Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Kipper baiting still leaves the mainstream in a fishy state

Taking the proverbial is not difficult
Nobody should be surprised at the likelihood of a substantial vote for UKIP in the forthcoming local and European elections.

And although it’s come close to being a national sport for people and media from across the political spectrum, it seems facile to invest too much time in pointing out the more ludicrous comments and opinions that have come from ’Kippers, as supporters themselves have become known.

They have loons in their midst, but they aren’t going to poll more than a handful of votes because everyone who votes for them believes that Lenny Henry should ‘go to a black country’ or because they want to ‘hate those dastardly gays just like you can hate a cup of Earl Grey’.

The rise of UKIP – just like the rise of assorted unsavoury parties across the continent – is symptomatic of a general disillusion with mainstream politics, further revealed in the UK by increased use of ‘ConLibLab’ to describe those parties.

What that reveals is a belief that there’s so little distance between the three main parties that you could barely slip a cigarette paper between them.

In other words, there’s little meaningful choice.

And so we have a party that claims to speak straightforwardly, and promises to lift up Britain once more by stopping (most) immigration and hauling the country out of the European Union.

The main reasons for the UKIP leadership wanting us out of the EU don’t really matter to those for whom all this country’s real or perceived ills are down to Brussels.

However, the UKIP leadership wants to be able to reduce – or cut altogether – employment rights, from paid annual leave to sick pay to maternity leave.

It’s debatable whether they really do think that these are what is holding the country back or whether those of them who are employers simply want to be able to reduce their own labour costs.

Such an approach, together with a commitment to reducing the state still further, is entirely reminiscent of free-market fundamentalists in the US and indeed, a great deal of the language to be found on forums in the UK is borrowed from them.

But on UKIP’s part, it hardly seems ‘patriotic’ to want to butcher the rights of the same British workers that they like to pretend they’re on the side of, does it?

The EU as a political entity is fraught with problem – not least legislation that, in effect, enshrines neo-liberalism, irrespective of the democratic wishes of individual electorates.

But then it’s not neo-liberalism that offends UKIP – the party’s leadership wants to plunge ever further down the marketisation path, to scrap vastly more public services than current Chancellor George Osborne, and sack as many public service workers as possible.

But such pesky facts are not getting a very wide outing – and there’s a reason for that. They’re not necessarily obvious vote winners, while there’s a fair few other politicians in the mainstream parties, and more than one media proprietor, who would be in almost total agreement.

How have we reached this state?

The spin – and the perception of spin – from all the mainstream parties has been contributory, as has a perception that none of those same parties really cares about Joe and Joanne Public.

Election at Eatanswill (Pickwick), 1836, Phiz
A generation and a half has seen both Conservative and Labour parties change from what the majority of their followers – certainly the older ones – would consider those parties to be.

The Lib Dems earned themselves an increase in votes at the 2010 general election, primarily because people saw, in their commitment to electoral reform, a possible way to give a kick in the pants the system, but they had counted without the fact that Nick Clegg and many of his MPs proved to be interested only in an illusion of power.

The Conservative Party has become the out-and-out supporter of marketisation and big business: that is now its prime constituency, other than on election days.

Look back at it’s actions in office over the last four years and you will see this borne out time and again, from the privatisation of the NHS to the so-called lobbying bill, which has been used not to do what was intended, but instead to gag a whole range of groups from commenting on politics in the run-up to the 2015 general election.

Having, in opposition, rightly opposed assorted attacks on civil liberties and privacy, one talk from GCHQ has convinced it to champion mass invasions into private communications, while also using the porn panic to introduce censorship by the back door.

Labour, on the other hand, seems like the proverbial headless chicken.

Its leadership seems unaware that there is any alternative to neo-liberal marketisation, however much it might make a few noises about the problems of a low-wage economy.

Indeed, it seems to be as wedded to such approaches as the Conservatives, but with just an iota of embarrassment at such a betrayal of the party’s own history and its traditional followers and a belief that a tiny bit of tinkering around the edges will ease any problems.

The steady drip drip of stories about the venality and greed and absolute lack of ethics on the part of politicians has also had an unsurprising impact on public trust, who generally seem to harbour the illusion that it was not always thus.

Take a look at Hogarth and read Dickens’s Pickwick Papers if you believe that politicians behaving badly is new.

The South Sea Scheme (c1721), Hogarth's 'casino economy'
But it’s all well and good condemning any or all the above, if people themselves do not get involved and take responsibility.

The minimum that can be done is to use your vote – preferably after paying at least a few minutes examining what all the candidates you can vote for are promising and/or claiming to have done.

It takes perhaps a little more effort not simply to believe everything that you read in your newspaper of choice, but to look beyond a simplistic headline and story that confirms any personal opinions, and explore an issue in different media.

