Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Marketing at its brightest: the breakfast edition

Earlier today, someone in the office in which I was working brought in a freebie that they’d been handed at one of London’s major railway stations.

It was a little packet containing two biscuits, both of which were filled with what the packet described as “creamy live yogurt”.

This was, apparently, a "belVita Breakfast” biscuit – a “yogurt crunch”, indeed, which is the latest addition to a range of ‘breakfast biscuits’ from Kraft/Nabisco.

The packet suggests something incredibly wholesome. Look at it the box. That’s the sun that you see, shining down onto wheat (or some other grain crop), while a rustic-looking biscuit leans temptingly between a cup of some hot drink (probably coffee) and a little pot of plain yogurt.

So why on Earth had he decided to look such a gift horse in the mouth and leave this freebie for someone else to pick up?

belVita Breakfast is one of those things that is marketed – very carefully and rather cleverly – as healthy.

The whole bit about the biscuits containing “creamy live yogurt” suggests both luxury and something completely natural and healthy. It’s fair to say that yogurt is viewed as a generally healthy product, while “creamy” suggests luxury.

A pack contains two biscuits. Each biscuit contains 119 kcals, which is “6% GDA” (guideline daily amounts). So if you’re watching the old cals, that sounds pretty darned good.

The biscuits are “made with 5 wholegrains” – now we all know that “wholegrains” are nutritional nirvana, so what could be better?

And according to the packet, they are “rich in cereals” with “no colours or preservatives”; they’re “made with a blend of 5 wholegrains”, they’re a “source of fibre”, a “source of calcium and vitamin E”, and you can “enjoy as part of a balanced breakfast”.

Which, just in case you don’t know what a “balanced breakfast” actually is, is also explained: “eg with a latte and a banana”.

Oh well that’s clear, then.

Although: “a latte and a banana”? Have we become part of the States sometime recently? Why not a cuppa tea? Indeed, if you want to be posh, why not a cup of Earl Grey in nice bone china?

Nope, it’s recommending something that, most likely, you will buy from a shop. You won't make it at home – you'll buy it from a franchise. Oh, how big business friendly.

But okay, let’s move on.

The ingredients list makes for fascinating reading.

Now, I’m sad enough that I copied the ingredient list out in full – and here it is, right down to the weird use of commas instead of full points in the middle of the percentages.

“Ingredients: wheat flour 31,4%, wholegrain cereals 23,9% (wholegrain wheat flour, oat flakes, wholegrain barley flour, wholegrain rye flour, wholegrain spelt flour), sugar, vegetable oil, wheat starch, dextrose, yogurt powder 3,0%, whey powder, raising agents (sodium hydrogen carbonate, disodium diphosphate, ammonium hydrogen carbonate), vitamins and minerals mixture (vitamin B1, vitamin E, vitamin B3, iron, magnesium, calcium), flavouring, skimmed milk powder, emulsifier (soya lecithin), salt, acidity regulator (citric acid).”


You need all that to make a biscuit?

As far as I know, I’ve never made anything that included “sodium hydrogen carbonate, disodium diphosphate and ammonium hydrogen carbonate”.

Well, I bloody well hope not!

And I bet none of you realised that you needed those things to make a biscuit, now did you?

But look at it again. This is actually really rather clever. Sneaky – but clever.

By having both wheat flour (at 31.4%) and a selection of five other grains – at 23.9% combined but all listed individually, it makes a long list before we hit sugar as an ingredient.

In other words, it disguises the fact that sugar is the third largest ingredient in this ‘healthy’ breakfast, making it appear, at a glance, as the seventh largest ingredient.

But that's not all: carry on reading and the sixth largest ingredient is dextrose – or 'corn sugar' as it's otherwise known.

Kraft Foods/Nabisco – take a bow.

Your marketing of a highly processed foodstuff will probably con some people into believing that it forms part of a genuinely healthy breakfast (with a shop-bought latte and banana, of course).

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is just one illustration of why, when defenders of Big Food claim that the relationship between consumer and industry is, in any way, shape or form, entirely even, and that what you eat is 100% a matter of 'personal responsibility', with no concomitant corporate responsibility, it's a load of total bollocks.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Planning for growth

Ready for an afternoon's serious planning.

‘Take time to plan properly’ must have been one of the most important lessons that my teachers ever managed to drum into my head.

It was, of course, meant most particularly of exams, but its application is hardly limited.

That doesn’t mean I’m always very good at doing it, but today, it was thoroughly applied to the garden.

Early on a blustery afternoon, after a morning’s housework and with blue visible overhead once again, I set out to properly measure and map my little Schleswig-Holstein.

