Monday, 3 December 2007

Time, Space and Oranges

This morning, a total stranger gave me an orange.

The man was also absent-mindedly waving an orange flag, and it was this which I noticed first. It is a long walk all the way up West Street towards Sheffield university, and at about 10.30am, and three weeks before Christmas, the pavement was extremely busy. I thought he was trying to flag down the overcrowded bus, amidst the throngs of people in the street. It was only when he came up to me and asked if he could give me an orange did I spare him a second thought.

I was also half asleep, and also in a hurry. I am one of those uncaring people who secretly hopes that the person walking along r e a l l y s l o w l y in front of you will soon fall down a manhole cover or something, I hate to admit it, but I don't often pay much attention to people around me. As such, being given an orange in the middle of the street by a bloke with a flag was a bit of a shock. So much so, in fact, that I just muttered "thank you", carried on going, and didn't even register the incident enough to ask WHY he was handing out oranges. It was only when, a little further up the road, another man stopped me with an orange that I worked out what was going on. The second bloke had the common sense to hand out flyers with his oranges. They were trying to raise awareness for a homelessness charity, based in Orange Street, Sheffield. Had I looked at what was in my hand, I would have noticed that each orange has a slip of paper with a website address on it. All very well and good, but not exactly immediately obvious to the semi-conscious commuter. To give them a helping hand, the charity has a blog here. Giving out oranges is innovative, and I am grateful for my unexpected vitamin shot this morning. I have a lot of respect for these people now.

However, the whole incident has got me pondering again. Such is the depth of my projects at the moment that I cannot experience isolated incidents without reading a great deal in to them, especially if they involve food. The orange has now interested me a great deal.

The advertising did work, eventually, in that I have now looked at their blog. Ben's Centre is a charity providing support and a safe environment for Sheffield's street drinkers. They are now based in Orange Street in Sheffield, and have seemingly adopted the orange as their logo. The fruit becomes a space, and with a bit of publicity, the space becomes a place. The space will become fruitful. The space also develops an identity of its own through its citrussy badge: a sanctuary - bright, colourful and cheerful, orange being a colour as well as a fruit. Healthy and healing- oranges are full of good vitamins and are great for dealing with hangovers. And given a community, an ideology and an identity of its own, the space has become a place.
(That, incidently, came from my own meanderings around the subject of oranges. I've just checked the "Ben's Logo" page on their site, and as it happens, I am spot on. That was exactly what they had intended to do with the logo. Which either means they are very clever or I have worked in the community/charity sector before. Both are true.)
But where did the orange come from? The website says... Tescos. Bah. I had been hoping for more than that somehow, although kudos to Tescos for donating said orange. There is no labeling on the orange apart from Ben's website. I have no way of telling where this orange originated. The chances are it was grown in some tropical but very poor country, and flown thousands of miles around the world, before getting scrubbed, waxed, weighed and regulated by Tesco's buyers, then chucked in a box and donated to the people on Orange Street around the corner. This orange is probably more well-travelled than I am, and is doing far more to help humanity than me. As such, I felt very guilty about eating it, I am not worthy!

There are a lot of tricky issues to do with the journey of this orange - environmental objections to the C02 emissions caused by flying oranges around the world, first world apologists who knowingly exploited third world orange growers and the inherent inequality of global capitalism. So far, so unoriginal. There is no connection with the orange farmer here, globalisation means that oranges are available ubiquitously, and unwittingly detaches us even further from thinking about what we really eat. The orange helps Ben's Centre create an imagined/constructed locality, but this is not the locality of the fruit's origin.

I for one have a keen interest in the Slow Food movement - which, in practical terms, means celebrating local and seasonal food, no forced, high yield crop growing. Slow, because you have to wait for the right season to get various different fruits or vegetables, negating the need to ship fruit around the globe. Celebrating home cooking too, none of the highly processed 'fast food'. Celebrating actually engaging with food again. If I followed this ideology to the letter, this would normally mean no oranges, especially not in December in Sheffield.

But in one sense at least, I have engaged with this orange, and that is in part to do with Ben's Centre. As well as raising awareness of a very worthy cause, they provided me with a welcome breakfast, and food for thought. It made me think about where I was and what I was doing, which in all seriousness, is a rarity. I like to think I do engage with the space known as Sheffield. I love this city, and I greatly enjoy my time here. Yet every time I am here, I rush up the hill at top speed, worrying about being late for meetings or lectures, generally with my head lowered, stooped under the weight of laptops and the enormous piles of academic papers I have so many good intentions of reading -later. I am usually in a bad mood, because my train has been nearly always late/cancelled/very very slow/overpriced. Sometimes I have headphones on, blotting out the world around me in favour of listening to Muse sing songs about the Knights of Cydonia or something equally obscure. Mentally and emotionally, I am not really in that space.
But really, why am I in such a rush? No-one at university is really going to mind if I am ten minutes later. Once on a train, I have absolutely no control over its speed, and there is no point in getting cross with it if I can't do anything about it. I ought to appreciate the time I have on trains, to appreciate the journey itself instead of impatiently awaiting the destination. I should take an interest in the city around me, the people that I nearly walk in to, for example, the charity workers who stand out with orange flags trying to gain your attention for long enough to give you an orange with a website on it. In the time it takes me to walk up the hill, there are half a dozen charity workers making breakfast for homeless people, my lecturers prepare their talks for that morning, my train heads on its way towards Plymouth, a Tescos employee stacks the fruit shelves in store, and no doubt, someone on the other side of the world starts picking oranges. As much as there is to be said for the Slow Food movement, perhaps there ought to be a drive towards a Slow Travel movement too, to encourage you to use you time wisely, to think of all the things happening simultaneously in the world, and to appreciated the created spaces around you. And to merrily suck on very social oranges.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

The art of cappuccino and the art of making money.

Today I am pondering this wonderful creation, the cappuccino. In case you didn't know, (and if you rely on coffees from Nescafe vending machines, you won't) a cappuccino is traditional quite a small drink, mostly a double espresso shot topped up with foamed milk. Anyone wanting a longer drink should have a latte, the same thing, but with more milk added. A cappuccino will cost you anything between 55p in a sincerely dreadful vending machine at Doncaster train station (these are the lengths I go to under the name of research - or possibly caffeine addiction) to the £2.65 Grande-mug-with-extra-shot at Caffe Nero. (I would quote Starbucks prices but haven't yet swallowed my pride enough to dare go in there). I will cover why I need an extra shot in Nero's coffee later.

I spent happy afternoon the other day, being instructed in how to make the perfect coffee at a rather obscure little factory in Blaydon in the outskirts of Newcastle. This would be Pumphreys Coffee company. They have been importing, roasting and selling coffee from there since 1750, and are now running Barista training courses. This is because, as our instructor, Stuart tells us, he hates seeing all the hard work that so many different people put into to producing the coffee, ruined at the last minute by untrained, or often plain lazy baristas. The commodity chains involved in producing a cappuccino are infinitely long, and necessarily global. The coffee growers, graders, buyers, shippers and importers, roasters, packagers, marketers, salesmen, distributors, and coffee shop managers; not to mention the dairy farmers, people who pasturise milk, bottling factory workers, health and safety regulators, supermarket or dairy buyers and even milkmen have all had some involvement in your cappuccino, then there is the designers of the espresso machine, the maintenance man who adjusts it for you, the cardboard cup manufacturers, brand designers and so on, have all contributed something too. And then a bored, underpaid, dispassionate and usually part time barista, screws it up. And still charges you £2 for the privilege.

At Pumphreys, we're taught how to make an excellent espresso base (and even with a fully functional espresso machine and perfect ingredients and equipment, it can still go wrong very easily.) You then froth milk - and this is equally as important and as skilled as making the espresso. It should be heated to about 55 degrees centigrade, or 131 farenheit, and no more. You need a bit of air in it, but not a lot, no huge bubbles. The end result is velvety smooth throughout, the same consistency all the way through the jug, and is shiny and filled with tiny microbubbles. If you can pour it on top of your espresso, and if you are very artistic, you can make fabulous patterns with it. Here is Stuart creating "Latte Porn" - sure he won't mind me borrowing it.

