Sunday Times: The decline of the British high street

Freddy Cole of Tissimans, Bishop's Stortford. Photo: Paul Vicente

The building stands on a quiet street near the top of a hill. It is buckled and listing with age, and its handmade bricks, laid hundreds of years ago, are weathered and cracked. The timber frames sit impassively in the white plaster; the bay windows — added in the 19th century — jut out from the gloomy first floor.

Some parts of the building date as far back as 1132. It only just survived an earthquake in 1884. A newspaper report from the time describes how “employees rushed downstairs, thinking the workroom at the top of the old-fashioned house was falling outwards”. Opposite stands the medieval church in which Cecil Rhodes’s father preached.

The building features on almost every postcard of the town. It is believed to have been a tailor’s since 1601, making it possibly the oldest menswear business in Britain and, reputedly, one of the 30 oldest family businesses in the world. It once made the liveries for the staff of Windsor Castle and Sandringham. Dr Johnson’s servant bought a hat there in 1769; the sculptor Henry Moore bought his suits there in the 1970s.

Inside, muffled by the hanging jackets, uneven floors creak under thick rugs. It smells of leather and dust. A white changing cubicle with a single chair and an old wood-framed mirror has an almost Shakerish simplicity. Time has afforded the place a feeling of permanence, but last week Tissimans, in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, announced that it was to close.

“We’ve got one customer who has been shopping here since 1956,” says Richard Nash, one of the full-time staff. “It’s been a pleasure to work in a building like this; it’s just a lovely environment.”

“We’re very disappointed,” says the current director, a wispy 22-year-old named Freddy Cole. His father — a tailor and a tailor’s son — bought Tissimans a few years ago, having wanted to own it for the whole of his working life. He, and another tailor who has worked at Tissimans for 40 years, were too upset to speak.

Cole blames the collapse of the business squarely on the recession. But Bishop’s Stortford remains a wealthy place. Unemployment stands at about 4%, half the national rate. It’s an important commuter town, only 40 minutes from London by train, but almost everyone I speak to agrees that it is in decline.

“It’s just dead,” says Danny Collins, 27, who works in a butcher’s shop. “I’ve been here five years and the town has gone from up here [he holds his hand by the top of his head] to down here [he moves his hand to waist level].”

“In the last six or seven months we’ve lost all but one of the recognised family businesses that have been here for 100 years or more,” says Sarah Turner, curator of the Bishop’s Stortford Museum.

Haberdashers, furnishings shops and booksellers have all gone under. Pearsons, a department store, closed last year. In Florence Walk, a small arcade off the high street, several premises are vacant, victims of the town’s decline.

McDonald’s: a healthier, happier meal, or just good PR?

A McDonald's chicken salad. Photo: Graham Turner for the Guardian

A comment piece for the Guardian

McDonald’s has announced the creation of 2,500 new British jobs. Over the last five years, in fact, the company increased its UK workforce by 20,000 – a rise of over 20%. Many of these McJobbers will be workers on benefits or “Wobs”, of course, and they’ll still be miserably underpaid on seven or eight quid an hour while, last year, the company’s chief executive James Skinner took home almost $9m.

But whatever its reputation among those of us who care about working conditions, public health, the environment and the quality of the food we eat, McDonald’s is still doing extraordinarily well. Every day, 68 million people visit one of its restaurants. If you’d bought its stock in 2004, when Morgan Spurlock released Supersize Me and some people predicted the eventual death of the giant, you’d have tripled your money by now.

The McDonald’s PR campaign of the mid-noughties has undeniably been a success. But did the chain actually improve, or were its changes merely cosmetic? In the UK, at least, I would argue McDonald’s felt genuinely compelled to act on some of the concerns people had raised about it. It introduced more salads and fresh fruit to its menus, it began to use only free-range eggs and organic milk, it made its revolting coffeeRainforest Alliance and it began to recycle much more than it had before. People argued, with some reason, that the lettuce leaves were just fig leaves: that healthy-ish food in a burger joint was only a “vehicle to sell more burgers and fries”, as one anti-junk food campaigner put it to the New York Times

In part, she was probably right. But Jamie Oliver was right as well: it’s now possible to eat a relatively healthy meal in McDonald’s. (This is if you define “healthy” as merely “not high in fat and sugar”: a narrow definition, but the most important in the debate on obesity.) This is an undeniable improvement on the situation 10 years ago. Many people thought that putting calorie counts on menus would look stupid or nannying, but those numbers turned out to make it much easier for people to make better choices about the food they buy. Middle class as I am, I use them in Pret sometimes. Anyone could guess that a ham and cheese toastie is going to be more calorific than a tuna salad, but few would necessarily have realised the toastie has well over three times as many calories as the tuna.

