Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Putting school dinner on the menu

Henry Dimbleby listening to school kitchen staff.
Back at the end of September, equipped with notebook and camera, I sat in on a forum hosted by public service union UNISON around the latest review of school dinners.

The new review is being headed up by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, the co-founders of the Leon chain of quality fast food restaurants across London.

The forum gave the former the opportunity to meet staff who work on the frontline of school catering.

Unfortunately, given that the Department of Education was involved and had produced letters to authorise their attendance (and UNISON was covering wages for that day), few were able to take the time to attend.

Make of that what you will. But small though the gathering was, that probably produced a tighter and more focussed discussion.

And the question at the top of the menu was “what does ‘great’ look like?”.

Mr Dimbleby observed that there had been “a real improvement in schools in terms of, say, nutrition” since 2005 when the then Labour government took on the issue on the back of high-profile campaigning by Jamie Oliver and more grafting work by the likes of UNISON.

But he added that there were still schools that were not doing as well as they might.

It was reassuring to hear Mr Dimbleby say that he didn’t want the exercise to simply be one of writing a report and giving it to the secretary of state, only for it to disappear from view.

It would, he explained, be “action focused”, carried out in a spirit of complete openness and, if they found “quick wins – things that can be done quickly”, those would be started straight away.

So, “what does ‘great’ look like?” was the question he was eager to ask kitchen staff, as he aims to “create a vision” around school food.

The contributions revealed a varied picture – some of which might not have been expected.
As one member of a kitchen team put it dryly: “It’d be nice to see more contribution from the parents – kids knowing how to use cutlery, for instance.”

For instance, many schools – particularly very large ones – struggle to manage proper sittings for lunch, because they simply don’t have the space for so many children.

But there were plenty of more positive experiences and ideas to be shared, as those assembled there chatted.

Various schemes in individual schools are seeing all manner of initiatives, including using the school kitchen to give parents cooking lessons.

Other schemes include using vegetables grown in the school garden in the kitchen, and inviting pupils to help cook a meal with kitchen staff and then invite parents to taste it (an idea from Sweden).

Unfortunately, these last two fell foul of officials who said that they breached health and safety regulations. Ah yes: good old ’elf ‘n’ safety.

But Mr Dimbleby doesn’t fall for the tabloid hysteria, and argued that that was just an excuse used by people who didn’t like the schemes for whatever reason. And as a restauranteur himself, he speaks from a position of experience.

Staff talked of managing hours and budgets, and formulae based on the number of meals served per hour for the staffing levels they were expected to work on.

Most reported having to work longer than their contracted hours – in their own time – just to get the job done.

An exception was Fay Hart, a cook in East Lincolnshire, who will have been at her school for 28 years next year.

None of her team worked beyond their hours, she said. Surprised, Mr Dimbleby asked why.

“Because I’m the union rep too,” she responded, before adding that she had a contract for 35 hours a week, a rare thing in itself, with most other cooks in her position on 27 hours.

“When they replace me, they won’t advertise the job for 35 hours,” she said. “It’ll be 27.” There were plenty of nods around the room at that.

Inevitably, one of the biggest problems that emerges is that of resources – whether that’s a question of having to budget for a meal to cost between 67-75p per person or simply the time and the staffing levels needed to do the job.

It’s quite extraordinary listening to cooks explaining just what hoops they have to go through to get past managers – to get something like strawberries when in season, for instance.

It was interesting to hear that teams don’t actually want vast amounts more machinery. Dishwashing machines, for example, are less speedy than washing up by hand when you have to get the cutlery and plates back into circulation.

There was a consensus that serving children on ‘flight trays’ was awful – but thankfully, not all schools do it.

One member noted that her headmaster “insists on proper plates – even for children having packed lunches’. In a school with a large number of pupils from deprived backgrounds, the head felt that such relatively simple things were important.

There were interesting comments on the difference between rural and urban schools, with children in the former generally far more likely to prefer fresh food than their urban counterparts, who preferred fast food.