For the record, not only do these coffees look great, they taste fantastic. So, if given the opportunity to train, why aren't all cappuccinos like this? Where I used to work, at the Voodoo Cafe, (an independent and very unique place!) we took the time to learn properly, and although ours were never that pretty to look at, we invested in very high grade luxury coffees and then practiced making them properly. We had a whole range of different coffees to try; different espresso bases in different varieties of coffee. We also tried to keep the prices competitive. Our 12-ounce cappuccinos were £1.50. Even taking into account my bias, compared to the competition we made some of the best coffees in town. However, I am informed that this cafe is sadly facing closure now, mainly because it is not making enough money.

Compare this to life at Caffe Nero. Nero is a big brand. It is the 20th fastest growing company in the whole of Europe, and currently has over 330 stores in Britain. And every single one is identical. This means that whichever store you go into from Brighton to Glasgow, you know that there will be brown leather armchairs, little circular tables, the coffee bar usually in the middle, a fridge full of cakes (the same cakes...) the same rather dated pictures on the walls, and even the same music playing at the same time of day in each store. You will also know the prices are the same throughout the country with the exception of those in central London and at airports, and that your loyalty card will work anywhere. If you pay attention you will notice that the staff will even say more or less the same things to you; the Six Service Steps we are all obliged to follow. You will be very familiar with the Nero logo, which is plastered all over each store, all over your cups, plates and bowls, the take-out cups, the take-out sleeves to stop you burning your fingers on the take-out cups, the take-out bags, the t-shirts of all the staff, the retail bags of coffee, containing the secret Nero Blend, all the cake wrappers and sandwich boxes, and even on the napkins.
(This film, incidently, was made for another coffee-related ESRC sponsored PhD project... I am not alone!)

The other thing that is identical in every Caffe Nero is the coffee - supposedly. Each new employee has to undergo "weeks of intensive training before being allowed to serve an espresso" (from their promotional leaflets). However, this intensive training does not include actually tasting the coffee. We are taught that if the right amount of ground coffee goes into the handles, and it pours for the correct length of time (a full ten seconds less than Pumphreys recommend), and it has a good crema on the top, then it is a good espresso and can be served. This is not a good argument however, because espressos can look very good but still taste awful. In my experience at Nero, I am in the minority because I actually drink the coffee there. Most do not touch the stuff.
With an not-so-great espresso base, the next step is the milk. In Nero, this is heated to 60 degrees centigrade/ 140 farenheit. We pump a lot of hot air into it, until in separates, with thin but very hot milk on the bottom, and a raft of thick, dry foam floating on the top.
From this, the cappuccino is made, to the Nero Way: 1/3 espresso, 1/3 hot milk, 1/3 foam. The foam is occasionally so thick it has to be spooned into the cup. It is then topped up with the hot milk until the foam bulges out of the top of the mug, in the trademark dome shape Nero prides itself on. Think muffin tops. I always ask for an extra espresso shot, because with this level of milk, it is often not possible to taste the coffee at all.
If the cappuccino does not look right, we are not allowed to serve it. I have actually had someone complain that she did not have enough froth on her cappuccino and I had to make her another one, heated even higher and with even drier foam. By this time, even I could smell that the milk was burnt, but this is what she wanted.

Overheating the milk is a cultural phenomenon, it seems. Try as we might, in this country we are still very much tea drinkers. When we drink tea, we make it with boiled water, then sit, chat and stir it until it is cool enough to drink. When we make coffee, we expect it to behave the same way. But it doesn't. Tea needs the heat to infuse properly. Burning the coffee by brewing espresso at too hot a temperature makes it unplesantly bitter and metallic tasting. Heating the milk until is separates for a Nero cappuccino makes it smell of baby sick (yes, I have been able to test and research this claim as well recently) and lose its natural sweetness as well. Cappuccinos made at 50-55 degrees centigrade - which is the optimum temperature for both espresso and milk - is designed to be drunk as soon as it is made. Of course it goes cold quickly, but better that than burning it?

As I've already pointed out, Caffe Nero is a success story, it claimed record profits this year and has made a serious amount of money, very quickly, and all apparently by creating generic stores selling underextracted espresso and burnt milk drinks. But there is no denying that they "look" like good cappuccinos. Large chain and branded coffee have created this image of what an ideal coffee looks like in the UK, and if anything deviates from this, customers will not recognise it, and it will not sell, even if it tastes better. Which is what may have been happening at our independent cafe. For all the authenticity Caffe Nero claims: "The best espresso this side of Milan" for instance, or "A True Italian Coffee" they are still buying in to, and perpetrating this ideal of image and appearance over taste and quality. For as long as we consumers continue to buy these imitations, nothing is going to change. Which I think is quite sad really.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Supermarket Psychology and the biography of my pumpkins

I am sitting in a rather sterile cafe in a supermarket in Darlington. Darlington has a small and rather obscure claim to fame - it is not only one of the few towns left in Britain which does not have a Tesco, we also officially saw them off - nearly 90% of the population rejecting Tesco's bid for planning permission. This is all well and good, until you realise that instead of Tesco, we have two Asdas, two Morrisons, Sainsburies, two Icelands, LIDL, ALDI and two Nettos. And Darlington is not a big town by any stretch of the imagination. It is, supposedly a market town though. And we do have a local market, the indoor one open 6 days a week, and an open market on Mondays and Saturdays. But no-one goes to it. Many stalls do not last very long, and those that do are hardly make a great deal of money. I had a stall for a while, and can vouch for the idea that being a market trader is neither fun nor profitable, and I know I wasn't alone in thinking that. There are various excuses for this decline in the market - recently restructuring of the town centre has meant that the bus routes no longer go close to the market to bus in the old ladies, the weather is usually pretty appalling so nobody wants to shop outdoors etc etc.... but the real problem is that people selling food on a small scale, and selling locally produced, seasonal goods, cannot compete with cheaper, mass produced, exotic and year-round food available conveniently from supermarkets.

Market forces! This is what capitalism is about! I hear ye cry. Supermarkets are phenomenally successful and popular for a reason, and that reason must be that people actually want to shop in them. If they didn't, then supermarkets wouldn't make any money, much like the market stalls. But is it really as simple as that? Supermarkets disconnect people with the produce they are buying. They are easy, convenient, entirely because you don't have to think about the shopping. Its merely a chore to be performed each week, hopefully as quickly as possible and with minimum fuss. Everything is in one place, and right in front of you. There is no hunting for the right things, no running between different stalls to get meat, veg, fruit, dry goods, cleaning materials...just trundling up and down the neat, accessible aisle, equipped with an oversized basket on wheels to help you. People go to supermarkets to get 'food for the week' or to 'pick up something nice for dinner', not for the experience of finding a new foodstuff, or even to enjoy the task at hand. Not, in short, to connect in anyway with the food on offer.

Today I am in Sainsbury's. I walk in - this in itself is unusual since the whole place is designed to be driven to - and I am greeted by a giant cardboard pumpkin, holding shelves full of edible pumpkins, and the slogan, "Try something new this Halloween". Along with my oversized squash, I am invited to pick up a free card detailing Jamie Oliver's recipe for pumpkin soup. Its not exactly original. Pumpkin boiled up with onion and chicken stock and a bit of ginger so it sounds exotic. Mine is far more interesting, in my humble opinion. On the back, there is another recipe for Rice Laska Soup which does involve pumpkin, along with lime leaves, chinese five-spice and coconut milk, all of which are available in a British store, in late October, obviously. The pumpkins are enormous, mine is a good foot across, and all for 99p. The Halloween sticker on it gives no clue as to where it was grown. When I did get it home (its weight providing another good reason why most people drive to supermarkets), it carved beautifully, and there is now an evil looking Jack O Lantern in the window. I also cruelly turned its innards into soup, and even with my extra spicy Carribean recipe (with chilli oil, ginger, nutmeg and orange juice) it tasted very very bland indeed. The pumpkin didn't even roast well, just turning to mush in the oven. These pumpkins were grown specifically to be enormous as Halloween decorations, not to eat. They were pumped full of water, size and price at the expensive of flavour and quality.

