Congratulations to Newmarket sausages, but this label has a price

Blue Stilton cheese from Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, has a protected geographical status. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian

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.

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The £250,000 home kitchen that nobody needs

The expensive equipment in a quarter-of-a-million quid kitchen wouldn’t be wasted on Heston Blumenthal. Photograph: Matt Lloyd/Rex Features

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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.

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‘Deskfast’: terrible name, not such a terrible idea

Eating breakfast at your desk? Photograph: Marcus Clackson/Getty Images

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Pity the poor cereal manufacturers. After decades of growth, with Britons crunching and sucking their way through bowl after bowl of heavily processed grain made palatable by salt and sugar and afforded spurious claims of nutrition by “fortifying” vitamins, something has changed. Sales of Crunchy Nut are down 15% by volume in the last year alone, Special K by almost 10%. Even Corn Flakes have suffered a drop.

Instead, people are apparently buying yoghurt drinks, cereal bars, pastries and “breakfast biscuits”, ingesting these in front of computer screens in what one execrable specimen of humanity has shudderingly termed a “deskfast” (the term is contradictory as well as stupid: a “deskfast” would of course mean not eating at one’s desk). Nonetheless, opines a spokesman from one cereal manufacturer: “The culture of eating breakfast at the desk is on the increase. Recession always leads to longer office hours, so with workers spending more time at their desk, products need to be fast.”

There are two possible factors at play here. One is the explanation offered by the cereal industry: that so shackled are we to our precariously held jobs, none of us have time to tinkle some flakes into a bowl and slosh a bit of milk on them (this thesis is somewhat undermined by the fact that porridge sales have increased over the same period: even speedy microwave porridge takes longer to prepare than a bowl of Coco Pops). The second explanation – and the one I prefer – is that more people are realising what overpriced, unhealthy junk most breakfast cereals are.

Why venison is the perfect meat

Venison. Photograph: Alamy

A piece for The Guardian’s Comment is Free on the rise in venison sales across the UK

The British have finally embraced venison. Sales of the meat have risen by 50% in Sainsbury’s compared with last year, while Marks & Spencer sold three times as much in 2011 as it did in 2010. Total UK sales have more than doubled in the past five years, as British consumers have shown a preference for more unusual meats and more game.

As a meat, venison has a lot going for it. Its ferrous, gamey flavour is far more interesting than flabby pork or cheap chicken. Gram for gram, it contains less fat than a skinless chicken breast. It has the highest protein and the lowest cholesterol content of any major meat. It’s thoroughly sustainable and always free-range. Why, then, has it taken so long to become popular?

A clue lies in the name: the word “venison” comes from the Latin verb for hunting: venare. For centuries, venison was restricted to the wild meat that landowning families sourced on their estates. The Normans and the Plantagenets demarcated much of England into royal forests, preventing farming on those lands in order to promote the growth of deer, wild boar and specific birds they enjoyed hunting. It thus became almost impossible for ordinary Britons to eat any venison unless they poached it, and the penalties for that were severe.

This entrenched a perception that venison was intrinsically high-end or “posh”, the effects of which linger to this day. It isn’t helped by the fact that a deer – perhaps especially the majestic red deer of the Scottish Highlands – is an exceptionally handsome creature, in a Landseerish sort of way. When Country Life magazine launched a campaign in 2008 for the UK to eat more venison, it knew it would have to brook fierce opposition from a public inclined to sympathise with good-looking mammals.

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Pret a Manger’s success is deserved – just hold the mayo

Pret staff: a cheery bunch. Photo: Garry Weaser for the Guardian

A piece for The Guardian’s Comment is Free on Pret a Manger

Pret a Manger’s plans to create 550 jobs in the UK and open 44 new branches are good news in an industry still reeling from the pasty tax bombshell. The company’s sales are up 15% on 2011, the profits by 14% to £52.4m. As the economy continues to founder, such expansion is impressive. They’re not a perfect company, but Pret’s success is worth celebrating.

The rise of Pret typifies the improvements in British eating over the last generation. The company was founded by college friends Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham in 1986, with a shop in Westminster. At the time, Metcalfe says: “Eating in London was very grim. There were lots of Italian sandwich bars. Italian food is amazing, but it was like the worst Italian chefs came here.” Towers of pre-buttered bread, greasy counters and tubs of slop were dispiritingly common: Pret was clean, sleek and sensibly designed.

The product it served was, and remains, better than the standard offering of the British high street. Compare its sandwiches with those of Boots: Pret’s are of course more expensive – around £3 apiece instead of £2 – but often taste more than 50% better. The avocado salad wrap is lovely, but they do continue to produce monstrosities – the “famous all-day breakfast sandwich”, the various tepid, salty wraps, the chewy bits of bacon. And they have a strange addiction to mayonnaise.

Still, Pret sandwiches have no sell-by date: 95% of stores give their leftovers to homeless charities. (The company also runs a training scheme for homeless people and ex-offenders, and claims more than 70 people have been “taken off the streets” as a result.) Pret has introduced the public to potentially unfamiliar dishes such as miso soup. Its porridge is lovely on a hoary winter commute. If the nation’s sandwich shops have improved since the 1980s, it is in part a reaction to the higher standards of Pret.

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