It takes yet greater effort to get involved in local politics – which doesn’t mean any of those mainstream political parties or even any smaller parties, but can involve community groups, for instance, or local campaigns.

It’s simple: an investment of time is required to educate ourselves and be involved politically – the things that offer us the possibility of having an influence and even of changing something.

But when the electorate becomes disenchanted to the extent that few even bother to vote outside general elections – although millions spend the money to vote for a contestant on Britain’s Got Strictly X Factor Talent – then perhaps the point that needs to be made is that we get the politicians that we deserve.

It’s easy to simply accuse those saying they’ll vote for UKIP of racism for worrying about immigration.

Far easier, indeed, than it is to try to get across the real reasons why, among other things, incomes for the majority have been declining for 30-plus years, the cost of housing has increased to such an extent, job security has disappeared and nothing comparable has replaced all the decently-paid, skilled manual jobs that formed a major strand of the national economy until de-industrialisation was commenced for ideological reasons in the 1980s – let alone to attempt to posit real alternatives.

And viewed from that perspective, taking the piss out of UKIP smacks of political onanism rather than a meaningful consideration of what has allowed that party to grow and how the situation can be changed.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Matisse, Collioure and sloppy journalism

Matisse's Luxe, Calme et Volupté, from 1904
Matisse is currently flavor of the month with the broadsheet media and more than one publication has taken the opportunity of the cut-outs exhibition at the Tate Modern to generate other easy copy related to the artist.

Thus a few days ago, the Independent decided to unveil a ‘5 ways to follow Matisse’ if you cannot get to London for the current show.

It is a brief list of travel suggestions for anyone wanting to set off on Matisse pilgrimages – but it turns out to have more than a few flaws.

The section on Nice is not incorrect – yet fails to mention that the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, which Matisse designed as a way of thanking a nun who had nursed him and is generally regarded as a masterpiece, is just outside Nice itself.

In other words, it’s a pretty basic omission if you’re set on cobbling together such a piece.

It happens that there are also a Musée Renoir and a Musée Marc Chagall in the vicinity too, making it a real haven for art lovers.

The Other Half and one of Marc-André 2 Figueres's frames
If you were heading down to that part of the world by rail or road and with art on your mind, Aix-en-Provence is hardly out of your way and is home to Cézanne’s studio, while Arles allows you to tread in van Gogh’s footsteps.

But my favourite part of the ‘article’ was an entry about Collioure:

“This exquisite fishing village in French Catalonia was the inspiration for the Fauvist movement, spearheaded by Matisse. The “wild beasts” were seduced by the brilliant play of light on the ochre buildings and blue Mediterranean. You won’t see Matisse’s paintings, but you can follow his trail marked by picture frames on the spots where he was inspired to paint Luxe, Calme et Volupté.”

I am neither an expert on Matisse nor an expert on Collioure, but oh dear: one paragraph and two howling inaccuracies.

First, those empty frames in Collioure were created and placed for a project by Catalan artist Marc-André 2 Fugueres, which ties in with his Erotic Theory of the Collioure Bell Tower.

This slender volume can be found in French, Catalan and English and is, if rather bonkers, none-the-less interesting, as I explained briefly way back in 2009.

Roofs of Collioure, 1905. There's no frame at this spot
It and the frames, however, have nothing to do with Matisse or the Fauves bar their being in Collioure and Collioure now being famous for Matisse and the Fauves.

Second, it’s wrong to suggest that Matisse painted Luxe, Calme et Volupté in Collioure or as a result of a visit there.

It was painted as a result of a visit to St Tropez in 1904 – the year before he first found his way south of Perpignan, where a relative of his wife lived, to this little spot of heaven on the Roussillon coast.

Now in the grand scheme of things, such errors are minor.

But it’s hard to believe that such sloppiness is unique and that it doesn’t illustrate a more general attitude toward the demands of 24/7, globalised news.

That’s even more the case as increasingly, proprietors and editors are turning ‘journalism’ into something that involves trawling Twitter for whatever some famous person or other said about such and such, or comment pieces that are intended purely as click bait to boost advertising revenue.

Matisse created plenty of wonderful works, but the one suggested by that snapshot of journalism in 2014 from the Indy is not a pretty picture at all.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Lighter food for lighter, brighter days

Fresh and light and satisfying
With the improving weather – thank goodness we’re actually having a spring this year! – comes the desire to eat differently; lighter.

And it’s also the perfect time to try a few new things.

There have even been days, with real sun streaming down, when it was the perfect opportunity to pull out the salad spinner and rinse off some organic lettuce and winter purslane, and serve a huge plate of both, drizzled with virgin oil and a thinner balsamico, and topped with cheese.

Blue cheese suits such a dish perfectly, but in La Bouche earlier recently, I’d tried one that was new to me.