This pretty much sums up the whole supermarket experience for me. A great deal of literature has already been written on the topic of how evil supermarkets are; I have already mentioned the threat to smaller food retailers, but on top of that there is exploitation and domination of third world producers, sweatshop and child labourers, the energy and resources wasted in the 'food miles' associated with shipping, for example, strawberries in October, all the way from 'Israel' (read: occupied Palestinian territories). Commodity chains get longer and longer and more and more complex, and the consumer is removed even further from the producer. And you really do not want to know what they do to chicken... (adding beef proteins, for the record, which help the meat absorb and retain nearly 50% added water. Legally, too. Note to the reader: reading Felicity Lawrence's 'Not On The Label' can make you anorexic)

I do not want or need to reiterate any of that. What I am more concerned with is quality, or lack of it. I am not denying that supermarkets are cheap and convenient, nor that they offer a great deal of choice and variety. What I am questioning is their ability to provide consistent quality and value for money. Of course, it always looks so tempting, all the exotic, colourful fruits that are intentionally placed at the front of the store to seduced you in, or the enticing aromas of freshly baked bread that are deliberately blown around the shop... and it works, I always spend more money than I intended, and get really into the idea of cooking, every time I go in there. I am weak and gullible and naive.

On average, we spend about 10% of our incomes on feeding ourselves. This is not a great deal, and in fact, is less than we did 30 years ago. But the poorest fifth of the population still spend over 30% of their incomes on food. Significantly, the lower your income, the more likely you are to be overweight, or have diet-related illnesses. This seems to be because, the cheaper the food, the more more processed it is likely to be. And the more processed it is, the more fat, sugar, salt and additives it is likely to contain. Here are some examples from Sainsbury's.
'free range' chicken breast fillets - 350g for £3.99, and tikka masala cooking sauce, £1.49 or:
Chicken Tikka Masala (canned, serves 2) for 89p
Fresh Mango (from South Africa), 99p each or
canned mango slices in syrup, 39p
Lincolnshire sausages, 2 packs of six for £4 or
frozen Toad-in-the-Hole, microwavable for £1.99

Depressing, isn't it? This is not to say, however, that the more money you spend, the better the food will be. Skinny celebrities seem to be able to spend a great deal of money on eating not a lot at all. My 99p pumpkin was not processed into pre-made, salt and fat-ladened soup, (43p per can) but it is highly likely that it was grown outside of this country, shipped or even flown in, and given its size and lack of flavour, grown using a lot of unpleasant fertilisers and pesticides. I could go to the indoor market and buy one for 60p, but it would be a lot smaller, the skin might be blemished, and worse still, the market doesn't have a conveniently located car park and I would have to carry the thing home. On the up side, I can be assured that it was grown up the road on a farm near Richmond. About 8 miles away. And it might even taste like pumpkin!

I am now, for the first time in over two years, in a position where I can afford 'decent' food. I've always managed to save money on food because I love cooking, and prefer, for instance, to make sauces than to buy them in jars. I am finding myself being a bit more liberal with the food budget now- buying *good* meat from the market, which is fresher, local, less stuffed with nasty things, but twice the price of Sainsbury's. This does not however, mean that I am price-blind. Supermarkets have to make their money somehow, and going on the assumption that the majority of customers want to find what they need quickly and easily, means that supermarkets are likely to play tricks. Take, for example, last weeks Christmas pudding experience. Immediately in front of you as you walk in, is a rack of "snacking nuts and seeds." A snack sized bag of whole almonds (100g) will set you back £1.89. But walk to the back of the store to the 'baking' section, and I can get 100g of 'baking' almonds for £1.09.... which is not only daft, but infinitely frustrating, and totally deliberate on the part of the shop.

Basically, in supermarkets, you are paying cheaper prices, but through clever marketing and gratuitous trickery, you are paying for convenience and speed and packaging, not for quality or piece of mind. Supermarkets have taken over the country entirely because this is a compromise most consumers are willing to make.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

The Proof is in the Pudding

Christmas, above anything else, is a social phenomenon. Whether you are religious or not, , love it or hate it, that time of year is always significant. There is a social obligation to spend Christmas with family, friends, loved ones. Even if you have disowned your family and are sick of your friends, you are still required to fake enjoyment of the season or take pleasure in stubbornly ignoring it. It does not go away easily.
Quelle soprise! Christmas is also a time for feasting. For a supposedly Christian festival (and I use the term lightly so as not to offend my Pagan friends' Yuletide celebrations) it does do a lot to encourage the breaking of nearly all the deadly sins. There's anger at annoying in-laws, envy of other people's presents, greed at the sheer capitalist commercialism of it all, lust running rampant at office Christmas parties, and of course, gluttony during the feast, followed by sloth when you can't move having eaten too much. I forget the seventh.
Last weekend, that is, the 21st October, we held the Annual Family Christmas Pudding Making Ceremony. This event usually occurs at around the same time every year, not, I hasten to add, because we subscribe to the supermarket-inspired idea that Christmas starts on the 17th September, but because a good pudding has to be fed. This means, alcohol is added to it every week for the next two months. In more over-enthusiastic years, our version has been less of a pudding and more of a pile of fruit stuck together with brandy. But it is amazing, honestly!
The Construction of the Pudding is quite a lengthy process. I swear when we were younger, it used to take all day - which it probably did when my mother was faced with two young children, plenty of things to measure at once, and plenty of sticky sweet ingredients to protect from being eaten pre-cooking. Chopping up glace cherries was obviously the favourite job, although I loved playing the hard kid by daring to put my fingers in the hot water used to blanch almonds. Grating lemon and releasing that glorious smell was a prized job as well.
I don't know if it was the wisdom of maturity, or the fact that I bought all the fruit in pre-measured bags, but this year it took less than an hour. We all helped, Mum weighing our flour, grating lemons and handling the alcohol, Dad chopping cherries, beating eggs and restricting alcohol, and me adding copious amounts of spices and chopping the almonds. We even invested in a huge bucket from B&Q to mix it all in, since my own mixing bowls were inadequately small. When all the ingredients are in the bowl, everyone has to have a turn stirring, and making a wish. This is obviously, the most important part. My wish from last year did actually come true in a vague sense - be careful what you wish for! The Power of the Pudding is uncanny.
Last year, I was startled to discover that this annual ritual is not actually a universal affair. Apparently, not everyone makes their own pudding! So, in order to correct this quasi-religious apathy, I endevoured to bring Christmas pudding making to the masses - that is, the Teenage Fanclub who occupied my cafe.
Making a pudding (or, three puddings) on that scale, with a dozen teenagers "helping" and even when I had prepped everything , measured everything and chopped everything in advance, still took most of the afternoon. Even uber-cool cynical adolescents are somehow awed by the simple task of stirring fruit in a big bowl. Most still refused to admit they like Christmas, but once again, the time-honoured tradition of preparing food together won over the desire for street cred. Nothing to do with the mulled wine I fed them at all. I just hope all their wishes came true!
For the record, the teenagers' puddings turned out beautifully, and disappeared from the cafe very quickly indeed come December. Hopefully, they also turned out better than shop-bought ones. Although the supermarkets own designer puddings aren't actually that bad, they are nothing like as alcoholic. They are also not as sentimentally valued. Nothing compares to the festive spirit, sociality and genuine enjoyment of a family cooking session; that is not something you can package in red wrapping and flog at Tescos.
At great personal risk, I have decided to include our family'stime-honoured recipe. This makes three large puddings, suitable to feed a gluttonous family for an extended Christmas feast.

Ye Olde Terrill Family Christmas Pudding Recipe

…approach love and cooking with reckless abandon….