While it’s clear that McDonald’s continues to make it easy to eat very badly for very little money, I’m not convinced it’s reasonable to blame it alone for the obesity crisis. Blind though it perhaps is of me, I still marvel that it can raise, kill and butcher a cow, make a bun and cheese with all those weird chemicals, lurid colours and sugar, van everything round the country or the planet, pay the rents on the restaurants, hand its staff their abysmal wages or million-dollar bonuses, market itself ferociously, and still sell a cheeseburger for 99p.

Continue read at the Guardian

Mr Toad, the flouncing, volcanic, squirrel-shooting charmer

A piece for the Sunday Times in which I asked friends of Michael Winner what he was like 

Friends of Michael Winner describe a man who enjoyed a reputation for being obstreperous but whose public image masked remarkable flashes of kindness and generosity. “His veneer was that of a barking rottweiler,” says Henry Wyndham, chairman of Sotheby’s, the auction house. “But he was a poodle on the inside.”

Many who knew him well describe an engaging contrast between the character and the man. “He played a version of himself,” says the director John Landis, who worked with Winner on films during the 1970s and later became friends with him. “His public persona was kind of a grand gesture: underneath it he was charming, funny and warm.”

Landis describes Winner working on the set of Chato’s Land in 1972: “He was outrageous, walking around with a big cigar and barking orders at people. There was a kid, maybe 20 years old, very upper class — he actually went on to become famous in politics — who always had to carry a chair behind Michael in case the director chose to sit down. It was like a sight gag.”

Friends who enjoyed Winner’s outrageous behaviour sometimes took vicarious pleasure in witnessing the results of his short temper. “Undoubtedly Michael’s bark was worse than his bite,” says Sir Roger Moore.

“But before any bark he would get a little red blush in his cheek. Michael Caine and I noticed this on the set of the film we made with him, Bullseye!. As we saw the cheeks reddening, we would say ‘Here it comes’ and watch from the sidelines as our beloved director gave what-for to someone on set.”

Continue reading at the Sunday Times (£)

At home with sous vide

Eating sous vide rack of lamb. Photo: Charlie Bibby for the FT

A feature for the Financial Times on sous vide cookery and Modernist Cuisine

In front of me is perhaps the most impractical cookbook I’ve ever used. Modernist Cuisine at Home is a vast, expensively photographed, thuddingly self-important tome, with an RRP of £100. It’s the smaller, domestic version of an even more ambitious, six-volume work called Modernist Cuisine, which has 2,438 pages, weighs 20kg and costs just under £400. Conceived by Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive who left the company at 40 to devote himself to gastronomy, the retiring headings of Modernist Cuisine at Home include “The 10 Principles of Modernist Cuisine”, which include the dictum: “Cuisine is a creative art in which the chef and diner are in dialogue.”

Comparing the creations of Heston Blumenthal to those of Joyce, Picasso and Le Corbusier, Myhrvold celebrates chefs who are “always at the forefront, pushing the boundaries of food and cooking”. Many of the book’s dishes – Thai soup, braised short ribs, mussels marinière, pizza margherita – sound familiar. But its ingredients, which include xantham gum, soy lecithin, malic acid, diastatic malt powder, N-Zorbit and Insta Cure #1, are not. They read almost as a reaction against the producer-led, rustic cookery that has characterised home cooking on both sides of the Atlantic for the last 20 years.

Central to this alleged movement is sous vide or “under vacuum” – a cooking technique where you seal food in a vacuum pouch, then put it in a water bath so it cooks at a constant temperature – sometimes for hours or days at a time. Typically, when you sear a steak, the outside of the meat will be well done, and the middle will be about right. In theory, a sous vide steak should always be cooked perfectly because it has been heated to the ideal temperature throughout. Nor should it overcook, unless that temperature is raised. When it’s time to eat, the bag is snipped open and the meat briefly seared in a pan to take on some colour.

Sous vide emerged in fancy French kitchens in the 1970s, and gradually caught on elsewhere. Ferran Adrià made extensive early use of sous vide during the 1990s at El Bulli, and he and other “molecular” chefs such as Blumenthal have helped spread it to more ordinary professional kitchens. It’s now in a number of British gastropubs.