There’s much I managed to do on the patio last year – and much I have planned for this – but the expansion area, in the biggest of the three beds in the gated communal car park, represents the biggest challenge for the coming months. Even just for the planning stage.

There’s a tree in this space that I have commandeered, and which one of my neighbours did an extraordinary job of helping clear. The rest of the space is going to be for communal decking so that we can sit out together on summery evenings (if these materialise), nursing the odd bottle or glass.

My space amounts to 13’ by about six and a half foot – give or take the odd bit of an inch – with one corner off that rectangle, plus the aforementioned tree, which has its lowest branches starting at around three feet on one side.

There’s also a couple of roots that I can’t really do much about except plant around, and a stump left over from some bushes, which I hope to get rid of.

With a long tape measure, a notebook and pen, I made a reasonably detailed diagram, which was then turned into a better version that was approximately to scale.

The only place in the house where I could lay out everything I needed is the kitchen, but then again, I’m becoming increasingly fond of taking my computer in there to write while I cook.

As time passes, it becomes less and less simply a place for a few mechanical tasks.

The books in question were the Royal Horticultural Society’s Vegetables in a Small Garden, The RHS Encyclopedia of Gardening (thanks to m’friend George) and volume one of Nigel Slater’s Tender, thanks to my parents, who looked decidedly bemused by the size, the subjects and the approach.

First up was to go through my seed tin and list what I wanted to use and when it could be sown.

Next, using the RHS books, expanding that list to set down the space needed for planning a row of what I want to grow.

Then the Slater book to look at recommended varieties and finally, seed catalogues.

The first plan.
After all the lists were made, it was onto filling out detail on my map of the car park plot.

Because I’d done the measurements and made out the lists, that didn’t feel too onerous – and indeed, I seem to have more space than I realised just standing gazing at it earlier.

Now it might all sound very early to be thinking of such things – after all, the snow has hardly departed and, who knows, it may yet come back, but I only really got started very late last year and, as such, didn’t have much opportunity to come up with a proper scheme – and practice the successional sowings that would have ensured I gained much more produce from the available space.

Quite a bit of what I’m intending for the plot can start to be sown outside within the coming month, so if I want to start being able to harvest as early as possible, I have to plan and order now.

I also learned more about companion planting. Not only are nasturtiums good – and they give you salad ingredients, plus seed pods to pickle as well as vivid (edible) colour – but apparently French marigolds are worth planting too.

The smell that they give off is so strong as to mask that of vegetables, apparently, helping to keep pests away. And it’ll also add colour.

Of course, all this is wonderful, but the most dramatic change will come on the patio, where I’m planning a small greenhouse.

Just 110cm high, with three adjustable/removeable shelves, an opening slanted lid, double doors at the front and all fully glazed, it’ll  just fit – and it’ll give me a vast amount more scope.

First, because I’ll be able to grow from seed a lot more. That’s not just cheaper, it also increases options of what variety you want to try.

Second, I’ll also be able to start things off before it’s best to plant them out. That’ll mean, for instance, that I’ll be able to get chili and tomato and strawberry plants going instead of waiting to find something that appeals and is partly grown on the market.

And third, I’ll be able to grow things like mini cucumbers, which will be easier in such an environment, and possibly even winter lettuces too.

Mind, once the shopping list was complete, I suddenly realised that there was little wonder that it was so short when I hadn’t actually been through what seeds I would need to start off life with a little greenhouse.

Last year was, as plenty of seasoned commentators pointed out, a dismal one for gardeners in the UK.

In those circumstances, even though the victories may have been few, they felt momentous – and it was all about taste: the taste of the little turnips, my first strawberries, my first tomatoes; the chilis too.

The discovery of sorrel; the realisation that fresh chives are a joy; the glorious snap of runner beans cooked within minutes of picking.

I’m hooked. And this afternoon’s planning makes me more excited than ever about the gardening year ahead.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

A perfect winter's day?

Winter sky over Hackney.
After a 12-day stint of work, with those trips to Sheffield and Scunthorpe forming part of that, this weekend could hardly have been  more welcome.

And what better way to start things off, after a long, restful sleep, than to find blue skies above and actual sun visible in the firmament.

It was, indeed, the sort of weather that made you feel that spring is not too far away – and to put a spring into your step.

Broadway Market was its usual self by the time I arrived, bustle beginning to build to the levels we've come to expect, but everyone seemed to be feeling the benefit of gloom lifted.

The now-regulation Saturday breakfast of a sausage roll from one of the stalls – a Cumberland sausage in real pastry – was enjoyed standing to one side, a confetti of crumbs tumbling to the ground.