The general feeling was that after the service was moved from “a slow-cooking approach” to a fast-cooking one in the 1980s, it was now having to try the former on the resources for the latter.

Mr Dimbleby highlighted the importance of raising uptake in order to raise standards further: in the 1970s, uptake of school meals was in the 70% range. Now, it’s 40%.

He was clearly aware of the cost issue for parents on low incomes, and seemed to think that a universal free school meal service would be the idea, although as he said, getting such an idea taken up would be “difficult”.

It was a fascinating forum: some of what we heard could seriously depress you, but there was plenty of good practice being related too.

Hearing about schools that do more than simply feeding children – with cookery classes for parents and those school gardens, for instance – was enormously heartening: a much more holistic approach to the issue.

Personally, I was impressed with Mr Dimbleby's obvious enthusiasm and commitment, and with what he actually said and how he listened.

And I got the feeling that the members who had come to tell him about their experiences were positive – indeed, talking to one of the members later, I know that's the case. They found him charming and attentive and genuine. And these are feisty ladies!

One member who spoke to me simply said that they hope that this new review creates positive outcomes.

Okay, do we really need yet another review of something that should, in theory, be so blindingly obvious? Perhaps not, but on the basis of being present here, I have faith that the people given this task are good people for the job.

And whatever happens in the coming months, Mr Dimbleby was certainly given much food for thought, by people who are every bit as committed to doing the best for children as he can be.

• You can get involved with the school meal review here. Please do.

UNISON in education.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Traffic light chaos as everyone ducks the issues

In the last week, there has been a flurry of discussion over a new system of food labelling.

Many shoppers are, apparently, confused by packets and want advice on what’s healthy and what’s not.

And so we have the new ‘traffic light’ system, which an increasing number of supermarkets have agreed to use.

A number of writers have already explained how it works – or more to the point, why it’s dismal. There’s an excellent and detailed explanation here from Zöe Harcombe  and another here from Joanna Blythman.

To précis, the system intends to use traffic light-style graphics to warn people whether a food is ‘healthy’ in terms of how much fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt it contains, based on certain guidelines.

So, because every one of those for, say, diet Coke, Shredded Wheat and white flour comes in low, those foods get green ‘lights’ across the board.

Yet using this same method of labelling, olives would be in the orange on two counts, in the red once (salt) and in the green only once (sugar).

A rump steak sees two green (salt and sugar), one orange (fat) and one red (saturated fat).

A whole mackerel gets an orange for both fat in total and saturated fat, but green for salt and sugar.

And pasta is green on all counts.

So in other words, if this system is correct, you can eat pretty much unlimited amounts of cereals and pasta (with artificially-sweetened drinks on the side), but need to be more careful about consumption of oily fish and even more careful about meat and olives.

I suspect that most readers here already know that that is, frankly, errant nonsense.

For starters, it falls into the trap of providing information on fat that is surely out of date – and even the standard mantra of recent years understands that some fats, such as those you get in oily fish, are essential to continued good health.

So along comes a scheme that is saying all the wrong things – the only wonder is that the supermarkets have taken so long to agree to implement it. Because it is going to lend a false health badge to at least some processed foods.

On assorted forums, people have been commenting that this illustrates the problem of government interfering in a matter such as health.

But while it would be nice to see a world in which no state intervention was required in food (or many other things), the reality needs something different.

In discussions of market economies, the relationship between the large company and the individual customer is treated as though it takes place on a level playing field.

It does not. This is David v Goliath.

Big businesses have huge resources to invest in all manner of methods for promoting their product. They have entire departments dedicated to working out what works as advertising and PR – and even the psychology of the customer, so that they can best exploit what they find (see here for a little more detail)

We know that big businesses such as supermarkets use all sorts of methods to confuse the customer. For instance, they’re supposed to provide the information to allow you to compare the relative prices of different products.

The most obvious way to do this is by giving a price per a set measurement – so for instance, if you’re selling carrots loose, bagged and prepared, you label each with the cost per 100g or per kilo, making the comparison quick and easy.

