was what made me feel infintely more offended by it than I usually am by religious tracts, which simply go straight into the recycling crate, unread, along with the glossy fliers for pizza deliveries.

    Someone wants to condemn others for what they perceive as immoral behaviour, leading – they conclude with utter certainty – to an unhappy condition, yet they lack the courage of their own convictions and do not say who they are.

    So in a spirit of obvious misery, I donned my chef’s apron, put some music on and set about preparing a meal to lay before my non-spousal Other Half, in the hope that it might win me the odd brownie point with the Flying Spaghetti Monster (that’s the one dancing around on the other side of the sun with a giant chocolate teapot – not The Other Half).

    After he had arrived back on Wednesday evening from a working sojourn in Liverpool, I’d come up with a dinner of pan-fried pigeon breasts, a mix of sautéed diced potato and croutons, some cannellini beans, artichoke hearts and a sort of jus of the meat juices and some raspberry vinegar.

    Now it was tasty enough and, thinking about it, there was a reasonably decent variety of textures. But something about it left me dissatisfied.

    Only yesterday did it dawn on me what the source of that was. The dark meat aside, everything was actually pretty colourless to look at, while it all looked a bit messy on the plate.

    Now since I had guessed (correctly) that The Other Half would not have eaten fish while away – much less some oily fish – salmon was on yesterday's menu.

    But what to do with it?

    Last weekend, I’d seen some fresh garlic for sale on Broadway Market and, in a fit of excitement, bough two bulbs. Never having actually used the stuff before, they went into the fridge to wait until I had a clue.

    Browsing around the food section of the Guardian’s website, I’d come across a recipe for ‘wet and wild garlic risotto’.

    Now, I didn’t follow this exactly, but used my own usual method, simply starting off with a couple of chopped shallots, two cloves of dried garlic (the stuff we’re primarily familiar with) and most of a bulb of the fresh variety.

    Then, with less rice than usual for a main course, it was routine. After about 20 minutes, I lidded the pan, turned down the heat and left it, while the fish part poached-part steamed.

    But while I was doing my original preparation, I had peeled another four cloves of garlic. Two were chopped finely and went into a gremolata, together with a good handful of chopped parsley and some lemon zest.

    The other two went through the crusher, to be mixed into a paste with a little salt and then whisked with an egg yolk before virgin oil was drizzled in to make aïoli. I have to confess that quite a lot of this was eaten straight after being mixed – such a fabulous taste.

    I made both of these up before I started on the risotto, and since all the basic ingredients for that had been prepped at the same time and were in a dish, waiting, it suggested a rare level of kitchen organisation.

    As the fish neared readiness, it was the matter of a moment to add a spoon of crème fraîche to the rice and let that warm back up.

    But so to the presentation bit. Now that I’ve got chef’s rings, it makes doing rice really easy. You can, however, quite easily use a buttered cup: pack the rice in and then carefully turn it onto the plate and tap the bottom of the cup.

    I made a thick line of gremolata on each plate, put the fish at an angle across that and then drizzled the beautiful, yellowy-green aïoli over that.

    Now it’s easy when you do something like this to start to realise just what an art form in its own right is plating up – it wasn't perfect, but it looked so much better than the previous night’s dish.

    And the taste was up there too. The garlic risotto was beautifully delicate and fragrant. The fish was quite mild (it was farmed), but the sauces gave fabulous bursts of very different flavours to the whole, and with garlic as a theme running throughout.

    God might not be impressed to realise that I don’t think I’m unhappy – indeed, that cooking and eating that meal gave me real pleasure – but I suspect I need not fear any vampires for a couple of days at least.

    Tuesday, 5 April 2011

    The end of an era

    Well, last night’s Italian experiment – a dish combining fennel and lambs’ kidneys – didn’t really produce a sense of culinary excitement, so there isn’t really much to report on that front.

    If I manage to cook much this evening, it’ll be late and simple: in other words, probably pasta.

    The reason for this is that after a little swap to help out a fellow bar steward, I have a shift in the staff bar this evening. Not just any old shift, though: my final full shift before we all move to a bright and shiny new building with a café-bar that will be run by the same people that currently run the ‘deli bar’ here and will running a rather more ambitious food service over the road.

    The new kitchens are incredible – I had a chance to look around a couple of weeks ago. And it will certainly give the team vastly improved facilities. Having just a single hob at present is ridiculous.