500g raisins
500g currants
500g sultanas
250g breadcrumbs
250g flour
125g mixed peel
250g brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
3 eggs
500g chopped suet
100g chopped almonds
200g glace cherries
Peel & juice of 1 lemon & 1 orange
1 tbs black treacle
2 tsps mixed spice
100g ground almonds
Large slosh of sherry/whisky/rum
Large slosh of dark beer

Mix all dry ingredients together. Beat the eggs with the treacle and pour into middle of ingredients, add enough liquid to bind everything together. Add all fruit, nuts and zest. Stir and make a wish! Put into greased pudding basins and cover with greaseproof paper & silver foil (or clingfilm if microwaving)
Boil for 4-5 hours.
Store in a cool place and re-boil for 1 hour just before serving (or microwave for 10-15 mins)
Have fun and don’t eat the cherries!

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

A hedonistic approach to the anthropology of food.

Several of my more academic readings have led me to ponder what we really mean by 'food'. To me, it *means* a lot. I enjoy eating it, I enjoying cooking it, a lot of my social life somehow revolves around it, I love exploring it, I used to be employed as a professional preparer of it, and now I spend a great deal of time writing about it and studying it. It also gives me most of the nutrients I need in order to survive and function as a human being, but for me, that is not the reason for my interest in it.

Food is nutrition. Humans need some form of food to fuel the body. On a purely reductionist/scientific level, I personally need 2000 calories, containing 5g salt, 70g fat, a little calcium, about 20 different vitamins and a certain amount of fibre and carbohydrate per day. All this is to be washed down with about 2 litres of water. That 'diet' in pill form if necessary, would sustain me, and keep my own four-buckets-water-and-a-bag-full-of-salt form mobile and functional. It would not, however, allow me to 'live' a fully human life.

Instead, and allowing for human interaction, culture, pleasure-seeking, and all round messiness, we choose a far less efficient method of fuelling our bodies. We have a huge range of edible susbstances in our world, and the variety is added to by a seemingly infinite number of combinations and cooking methods. So basically, we eat what we choose, based on personal preference, and social norms. Whether or not our chosen diet patterns give us all the nutrients we require is left virtually up to chance. I know I ought to eat fish to get my omega 3, I know I ought to cut down on my caffeine intake and stick to my recommended number of alcohol units, I know that fruit is far better for me than anything else I normally snack on, and I know that Friday-Night Drunken Kebabs have no useful content whatsoever. But in terms of what I actually consume, and choose to consume, nutritional value is almost irrelevant.

Should I take more of an interest in nutrition then? Is there a place for it in anthropology? Maybe, on some level. At least in the Western world there is a trend nowadays towards reconnecting with the food we eat. Spurred on perhaps by food scandals in the media, the situation European farmers find themselves in, food regulatory legislation, global warming scares affecting our crops, awareness of 'food miles', the Slow Food movement, Britain's rising obesity epidemic and so on. I'd like to think some of this awareness occurs because people are finally beginning to notice how awful fast food and convenience food actually is. There are very many fashionable schemes to eat locally, that is, to eat things produced in this country. Organic food is lauded as being healthier - for the environment if not for your wallet. We are supposed to eat our Five-a-day fruit and veg, McDonalds has even attempted to do salads, Smoothies are the new power-food, more and more Fair Trade products are on the shelves, obsessive dieters starve themselves to size 00 and celebrity chefs and diet programs are taking over our TV sets. It can be argued that we are now more aware of what is good for us, and good for the environment, than at any other time.

This is not to say, however, that because we are aware of it, we choose our food differently as a result. There is always an element of luxury and food-hedonism involved. There are very few people in the world who can stick to healthy, nutritional diets if they do not actually like the healthy nutritional food they are supposed to be eating. My three favourite 'luxuries' are coffee, red wine and chocolate, all served as dark, strong and as full bodied as possible. Despite reassuring claims from the psuedo-science community that a glass of wine a day is good for you, and that caffeine can ward off alhzeimers and dementia in women and that chocolate makes you produce happy-chemical in your brain, it is a pretty safe bet that none of these things are particularly nutrient-rich or 'good for me'. In nutritional terms, a standard (10oz) cup of black coffee on its own is 32 calories and 0.125g of caffeine. To fulfill my daily calorie allowance, I would have to drink 62.5 cups of the stuff, giving me 7.8g of pure caffeine. 10g is enough to kill me. All this is conjecture because, despite popular belief, I do not exist off coffee alone, and even on my most caffeinated days, I've never got anywhere near 62 cups. The point is though, that I am aware of the lack of nutritional content of my favourite foodstuffs, I am also acutely aware of the dangers of addiction and hypercaffeination. But I love coffee.

What nutritionists and hard-core diet fanatics don't take into account is the fact that foods serve other functions besides substinance. They have social meanings too. Throwing a dinner party is a social event, 'going for lunch' with someone shows friendship, tea breaks at work provide a welcome excuse to interact with colleagues. In a time when we no longer 'break bread' with new acquaintances, we have substituted the informal invite of 'come over for a cup of coffee sometime'. "Are you coming up for coffee?" asked after a date is a very useful euphemism; whether or not the coffee is drunk, or even actually made is irrelevant, but in this sense coffee is vital to the reproductive survival of the human race... (ahem).

It is short-sighted to ignore the nutritional aspect of our food when studying our eating habits, but it is equally pointless to focus entirely on that and not account for the social and cultural functions and customs. Our little luxuries in life may not be healthy, ethical or environmentally friendly, but cracking open a bottle of wine with an elaborate dinner party, queuing up or stuffing chocolate cakes in the cafe with friends are part of our culture. These actions have other, less scientific reasons behind them, and a little culinary hedonism is what makes life enjoyable.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Currying favour in Peru

In 2001, I spent six months living and working on volunteer projects in central Peru. I lived in Huancayo, which lies at 3300m above sea level, and is about 7 hours east of Lima. It was more than a little isolated. To begin with, I stayed with a host family, who I really did not get along with. They didn't seem to have any real interest in hosting a foreign volunteer, and I often felt completely out of place. The eldest son, Jhimmy, was the worst, and he constantly teased me knowing that I couldn't respond. I got extremely unhappy and homesick, particularly when it came to food; Mama Gladys's cooking was... well, it wasn't inedible, it was just highly boring and greasy. Boiled chicken legs with fried rice, for instance, or mashed and unidentifiable vegetables. At this point in the expedition my language skills were minimal, and I felt I couldn't afford to be rude about the food, even if I was able too.

I badly needed some decent grub (which Peru is actually extremely good at) and a good bonding session with the family. Both were going to be a long way off, as I was soon to discover. One incident which really brought this home to me was the day that I tried to cook dinner. Nearly a month away from home, and the one thing I missed most, was curry. I love the stuff, and strangely enough, there is no equivalent in Peru. My darling Carl had obviously picked up on my distress, and had dutifully posted me 5 packets of curry powder round the globe. So, going on the general assumption that the way to people’s hearts is through their stomachs, I bravely mimed cooking actions and pointed to myself, and the family humoured me.

My friend Elise, a confident, highly attractive French-Canadian girl working on the volunteer project with me, had offered to come over to help with dinner. She was also intrigued to meet the family and see what I was making so much fuss about. The curry itself was a success, given our reliance on pre-packaged food. Trying to turn a dead, plucked chicken into headless, feetless, chicken fillets minus those grey wobbly bits in the middle was a unique experience, and I will never say another word against corporate monopolised convenience foods ever again. Still, between the two of us, we created quite a passable dinner.

The meal, as a social event, couldn’t have gone worse, in comparison. The family made generally appreciative sounding noises, but not towards me. They loved Elise. They asked her all the questions I was expecting them to ask me, and although her Spanish at that point was only slightly better than mine, they did not laugh at her, they were patient and made an effort to help her out when she got stuck. Jhimmy laughed and joked. They even asked her what I’d put in the curry. I felt awful. Elise chatted away as best she could, but admitted to me afterwards that she felt really embarrassed. I have never really felt so small, unattractive or useless in my life!

