I pitched a story on lard to the Food Programme on Radio 4, and they agreed to run it. I crop up quite a bit on the recording, making lard in my kitchen with Tim Hayward and interviewing Jeremy Lee of Quo Vadis restaurant in Soho.
A piece for Comment is Free
It’s a happy day for some sausage makers: Newmarket sausages are the latest food to be awarded Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status by the EU. The sausages now link happily with Arbroath smokies, Cornish pasties, Gloucestershire cider, “Scotch” beef and lamb, Welshbeef and lamb, Whitstable oysters and others. Italy has well over 200 PGIs (and PDOs – Protected Designation of Origin – a similar system of recognition), France around 200, Spain well over 150. Newmarket sausages becomes the UK’s 50th food product to earn European recognition for their quality, history and links with the local area.
I spoke to a tired but delighted Chris Sheen, MD of Musks Newmarket Sausage. “I made my first application 10 years ago,” he says. “It went backwards and forwards as they decided on a geographical area. Defra helped us with the application, then the EU sat on it for a year. By the end, we were on 18 versions of the application – there was a lot of mental aggravation when they kept coming back and asking for more changes, but it was all worthwhile.”
Good luck to Sheen: I hope he sells more sausages as a result of this. But the issue raises a number of questions. Promoting local foods is a sound idea in principle. If you live in Suffolk, it’s nice to help the local economy by buying its sausages. And if those sausages are any good – although I don’t remember having tried them, I’ve every reason to believe they are – then it’s worthwhile to bring them to wider attention.
But it’s not hard to foresee potential problems. After their efforts, producers of Newmarket sausages are now given a shiny badge with which to emblazon their packets. But earlier this year the EU rejected an application by Lincolnshire sausages for PGI on the grounds that there were already “too many variations” of the product in the UK. That was the only reason – too much replication. It was outside the remit to consider the taste of the food, or whether Newmarket sausages deserve to be given a commercial advantage over those from Lincolnshire, even though that’s the effect of this.
A feature for G2
At 11.30pm, the elevator for Duck & Waffle in the City of London has the hot, beery stench of an underventilated nightclub. I already feel jetlagged from heading out for dinner so late, and when it whooshes me up the Heron Tower’s 40 floors in under 30 seconds it gives me an extra headrush. It is a bit like being drunk, which seems rather appropriate for late-night eating.
In New York, Paris and many east Asian cities, 24-hour restaurants have become part of the eating habits of the population. Not in Britain, which is strange when licensing laws theoretically permit round-the-clock opening and many people work shifts through the night. “It may be because of our historically rigid licensing laws,” says Jonathan Downey, a bar and restaurant owner who has held two 24-hour licences. “At Milk & Honey our kitchen is open until 2am and we probably sell five plates of food during the last hour.”
Which is probably why many late-night British restaurants are aimed at drunk people. Buddies in Brighton has featured on Channel 5′s sociological study Brighton Beach Patrol, and with its fry-ups with lager, pizza and burgers, caters to a distinctly vomity clientele.
London’s oldest all-night restaurant, and the only one with a 24-hour booze licence, is Vingt-Quatre on the Fulham Road. “We have security,” says its managing director Simon Prideaux, “who make the call on whether someone has drunk too much.” At 11pm, VQ’s menu contracts to a few soaky classics: omelette, bangers and mash, a full English. The place has lasted since 1995 by harnessing one of the great truths of eating out: the squiffy don’t crave culinary invention.
“To eat at four o’clock in the morning,” says Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic, “things are either going to be really bad or so good that it doesn’t matter where you are. You have to wonder how much value is being placed on the quality of the food.”
This is a guest post, supported by M&S
The Christmas holiday is just around the corner, and that means it’s time to start preparing for the festivities. This includes a number of different things, from buying gifts, to setting up decorations, and implementing any other holiday traditions you and your family may have. Among these preparations, another aspect of the holiday season that you need to be thinking about is perhaps one of the most enjoyable: food and drink. Over the holidays, people tend to relax a bit with regard to diet, and take the opportunity to enjoy some special foods, drinks and treats. And in order to make this aspect of the holiday season truly special for you and the people around you, it is worth taking some time to consider holiday foods in advance. Here are a few suggestions to help get you thinking.