Beenliegh is an unpressed, soft blue from Devon, made from organic, unpasturised ewe’s milk. It’s creamy and moist, and beautifully fresh and subtle.

Get the right ingredients sourced and food doesn’t have to be complex to be very good.

A number of evenings recently have seen a dinner that was, if not a direct recreation, then was certainly inspired by a Jamie Oliver salmon dish that I’ve recently discovered.

He takes halved waxy potatoes and quartered fennel bulbs and boils them for six minutes, before draining and drying over the steam.

Salmon with fennel, sweet potato and herbs
Then they go in an oven-proof dish with olive oil, parsley, mint and garlic for something like half an hour, before the salmon – with more of the herby-garlicky mix on it – is placed on top and it goes back in the oven for a further 15 minutes.

It’s a lovely, easy dish, but I think a couple of tweaks help.

Set your oven to 180˚C (fan) and prep the fennel as above, not cutting off the base so that the pieces hold together. Retain the fronds.

Finely chop your mint, flat leaf parsley and garlic, and mix with plenty of olive oil.

Jamie’s version sprinkles the herbs and garlic over everything and then tops with oil, but I think that my way does two things: allows you to coat the ingredients more thoroughly and also reduces the chances of the garlic getting a tad burned.

So, pop in your fennel pieces and mix, and then add some sweet potato that has been peeled and cut into large chunks, instead of potato.

Gently stir around to coat everything. Season with good quality celery salt (my addition) and pop in the oven.

Lovely wild garlic
After 30 minutes, place your salmon fillets on top of the vegetables, scooping some of the oily, herby, garlicky mix on to the top.

And back it all goes for another 15-20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish.

Serve with a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice and some black pepper, and topped with the chopped fennel fronds.

The advantage of swapping the potato for sweet potato is that the latter is a vegetable rather than a starchy carb, so it makes the dish a two-portion one rather than having just a single portion.

Mind, if you use lashing of garlic and herbs, those add up too.

Anyway, it’s easy. And tasty – and healthy.

A couple of stalls on Broadway Market also had wild garlic last week, so I grabbed a good handful of that while the opportunity was there.

The English asparagus is here
Later, the leaves were shredded and blitzed together with some spring onions, chives, garlic, pine nuts, a little salt and a teaspoon of sugar, with enough olive oil to give you a good pesto consistency.

You could add parmesan, but I don’t, since The Other Half doesn’t like cheese.

And an ideal way to use some of this lovely stuff – which keeps well in the fridge in a jar – is to cook some pasta, drain and return to the pan, adding some of the pesto with a little double cream and re-warming gently.

You wont need to use a lot of the pesto – it packs a serious punch.

Serve with fresh asparagus and peas and plenty of freshly-ground black pepper, and if you want, more parmesan.

A perfect, fresh and seasonal dish for a midweek supper.

And on a final note – and a slightly different one: this is worth reading about the cost of asparagus from Peru.

Ignore the slightly puritanical tone of  lust for this luxury vegetable etc, but the point remains that there are severe environmental issues created by a global market for a cheap, seasonal vegetable, sent half way around the world to fill – or create – consumer demand outside our own season.

Monday, 21 April 2014

The new butcher of Broadway Market

A brand new butcher
Broadway Market has seen a change or two over recent weeks. Henry Tidiman’s has finally closed after a year of seeing reduced hours.

Hopefully, Henry can now enjoy a long and relaxing retirement.

But just as I was lamenting the loss of a butcher on the street – the premises will, from what I’ve heard, be turned into another eatery of some variety – something unexpected happened.

Another butcher opened, on almost the opposite side of the street.

The shop has been through various incarnations since the street started to revive, but it had, many, many years ago, been a butcher.

It’s quite possible that it had even been the shop that Henry’s father had run, giving us a rather pleasing sense of synchronicity.

Anyway, Hill & Szrok, master butcher, is now with us – and most welcome.

By day, it is a traditional butcher – very traditional, as the design reveals. Tom Richardson Hill is most certainly a butcher who combines a serious commitment to traditional butchery with an understanding of what a modern clientele in an area such as ours needs.

In the evening, an hour after closing, Alex Szrok takes over and operates it as a cookshop, taking a fresh look at that aspect of our culinary heritage.

There are a couple of important things worth noting. The shop will open to 6pm – pretty much essential these days for any new, independent food outlet that wants to catch people on their way home from work and offer a real alternative to supermarkets.

It helps to allow a Paris-style of shopping for food: being able to buy fresh, from independents, after work.

Since Broadway Market now has a fishmonger with a similar approach – Fin & Founder – and two organic greengrocers that open late (plus a range of very good Turkish general grocers) and La Bouche, which doesn’t close early, I can travel home and still shop for that evening’s meal.

The next thing to note is that Hill & Szrok is an organic butcher.