This story does end happily, in that I eventually got moved to a different family who were utterly wonderful and who I am still in touch with six years later. I made them a curry too, which probably was a lot more hassle than it was worth given my issues with butchering chicken, but they were far more enthusiastic!

'Curry' is a wonderful concept. Bung whatever you like in to it, cover it with a fantastic array of rich, aromatic spices and serve. Its so versatile, and as I discovered after being forcibly weaned off the packet powdered versions, not actually that difficult to create. The best bit is, it smells so good, and can take quite a while to perfect, and so the curry chef can look marvellously professional in the process.

Curry, obviously, originates in India, and according to urban legend, was designed to cover the taste of bad meat. Which does beg the question, what on earth were they trying to cover when they invented the phal? Whether this is true or not, curry and India have become inseparably linked. Even so, the vast array of curries from Asia never actually make it to Britain, and what we call Indian take away over here is probably unrecognisable over there. The other classic urban myth is that the Balti was invented in Birmingham. It might well have been; we used to live round the corner from the infamous Mr Spice take away, who sold, along with 'authentic' baltis and masalas (masala incidently, just means 'mix'), pizzas, chow mein, burgers and chips. All highly Indian, I'm sure. He was one step away from selling chip shop curry sauce! Curries have be anglocised to the extreme; whereas they are no longer 'authentic' or traditional in form, they are tailored to include recognisable ingredients you can easily buy at home in the UK. (Another reason why my Peruvian efforts required the use of packets - there is no way I could have translated the spice list into Spanish!)

How to make curry gravy:

6 large white onions
4cm (about 50g) fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic
1 litre water
1 tin chopped tomatoes
6 tbsp veg oil
1 tsp tumeric
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp tomato puree

Peel the onions, ginger and garlic, and chop up finely. Stick the garlic and ginger in a blender with about a quarter of the water and blend until smooth.
Put the onions, the ginger/garlic paste and the rest of the water in a pan. Simmer for about 40 mins.
After it has cooled, blend the whole thing until absolutely completely smooth.
At this point the mix can be frozen to use later, it lasts practically forever.
Next, add the oil, tomato puree, tumeric and chilli to a pan, and heat. When the oil is hot, add the chopped tomatoes and cook through.
Finally, add the onion mixture, and simmer for a further 20-30 minutes. Keep this in the fridge until you are ready to make the full curry. It can keep for quite a while, and you can even freeze it at this point as well, but the tumeric and chilli tend to lose their potency if you do.

This is the basis of all curries.

My favourite curry is a Makhan, or Makana. This is neither too mild and rich like a korma, or blow-your-head-off-Hot like some vindaloos, so it keeps everyone happy. And it is more interesting than your standard tikka or balti. It is also relatively simple, and bar raiding the 'herbs and spices' section of Sainsburys, doesn't require much of an effort to find the ingredients.

This will serve three hungry people, or the elusive "four servings" recommended by diet-conscious recipe authors.

50g butter
1/2 pint curry gravy (as above)
2 tbsp tomato puree (yep, more!)
2 tsp garam masala
1 tsp ground cummin
1 fresh green chilli, finely chopped
1 tbsp (yep, tablespoon) chopped coriander leaf - fresh is best but dried will work
3 tsp lemon juice
1/2 pint single cream
4 chicken breasts, cut into largish chunks

additional ingredients which go well: yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced, another white onion, chopped, and a large handful of raisins.

First, shallow fry the chicken until cooked through and slightly browned. If using, add the peppers and onions and saute until soft. Set to one side.

In the same frying pan, add the curry gravy, tomato puree, garam masala, cummin, chilli, coriander and lemon juice. Stir it all up.
Bring to simmer-point and cook through so the flavours combine, and gradual mix in the butter so it melts in to the spices.
Once all is blended and the butter has melted, mix in the cream and bubble up
Add the chicken, peppers and onion back to the pan, and stir in the raisins. Cook until all is heated through.

Serve with basmati rice, (or whatever the stodgy boiled rice is they so love in Peru)

That wasn't too difficult was it? Expect your guests to be overwhelmed with admiration at your Asian culinary prowess, unless of course, they prefer the company of your friend and can still see chicken feet sticking out of the bin in the kitchen. buena suerte

Sunday, 5 August 2007

All hail Kaldi, discoverer of the black drink of happiness.

Once upon a time, in ancient Ethiopia, Kaldi the goat herder sat, no doubt picking his nose or dreaming of that really beautiful ewe he saw in the market last week, or whatever 16th century goat herders usually did while sitting in a field full of goats.

This was no ordinary day, however. Today, the noise of frantic bleating drove Kaldi to get up from his comfy rock and check on his subjects. The goats were acting strangely; their already-mad yellow eyes were stretched wide and darting about uncomfortably. Some were dancing manically, to music no sober mortal could hear.. others were eating the ancient african equivalent of hot water bottles. The head Ram had just completed a phenomenally complex and ground breaking PhD thesis in a little over three hours, which sadly Kaldi didn't even notice in all the comotion.

The centre of the bedlam seemed to be coming from a small shrub, with dark waxy leaves and bright red berries. Some of the kids were skipping round it excitedly, then taking large bites, chewing the tasty-looking red cherries.

Instead of rounding up the goats and sending them home for the night, possibly with mugs of horlicks and security blankets, as all good goat herders should, Kaldi decided to find out what all the fuss was about. Grabbing a handful of cherries, he chewed them slowly, wincing at the intensely bitter flavour. The cherries had small green seeds in the centre. These were good. You couldn't chew on them, they were far too hard. Kaldi didn't want to swallow them either; even he knew that goats could digest things far better than humans could. But sucking on the hard little green things was very pleasant. Not too bitter, just, nice. Exciting even. Yes, he could take to these. In fact, he was goingtogoandtelleveryoneallaboutitrightnow! Yes! He'druntothevillagerightnow and hemightevendoalittledancejusttocelebrate! Woohoo! Ow. now his head hurt. Butitsstillgood! yusyusyus!

Kaldi abandoned his goats, with no thought to their welfare, and bounced energetically off to the village, where he confidently ran up to the local Imam.
"Hey!" he panted, "Igotthese aaaaaaamazing beans! They're brilliant! you can chewtheredbits and suckonthegreen bits and they make you wannadanceandsingandstuff!"

The Imam gave the manic fool a whithering look. Having mentally slowed down that sentence, he eventually patted Kaldi patronisingly on the head, and calmly told him he must be possessed by an evil spirit. The red cherries were obviously designed by the devil to tempt gullible souls, and therefore must be disposed of accordingly.

Kaldi ran home, fuming, humiliated and nursing the world's first caffeine come-down. The goats could not sympathise. The small, seldolm used walnut thing that rattled about behing their yellow eyes seemed to be aching. This was far too much for your average cloven lawnmower to comprehend.

The Imam, however, in an act of incredibly fortunate but righteous stupidity, threw the cherries on to the fire. They cracked and popped, and turned a deep, shiny brown colour. The resulting aroma was intoxicating, almost like luxurious incense. This couldn't possibly be the work of the devil. The beans must be divine, and the resulting drink a gift from God himself...

Ok, so this is an example of artistic license rather than historical integrety, but you get the general idea! And I much prefer this version of events.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Celebrations - Food fit for a bride?

Wedding food can be more elaborate than any other celebratory feast, even more so than some major religious festivals. As with any aspects of the wedding, a lot of preparation is required. It is significant that an emotional, legal and often spiritual joining of two poeple is celebrated by inviting large groups of friends and family together to feast and share food.

In Mexico, wedding food contains a lot of fruit, symbolising sweetness in the marriage and of course, fertility. Elaborate fruit jellies are made and presented to the bride and her family. In parts of India, sweetmeats are served at the wedding for similar reasons. In Cape Malay cuisine, Muslims cook up extremely complex, rich dishes to show off both their hospitality, and their prosperity.

