Coca-Cola: still the real thing?

Various cans of cola. Photo: Photoshot/Hutton Archive

A piece for the Guardian on the continuing dominance of the world’s most valuable brand 

A health campaign group today calls for the UK to follow California and ban a specific colouring from soft drinks including Coca-Cola and Pepsi. A byproduct of the process used to make some caramel colourings is a chemical called 4-MI, and although British and European food safety watchdogs have decided its presence in colas is not a health concern, the substance has been found to cause cancer in rats and mice.

Coke is utter junk, of course, but it can be terribly refreshing. I probably drink a Diet Coke every other week. My “brand loyalty” is literally unquestioned – it never occurs to me to buy any other cola, not that there ever seems much of an opportunity to do so. Pepsi has a 9.5% share in the UK soft drinks market, far less than the 17% for Coke and even the 9.9% for Diet Coke. Diet Pepsi lags with a pitiful 5.3%.

On the few occasions I have bought another cola (even that word looks alien and amputated), I’ve never been impressed. Fentiman’s Curiosity Cola tastes flat and monotone, with a lingering undercurrent that reminds me of diesel. One ethically minded food and drinks company is launching a new cola in time for the Olympics. But a lifetime of conditioning and marketing can often make these products taste less like “the real thing” even though they may derive more of their flavour fromgenuine kola nuts.

It’s a brave company that seeks to rival Coca-Cola. The drink has a presence in over 200 countries: “more than the UN itself”, as one of its executives boasts. It’s been the most valuable brand in the world for years. This is all a long way from its origins in the 1880s, when amorphine-addicted veteran of the American civil war concocted a cocaine and caffeine tonic which he claimed cured headaches, impotence and, handily, morphine addiction. After a certain amount of internal wrangling, a man named Asa Candler wound up with the rights to sell the drink, and made a vast fortune from it. He marketed Coca-Cola with a ferocity never seen before, and his commercial heirs have always followed his lead.

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The wandering palate

From degustation to disgusting - our tastes can change for many reasons. Photo: David Levene

A piece for the Guardian on the way our tastes change over time

I still don’t know why it happened. I used to love white wine, knew of nothing nicer with a piece of fish, thought little more perfect than a misted glass of it in the sunshine. It felt right with certain foods, at certain times of day, in certain moods. I savoured and studied its permutations, regions and styles. I thought we were fixed for life.

And then, over the last few months, something changed in my brain, nose or mouth. White wine slumped from exquisite nectar to slightly qualified pleasure to just about fine to something I didn’t seem to want any more. Eventually I could barely touch the stuff.

We know that our appreciation for individual tastes is transient. Air pressure affects the way food tastes on planes. After a big main course, you might have no desire to eat anything savoury but still have space for pudding. Pregnant women often suffer strange cravings anduncomfortable taste changes as well. But in addition to these acute fluctuations, as we age our palates can change forever.

Mostly this will be out of our control. Children tend not to like vegetables, or any strong tastes other than sweet ones, but after adolescence they usually turn away from the most egregious sweets, and some even come to enjoy the sprouts they used to spurn. Old people’s tastebudsoften fail them: when your grandmother complained that x dish or y ingredient didn’t taste like it used to, she was at least subjectively right. People can even lose their sense of taste altogether through disease or the treatment of disease.

But taste is also malleable. You can condition yourself to like things. Most people have to train themselves to enjoy oysters, durian or any delicacy that teeters between repulsive and exquisite. If you stop adding salt to your food, then after a few appallingly bland and colourless weeks, your palate will become more sensitive to it, and you’ll be able to get by with less.

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Outstanding in their fields

The joy of tomatoes. Photo: Alamy

A piece for the Guardian on whether or not provenance matters in food

It’s interesting that some places become famous for growing or rearing certain foods. Raspberries from Scotland. (Any soft fruit from Scotland, actually.) Yukon gold potatoes from Idaho, or Jersey royals. Blood oranges from Sicily, white asparagus from northern Germany, Cromer crab, Colchester oysters. How do these reputations arise, and how seriously should we take them?

I went to the Isle of Wight last week, a static piece of miniaturised postwar England. It’s becoming better-known for its tomatoes, all of which come from the same company. This began as a co-operative some years ago but is now owned by a Portuguese conglomerate.