But there are sneaky ways to make this less clear.

Take this little example.

Online at Ocado the other week, two different jars of celery salt were available. They were different sizes – one was 80g and one 100g. The larger one was organic. The prices were listed – with the cost per 20g listed for one and the cost per 100g for the other.

Now the calculation is hardly difficult, but why not simply use the same for both?

And we’ve all read about how offers in supermarkets turn out to be nothing of the sort – the price having been whacked up for a period before it’s then put on ‘offer’, for example.

As a small businessman – and a Conservative councillor – told me a few weeks ago, regulation protects both businesses and the customer.

There are plenty of theories around about why the UK has seen such a massive rise in obesity (and related illnesses) in the last three decades. What is pretty much undisputed are the health ramifications and the costs that come with this, both in human and financial terms.

So there are serious reasons for any government – which is, after all, supposed to be a government of the people – to be concerned.

‘Get rid of regulation’, some say. ‘That’ll sort it all out.’

‘People should take responsibility for themselves,’ chime other voices.

Well, yes. But why is big business never expected to behave with any more responsibility than that for its shareholders?

Increasingly over the last 30 years, we’ve seen the onus for responsible behaviour in any transaction shifted to the customer alone. And with it, the onus for the customer to be more educated about a product than the seller.

We all have to be experts in finance now, so that we don’t get (miss) sold the wrong pension or mortgage, because companies are no longer in the business of taking pride in caring for their customers, but simply of maximising their profits.

If you’re as old as me, you may even remember the day when banks were trusted institutions.

Today, though, it’s assumed that you’ll research anything you’re considering buying – there’s a reason that Which? Has become so important.

Whatever happened to decent service, eh? How much of our time (outside work) are we now expected to invest in educating ourselves for life in this consumer paradise – because big retailers and big finance cannot, in essence, be trusted? And why should they – it’s our responsibility.

But those questions don’t just apply to financial products – they apply to food too. And there are many things that hinder people being able to cut through the sneakiness to make good choices:

• it’s a simple fact that meaningful choice itself has been reduced. In the last 30 years, the major supermarkets have gone from having 20% of the UK grocery retail trade to having 80% of it. There is a reason that such words and phrases as ‘Tescopoly’ and ‘Tesco Town’ have entered the lexicon;

• at the same time, skills have declined. Not only do we have far fewer proper fishmongers and butchers, but domestic cookery skills have declined too. Vast amounts of knowledge are being lost. Concomitantly, the amount of ready meals sold and eaten in the UK has risen. In 2005, the UK consumed more ready meals than the rest of Europe combined.

Only the other day, this blog highlighted adverts from fast food firms pushing the line that cooking is too difficult and you’d be better having a takeaway.

The point is that we do need regulation – but we need it to be sensible, to be meaningful and to be properly enforced.

The traffic light farce is indicative of how successive governments, for whatever reason, have failed to tackle the key problems, which in essence are the over-dominance of our food culture by processed food and the big supermarkets.

Planning rules need to be tightened or adjusted to help to protect small businesses from voracious, big competitors that simply have so much financial clout that they can bully their way to getting anything they want.

They could also be adjusted to make it more difficult to change the use of premises – so you can’t just buy out a bookshop, for instance, and turn it into yet another franchise of a fast food outlet or a coffee chain.

The state of local high streets in general is a cause for concern – councils have not helped by cutting parking, while supermarkets are able to offer free parking. Such things need addressing, because the situation at present is unbalanced and favours big businesses over small ones.

Talk of a ‘fat tax’ (discussed recently by the Fabian Society as a possible approach to the problems by a future Labour government) is as flawed as the traffic light system and for similar reasons – it would be sending a simplistic and nutritionally unsound statement that all fat is bad. This is wrong, and the problem is not simply fat (and/or sugar) but processed food in general.

Government needs to remember its role and take on big business for the protection of the individual – and the community that is made up of those individuals.