In Britain, reserved understatment capital of the world, we do not really get it right. The idea is there - get everyone together for the celebration, but collectively we are far more likely to have a light finger buffet than a full sit-down feast. The emphasis is on the celebrating, not necessarily on feasting.

There is one tradition we all adhere to though, and that is the wedding cake. These are elaborate, far more so than any other part of the wedding food. Wedding cakes are usually huge, three-tiered affairs, plastered in white icing to match the bride's dress. They are also almost always fruit cake as well. Whereas this is not necessarily the nationsl preference, it does lend itself nicely to the other purpose of the wedding cake. Fruit cake does not go stale very quickly, it is also quite dry, meaning it is more easily transported. It can be sent to far off relatives who cannot attend the wedding for instance. Pieces are often kept by the newly-weds as souvenirs of the day. It is a very British irony that the main focal point of the wedding feast is not designed to be eaten.

There are those, of course, who flaut tradition. My husband happens to like penguins, so for our wedding, we had a three-tier cake with sugar penguins sliding between the layers, and a bride and groom penguin sitting on top, complete with top hat and bridal veil. We also tried to keep everyone happy; we had one fruit layer, one chocolate and one sponge layer. We did send slices to obscure relatives (I think one bit made it to Peru in fact!) and we kept the sugar pengins as keepsakes.

My friend also had a wonderful cake at her wedding. Not only was it chocolate flavoured, it was also shaped like Terry Pratchett's Discworld - a cake turtle, with four sugar elephants supporting the 'disc' depicted in icing sugar on the top.

This was not the only thing unusual about her wedding food. They opted for a buffet at the evening reception, but for various long and complicated reasons, quite a few guests, and the bride herself, ended up hanging round their house before the ceremony, looking hungry. I offered to cook, and was then faced with the slightly daunting prospect of trying to feed a dozen people very quickly, with few ingredients, in a tiny kitchen, with no idea what they liked... Worse still, I was prevented from spilling anything down bridesmaids dresses, and banned from using any chilli or garlic (my staple ingredients!) for fear of foul breath making the groom run a mile before the ceremony was completed.

I did want the meal to be vaguely unusual and memorable though, and it also had to be varied to cater for all tastes. Eventually I decided on quite a haphazard spread. One very rich red meat dish to add luxury, an 'interesting' chicken dish for the less adventurous, a token vegetarian dish and a simple but filling salad. With my husband employed as commis chef ('Commis' is a technical term, short fot 'commiserations darling, you are the skivvy'), and another friend volunteered at short notice to be the Chef de Partie in charge of dessert, we managed to create the following five dishes in under two hours. I was quite proud of myself.

All quantities in the following are negotiable - basically add to taste, and multiply by the number of people catering for. Eventually, it will just 'look right'.

Dead Bambi Avec Chocolat

A few decent sized venison steaks, roughly cubed
A bar of strong black chocolate
Roughly half a bottle of full-bodied red wine (we used South African Pinotage because we like it)
Half a dozen small shallots, finely sliced
Slog of Olive oil
Several cloves of garlic if the bride doesn't object!
Large pinch of rosemary.
Freshly ground black pepper to season.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, brown off the meat and sweat the shallots with the garlic.
After a few minutes, add the wine and rosemary, and heat through.
When the pan is simmering, grate in the chocolate and stir through until it has all melted.
Simmer for a further 20-30 minutes until the meat is gorgeously tender.

Mojito Chicken Stirfry

Oil for stir frying
Chicken fillets, sliced into strips
Green pepper(s) cut into thin strips
1 large white onion, roughly chopped.
Very large slog of rum (I prefer dark, but any sort works!)
2-3 Tbsp dark brown sugar
Several large handfuls of fresh mint, ripped up
Freshly squeezed lime juice.

First, get a large frying pan/Wok very hot until the oil is sizzling. Flash fry the chicken, onion and peppers until the chicken strips are cooked through and the pepper has blistered. Splash in the rum, (it may actually flambe dramatically if you get it right! This is great fun, looks highly professional, but can be dangerous in small kitchens!). The alcohol will boil off, leaving the flavour in the chicken. Turn down the heat in the pan and stir thoroughly.
When the pan has cooled, stir in the sugar, mint and lime juice. The sugar should thicken the lime and other juices, but shouldn't burn.
Serve immediately, spooning left over juices over the chicken.

Creamy Butternut Squish

One large, obscene butternut squash
(I've always found the bigger they are, the more obscene they look, and the worse they look, the more fun they are to chop up violently. Not that I have issues or anything)
Creamy soft cheese, or mascapone.
Olive oil
Rosemary (preferably fresh sprigs)
Freshly ground black pepper.
Large handful of halved walnuts

This really is more of a squish than a squash.
First, peel and chop the squash into large chunks. Drizzle in oil, sprinkle with rosemary and roast in the oven until soft and slightly caramelised. Stir in the walnuts and continue roasting for a further ten minutes. Finally, stir in the soft cheese and season liberally with black pepper. The squash should slightly disintergrate. Return the oven for a few more minutes to heat the cheese, then serve hot and gooey.

Bel's Famous Potato Salad

Large collection of chopped boiled potatoes, cooled.
Very large calorific quantity of mayonnaise
A few teaspoons of mint sauce (or, fresh mint and a splash of vinegar)
A few spring onions very finely chopped.

This was discovered entirely by accident, when I couldn't decide whether to do minted potatoes or a mayo-rich salad. It is dead easy. Basically bung everything in a bowl and stir.

And finally...

Sticky Toffee Pudding

(with many thanks to Hilary Parker for this, who stepped in miraculously as a highly skilled Chef de Party. She excels in the sticky toffee department and this recipe seems to turn out perfectly everytime with little obvious difficulty)

Most recipes seem to have dates in – however I use sultanas instead because they’re easier to find & I like them! And it still tastes yummy. This recipe happily fills an 8 inch-ish (20cm) square cake tin. I find this divides up into 9 decent portions, more if you’re not that hungry!
I’ve also made individual puddings in 4 inch (10cm) sized ramekins, these make about 6 largeish puddings.

Serves lots!

2oz (55g) butter
6oz (170g) demerara sugar
2 tbsp black treacle
1 tbsp golden syrup
2 eggs
7oz (200g) self-raising flour
7oz (200g) sultanas
10fl oz (290ml) boiling water
1 tbsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp vanilla extract

For the sauce:
4fl oz (110ml) double cream
2oz (55g) butter, diced
2oz (55g) dark muscavado sugar
2 tbsp black treacle
1 tbsp golden syrup

1. Butter the tin or ramekins and dust with flour and preheat oven 200C/400F/Gas 6.
2. Using a food processor cream the butter and sugar together.
Slowly add the golden syrup, treacle and eggs. Continue mixing until the mixture looks smooth, then turn down to a slow speed and add the flour. Mix until everything is well combined.
3. Add the boiling water to the dates and tip into a blender. Secure the lid firmly and blend to a purée.
4. Add the bicarbonate of soda and vanilla.
5. Pour this into the batter while it is still hot and stir well.
6. Pour into the tin and bake for 20-25 minutes until the top is just firm to the touch.
7. Make the sauce: simply place all the ingredients in a pan, bring to the boil, stirring a few times and then remove from the heat. Put to one side until ready to use.
(This keeps ok for a day or two in the fridge if you make too much – just gently reheat on the stove.)
8. Serve the pudding in bowls and coat with the toffee sauce. I like it with vanilla ice cream, but cream or custard go equally well!

The above five dishes easily fed ten people with leftovers (saved in the fridge for the groom and best man as an unidentified surprise!). Whereas I don't always recommend cooking unfamiliar dishes in strange surrounding within rather stressful circumstances, I can vouch for the fact that everyone seemed to enjoy it, and the wedding afterwards was absolutely beautiful. And neither the bride or I popped out of a dresses either!