Continue reading at the FT

How to cut food waste

'The typical British household could save £50 a month by minimising its food waste'

A comment piece for the Guardian

The figures are stark: up to 2bn tonnes of perfectly good food is wasted every year – between 30% and 50% of all the food produced around the world. In Britain alone we waste a quarter of all the food we buy. This includes 1.6bn apples – 25 each – and 2.6bn slices of bread. If you could somehow get all the food we waste in the UK into the bellies of the world’s malnourished people, two-thirds of them would no longer go hungry.

Much of this waste is cultural. Your average Briton wastes 112kg of food a year: Germans, who are much more frugal about food than we are, fritter only 15kg. (Americans are even worse than us.) And that shows we could change some of this. Wasting food isn’t merely bad for its own sake: as Tristram Stuart shows in his powerful book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, it damages the environment, uses up dwindling resources, and contributes to the rising cost of food in the developing world. The more food you buy that you don’t need to eat, the hungrier goes the global south. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) calculates that the typical British household could save £50 a month by minimising its food waste.

There are several easy steps many of us can take to reduce our own waste of food. One of the most important is to treat use-by dates with scepticism. Supermarkets are quite reasonably terrified of poisoning their customers – Stuart shows how they calculate those dates for people who leave their shopping in hot cars for hours on end, put it in poorly working fridges, and so on. Evolution has given you clear and powerful senses that can help to determine if meat or produce has gone bad. Bear use-by dates in mind, of course, but you know from the smell of the milk if you shouldn’t be drinking it.

Continue reading at the Guardian

The RSPCA’s prosecution of Louis Cole, goldfish eater

Louis Cole eating a goldfish

A feature for the Guardian

You may remember Louis Cole, the man who eats strange things. He became a YouTube celebrity by munching live scorpions, maggotty turkey legs, giant ragworms and the like. In April this year, he uploadeda video of himself eating a live goldfish (YouTube has since removed the video but, inevitably, it’s available elsewhere): he lifted the creature out of its bowl, held it up briefly then bit down on its head, chewing up the animal and swallowing it. Tasteless and crass the act may have been, but the creature was dead in a few seconds. If it suffered, it didn’t suffer for long.

At the end of April, Cole received a hand-delivered letter from the RSPCA telling him that he might have broken laws relating to animal cruelty, and threatening that the police would come to arrest him if he didn’t reply. Fish, like all animals with a backbone, are covered by legislation in a way that scorpions and tarantulas are not. Faced with an official-looking document and the risk of arrest, Cole got himself a lawyer. He was told he faced a £20,000 fine and up to six months in prison. For eating a goldfish.

Whatever you think of Cole’s brand of shock eating, the RSPCA’s approach towards him over the course of this year looks heavy-handed. “I felt from the start they wanted to pin me up and make an example of me,” he says. He was initially interviewed at a police station. On one occasion, “I was told I needed to see them within a couple of hours or a warrant would be issued for my arrest. They drove to meet me and I sat in their van answering questions. I didn’t have my lawyer with me and he felt this behaviour was underhand.” The RSPCA confirms these events, though it says he was free to leave at any time.

Cole chose to fight the accusations because he worried “if I’d admitted any guilt it might be taken into court, and I might end up with a hefty fine or a prison sentence”. Throughout, he claims, “I was under the impression that they had some level of power, that they could enforce certain things.” In fact, the RSPCA is merely a well-funded charity that, among other actions, brings private prosecutions against individuals. It has no special powers whatsoever, although it sometimes looks as if it might. Its inspectors wear uniforms that look very similar to those of the police, and turn up unannounced at people’s properties asking to inspect, for example, animals’ living conditions. (You have every right to refuse and shut the door if this happens.) Its number ends in 999.

Continue reading at the Guardian

The joy of Christmas feasting

'Christmas husbandlie fare' indeed

A comment piece for the Guardian

Prepare to unbuckle your belt. On Christmas Day, the average Briton will consume 6,000 calories, the equivalent of almost 5kg of egg fried rice, or 24 baked potatoes. A Christmas dinner main course is only 1,000 calories, but all the extras, puddings and booze tip the scale.

And a good thing too. Though the modern Christmas dinner is a fairly recent composition, feasting at the midwinter solstice is probably as old as civilisation in these islands. And from the Normans to the Tudors, the elements of Christmas dinner barely changed. If you were rich you ate lots of meat, especially peacock and boar. If you were poor you put some scraps of meat into your porridge, perhaps killed and ate a chicken, or used a bit of expensive, treat-day spice.