We need to start educating children and young people – not with GCSE lessons telling them how a factory makes processed food, but about how they can learn to cook and bake something that’s then worth eating.

School dinners are currently being reviewed after the sheer debacle produced by the privatisation of the service in the 1980s led to the abomination of the ‘turkey twizzler’. Things were improved by the previous government after much campaigning by Jamie Oliver and organisations such as trade union UNISON – but there is some way to go.

Ban any vending machines from schools. There is absolutely no need for them. Snacking is another problem – and, of course, another big money spinner for very large businesses.

Let’s have a discussion about just how much ‘choice’ children should have at meal times in schools.

We don’t expect young children to choose what subjects they’re going to study in the classroom – why should there be an almost gushing belief that they must have choice when they sit down to lunch?

The lack of a choice in schools elsewhere around the world is not seen as some dismal assault on children’s rights. Yet exploiting children’s lack of knowledge, experience and susceptibility to potentially addictive sugary and salty tastes in the drive for increased profits is an assault on their rights.

And don’t forget that, even when catering companies boast about the healthy options that make available, they’re clever about how they market the least healthy/cheapest options to children.

Nothing that I’ve fleetingly touched on here is particularly radical or even original – and much of it works rather well in other countries, including but not limited to France.

If it does seem radical, that’s simply rather a sad indicator of how far we have gone along the path of believing that profit for big business is the most important factor in a great many decisions.

It seems odd to remember that Conservatives used to be conservative, championing small business as well as big, and stressing the importance of concepts such as heritage and tradition.

Now, in the case of the Parliamentary Conservative party at least, together with it’s mouthpieces in the media (traditional and social), these things seem to have been foresworn in favour of a belief that only profit matters and big is beautiful – so that, if a small business cannot compete with a transnational behemoth, then it’s its own fault and it deserves to go under.

Nothing else matters – and in the kind of attitude exemplified by the US Tea Party idiots, we're seeing increasing pretence that any regulation is pretty much communism.

Indeed, the shattering of our culinary heritage is just one of the root causes/problems of the present situation.

In the meantime, Labour has offered little by way of contrast, with the governments of 1997-2010 continuing the path of deregulation that had been started in the 1980s, and which helped lead to 2008 and the financial crisis.

It also accepted money from big business – thus inevitably limiting its ability to regulate the worst excesses of those businesses. And now it seems to be perpetually running around, like headless (GM, factory-farmed) chicken, without much of a clue what to do.

So whether from ideology or fear or a belief that there’s no alternative – or a mix of all three – governments are allowing the drive for ever-increasing profits to come before the health of the nation as a whole.

The traffic light system is a bad joke – but it shouldn’t be taken as a red light for regulation. It should be a green light for creating regulation that actually works.

• For further reading on a range of issues touched on here:

Shopped: The shocking power of Britain’s supermarkets and Bad Food Britain by Joanna Blythman are essential reading for anyone concerned about the issues.

The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman adds to an understanding of the impact of the biggest supermarket chains on communities and jobs in the drive for ever cheaper prices.

A Taste of My Life by Raymond Blanc is part autobiography, part food science and part food philosophy – with recipes. It’s very good on the impact of the destruction of our food heritage – and what food heritage means in real terms. It’s also a delightful read.

Escape the Diet Trap by Dr John Briffa explains, scientifically but in an understandable way, why ‘all fat is bad’ is cobblers and why it’s utterly counterproductive in terms of weight issues.

Fat: An appreciation of a misunderstood ingredient with recipes by Jennifer McLagan does some of the same as Briffa, but from a chef’s perspective and with recipes.

You can also get involved with the latest review of school meals here.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Marketing at its brightest – the sequel

“Auntie Bessie’s Perfect for sausage Yorkshire Puddings”. This was what I spotted on TV yesterday, while innocently watching Poirot.

Given the recent ad campaign for really easy instant coffee, you can be assured that I got my own little grey cells working and dug a little deeper.