Monday, 16 July 2007

The Almighty Braai

Ever since we'e had enough garden space to accomodate one, my husband has been on about getting a braai. Soon enough, a huge barbecue arrived and Carl started to get highly testosterone-fuelled and devolved to a state of caveman-esque fire-tending and meat cooking. To his credit, he does not conform to the stereotype of British men in that he is actually quite good at it. The fire stays lit, and the meat is cooked through properly, rather than burnt on the outside and pink in the middle. Its also delicious!

What is the difference between a barbecue and a braai then? I never really understood this until Carl finally took me to South Afica to meet his family, and essentially, to pig out.

It turns out, the word Braai refers to far more than a barbecue. Braai refers to the contraption on which the fire is contained, and what supports the main grill. South African braais are always done over fires, or at least, hot coals. The idea of a gas fuelled barbecue is practically blasphemous. Many campsites and hostels in South Africa advertise the fact they have 'braai facilities'- meaning space for fires.

Braai can also mean the food - well, meat - that goes on it. Afrikaners are big on their meat. Anything is acceptable; beef, lamb, pork... crocodile, zebra, ostrich, and of course 'venison'. Venison in South Africa does not just mean deer meat, it refers to any edible antelope: springbok, gemsbok, impala, even Kudo. (Of these, I personally love springbok, it's very tender. Kudo tastes more like mutton.) Braais can also include potjiekos - meaty stews slow cooked in special cast iron pots. The favorite braai meat is boerewors though. Boerewors are spicy sausages made with both beef mince and pork, but with garlic and spices. Buying good boerewors can be tricky, as there are hundreds of varieties, including 'braaiwors', designed specifically for the barbecue, but tend to be lower quality and more fatty. Steaks, wors, ribs and potjie are all served up in large quantities with miscellaneous salads and copious amounts of beer.

Finally, a braai is a social event. As soon as we arrived in South Africa, we were invited to braai. "Bring beer!" Getting a fire going, preparing the potjie, getting it up to cooking temperature and grilling the meat all takes time. Generally it is a family event; everyone gets involved, even if it is just to toss salad or chill the beers. And of course, everyone can sit round the fire, usually drinking, while it all cooks. Braais take all evening, so it is used as a good excuse for a mini party, to catch up with people and as an all purpose get together. Even better, it has to be done outside. This means there is plenty of space, and the gathering is very informal and relaxed. In the case of Carl's family braai, three generations were involved including our eighteen month old neice, who joined in by getting her braai potato salad mushed up for her, and toddling round offering people soggy bread rolls. The family dogs were also invited, to chew the bones. Sitting round a fire on a warm evening on the edge of a huge mango farm under the mountains in the Lowveld was a wonderful experience.

That said, however, braais are not confined to more tropical climes. We have successfully held braais in our back garden in north east England. Believe it or not, it has been possible to find a whole evening where it was both warm and dry (though peculiarly, this was easier in April than July this year!). We have a large charcoal fuelled barbecue, which is strong enough to hold our potjie pot, and on it goes as much meat as we can get in our local supermarket or butcher. The trick is, to get everything cooked at the same time, which requires a constant heat source, keeping the temperature even over the whole grill. I have made my own burgers and even veggie burgers to be grilled on the braai, and it is even possible to make boerevors at home. Carl cooks away happily, I make potato salad, hungry friends arrive and the beer flows freely. "Gesondheid!"

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Why I hate Ding-Ding food.

For the record, this is an old post, I just hadn't uploaded it here before. I survived three weeks of making ding-ding food. The following explains my total lack of patience with it.

My Dad just rang. "How's the new job going?" he asks. A resoundingly apathetic 'MEH' is the reply.
The New Job, at a pub/company which ought to remain anonymous given the following rant, is neither faaaabulous nor hideous. It is just... MEH.  Working there has numbed so many braincells already that MEH is about the limit of my relevant vocabulary right now.

Sunday roasts....that staple of British 'cuisine'. Homely comfort food. Carl's speciality in fact. Nuked beyond all recognition at work.
Chicken 'saddles' arrive in individual vaccuum-packed frozen parcels. They are then microwaved for exactly four minutes.
If you have the beef option, this means I get to stick another frozen bag in a pan of hot water. The meat is already sliced and comes frozen in gravy.
Mash potato is in frozen plastic tubs, already portioned up, and microwaved.
'Roast' potatoes are sliced up, frozen and bunged in the deep fat fryer.
Miscellaneous frozen veg is 'steamed' in a little plastic bag in the microwave.
Synthetically spherical balls of stuffing are frozen and deep fried too.
Yorkshire puddings are Auntie Bessies frozen finest.
Gravy has never been introduced to the meat before, and comes in individual frozen blue sachets and unceremoniously dumped into gravy boats.
The whole plateful (with each item placed on exactly the right spot on the plate, according to the dreaded Spec cards) takes under ten minutes to "prepare" - they don't even use the word "cook"!!!

Something deep in my brain is beginning to tell me: I can do better than this.
I really really hope I can, anyway. Is this really better than being unemployed?

Nevertheless, Carl sends me cute little Positive Affirmation messages when I'm at work: "Going to make my Bel the best roast in the world ever today! xxx" At least I get decent meals at home then...

I also found this, which tells you all you need to know about the food there:


The wonderfully named Potjiekos

Another enormous South African feast. Potjiekos (pronounced, delightfully, Poi-kee-koss) is perhaps even more of a social event than a Braai, mainly because it can be an all day affair. Potjiekos literally means Pot Food, it's a huge stew where everything is cooked in one big pot. Potjie pots can be bought in South Africa although I have never seen them anywhere else. They are large round cast iron pots with lids, and look remarkably like witches' cauldrons. A traditional potjie has three legs, so it can stand in, or over, a fire. You can now buy 'platpotjie', with flat bottoms too however, enabling them to be used over gas hobs. All are very heavy and awkward, and from personal experience, a right pain to get through customs when faced with baggage weight limits!
The pots themselves need a lot of looking after. The cast iron can easily rust, and although we all need more iron in our diet, this is not the best method of obtaining it! After initially 'firing' by viciously scrubbing it and then heating oil in it until it smokes, it then needs to be cleaned thoroughly after every use, and re-oiled before storage. However, the more the pot is used, the better it is for cooking.

The history of the Potjiekos started with the Voortrekkers, Dutch explorers who first moved their settlements out of the Cape, and slowly conquered a larger area of southern Africa. This meant, among other things, that whole families spent a long time travelling together, living out of wagons. The potjie pot was relatively easy to transport, and this style of one-pot cookery suited outdoor cooking over open fires. Whatever animal was shot that day ended up in the pot, with a new animal added each day, guts and all, making for a very interesting stew!

The contents of modern potjiekos is entirely a matter of personal preference. The Afrikaners will usually opt for meat, meat and more meat, but this is not always compulsory. The idea is to slow cook it, so it is ideally suited to tougher meats; an Afrikaans staple is mutton, although I use lamb since it is more readily available in this country. . Along with meat goes 'filler' – usually potatoes, but sometimes winter squashes such as pumpkin, or even pasta for the more experimental cooks. And then vegetables (as long as you have onion in there, everything else is negotiable). And then spices. You can actually buy official potjiekos spice mix, but the packet does not admit what goes in this. At an educated guess and a good sniff, I would say a lot of garlic powder, chilli and monosodium glutemate (MSG). Cape Malay cooking, with the heavy Indian influences, use a lot more spices, often giving the dish a very rich, sweet taste, and in my humble opinion, far more pleasant than excessive use of MSG.

My first taste of potjie was at my husband's family's house, on a mango farm in the Limpopo province of South Africa. My father in law was extremely proud of his creation, cooked on a braai he had built himself. He was very attentive to the pot, stiring away merrily, whilst all the time getting us all to chop things for him, and swigging from cans of his beloved Castle lager. Potjies take so long to do, it is more or less compulsory to start the drinking several hours in advance!