If you have never looked into purchasing M&S Christmas Hampers before, this year might be a great time to start. Not only can these hampers make tremendous gifts, they can also be fantastic simply to have around your home during the holidays. Different hampers come with different contents, ranging from various foods and drinks, to treats, and even recipes and ingredients. A food or treat option like this is very convenient and unique for your home during the Christmas season, and allows everyone to enjoy some fun foods that aren’t always around.
It can also be nice to have at least a small selection of nice drinks around for late evenings spent with family and friends, or holiday dinners. Some people prefer unique Christmas cocktails, and there are certainly plenty of these to go around. But, particularly for large holiday meals, it can also be very nice to have a selection of nice wines around. If you are used to buying relatively inexpensive wine to have around the house, even a few slightly more expensive wines might provide you with new, festive tastes and quality. This is a great, affordable luxury for the holidays.
Finally, there’s the most important aspect of holiday food to consider: Christmas treats. Often depending on family tradition, different people cherish different treats during the holidays. But, whether it’s homemade gingerbread cookies, a special eggnog recipe, or a selection of candies or pastries, Christmas treats do a lot to bring together the atmosphere of the holiday season. Be sure to have your recipes prepared, and your store bought treats ordered in advance, so that you can be sure you aren’t without these crucial elements come Christmas!
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A feature for Comment is Free
There is much to make the gorge rise and the tears well in the “£250,000 kitchen”, a new masterclass in mega-crass designed by Electrolux and promoted by the grumpy firebrand chef Tom Aikens. (Literally a firebrand: he allegedly once held a burning-hot palette knife against the bare skin of an underling.) Consider the insanity of dropping two grand on a food mixer, when many three-Michelin-starred restaurants make do with ones costing half that. Note the jelly-brained insanity of the £6,200 vacuum packer. Behold the embarrassing machismo of it all, the nerdy obsession with kit, the dials, bleeps and touchscreens, the sweaty fingerprints on the chrome.
Heston Blumenthal has a lot to answer for. Perhaps, had he never gone in search of perfection, nobody would have designed a domestic oven whose temperature can be controlled to the nearest 10th of a degree. The daftness inherent in this is obvious. Room temperatures and ingredients vary far more than the temperature of an oven. So if you’re making, say, a soufflé, your main variables are the size of your eggs and the temperature of the room or fridge you’ve kept them in. A few grams’ or a couple of degrees’ difference and your own search for perfection is thwarted.
In any case, Blumenthal is sort of a genius, and equipment like this wouldn’t be wasted on him. I may be wrong, but I reckon the kind of person who can spend on their kitchen what other people spend on their house is unlikely to do much cooking themselves. I’d imagine that the majority of people who buy this stuff will have a private chef who’d be able to produce good food from far more ordinary kit. And this reinforces one of the truisms of many high-end things: they’re wasted on the people who can afford them.
A justified public outcry arose yesterday at news that some traders in east London’s Ridley Road market have been selling illegally imported meats, including Ghanaian cane rat. The bushmeat trade is a destructive and criminal operation, a potential threat to public health, to the environment and even to the security of certain species.
It was almost certainly west African hunters butchering chimpanzees for food that led to the relatively tame simian immunodeficiency virus jumping species and mutating into its monstrous, pandemic cousin, HIV/Aids. The Bushmeat Crisis Task Force has documented the environmental damage wreaked by some bushmeat hunting methods, such as people starting forest fires to smoke their quarry out. Many of the African animals commonly used for bushmeat, including gorillas and elephants, are endangered.
But much of the disgusted reaction to this news overlooks an important point. One tabloid headline capitalised “rat” as though the Ridley Road stallholders had been selling Cockney rodents hauled from the sewers. In fact, cane rat looks rather more like a cat-sized, short-haired guinea pig. Its meat is said to be lean, “succulent and sweet” , and low in cholesterol. In Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria, where it’s more appealingly called grasscutter, people actually farm it.