Frumenty was a sloppy medieval puddle of minced mutton, onions, currants, wines and spices. The food writer Florence White called it “England’s oldest national dish”, and it’s the forerunner of Christmas pudding. Some time around 1550 emerged its cousin, the Twelfth Night cake, one of the earliest spiced cakes. Whoever cooked it baked a single hard bean within it, and the person who received this became King or Queen of the Bean: it was their job to direct the evening’s festivities.

Turkeys reached Britain in the 16th century, and quickly became “Christmas husbandlie fare”, as writer and farmer, Thomas Tusser put it in 1573. Henry VIII is popularly believed to have been the first monarch to eat a Christmas turkey. The Puritans disapproved of the Christmas feast, but by the 18th century people had started to celebrate it again. On Christmas Day 1716, the Prince Regent (later George II) sat down to plum broth with capon, partridges, beef, pork, turkey, woodcock, stag’s tongue, plum pudding, snipe, pheasant, andouilles, brawn and mince pies containing meat.

Pies, in fact, were a vital Christmas food for a long time. It was traditional to bake a rich and long-lasting meat pie to send to your relatives:Hannah Glasse’s Yorkshire Christmas pie of 1747 saw pigeon, partridge, chicken, goose and turkey baked into a solid crust.

But the Victorians, especially Charles Dickens, cemented Christmas dinner in the modern form. The closing pages of A Christmas Carol, with their child-sized turkey and flaming pudding “like a speckled cannon-ball”, display not only a fuzzy Victorian sentimentality but a belief in the virtue of feasting as an expression of love. Dinner at Fred’s: “Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!”

Continue reading at the Guardian

Game on: joining a pheasant shoot

Game birds at O'Shea's butcher in Knightsbridge. Photograph: Michael Franke

I went on a pheasant shoot for The Independent

The British have rediscovered game. Marks and Spencer increased its sales of venison by 340 per cent between 2010 and 2011, while last year wood pigeon sales rose by almost 40 per cent in Waitrose. The UK Game Company says overall game sales were up 30 per cent last year. And this year, for the first time, M&S has started stocking pheasant, rabbit and partridge.

It’s easy to see why. Partridge and pheasant are more interesting than chicken, venison than beef. Game is leaner than farmed meat; it’s free-range and sustainable; and many Britons eat more adventurously than they used to. But many of us are still unsure about game, nervous at its perceived cost, worried that it’s difficult to cook or concerned about its problematic association with bloodsports. I went to a shoot in Sussex to see for myself. M&S, who paid for me to go, say that the shoot is typical of the meat that ends up in their stores.

It starts with the kit. Jeans were outlawed. “A tie is not essential,” they said, so I knew it was. I bought a woollen pullover in what I hoped was a rural shade of green, and a hideous checked shirt. With these, a pair of brown cords, a red tie and a charity-shop Barbour, I felt pretty ridiculous. When I arrived, I was the only man not wearing plus-fours.

Who were these people? Someone who introduced himself Daniel Day Lewis-ly as “an oil man” and lived in Kazakhstan. A partner at a City law firm. A hotelier. A grey-haired, solitary German. And Tom Harvey, M&S’s avuncular meat buyer, who was to teach me to shoot.

All blokes, and blokey blokes at that. The oil man’s Kazakh wife arrived later and stood dutifully behind him, complimenting his aim. But no woman fired a gun, and the only other women I saw were ‘beaters’ or ‘picker-uppers’. The beaters are local people paid to stamp through the undergrowth where the birds are hiding and drive them towards the people shooting; the picker-uppers have trained dogs that collect the wounded and dead. The beaters and ‘guns’ seem barely to speak to each other. There’s also a man directing things: he communicates with the beaters by walkie-talkie and blows a horn to signal the start and end of each drive. The slaughter is remarkably efficient.

There would be six drives that day: I was to watch Harvey for the first, then have a go myself. The guns were positioned perhaps 20 feet from each other. The horn blew, we put our earplugs in, the beaters started beating. Nervous, you notice the landscape properly: a beautiful autumn morning on the dipping downs. Nothing happens for ages, just the whoomph-whoomph of the beaters, the crackle and chatter of the walkie-talkie, the odd caw of a crow.

Suddenly, the first frightened bird comes flapping over the corn. Harvey lifts his shotgun – bang – it tumbles and thumps to the ground. But it’s only wounded, and flaps about in panic and agony. “Grab it and wring its neck,” shouts Harvey. Somehow I catch the bloody, terrified creature and ineptly strangle it. “Leave it. The dogs’ll get it.” The bird’s shit is on my hands.

Continue reading at The Independent