The tomatoes are probably the best I’ve tasted. Fat and crimson on spidery vines, they grow in vast glasshouses in a sunlit valley. Around a third are organic. Their flesh is firm, their skins are leathery, and their seeds bathe in delicious acid juice.

The growers take them seriously. You have to wander round the glasshouses in white overalls, wearing latex gloves so you don’t spread any disease to the plants. The pickers aren’t allowed to bring their own tomatoes in for lunch. The farm recycles its rainwater and uses its compost to heat the glasshouses, and sets aside a portion of land under the Conservation Grade scheme. It sells standard tomatoes to Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and M&S, but also grows dozens of heritage varieties. These look amazing, pinched and pendulous or tight and tiny, in jade, bright yellows and blackish purples.

They’ve started a side business selling ketchup, pasta sauces and the like, all exquisite. I’d previously followed Nigel Slater in arguing that a bloody mary is best made with cartoned tomato juice, but the local stuff was so fresh and delicious, it would be perfect for it.

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The KFC Cookbook

Colonel Sanders and his wares. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A piece for the Guardian on the ‘KFC cookbook’

On Monday, KFC will release what its spokeswoman calls a “long-lost” autobiography and cookbook, allegedly authored by the so-called Colonel Harland Sanders some 40 years ago and sequestered since then in the “vault” of some “forgotten-about storage facility”. The Sanders story remains the basis of the KFC creation myth, and the company has never shrunk from using his kindly, goateed image as a kind of avuncular mask.

I’ve seen a preview of the book and the recipes are deeply unappetising, using lots of canola oil and margarine. There are deep-fried parsnips, a peach cobbler (“If you use frozen thawed peaches be sure to drain them well in a colander”) and “coffee the way we used to make it on the farm”. This last calls for a whole egg, “shell and all”, to be crushed into the coffee grounds. Perhaps it’s sublime.

What’s most striking about the recipes, of course, is how little they resemble anything the chain produces today. (Like BP, KFC now exists only in initials.) There isn’t a Zinger® salad or a Fully Loaded™ in sight. But that isn’t surprising. According to Ron Douglas, who wrote a bookexposing secret recipes and who claimed to have cracked the “11″, Sanders was furious with the “sons of bitches” to whom he sold the business. They “prostituted every goddamn thing I had,” he said. “I had the greatest gravy in the world and … they dragged it out and extended it and watered it down that I’m so goddamn mad!”

In addition to the 11 herbs and spices in the “secret” recipe and the barbecue sauce it claims Sanders created, during the mid-90s KFC served rotisserie chicken supposedly based on a “lost” Sanders recipe. Odd, then, that two-thirds of young Americans don’t even realise he was a real person.

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The host with the ghost

An abandoned 1950s diner. Photo: Wave/Corbis

A feature for the Guardian on restaurant ‘ghostbusters’

Thai restaurant in London changed sites the other day, and marked the occasion by calling in Buddhist monks to bless the new venue. This practice is apparently de rigueur in Thailand: the chanting, incense and holy water, the romance and ritual, are thought to imbue a business with good fortune and the prospect of success.

It turns out, in fact, that religion, superstition and a belief in the paranormal are surprisingly common among restaurateurs. Camellia Panjabi set up the Bombay Brasserie in 1982; it served its millionth customer 10 years later and is still doing well, and she has around half a dozen other restaurants including the Masala Zone chain. “Namita [her sister and business partner] and I like to choose auspicious dates for opening the restaurants,” she tells me. “And we have the sites checked by our Vastu adviser.”

Russell Norman, who has opened a slew of restaurants in Soho during the last two or three years, says: “I’ve always had a thing about the number 86. When I was at Joe Allen in Covent Garden, we had a slate on which were written the dishes the kitchen had run out of. Colloquially, this dish was then referred to as being ‘eighty-sixed’. Of course, the term had other uses too: when someone was fired, they were ‘eighty-sixed’; when mistakes were made, the manager would say to the offender: ‘Don’t make me eighty-six you!’ I’ve had an uneasy relationship with the number ever since.”