Every autumn, the Chiangjing river in Hubei, eastern China, begins to drop and the nearby lakes become thick bogs covered in webs of detritus. Men come in little boats, perhaps 100 a day, paddling their way across the sinking river in the dim, blue-grey light before sunrise. They’re looking for lotus root, the starchy staple that is a highlight of much Asian cooking, and gives a sweetish solidity to a winter soup.
I’d never given a thought to where lotus root comes from. Getting hold of it turns out to be fantastically difficult, dirty and dangerous. The roots, perhaps a metre or two long, lie deep in the thick, gluey mud of the lake bed. They’re fragile, and snap or scratch easily, and there’s no machinery to get them out. You wade out into the bog, the mud coming up to your knees, and find a root, work out which direction it’s lying in, then dig it out slowly and carefully by hand. At the end of another 14-hour day, the workers compare their aches, torn muscles, sprained ankles and twisted ligaments like soldiers or a rugby team. They hope for particularly nasty winters, which mean that more people make lotus-root soup, and the price of their product rises.
This is just one segment of the best TV show I’ve ever seen about food. I’d hazard it’s the best one ever made. A Bite of China began airing in May on the state broadcaster there. CCTV is better known for its obliging communist propaganda and unwatchable soap operas than for anything this sumptuous and beautiful. Thirty of the country’s most respected filmmakers worked for more than a year filming the seven 50-minute episodes. They shot throughout the country, from the frozen lakes of the north-east and the bamboo forests of Liuzhou to the frenetic chaoses of Beijing and Hong Kong.
What store do you set by anonymous online reviews? Research from an American university would suggest quite a lot: it recently revealed the terrifying importance customers attach to a restaurant’s status on Yelp. A mere half-star difference in ratings resulted in a considerable jump or plummet in business (interesting given the site rounds a 3.74 down to three and a half stars, and awards four stars to a 3.75).
All the more incentive, you might say, for restaurateurs to try harder. Except that by their nature, the anonymity of online reviews means these sites are ridden with problems. London Eating now suffers for its former success. Seen as influential, it’s so awash with shills, PRs and those with other vested interests that, apart from its page of new restaurant openings, I stopped using it years ago. Harden’s and Zagat are somewhat better: they benefit from editors who scrutinise individual contributors. The Good Food Guide, the latest edition of which came out this week, uses professional – at any rate, paid – critics and is fairly reliable.
Little wonder, then, that many restaurants – such as Hawksmoor – email customers directly to ask them how their meal went, or that two companies have signed a partnership to help restaurants monitor feedback more closely. The system lets the restaurants know what the customers ate, where they were sitting and who served them – this is presumably more useful and easier to correct than “FoieGrasLover452″ having a public tantrum about not being greeted with sufficient deference.
Aperol seems everywhere all of a sudden, and its cousin Campari is also enjoying a new popularity. Frank’s Campari Bar opened in 2009: a seasonal, cash-only cafe on the roof of a car park in Peckham, south London. Its food isn’t great, and it caters mainly for hipsters with dubious facial hair, but it sold / sells cheap Campari cocktails with a nice view.
The first Polpo restaurant now has a Campari bar downstairs, and the Aperol bar at its Covent Garden outpost launched a couple of weeks ago. I went home to Edinburgh last weekend, and discovered George Street (one of the main shopping drags) to be currently given over to a vast tent heftily promoting Aperol spritzes at around four quid a pop. These red Italian drinks are enjoying a new moment of fame.
None of this remotely matters, of course, but I’m still intrigued as to why they should suddenly have become so popular. It may be simply that they’ve been rediscovered by another generation – they went out of fashion, and like many things they came back – although I expect the marketing departments of Gruppo Campari, which owns both the drinks, may have something to do with it.
Whatever: they’re both delicious. Two brothers named Barberi launched Aperol in 1919. The bitter concoction, which is flavoured with rhubarb, sour orange, gentian and something called cinchona, was originally targeted at “active men”, although since the 1930s it’s been seen as something of a girly drink. Aperol is only 11% ABV to Campari’s 25%: many Italians, particularly in the north, rather rigidly segregate the drinks between sexes. The Aperol spritz emerged in the 1950s: a slug of Aperol, a slosh of prosecco and a top-up of soda water. The “cocktail” is only 8%, and a perfect way to begin an evening if you don’t want to get plastered.