This astonishing product weighs 220g, for which you get six of these small ‘boat-shaped’ puddings, each one of which will hold a single sausage.

They cost £1.65 at Ocado and £1.29 at and are, apparently, “ready in 4 minutes|”

They contain: “Wheat flour, whole egg, egg white, water, vegetable oil, skimmed milk powder, salt”.

Well, there’s nothing too bad there – so let’s do a little comparison.

The recipe I use is from Delia’s Complete Cookery Course. It is foolproof. Yes. I can do it easily.

Her original measurements, for four servings, are:

75g plain flour
1 egg
75ml milk
75 water
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons beef dripping

So let’s translate that into hard cash – using the best possible ingredients at the ‘poshest’ supermarket.

Duchy organic plain flour (British) from Ocado comes in at £1.89 for a 1.5kg bag. So for Yorkies as per St Delia of Norwich, it’ll be 0.094p.

Waitrose semi-skimmed milk at Ocado is £1.18 for 2.27l – so let’s call that 0.038p.

Duchy organic, large free range eggs at Ocado – a pack of 12 is £4.70, so that’s 39p.

Kerrygold lard – 49p for 250g. Let’s be generous here and call it 30g (approximately 15g per tablespoon). So that’s 0.05.

That’s £0.572.

We forgot the salt and pepper? Well, you can imagine what difference that would make.

So double the amounts you make and you’ll still be better off than either the Ocado or Tesco price.

You still need to heat your oven – and you still need to cook them. The Yorkshires might take longer when they’re made fresh, but if you’re doing a Sunday roast, then you’ll already have the oven on for far longer than that anyway.

And if you’re just planning a few sausages for midweek, then they’ll also need considerably longer than four minutes.

Mind, Ocado is currently offering a pack of these, plus six Waitrose “pork and red onion sausages” (400g and usually £2.79), plus a 500g tub of Waitrose Essential Gravy (usually £1.79) for just £5 the lot!

The thing is, I can get half a dozen good, basic pork sausages from my butcher – and I mean so good that they don’t shrink – for just £2.50.

So we’d be up to £3.72 on my own ingredients – and really, gravy will not cost £1.28 to make from a large sliced onion, a little fat and flour and some water or stock (if I have some homemade stock defrosted). In fact, I’ll probably still have money left over for a couple of large carrots to peel and slice and boil too.

That Waitrose gravy obviously does include more ingredients that I’d use:

Water, Onion, Beef Stock Paste, Cornflour, Vegetable Bouillon, Rapeseed Oil, Garlic, White Pepper, Celery Powder, Beef Stock Paste Contains Yeast Extract, Beef Bones, Water, Salt, Beef Extract, Vegetable Bouillon Contains Salt, Dried Onion, Sugar, Leek Powder, Sunflower Oil, Black Pepper, Turmeric.

Mind, via, there’s an “Auntie Bessie’s Homestyle Gravy”, at £1.70 for 150g.

Ingredients: Beef Stock (39%) (Water, Roast Beef Rib Bone, Onion, Tomato Puree, Carrots, Leeks, Garlic Puree, Parsley, Bayleaf, Thyme, Rosemary), Water, Onions, Corn Flour, Beef Fat, Muscavado Sugar, Salt, Colour: Plain Caramel, Garlic, Bayleaf, Thyme, White Pepper, Star Anise.

The final point is that the description of these Yorkshires serving six is also deceptive.

Each one is designed to hold a sausage. So if there are six Yorkshires in a pack that does six servings, that means one sausage per person.

In other words, this is either a side dish – or it’s hoped you’ll eat several at one go, thus increasing your intake of starchy carbs in order to make your amount of protein enough for a main meal.

So whether as a side dish or the heart of a main meal, this is more expensive than making such a dish from fresh.

The little grey cells tell me that Hercule would turn up his nose at such processed fodder. As in most cases, he’d be correct.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Gardening with the seasons

Acton's Lock, Regent's Canal, Hackney
The tall, lithe birches in the carpark have already yellowed and, with the slightest tremor of the air, sent leaves earthwards, floating gently down, until they stand now as skeletal reminders of longer, warmer days.

