Sunday, 28 April 2013

Polythene and Purple Tips: South Shropshire Journal (unedited) 26/4/13

It’s been killing me over the last few weeks not mentioning it because it’s such a yawningly obvious subject. Everyone else has been carping on about it literally forever, but being the razor-sharp gastrohack that I am (“Wow!” my half-dozen readers are frequently heard to exclaim, “Mackley’s surprised us again with his off-the-dial outré opinions. Such a maverick”) I’ve been original enough not to have had to scrape the barrel, for want of a less original cliché. 

But hang it. It was St George’s Day on Tuesday, and I’m an Englishman so this week I’m going to kick off with the weather. Not in a whiney way, because if there’s anything that an Englishman is better at doing than talking about the weather, it’s whining. Boring. Pull your pants up, crack on, and cry God for Harry, England and Saint George.

Anyway, the weather hasn’t been altogether the loveliest, which has meant that spring is late. Not just turn up for dinner at 7.30 and arrive at 8.00 late, but send a text the next day to say that Strictly was on and you couldn’t be bothered late. I’m not whining but... For some farmers, horticulturalists and the like spring’s rudeness is potentially livelihood threatening. For gluttons, it’s irksome.

So thank goodness half of bucolic England is wrapped in sturdy polythene! I tell you, this stuff is amazing. Sod the aesthetics: over the last few days I’ve been snarfing properly, slap you in the face stunning tomatoes from Worcestershire; proud purple-tipped asparagus from the Wye Valley (eye-wateringly expensive but a nice alternative to a pack of fags); tinky-winky, nutty little spuds from Jersey. This is British produce at its almost-very-best and it’s worth every penny.

How wonderful that humans have the ingenuity to cheat the weather and to coax tasty edible plants into thinking that it’s nice and hot, when in fact it’s not. We’re just about to emerge from the “hungry gap” (the time of year when pre-imports, winter stores had run dry and ye olde veggie patch was still snoozing), but until the weather perks up a bit, embrace the moist and fertile warmth of the English polytunnel. 

Incidentally, this is the one time of year when I throw caution to my carbon footprint and go potty for foreign imports. Pakistani Alfonso mangos, Sicilian blood oranges etc are so very tasty. Sorry, I momentarily forgot about the polar bears. Oopsie.

Lambs unfortunately cannot be reared under plastic, and the harsh early spring weather tragically killed off thousands of them. Give British mutton and hogget a go instead (you won’t regret it), and if your local butcher or supermarket won’t stock it, keep pestering until they do. If they refuse to, go to someone who will. My dear half-dozen readers, you have much responsibility on  your shoulders. 

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Pollocks, shanks, Labradors (unedited): South Shropshire Journal 19/4/13

Following on from last week’s bit about the Austerity Food Revolution and all that sustainability jazz, I turned my mind to food fads. Now, depending on what paper you read (and if it’s just the South Shropshire Journal, it’s okay but you need to broaden your horizons just a teeny-weeny bit) or watch on the telly, you may well be aware that food faddism and sustainability go hand in hand.

It’s like the horsemeat thing again. Recently the National Federation of Fish Friers reported that some of their more unscrupulous peers were palming-off totally unsustainable cod and haddock as the hipster uber-faddish and seafloor friendly pollock and whiting.  So there’s a chance, albeit a small one, that the last time you went down the chippie for cods, they gave you a load of old pollocks instead.

In some places, namely east London and every twee gastropub in the Cotswolds (invariably run by a sacked banker called Hugo and his Labrador), people actually demand pollock, whiting and even nasty old coley because apparently they’re just as tasty as cod and haddock. This is without doubt, utter nonsense. Give me a blind tasting, and I’ll tell you what I’d rather share my chips with.

Fads of course lead to other more tasty sustainability issues. The lamb shank thing of the early noughties for instance: tremendous, lovely cheap bits of sheep, braise ‘em in red wine for three weeks or get M&S to do it for you. The problem was, there weren’t enough sheep for shanks so they had to come from New Zealand, and then the British ones got expensive.

I’m no economist, but I think they call it supply and demand. Demand goes up, supply goes down, price goes up. It’s happened to poor old pork belly, ham hocks, beetroot and rhubarb (I kid you not). Food, like everything else is subject to trends. So while we’ve all been looking at those cheaper cuts of meat, licking our lips and getting change from a fiver – it won’t last. Although it will in Shropshire, for a little while at least, because we’re a little slower to catch on. 