Chats with Matthew and Trevor were appreciated during the shopping, and another at La Bouche with Arno, who was sporting a rather magnificent beret.

Shopping done and packed away, a stroll through the park followed, newly-planted trees bearing evidence to the belief of the council gardeners that the season is changing. There was even some warmth from the sun.

Winter jasmine.
Back at home, The Other Half was deliberating hanging a wash outside for a while, while the cats were begging to get out too, insisting that we had no decent excuses, because they could quite clearly see that it wasn’t wet or grey or snowy any more.

While they patrolled their territory, I went looking around mine.

The damp and gloom had halted my autumnal gardening exploits, yet the patch of soil that I had already sifted, in a bed that's part of the car park, has seen less weeds growing than that I hadn’t got to.

A valuable little lesson – quite obvious when you think about it, but also an indicator of just how unnaturally mild this winter has been.

Winter jasmine offered seasonal colour, while a neat, pale pink rose on a bush growing out of one of the other flats' gardens offered a rather more unseasonal sight.

The pyracantha shows new growth. The chives and garlic are reviving, as too are the sorrel and mint.

Crocuses and other bulbs are well on the way. The only bulbs that seem reticent are the snowdrops.

Back inside and time to use up a celeriac that’s been sitting around for a fortnight.

Two small onions were peeled, sliced and softened in butter, joined by a sliced stick of celery and then the drained celeriac, which had been cut up and was resting in a bowl of acidulated water.

To that was added some stock: when I need a stock cube, I use Kallo’s Just Bouillon – a rare one, in that it doesn’t include palm oil, the harvesting of which is damaging orangutan habitats.

And then it was left to simmer away while I watched the first half of Manchester City’s FA Cup fourth-round tie at Stoke.

At the break, it was given a bit of a blitzing with the hand blender, before having a little cream added to finish it.

And then it was served with plenty of black pepper and a grating of nutmeg.

And jolly pleasing it was too: soothing and warming and gentle: perfect for such an afternoon.

The invigorated mood was not harmed when City went through, thanks to a late goal from the wonderful Pablo Zabaleta; goodness, how many right-backs could have finished so well? Zabman is total class.

And then a feeling that I wanted to bake. But what? I’d made no plans.

However, there was enough in the cupboards to make a version of my mother’s ginger sponge.

The recipe is in an old notebook, precisely copied down some 30 years ago, in imperial measurements.

I have made one or two adjustments over the years – not least substituting butter for the marg my mother used: I remember the pale yellow and white stripes of Stork packets.

Given what else was available, I also took a piece of stem ginger and chopped it finely, adding it at the end of mixing.

My mother also used to add 75ml of milk, but I don’t think it needs it. She also just used ordinary sugar.

It’s not a light sponge, like a Victoria – but with all the Golden Syrup used, it never could be. What it has is density and bags of flavour.

Make sure you use a good-quality ground ginger. The stem ginger really gives it an extra kick.

So, melt 200g Golden Syrup, 75g of unsalted butter and 50g of unrefined demerara and melt gently together.

In the meantime, sift 200g of self-raising flour, add a pinch of salt and two heaped teaspoons of ground ginger.

Into this, add one beaten egg, and then add the melted syrup/sugar/butter and beat in.

This was where I added the stem ginger, before decanting the lot into a lined baking tin.

And then bake for 45 minutes at 150˚C (fan).

To check it’s cooked, press a skewer into the centre and, if it comes away clean, the cake is done.

Remove from your tin onto a rack and allow to cool.

Maybe it isn’t the most sophisticated piece of baking, but it was readily doable from what I had in and, in that, answered a need.

That there’s less than half left attests to it packing a punch of warming ginger.

And then a Poirot stack on the TV, followed by haggis from Andy, with tatties and, if not neeps, then crushed swede, carrot and parsnip, before top-notch animation in Robots – imagine, a Hollywood film that, in effect, is damning of the beauty/cosmetic surgery industry!

All in all, was that perhaps close to being a perfect day?

Thursday, 24 January 2013

What shall we do with some old leather?

As parts of the country capitulated to actual winter, at least the story of pig and horse DNA in cheap ‘beef’ burgers showed some stiff upper lip by refusing to die away.

‘Drind?’ you say. ‘What on Earth is that?’

Well, it’s actually ‘dehydrated rind’, which is apparently added to some processed products and doesn’t need to labeled as anything more than ‘seasoning’.

Now, I could be wrong (it is possible), but I don’t think that I’m the most naive food-minded person going, yet learning this managed to make my jaw spiral into a Tom Daleyesque dive straight to the deck.