One of the flats above ours, its balcony railing festooned with boxes, is all but bare, with white petals from its final flowers helicoptering to the ground.

The London plane just on the other side of the wall that divides our carpark from the park beyond, and by which I find myself judging the progress of the seasons (it’s always late), is just revealing the first hints of yellow.

Today day has been grey – not 50 shades: just one. Grey and with dampness hanging in the air.

For all the promises, this weekend – yesterday morning apart – has been dull and grey. And colder. And with the hour having gone back, it’s felt as though autumn proper has arrived with a bang.

Like last Sunday, though, today has also been a time to get out into the garden, creating new habits of all-year-round activity.

Protected tree and planted pots
The core tidying had, by and large, been finished. But as the temperature even in central London dropped, it was time not only to wrap the lemon tree in a duvet of fleece to protect it, but also to think ahead and plant bulbs for next spring.

Two visits to Columbia Road have produced a variety of daffs and tulips, crocuses and snowdrops, with the addition of some anemones and a small bag of scilla.

The tulips include Blue Diamond – which sounds as though it comes straight out of a Dick Barton plot.

And there’s Red Riding Hood, a small, early variety, plus Van Den Berg’s Memory, a traditionally-sized red – the latter of which evokes memories of Amsterdam.

Last weekend, having cleared and cleaned out a number of pots, we planted in the drizzle. Today, there was only the merest hint of rain in the air as we completed the task.

Instead, the wind was whirling around, sending Boudi and Otto scuttling back inside quickly: they don’t enjoy wind in their longer fur. Loki, on the other hand, with her much shorter fur, seems to love it, in a wild sort of way; chasing after leaves.

There’s something enormously pleasing about such work. It adds another layer to my growing sense of the cycle of the seasons.

And here you are, not simply packing away the garden for the winter, pruning away the dying and clearing the decaying, but preparing it too for the start of the year to come.

With a little luck, we’ll start to see the first delicate signs of life pushing through soil and toward the watery sun in January.

In the meantime, metallic winter heathers in jewel-bright hues, and cyclamen in vivid pinks and reds, are adding a touch of colour to the patio.

There’s still work to do. The remains of the tomatoes need to be cleared away and the pots scrubbed out; the final chilies – a large handful or red, orange and green – were harvested earlier and will be grilled and then preserved in a jar of olive oil.

And then there’s the patch at the back. The beans were dismantled a couple of weeks ago, but the rest of the bed needs digging out.

Taking 'baby veg' to new levels: with 5p piece for scale
Now that the temperature has dipped, there’s no hope that the carrots and swedes and turnips will grow more than they have – and they’re not at edible point now.

But it was good practice getting them up – you really can’t just pull them out, I realised, after a couple of failed attempts. That’s what a small fork is for!

The summer, like so much else, ensured they didn’t grow enough, early enough.

The soil needs to be sieved out – I’ve done some already, but it’s backbreaking work, to be done little by little – and then I’ll dig a little compost in: a case of some TLC before planting anything next year.

This is the first year in which I’ve ever gardened all year around – not simply planted a few things and assumed they’d take care of themselves, and done nothing else.

Some weeks ago, Guardian gardening columnist Alys Fowler noted that, if this was your first year as a gardener, you mustn’t be disappointed: it’s been bad a bad year for everyone – slugs and snails excepted.

Which was reassuring. But even after such a bad year, the bug has bitten. And there will be much more to come, with the benefit of some experience and a little more knowledge, as the days next lengthen.

But before then, a winter beckons spent curled on the sofa with my new Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Gardening – a wonderful early birthday present from George – planning and considering and dreaming.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

A week of supermarket food

Broadway Market is a remarkable place – even in the rain.
Last weekend was an unusual one. It started with work on Saturday covering the London leg of the TUC’s March for a Future that Works.

This was an opportunity for a new form of multitasking – emailing and walking at the same time.