Other restaurateurs organise menus and staff rotas around the full moon, or have rules about never giving anyone a knife as a gift. One lingering superstition is the “cursed site”, where restaurant after restaurant founders. Of course, it only takes ones great restaurant (Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, say) to remove the curse – that is, to fit the right concept to the right location.

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The Kracie Happy kitchen powdered hamburger from Japan

The packet came, with its unmistakeably Japanese garishness, its jarring colours, fonts, slashes and squiggles. Inside it lay the Kracie Happy Kitchen powdered hamburger meal: a new and unsettling miniature. Six foil sachets filled with powders, some plastic cutlery and plastic tubs. You open the box, slice along dotted lines, cut out the plastic tubs, get some water, mix the powders separately, spread stuff, microwave stuff, and gradually assemble a fast food lunch, or what such a lunch might look like if it was designed by an alien working to a five-year-old’s drawing of a Happy Meal.

I was in Japan recently for the first time, and experienced one the most refined and elegant cuisines in the world. But much of it isn’t half strange. This is the country where someone – or, more likely, a group of people – decided that the best image with which to decorate a packet of Doritos was two men in wetsuits kicking each other in the balls.

This is the land of tinned bread, 80 different KitKat flavours, octopus ball crisps, candied squid on sticks, food that moves, and cuboid watermelons.

There’s a lot of rote and ritual around food, and there’s a love of small things – tiny fish eggs, little bowls of ozony sea-stuff. People obsess over presentation. And you can see these aspects in the powdered hamburger. Assembling it took me the best part of an hour. I couldn’t read the instructions, so I copied a YouTube video.

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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 haveshown 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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Cooking with cannabis

A couple of brownies that may or may not contain 'special seasoning'

The pretty town of Ashland in southern Oregon puffed its way into the news this week, when a restaurant opened there specialising in a particular kind of baking. The legal position of the cannabis cuisine which the restaurant serves is rather sketchy. Oregon, like 15 other states and Washington DC, permits marijuana use for medical purposes. (Similar legislation is pending in a dozen further states.) Local cops say that the totally unhippyish-sounding Earth Dragon Edibles is breaking the law, but news reports say the restaurant opened “without a hitch”. Apparently sober customers – or “patients”, as they must be known – all seemed keen. One of them, an ex-law enforcement official with a lovely white beard and a tie-dye T-shirt, said: “I’ve seen the bad sides and the good sides [to marijuana], and for 30 years I’ve been disabled and it saved my life so far.” Which is heartening.

I should have predicted what a gargantuan quantity of lore and expertise surrounds cooking with marijuana. My own involvement is limited to a rainily predictable afternoon as a student, resulting in a tray of mulchy, green-flecked brownies. They tasted as if a rodent had died on a compost heap, but nonetheless exposed a previously unseen hilarity in Richard and Judy’s You Say We Pay. (Adam Buxton recognised almost the same thing a couple of years later.)

Inevitably, it turns out we did it all wrong. The psychoactive components of cannabis are best released in warm fat or alcohol: connoisseurs apparently make a kind of butter using the leaves and stems of the plant, or steep them in rum or brandy to produce a liqueur bearing the neat if tautological name of crème de gras.

Cooking with weed has a long and not ignoble tradition. Mixed with ground almonds, milk and sugar into a drink happily called bhang, it’s used in religious rites across much of northern India. Chinese cannabis recipes go back to the 7th century BC, and Bartolomeo Platina included a recipe for “a health drink of cannabis nectar” in the world’s first printed cookbook, De Honesta Voluptate Et Valetudine (“On Honourable Pleasure and Health”), published in 1475.

The brownie is arguably the most famous recipe for weed thanks to Alice B Toklas, who published a 1954 cookbook full of anecdotes about the famous people she had known, particularly Gertrude Stein. (Stein in fact wrote Toklas’s 1933 “autobiography”, which in itself sounds like a fairly stoned thing to do.) The Alice B Toklas Cook Book included a recipe for “Haschisch Fudge”: readers were assured this was “the food of Paradise … it might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR“. Indeed it might.