Never mind my expression, it’s hard to imagine that on the face of whomsoever came up with this little wheeze, with a view to the public never actually getting wind of it.

After all, if you wanted to be open about what you were adding, you wouldn’t hide behind ‘seasoning’, now would you?

I mean – come on: ‘seasoning’ is salt and bleedin’ pepper, isn’t it? That is what people expect and understand even when they actually look at food packaging in detail.

Yet some people’s food appears to have been ‘seasoned’ with what amounts to being ground-up leather.

There are an increasing number of people out there in increasing need. The numbers of food banks in the UK are going through the roof.

And we have leather, ground up and put in ‘economy’ food as a ‘seasoning’.

Now I’m no fan of conspiracy theories – I much prefer Occam’s Razor, whereby you take the simplest explanation.

But you don’t create drind – which requires a process (or two) – and then put it into a meat product all by accident and for no reason.

The reason, of course, is quite simple: it’s about profit – and more profit.

She obviously hasn’t sat next to Eric Pickles at a Cabinet meeting, then, and shared any of the golden Garibaldis funded by his departmental £40,000 annual biscuit budget.

At the time, she was addressing the very industry that puts drind into food – and calls it ‘seasoning’.

It’s the same industry that puts more than 30% sugar in breakfast cereals that are aimed and marketed directly at children.

It is the same industry that is in bed with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in the US. And remember: it's a global and globalised industry, so national boundaries mean little.

It is the same industry that, through it’s partnership with the UK government, is receiving free advertising in the guise of health advice by the government, funded by the taxpayer.

It is the same industry that is now also in bed, in the form of assorted corporate “partners”, with the British Heart Foundation, which is why you will see adverts linking the BHF (and therefore, heart health) with Flora margarine, which is manufactured by Unilever.

But then again, the BHF, as part of a healthy diet, also promotes plenty of artificial, processed foods over natural ones – even when there’s sugar added.

Which is, of course, entirely in keeping with the aims of the sort of multinationals precisely like Unilever, which make substantial amounts of money from highly processed food.

So it’s a rather simple question: just who can you trust on food?

Well the simplest answer is, if you have the option available to you, buy fresh foods, from independent traders.

And avoid processed food as much as possible.

That way, you won’t need to worry that your food is ‘seasoned’ with ground up old boots.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Steel and spice

The Peace Gardens on a wintery night – quite magical.
Steel City, home of The Full Monty, has changed a lot in the last 30 odd years, as the industry that made it famous migrated in search of cheaper workforces.

But Sheffield, which has also been a university city since 1905, hasn't gone under, and while there are plenty of buildings that are statements of the civic pride of a successful industrial past, there are also signs of the regeneration.

Indeed, leaving the train station you walk straight into one of those – Sheaf Square, with its  enormous water feature of local steel that, on sunny days, glistens magnificently.

Winter Gardens
And talking of glistening, a vast picture of Sheffield’s own Olympic golden girl, Jessica Ennis, adorns the side of the Central Library – an apt illustration of where the city is today.

Another visible sign of the regeneration is the Winter Gardens, which opened in 2003 and is the largest, urban greenhouse in Europe. It's full of plants from around the world – although the fact that they are planted and looked after by part of Rentokill seems really rather peverse.

The Millennium Gallery leads off one side of the Winter Gardens, with a series of exhibition spaces and a shop.

There's a rather fun giraffe on display inside – steel cutlery recycled into a tall sculpture with moving parts. And I considered myself particularly fortunate that Christmas Cracker was still open for business.

One of the exhibition spaces, for the duration of the festive season and into new year it's transformed into a shop selling work by local artists and designers. And there was some wonderful stuff available.

Cutlery giraffe.
Not that it’s alone. Just inside one entrance to the Winter Gardens is the Bessemer Gallery – so named for the world’s first inexpensive method of making steel, which was, if not quite invented, then certainly brought to industrial fruition locally by one Henry Bessemer in the 1850s.

It’s a small shop that does pretty much the same thing, but all year round. Again, some lovely work was available.

I absolutely love galleries/shops like these, with work by local artists.

Elly Englefield cat brooch.
But here are special mentions to two of the designers I came across.

First, Dave Cawthorne, who makes jewelery in silver and titanium – the latter, a metal I first came across in a lovely, tiny shop in Lancaster, The Silver Tree, where I bought my very first earrings.

So it seemed entirely reasonable, therefore, to get myself a pair.

And second, Elly Englefield, who makes vintage-styled jewellery out of “found ephemera” – that’s old stuff, to you and me. There’s a playfulness to her pieces that I really like.