    But I remain sceptical, and not vastly encouraged by scatty little back-slapping comments on a company Facebook page about the new ovens meaning that they can bake bread and cakes: for goodness sake, they cannot currently ensure that the slices in a bag of factory bread are not stale when they get them out to make a sandwich! And they spread pizza bases with marg – a piece of knowledge that makes me tremble in horror every time I recall it!

    I feel a kind of guilt complaining about the canteen, because I don’t want to seem to be ‘nasty’ to the staff, who are themselves close to being colleagues.

    But that’s actually rather poor, because however well-meaning and pleasant they themselves are, the service that they provide is generally pretty dismal. I did raise much of this in a survey that I mentioned here last year, but have had no feedback on that and have seen no indication of positive change.

    And it’s not just me. A colleague observed earlier today that she won’t even have a basic sandwich from there now as they’re so poor, even when made in front of you, while another colleague noted recently that, if one of the staff goes to open a new bag of bread to make him a sandwich, he asks for the third and fourth slices down in order to avoid the stale ones that invariably seem to be at the top.

    If things really do not improve, then complaining will have to happen.

    But back to my bar shift. I may have an odd hour to do next week when we bid our final farewells to the bar with a couple of big socials, but this is the last time that I will spend three and a half hours (if I have customers!) playing my choice of music.

    This is often an eclectic selection, ranging from pop/rock at the beginning of an evening, when I’m more conscious of what the majority will appreciate, to show songs as sobriety recedes and bursts of Wagner, played loud, as an aid to clearing the place at closing time.

    For anyone who has not been visiting this part of cyberspace long, here’s a little description of a typical Friday night in the bar. It gives a useful flavour, I think.

    So we will miss the place – and have to find ways to put our stamp of bonkerness on to the blank, corporate space that awaits.

    In the meantime, tonight I shall blast the air full of a variety of tunes – including some that possibly should be classed as ‘guilty pleasures’. But I shall do so with nary a note of embarrassment – armed with a bottle of proper Czech Budvar close to hand.

    Monday, 4 April 2011

    An Italian job

    It is one of those strange things that I find myself thinking of whole cuisines in terms of the season. Mediterranean food is, of course, not for the colder months.

    Now okay, on that basis, I knew little of Spanish food until our first visit, around six years ago and at a time of year that was pleasantly warm, but I’ve been eating pasta since God was on the verge of getting the keys to the front door, without any sense of that being only for sunny days.

    But with the weather lightening and my body demanding different food, Saturday morning brought with it an urge to pull A Taste of Italy down off the shelf and dip in.

    The first idea came from beyond those pages – from memories of Venice, indeed: lamb chops, grilled and served with lemon.

    For some reason, I’d never really thought about that as pairing, but since having lamb chops served that way, I love it.

    So the big question was what to serve with it?

    Browsing through the aforementioned book, I noticed something I’d not spotted before: Arancini di riso. In essence, balls of saffron risotto, breadcrumbed and deep fried.

    ‘Interesting,’ I thought. And The Other Half seemed to react in the same way when the book was shoved under his nose to solicit an opinion.

    So that was all decided. I also intended to do artichoke hearts in a viniagrette as a first course – very Italian – but not veg from the olive stall. I tried preparing artichokes a couple of years ago – and ended up with nothing.

    The risotto was easy enough to make: the usual base, with thyme and saffron added. And obviously you need to make it pretty thick and gloopy. Then it sits for a while to cool.

    It’s a messy business shaping the risotto mixture into balls and then rolling in breadcrumbs, but not particularly difficult. I popped the plate into the fridge then to let them firm up a bit.

    Then it’s simply a question of heating oil and giving them around four minutes to cook before decanting onto greaseproof paper and serving as quickly as possible.

    The chops were simply grilled until the fat was beautifully crisp.

    By the time I’d seen just how many of the Arancini di riso there were, I decided to forget the artichokes.

    The chops were lovely – and so were the little risotto balls. Crisp on the outside and lovely and soft inside. Traditionally, when you’re rolling the rice into a ball, you poke your finger into it to make a little hole, before filling that with a piece of cheese and covering over with more rice (which reminds me of a German potato dish where you stuff a crouton inside a potato dumpling before cooking it).

    But I did without this since The Other Half doesn’t do cheese – and, whenever challenged by people about this idiosyncrasy, points out, at length, that it’s milk that’s gone off and why would you eat that.

    Later, it was a question simply of serving some fruit with more of the previous evening’s white chocolate mousse and caramel sauce.

    Yesterday, since he was leaving in mid-afternoon for a conference in Liverpool, I’d planned to use more of the pastry that I’d made on Friday for another tart. I’d already got some finely chopped shallot, leek and tenderstem broccoli cooking gently when he announced that, with time having simply rushed past, he’d have a quick bacon butty.