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All eyes on the pies

Stargazy pie

It’s the British Pie Awards today, in Melton Mowbray of course, where a vast panel of judges will masticate their way through 18 categories of stuffed pastries. As well as predictable pork, banal beef and stalwart steak and kidney, there are classes for “football”, fish, “celebration” and “other meat”, which offer more to the imagination.

The event takes place in a church hall bedecked with bunting; the logo has a union flag emblazoned athwart a handsome pie. It’s touching and quaint, this English obsession with name-tags and rosettes for everyday stuff: white coats and serious, critical faces staring at a table of marrows.

We’ve loved pies for a long time in this country. Alan Davidson thoughtthe word might be a contraction of “magpie”: those birds collect a variety of things, and pies once contained a variety of ingredients.

The pies we have today, with their edible pastries and crinkled crusts, are probably indigenous. But until the 1600s, when people really started to systematise cookbook-writing, hardly anyone bothered to mention how pastry was made or what you did with it. We know that some cooks would get a lump of rye flour, mix it with hot water into a greyish putty, then punch this with their fists and raise the edges of the pie around the flattened bit. The meat – more usually, meats – would then be baked inside it, with water and flavourings. Once it was cooked, you’d drain off the gravy and fill the pie with clarified butter: it would keep for weeks or months in the larder. When you wanted to eat it, you’d make a fresh gravy, heat the pie up and discard the inedible pastry.

One of the loveliest things about pies is their universal appeal. From the start, everyone from the king down enjoyed them. At Hampton Court, the largest oven in the pastry house was 12ft wide and baked pies containing entire venison. Everyone else’s pies contained a mishmash of meats or whatever birds they’d managed to snare. Dorothy Hartley includes a recipe for rook pie in her overrated and turgid tome Food in England. Most rook meat is “bitter and black,” she says: you boil the breasts only in water and milk, put them on top of a steak, “weave bacon into a lattice over the birds”, cover everything in pastry then bake it. “Serve with mustard,” she enjoins (presumably before brisk vomiting).

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Me and my spoon

Spoons made from different metals

A piece for the Guardian on a singularly bonkers dinner I recently attended

Has anything amusing ever happened to you in connection with a spoon? When Private Eye asks the question, the answer is usually no: the Me and My Spoon column features spoons because spoons aren’t especially interesting. Or weren’t until now. The other day I went to a dinner about spoons. Or, more specifically, on what spoons are made of, which would be a good name for an inspirational movie about spoons. It was at the Indian restaurant Quilon, and the idea was to see whether using different metals in cutlery affected the taste of food.

They sat us down in front of seven shiny spoons: copper, gold, silver, tin, zinc, chrome and stainless steel. We were about 12: Harold McGeelooking owlish, Heston Blumenthal with his arm in a sling, some academics, journalists and PRs. The dinner was organised by something called The Institute of Making, which sounds like a university for toddlersbut is in fact “a multidisciplinary research club for those interested in the made world”. “Artist and maker” Zoe Laughlin, one of its founders, was there. Her website, asifitwerereal.org, includes “a selection of biographies” variously written by “a friend”, “a parent”, “a sibling”, “a stranger” (someone she met on the Tube) and “a pet” (“Zoe has no pets,” we’re told).

In front of me was a booklet with background research. “In this project,” it informed, “we asked ourselves how do these materials taste, do they affect the taste of food, and is it possible to understand, and thus design, the affect (sic) they have?” Overleaf was a series of tasting notes on spoons. Copper, I read with a creeping sense of terror, is “found to slightly inhibit saltiness”, silver has “a slight bitterness”, zinc carries an “earthly, dry, rasping tendency” while poor old stainless steel was prosaically glossed as “familiar”.

The food at Quilon is deliciously spiced and complex: it was impossible to focus on the spoons. To me, these varied only in their metal-ness – copper tasted more metallic than stainless steel, which tasted more metallic than gold. As far as I could tell, this was more or less it. But around me cooed a table in raptures at different “flavours” in the metals. “I dare you to try the copper spoon with the grapefruit!” challenged a dauntless soul. “Check out the taste profile of silver with beer foam!” raved another. Even Blumenthal, who looked thoroughly baffled by proceedings, gamely chipped in by observing “there’s a bitterness to the zinc”.

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