And given that one of the ones on display was a cat, that sort of set the seal on the matter. If nothing else, I told myself, it was a reward for not having smoked for a month.

Moving outside once more, adjacent to the nearby Sheffield Town Hall, the Peace Gardens provide a fascinatingly designed modern riff on traditional fountains that is intended to represent molten steel.

That, in essence, was what I managed to see on my trip, other than the inside of the City Hall – confusingly, this is actually a theatre – where the conference I was reporting was being held.

Dave Cawthorne earrings: '50s satellites or ancient shields?
The Novotel I’d been booked into was comfy enough and quiet, but it’s not the first time I’ve stayed somewhere that has taken a big business booking – and then not apparently arranged enough staff to do the job.

The staff themselves were friendly and as helpful as they could be, but something was just not working properly.

Breakfast was chaotic, with just a few people put into the invidious position of trying to do far too much.

On my second morning, I made sure I got down early, precisely to avoid the chaos. It was to little avail.

The absence of butter was entirely bad enough, but the irritant factor reached a peak when, instead of the requested tea, I got a pot of coffee that was so cool that, by the time milk was added, it was actually cold.

And honestly, leaving a tray of cooked eggs to congeal under a lamp, swimming in oil, may be convenient catering, but it is not conducive to a good culinary experience.

To be honest, it was hardly the greatest foodie trip.

On Friday, with snow falling and gusting around my ankles, I decided not to venture far from the hotel for dinner, but landed in the Sheffield branch of Browns, where I went down the apparently simple route of ordering fish and chips. Let's face it, I was up north.

Not my idea of proper mushy peas.
The fish was in a ‘tempura’ batter apparently. Well, it was batter – and it was a decent batter and it was decent cod.

The chips were reasonable. The mushy peas, though, were pretty much solid and cold, and came as a condiment, included in a small dish alongside ketchup and a tartare sauce.

And what’s the nonsense of serving it on a piece of paper on the plate? The merest hint of vinegar and it starts getting soggy and, before you know it, it tears as you're cutting your food.

Is it intended as a sort of postmodern homage to how our once-national dish used to be eaten out of newsprint? And while I don't generally whinge about portion size being too small, that wasn't a big plate full for £10.95.

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon and the need for a reasonably rapid lunch. I picked Patisserie Valerie on the grounds both of it being almost opposite where I was working, and because the patisserie in the window looked mouthwatering.

And once seated, I opted for a spaghetti carbonara from the winter menu. What could go wrong?

The sorriest garnish you'll ever see.
It arrived with a garnish of a solitary and rather flaccid leaf of parsley. The pasta was cooked, but the dish was far from being piping hot. And weirdest of all was the bacon. This is something that is made with lardons or pancetta, but the cook had apparently run out midway through and just chucked in some pieces of the sort of bacon you'd expect in a butty - not even having made the effort to dice it.

Looking up the menu online, it does actually specify: “Spaghetti with Bacon, Cream & Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese & Ham”. But would anyone really expect some tiny dice of ham and some pieces of sliced bacon? And besides, who reads such a description anyway when you know precisely what should be in such a classic dish?

There’s a part of me that knows that I should complain. Just to be clear, I’m not judging something like this on the basis of Michelin-standard restaurants, but for what it is. It’s a cafe – one of quite a sizeable chain. And that was poor.

I didn’t say anything, partly because it was a time-sensitive situation. This was about getting in, fuelling up and getting back to work.

And perhaps, in that case, I help to continue such a state of affairs by not readily holding them to a decent standard. It wasn’t dirt cheap at £7.99, but my own reaction was as though I didn’t really expect anything much better.

Things did improve in the evening, when we went to Butlers Balti House for a staff meal. Now I don’t eat at Indian restaurants very often, but decided to move away from my standard safety-first choice of korma.

Lamb jalfrezi.
This time it was tandoori prawns as a starter, with lamb jalfrezi to follow. The menu said that nothing was more than medium hot, but you could ask for hotter (or milder) if you wished.

Wile we waited, we had vast piles of poppadoms with assorted relishes and dips – utterly moreish.

The prawns were good – it was a quite mild dish – and the lamb was enjoyable too, although really pretty hot by my standards, although the spicing was very subtle.

The dish included perfectly cooked pepper that was delightfully sweet as well as still having just the right amount of bite.

The meat was a bit too firm for my taste, but I guess that that is a result of the rapid cooking method.

As with everywhere, though, service was friendly and helpful.

And that was Sheffield. My next trip, starting tomorrow (weather permitting), will take exoticism to new heights. Brace yourself, Scunthorpe: here I come.