I say “walking”, but given the speed of the march and its stop-start progress, it was more of an unnatural waddling gait. And I know from conversations since that it wasn’t just me.

By the end, my thighs were in a state of stiffened, screaming agony and my toes were hardly thanking me for being cramped into boots that were not designed for walking such distances.

The latter serves me right. I have a pair of Docs, but they need wearing in. And Saturday was not the occasion on which to start that process. I’ll need to spend some days with plasters strapped over my heels – or they’ll be shredded.

The day also offered a rare opportunity for trying some ‘street food’. Well, maybe not. In reality, it was a case of whatever fodder I could get for a late lunch in Hyde Park, because lugging something around all day would have been very inconvenient.

In essence, this means: ‘something in a bun’. Apart from chips, that is. Which, of course, go perfectly well between slabs of buttered bread. But such was the exception to the food-in-a-bun rule last Saturday.

I selected a van on the basis of it having the shortest queue, and selected a burger. If not on the rocks, I declined the cheese, which was a de rigueur square of plastic, and opted simply for the ketchup to add some moisture.

The bun was better than expected – it wasn’t one of those rather dismal cotton wool affairs – and the burger itself seemed as though it was proper meat, properly made.

So well done to which caterer it came from.

The Royals Parks staff deserve a mention too, for having done wonders to avoid the entire rally area being a complete quagmire after the combined rain and concert activity of the summer.

Later, back at home and slumped in a chair while The Other Half (who’d also been working, but on his backside and not his feet) cooked up a sausage dinner, it dawned that the chances of my feeling like getting up early the following morning to do a weekend food shop were remote.

The most obvious solution was to break my usual rules, and add groceries to an order from Ocado for Sunday.

With fresh food involved, I checked provenance and opted for organic as much as possible.

On Sunday itself, we had steaks from Daylesford – Ocado is now marketing their produce as a ‘farm shop’. I cooked them in the oven and they were pretty decent.

I did leeks and button mushrooms on the side: both organic; both English, but both lacking the level of flavour I’d get from my not-quite-organic greengrocer on Broadway Market.

This is interesting, as it supports my increasing belief that being organic does not, per se, produce great taste, but growing naturally and harvesting as late as possible is what does that.

Supermarkets have highly centralised systems that work against that rather than for it – which is alwo why much produce is harvested before it’s properly ready, thus cutting off the proper process of ripening.

On Tuesday, it was time for some Cornish monkfish fillet, wrapped in prosciutto and then baked for four to five minutes in an oven set at 170˚C (fan).

Summery versions of such a dish then add a delicate vine of cherry tomatoes: I doused it in a tin of organic chopped tomatoes in their own juice (and nothing else). And back into the oven it went for a further 10-15 minutes, with a check to see whether the fish was cooked through.

This worked well – tasty and moist.

On Wednesday, the remaining steak from the pack was diced and browned in lard before being removed to another plate.

Onions were chopped and then softened, together with some celery (Broadway Market celery, that is). A spoon of flour went in and was cooked through for a minute, before the contents of a bottle of ale was added, bit by bit, stirred in and, with the heat up, thickened.

Then the meat was returned to the pan, followed by some sliced carrots that had been par boiled for five minutes, and some halved potatoes that had had also been pre cooked for about the same time.

And that was fairly hearty and sustaining.

On Thursday, it was a matter of a jar of Bockwurst cooked in the usual way, with sliced onions, a few boiled spuds and some sliced cabbage on the side, plus proper German mustard.

It was, in general, a decent week from a food perspective. But the experience bolstered my understanding that it is clear that, even opting for the best possible quality that’s available, fresh fruit and vegetables from a supermarket are not as fresh as those I can get even from a once-weekly market or from any of the small local shops (mostly Turkish, in our area).

Although it’s worth noting that this past week’s leeks and mushrooms etc were considerably better than any of the veg I had in days of yore, when I actually shopped at Tesco.