    I finished the tart after he’d gone, with eggs and milk and seasoning and – after the realisation that this was mine, all mine! – some Stilton.

    Around 40 minutes later, it came out of the oven, all lovely a golden and smelling gorgeous. And there was a double delight too, as it dawned on me that whatever was left over would do for a packed lunch today – thus my great problem was solved (at least for one day), with only the addition this morning of a few anchovy-stuffed olives.

    And the Italian theme will continue tonight – but that’s another experiment and another story!

    Friday, 1 April 2011

    Don't panic! Everything's back to 'normal'

    After yesterday's culinary shocker (and although it was posted today, it was written and is dated for Thursday so no, it wasn't an April fool!), today has seen the restoration of some sort of order.

    A day's TOIL offered the chance for some serious kitchen time – and a good stretch of the legs: a walk to the vet at Dalston was required to purchase anti-flea treatments. The local squirrel population seems to have boomed and they've started appearing in the gardens of the block of flats we live in, leaving behind a very itchy present for the girls, who don't really appreciate it.

    Otto has been squeaking at me in desperation, so it had to be done. Given the squirrel situation, I bought two treatments – so that's four applications, to be administered once every five weeks. Bloody hell: it's not cheap. And as always, it makes me think just what life would be like without proper social healthcare for humans in the UK.

    Which was apt, since today saw campaigning against government plans to privatise the NHS and leave it simply as a commissioning agency.

    Now I'm not one to cast aspersions, so it's obviously a complete coincidence that Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has been funded for some years by private healthcare companies. Or that he gave an interview in the US a couple of years ago wherein he stated that the NHS was the worst thing to happen to the UK. Which is going some.

    My father would disagree – even as a raving Tory: but then his belief in the importance of social medicine has foundation in just what the NHS has done for him over many, many years. Given his medical history, it is difficult to imagine that, even from a minimum of 30 years ago, any insurance company would have taken him on. And one could actually throw that back even further.

    He's a funny sod: a Tory, as I said (although he seriously dislikes David Cameron and has reined back on his adoration of Margaret Thatcher as her legacy becomes clear), but yet loves to report how Michael Stewart, the one-time Labour MP for Fulham, where we lived for three years when I was a young child, apparently used to say he was more of a socialist than Stewart.

    But let's move on.

    After my walk, I lunched on sautéed courgette and lightly boiled tenderstem broccoli, with Feta and a dressing of virgin oil, fresh lemon juice and course salt. And thus revived it was time for some serious cooking.

    I'm not entirely sure what had motivated me to think that making a white chocolate mousse was a good idea, only a few short days after tasting such a superb one, but a browse through the spring section of Gordon Ramsey's A Chef For All Seasons inspired me in that direction.

    As it happened, it was based on a sabayon, so although I used Ramsey's measurements, I employed Raymond Blanc's method. Then you add melted white chocolate. There was a very ropey moment when I thought the egg was scrambling but it seemed okay as I folded the whipped cream in.

    Once that was in the fridge and I'd had a short break, it was down to making a shortcrust pastry.

    I love Sarah Raven's Garden Cookbook – it's the best book on seasonal produce that I currently own. Having used part of a bag of spinach earlier this week, I had loads left and guessed that she would provide me with the answer of how to use up the rest.

    And she did indeed. Once the tart case had been blind baked, it was simply a case of blanching the spinach, then draining and drying it thoroughly and gently. Then it went into the case, with gently sautéed shallots, finely chopped, to be covered in whipped eggs, double cream, nutmeg and paprika, and it was back into the oven for 35 minutes.

    When it emerged, it was a thing of beauty, to be joined by a simple salad of red onion and fennel, thinly sliced on the mandolin, with slices of a baguette.

    That was followed by some of the mousse, which was served with segments of orange and a caramel sauce that had also been prepared earlier.

    In many ways, I think that was one of the most pleasing meals I've made recently. It wasn't technically perfect (the mousse wasn't as smooth as I'd have wanted, for starters), but the flavours were in place.

    In other words, it was an enormously pleasing day – and a darned good start top the weekend.

    Before I finish, I just want to say 'hello' and 'thank you' to Michelle, who came over to me in the UNISON bar last night as the amazing Three Companies team was marking the end of that project. She introduced herself and said some very nice things about this blog.

    So I hope she won't mind when I say that that really delighted to me – every bit as much as hearing her say that she also thinks of cooking as therapy – in her case, when things get bad, she makes cupcakes. I bet they're fabulous, Michelle!