Forget the plastic
The area has changed – it doesn’t matter if some think that’s good and some think it’s bad – but it’s simply a fact that we’ve become the next stop on the eastwards-moving trendification of London’s East End.

That causes issues – not least in terms of the prices of housing in the area – but also in terms of prices on Broadway Market.

However, it’s also important to be realistic.

Broadway Market was all but dead little more than a decade ago.

The myriad shops that Henry described to me had, apart from his own, been consigned to history – in part because local people had decided that shopping at a big box Tesco was what they wanted.

Anything opening now has to ride the wave of the revival of interest in food.

However it’s characterised by some, that isn’t just ‘foodieism’, but reflects a number of trends – particularly among more middle-class people who can afford not to have to shop as cheaply as possible.

Lovely burgers
Last year’s horse meat farce is one such reason – people care increasingly about provenance for a very good reason. They’re also increasingly concerned about GM, about the use of antibiotics and hormones in their meat, about the sustainability of fish and about seasonality.

What’s happening on Broadway Market merely reflects that.

There is, as I’ve mentioned previously and touched on a few paragraphs ago, a question of money.

The UK has long seen households spend a lower percentage of their income on food than households on the Continent. And in the last few years, that gap has widened further.

While there are myriad issues with a wide cultural attitude of seeing food as fuel, and nursing a deep-seated suspicion of anyone who spends ‘too much’ time and money on it, it remains almost certainly the case that the recent further decline is down to stagnating and declining wages.

We know that incomes for everyone apart from those at the very top have fallen steadily for the last 30-odd years, while the cost of living has risen – not least in areas that are not even counted for the sake of inflation figures, such as housing and domestic fuel bills.

This is what I call a butcher
But since the 2008 crash – and even more so since 2010 – that decline has increased for many. The rise of foodbanks is an indicator of that.

And when many of our fellow citizens are having to make choices about whether to pay the gas bill or to cut back on what they spend on food, then this is not the best time to finger wag about how they should all eat better.

Mind, even with all the ‘added value’ at Hill & Szrok, it’s not as pricy as I expected.

But let’s go back to our new butcher: we’ve had a few things from there now – I admit to an almost giddy delight in being handed a package that is not bagged in plastic with a sticky red tie at the top, but wrapped carefully in proper paper, tied neatly and then handed to me in a simple paper bag.

When you walk in, there’s usually some serious butchery going on in the centre of the shop, often involving some huge pieces of meat – Tom also ages his own beef. This is the antithesis of the supermarket, with its pristinely-packed cuts sweating under plastic.

Beautiful pork
And Tom does not believe in all the nonsense about low fat being vital for continued good health either.

Oh my goodness – proper layers of creamy fat on meat, the like of which you suspected you’d never again see in a UK butcher.

A week ago, it was time for a piece of pork. I don’t often cook pork, because I’m terrified of that entire business of drying it out too much, but this was far too tempting.

It was a 2kg piece of boned, rolled leg – not done as a perfect tube, but, Tom explained to me, more like a bloomer in shape, because there are three types of muscle in that cut and, unless you butcher it the way he does, it will not cook evenly.

So, the oven was heated to its maximum and the meat brought out of the fridge to come to room temperature before having good salt rubbed into the scored skin.

It was given 20 minutes at the high temperature and then 20 minutes per 450g at 160˚C (fan), before being rested for 15 minutes.

Real gravy, reheating. Eat your heart out, Knorr
Gravy was made not from some pre-bought pot, but by first sweating shallot, carrot and celery, then adding dry cider and chopped apple, and simmering gently to reduce.

When the meat came out of the oven, the roasting dish was deglazed with that cidery mix, before having the fat separated off (my Lidl fat separator has proved a great bargain) and decanted into a small, copper pan, where it was reheated and then thickened carefully with beurre manié. Good enough to keep what was left over and reheat during the week.

Indeed, the pork did us a number of meals: how old-fashioned – buying a joint for the weekend and having plenty left for the days that follow.

And the pork itself was wonderful.

A wonderful leg of lamb
We’ve also had some of Tom’s burgers. Dense and lightly spiced, they produce actual blood when grilled – in other words, these are the real deal.

And a piece of boned, rolled lamb was excellent too.

This Easter weekend, being a traditionalist, it was back there for a leg of lamb. Longwood has had so little fat on its lamb in recent weeks I wanted to make sure I got some with a decent coat.

It was 2.1kg, so was started at 190˚C (fan) for half an hour, before being given a further 30 minutes per 450g. So three hours in total, give or take a minute or so, and followed with 15 minutes resting.

Served with English asparagus and the first Jersey Royals of the year – you know winter is really behind us when these appear – with a lovely jus from the meat juices, it was an absolute, melt-in-the-mouth joy.

Broadway Market has a new butcher – and it is most welcome.