While this recipe is not necessarily the most traditional in terms of ingredients, it is far quicker and more simple to cook than other varieties. This should not take much longer than an hour to do. It is also extremely rich. Biltong, incidentally, is just portions of dried meat, like jerky. This recipe can easily be doubled or halved,depending on the size of the feast, the trick is to keep the ingredients in proportion with one another.

Biltong Potjiekos – By Les Townsend

Serves 10-12

6 onions, chopped roughly
1.5kg shell pasta
1kg grated biltong (any animal!)
750ml cream
3 green peppers, sliced
5 chicken stock cubes
5 cloves garlic, crushed
6-8 tbsp tomato paste
1kg cheddar cheese, grated
500g mushrooms
Vegetable oil

In the prepared potjie pot, fry the onions and green peppers in a little oil until softened.
Combine stock cubes with 1½ litres of boiling water and add to the pot. Add the pasta and cook through.
Add the cream, biltong and cheese and cook until thick and bubbly.
Finally, add the mushrooms, heat through, and serve.

Now we have established the basics of potjie cooking, here's a more traditional recipe. 'Bredies' are a Cape Malay stew, slow cooked, and go perfectly in a potjie pot. I came across this recipe when on a cultural tour of the Townships around Cape Town; the original uses mutton, but I adapted it to include ingredients you are more likely to find in Britain. Desperate to try out the potjie pot that I had lugged half way around the world, I first cooked this for my parents, using lambs' neck slices from their friendly local (Welsh) butcher. My parents are the sort who shudder at the thought of garlic and adding even half a teaspoon of chilli powder makes them gibber incoherently in the corner, rocking backwards and forwards alarmingly. As such, I did not go for the interesting Cape Malay curries, which can also be cooked in this manner. The spices in this give the dish a warming aromatic flavour, but for anyone prone to ordering the blandest thing on the menu, this is not gastonomic terrorism. Just close your eyes when you add the garlic.

Lamb's Neck Potjiekos – loosely based on Cass Abraham's Tomato Bredie

Serves 4 hungry people

8 slices of lamb's neck, including bone
very large glass red wine (Pinotage of course!)
250g new potatoes, chopped (halved if small)
1 large onion, roughly chopped
2 red peppers, sliced
12 vine tomatoes, halved
1½ tsp ground cloves
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp sweet paprika
3cm fresh ginger, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp fresh chopped coriander
Plenty of vegetable oil.

Add the cloves, cinnamon, paprika, ginger and garlic to some oil and heat in the potjie pot until fragrant. Add the meat and potatoes to the pot, then add layers of onion and pepper. Finally, add the tomatoes to the top of the pot, and sprinkle over the coriander. Pour the wine over the top and allow to drain through. Put the lid on the pot and leave to simmer.
After half an hour, stir the pot well so that the meat is now on the top. Cover again, turn the heat down if necessary, and leave to slow cook for as long as possible. Good after two hours, even better the next day.
Serve with rice – if you have room!

The Social Life of Food

An old Portuguese legend tells of that most creative of dishes, Stone Soup. Stone Soup was first made by hungry Travellers, who, arriving in a quiet village with no money or provisions, were refused food by the locals. Desperate for something to eat, they set about boiling a large stone in nothing but water. Soon enough, the villagers were intrigued. Not wanting to show too much interest of course, each wandered over separately to inquire what the Travellers were up to.

We're making Stone Soup!” came the reply. “It's nearly ready.” And with that, they would enthusiastically taste it. “Almost perfect. Almost, but, it needs a little seasoning. Could we trouble you for a little salt? Just a pinch will do.”

So, one villager brought salt; no-one can deny a cook a little salt, can they? The soup was definitely getting there, but it could still do with a little something. Stock? Could anyone spare some stock? It would make all the difference. And potatoes. Just a few, you know, to thicken it up a bit. “We want to make sure there's enough Stone Soup to feed everyone, after all.” One villager was convinced that a handful of greens would also be a perfect addition to the wonderful Stone Soup. “A little pork too, perhaps? Not too much, you don't want to drown the flavour of the stone....”

Before long, the whole village was enjoying a delicious, simple, Stone Soup, and the Travellers got their dinner. The best part of course, was that the stone was so good, it could be saved and reused infinitely.

The purpose of this legend is unclear. Perhaps it is just teaching that something can come from nothing. Or that too many cooks don't actually spoil the broth. Have your stone and eat it too! Maybe it is a stark warning – do not strange trust men boiling water by the side of the road? Either way there are now numerous restaurants in Portugal selling the legendary Stone Soup, or Sopa de Piedra. That surely is the point. Good food can be created out of the simplest of ingredients, and that the acts of cooking and eating can, and should be, enjoyable social events. Food has a social life all of its own.

A Companion is literally, someone you break bread with. We hunger after our ambitions. When we realise something, we wake up and smell the coffee. Traditionally, the “breadwinner”, once he has earned his crust, comes home to his “sugar” “honey” or ”sweetie”, who will be sure to know the way to a man's heart. Troublemakers are known as the 'bad apples.' Pregnancy is euphemistically called “having a bun in the oven.” More strangely, when accompanying a loving couple, we are seen as a 'gooseberry'. When suspicious, we know trouble is brewing. We English 'Roast Beefs' sneer at the 'Frogs' across the channel, or the 'Sauerkrauts' further north, that is until our 'goose is cooked' and we have to eat our words or eat humble pie. We are occasionally starved of love, we lap up information, and we cook up plans. That is just the way the cookie crumbles... Food pervades virtually every aspect of our lives, even down to our language, expressions and proverbs. Food is also culture. The methods of cooking, preparation and serving dishes varies as much between cultures as the choice of ingredients does. One man's roast dinner is another's Holy Cow.

Food also fulfils a basic, instinctive need. We are all required to fill our bodies with some sort of energy source on a daily basis. Every culture on the planet has some sustenance system in place with which to satisfy this need. We humans are lucky in this respect, in that we are omnivorous; we can and do eat anything, unlike, say, poor Koalas that are restricted to a diet of eucalyptus, eucalyptus and more eucalyptus. Instead, we have the whole world in which to grow and produce a huge array of the most luxurious and exotic foods imaginable, and we choose to eat such nutritious culinary delights as Pot Noodle, burgers, oven chips, breakfast cereals covered in chocolate with added marshmallow shapes, cheese strings, canned spaghetti rings, Dinky Doughnuts, donner kebabs, microwaveable rice in little bags and chip shop curry sauce.... I have recently had the pleasure of feeding a group of bright but infinitely cynical teenagers who took up residence in my café. In their world, the five food groups consisted of grease, sugar, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol (although there was always some debate whether 'grease' should be replaced with the more specific “cheese” or even “chips”, and whether chillies should be a food group in their own right.) That said though, they had no hang ups about food as such, as long as it was put in front of them instantaneously and cost them little more than £2.50 a go. This was a demand I was happy to fulfil, as long as no baked beans were ever involved.

This book is not designed to preach, however. The recipes here are not included with a specific diet mantra in mind, following them religiously will not make you lose weight unless you are already morbidly obese (in which case, get help from someone more qualified!). They will not change your life dramatically, I doubt they will help you reach inner peace or enlightenment, and they definitely will not help if you happen to be allergic to half the ingredients.

It also does not make much difference where the ingredients come from. We are assured on a seemingly hourly basis that misshapen vegetables hand-grown in organic certified soil from the Garden of Gethsemane, watered with pure mineral water and tended by born-again, virginal vegans and transported to your (feng shui'd) table by Buddhist monks on solar-powered bicycles, are far better for you. Somehow I doubt it. I would prefer to believe that the animals I eat had happy lives, that vegetables were not sprayed with all manner of carcinogenic chemicals, that the growth of cereal crops did not further the destruction of the rainforest, and that the fruit was not grown by underpaid workers in the developing world, but I am not naïve. As such, I support the Fairtrade movement whenever and howsoever I can, and I try to buy in as much locally produced food as possible. However, buying non-organic food from corporate multinational supermarkets does not mean you will be eternally damned. Honest.