My pal John at the Ludlow Food Centre does a cut of beef called onglet. Onglet dangles off the diaphragm of a cow and it is ferrous, visceral, and deeply bovine. It’s the best bit of steak you’ll ever cook, except that you won’t because nobody knows about it apart from John and me so I get it dead cheap. On a recent trip to London I saw some on a butcher’s slab in the wonderful Ginger Pig in Marylebone. Demand must be high for knobbly cow-bits in the Smoke, because a pound of this would have bought you a five-bed house in Shropshire. It’s a funny, faddy old world. 

Austerity Foodie Revolution (unedited): South Shropshire Journal 12/413

We know what happened when Lehman Brothers went kaput in 2008: They all went tumbling down and took the rest of them too. MPs, coppers, journos, the lot. All in a oner. Five years later you can’t pay a cheque in over the counter without cocking a snook at the teller behind the Plexiglas. Who can you trust?

They owe us big time those bunch of bankers, but on the plus side we got the Austerity Foodie Revolution (AFR). The AFR digs for victory, makes do and mends, keeps calm and carries on, just like Granny and Gramps had to in the war. But they actually had to because their house had been smashed to bits by the Luftwaffe and they were properly, old-fashioned skint and scared. If they didn’t turn their dahlias over to mangolds the war-ag would’ve had them in front of the firing squad, and their daughters handed over to Yank airmen.

For us however, the AFR means that we can go back to a time when Englishers wore smocks and big hats and didn’t have a care in the world (apart from bad teeth, high infant mortality rates, and the death penalty for apple scrumpin’). The 2013 AFR is biodynamic pigs in your garden to save money on lard, growing potatoes in old tyres (Sustainability? Check!) and buying eggs from the bloke who actually laid them at the farmers’ market.

The AFR makes people more aware of how they spend their money, what they spend it on, and who the profit goes to. This is tremendously commendable, but the poor kids are still eating rubbish.

Marie Antoinette had Le Petit Hameau - a mock-up farmstead - built in the grounds of the palace of La Versailles. There she could play the shepherdess and hang out with agricultural types whilst the proles starved on the other side of the palace fence. SUCH FUN!

I’m just saying.

So, the Austerity Foodie Revolutionists would love to tell you that this isn’t a class thing, and they may be right. Fred down the road grows his own tomatoes, and Iris next door takes a half pound of tripe from the butcher every week – and they’re as working class as Cheryl Cole. But there’s a skipped generation. Could it be that the here-and-now children who don’t care about what they eat have parents who don’t care about what they eat? How is it that the old-fashioned ways of growing, rearing, and buying food have become whimsy for the moneyed and utterly uninteresting for those without?

A lot of the fluffy stuff sought by the AFR is unattainable, and in global terms unsustainable. But much of it isn’t. Food for thought? After all, that’s why I’m here.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

South Shropshire Journal Column (Unedited) 5/4/13

Last week a school in Essex banned triangular flapjacks after one was hurled across the canteen with ninja-style precision, and one of its three corners sort of imbedded itself in a child’s almost ocular area, nearly resulting treatment from matron. This decision was so bonkers that the local health and safety spokesman declared it “half baked”. When you get the grey-faces from the town hall smirking at stuff like this, you know that it must be funny.

So back in February the horsemeat scandal broke, but unlike flapjackgate, this is something that’s still being talked about, and with good reason. As it rippled out, more and more of the big boys put their hands up pleading guilt, and taking up whole pages in the national press. “We’re going to change!”, they wailed, “We got it wrong!” “We won’t do it again. Promise!”

Some of the supermarkets feel guilty about flogging us a dead horse, but actually why should they? We’re the ones who demanded cheap food from them and we’re the ones who never EVER asked any questions. Until it was too late and by which time so much horsemeat had passed through our systems that there was not much that even the most brutal enema would ever be able to reverse.

I’m not suggesting that Tesco et al are inculpable, but they have a living to make like the rest of us. If you want to buy really awful food at really appealing prices, you’re going to have to take the hit. In the chops, and the belly. You’ve been asking the supermarkets to drive their prices down. They’ve done what you asked, and you’ve been eating horse.

But here’s the thing: In the twelve weeks to March 17th, Tesco saw its market share staying below 30%, the lowest in eight years. And with consumer group Which! reporting that trust in the industry has fallen by a quarter, it looks like consumers are starting to sit up and take stock.

Consumers (that’s you) have started asking questions: Where does my food come from?

A Ludlow butcher tells me, “Since the horsemeat scandal broke, our sales have gone through the roof. We’re selling as much meat in our quietest time of year as we would normally be doing during peak times.”

Too many of us are either unaware or simply don’t care about the option that isn’t the supermarket. Go to your local butcher, greengrocer and baker and make friends with them, tell them what you need and what your budget is, and they’ll sort your supper out. Look after them, and they’ll look after you.

Make demands on your local council too: where I live, parking restrictions and overbearing traffic wardens are merely encouraging people to shop in Tesco.