I was incredibly glad to get back to Broadway Market this morning.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Convenience food – voluptuously

It’s Friday, it’s well gone 4.55pm (but it’s not Crackerjack) and the Voluptuous Manifesto is bloody knackered.

What happens then? I want to eat well – but I am seriously not feeling in the mood to spend an hour or more in the kitchen. Is there a solution?

Well yes – there is. And amazing as it may sound to readers of this blog, it comes in the shape of three cans and a jar.

I had thought about pottering off for fresh fodder, but by the time my shift was done, I was glazed of eye and dull of mind, and all I wanted to do was get home and slump.

We all feel like that on occasions. The question is, can you make a good meal – and I do mean a seriously, volutuously good one – from the store cupboard?

Well, it does rather depend on the cupboard, but here goes.

Set the oven to approximately 155˚C (fan).

From a jar, decant some sauerkraut into a pan, just cover it with water, and simmer for a good 20 minutes or so. If you want, add a clove or two, the odd peppercorn, a few juniper berries and a bay leaf.

Open a tin of duck confit. Lift up the legs gently and let most of the duck fat drip slowly off. Do not throw any of this fabulous stuff away: remember, this is the fat of the ‘French Paradox’.

Pop the duck legs in a dish and from there into the oven for around 15 minutes.

One of the things with this dish is that it is not going to spoil – you’re not easily going to ‘overcook’ it.

Go and have a sit down. Have a cup of tea or a glass of wine.

Then rinse and drain a tin of cannellini beans and a small tine of new potatoes.

Dry the potatoes gently with kitchen paper.

Then pop the potatoes, the sauerkraut and the beans either into the same roasting dish as the duck – or in another one that has had a little of the duck fat melting in it.

Give it 10 to 15 minutes and … voila!

There you are. That’s the easiest gourmet dinner you’ll cook.

The thing is, convenience food is not cheap. But on occasion, it can be perfectly good.

The tinned confit ingredients were simply duck, duck fat and salt. Exactly as it should be.

For the sauerkraut, just white cabbage and salt – again, exactly as it right.

Both are traditional preserved foods: sauerkraut, incidentally, is not pickled, but fermented – and in parts of Germany and eastern Europe, they swear by the liquid as a health drink.

I find myself drifting back to the post the other day about the noble porker: we have forgotten, it seems to me, about preserved foods – other than jams and chutneys.

And it's worth noting that such traditional foods as the confit and the sauerkraut do not come with instructions on the tin or jar: these are foods that it is assumed the cook will know how to use.

The potatoes and the beans may be a slight cheat, but in terms of what I used, the waters came in water only, with no added salt. The only thing, apart from beans and water in the cannellini, was salt, and you can easily rinse them.

If this seems to be a strange combination of national foods – a cross between France, Germany and Italy – well it’s not really. In a cassoulet, beans are as essential an ingredient as the duck legs, while choucroute garni, a traditional dish from the Alsace region, incorporates sauerkraut and assorted meats.

Sauerkraut is also to be found in the cuisine of northern Italy – it’s not just a specifically German speciality.

I would recommend that you get hold of German sauerkraut – Polish is available, but it is, generally speaking, rather rougher.

This is a dish that sates superbly. You could quite easily remove the potatoes altogether. One of the big things here is the mouth feel.

That may sound like a phrase that foodie snobs use – and it is – but it has an everyday meaning and significance.

How food feels in your mouth – how the very experience of eating feels – is one of the factors that influences how sated you feel.

And this is a dream.

Go on – seriously. Take your time and think about how it feels when you bite down, when you move it around in mouth. Relish it.

The mouth feel is a major reason why I like cooking tinned cannelloni in good fat – they become wonderfully unctuous.

Okay, it might not be something to do quite every day, but it is real, real food – and it is as easy as anything.

And by god, as the nights draw in, the leaves fall to the ground and the temperature plummets, it is like being snuggled in a gloriously soft cardi, and hugged by warm and adoring cats.

In a dish.

Now what on Earth more could you want than that?