Friday, 31 May 2013

Fat Kids, and Good Old Jamie - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 31/5/13

Jamie Oliver – gawd bless ‘im – having already socked it to The Man on school dinners, has got in a right two and eight about over what goes into our children’s lunchboxes. The contents of many he reckons, are tantamount to child abuse. He’s recently had a full-on bust up with Education Secretary Michael Gove over this, but Jamie perpetually ploughs on.

I’m pretty sure it’s not in Jamie’s job-spec to do this sort of stuff, but very few others are doing it, so he takes one for the team. Along with a chap I know called Henry Dimbleby who has a super chain of healthy fast food restaurants called Leon (Shropshire’s crying out for one), there just aren’t many high-profile people with the single-mindedness to take a gargantuan task like this on. Bloody well bravo and chin-chin for fellows like that I say.

It’s far too easy to bash the likes of Oliver as just another celebrity chef, but I’ll defend him until the day is done. There has been no single human being on the planet in the last half-century who has done more to make us celebrate the good things - and decry the bad - in food than Jamie Oliver.

Being complacent that your kids eat junk in lunches provided by their school is just about forgivable. But only just. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s slightly beyond your control, but packing their lunchboxes with nutritionally vacuous crud is reprehensible. The government can’t immediately control this bit, nor can Jamie Oliver, but a culture of bad food sets-in like rot and spreads. It comes from the Mums and Dads who allow their offspring to eat Haribo and Pringles for breakfast.

An industry source tells me, “Home economics as a subject in schools was abandoned when food became part of design technology. Food technology consists of things like ‘design a pizza and design the packaging then explain how you would sell it’. It’s all to do with commercial food production rather than scratch-cooking with proper ingredients.”

This could be happening in your local schools – perhaps it’s worth digging a little deeper?

At some point, when they’re a bit bigger our kids will hide away and smoke cigs, drink bad cider, and learn about the birds and the bees first hand. They’ll decide what goes in their lunch too, and we’ll take it on the chin, like grown-ups. But we must give them a foundation while they’re little and their vital organs untainted by vice.

As parents, we have a singular and ineffable duty to keep our children safe from harm.

Listen to Jamie, and you may find he’s not the wally that you thought he was. He’s just a bloke trying to do his best. And what’s so wrong with that?

Friday, 17 May 2013

Pigeons and Big Openings - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 17/5/13

May bank holiday in South Shropshire and it sounds like the whole county is a-buzz with the hum of electric mowers. The drone dips and circles on the warm breeze like the swallows that have decided finally to come back to Blighty for the summer.

I forego the mower, lured instead by my small vegetable patch where seeds that have lain dormant and shivering for weeks are now poking shoots from the warming soil. Not being a natural gardener, I cherish and guard this plot with perhaps greater zeal than I afford my own children. So when the woodpigeon have started hungrily to eye my nascent pea-shoots, and then start pecking at them I know what needs to be done.

The old air rifle often makes an appearance at this time of year, the barrel warm in my hand, elbow rested on top of the wheelie bin by the back door I take a sight on an intruder on the pea bed. A ping, and a thrup, the briefest of flaps: Pigeon 0 – Peas 1. An hour later and the same again, and I’ve got dinner for two. If you’re going to go to the bother of slaying something that’s dissing your veggies then you might as well eat it. I fry the pigeons’ plumptious breasts in butter and wilt a clump of roadside wild garlic (well washed – it’s at leg cocking level) in the same pan. Free food of the very highest order.

I love a Big Opening almost as much as my patch; the bigger the better for me. I’ve been to a couple recently and it’s heartening to see that there’s a long-lacked gastronomic middle ground in and around Ludlow that’s being filled.

I went to opening night – technically a Soft rather than Big Opening, I’ll take what I can get - at Ludlow Kitchen in Bromfield (yeah, yeah, it’s a very minor geographic detail). Tremendous stuff: all field to fork and spot-on sourcing credentials, tasty prices, a non-sweary and modestly brilliant chef. Then I went to the Marches Kitchen & Bar where there used to be a sweaty dive called the George, in Ludlow’s Castle Square. They do slightly bonkers pizzas, brunches, cocktails. The staff were pretty and made eye contact. Unusual for Ludlow but a great formula. They source ingredients locally. I wish them all very well.

Up until recently there’s not been many places (apart from lovely ol’ Clive Davis at the Green CafĂ©) round here where you can go to eat without feeling guilty about it. The hospitality industry is finally catching onto the fact that we’re all sailing quite close to the wind. So if you’re not shooting your scoff or picking it from the gutter, you can at least go out for something nice to eat without taking too much of a hit.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Dog Poo & The Ludlow Spring Festival - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 10/5/13

By the time you read this, the local elections will have been and gone. Quite honestly I’ve lost interest. If there’s something guaranteed to turn you off local politics, it’s following local politicians on Twitter. The hair pulling and tit-for-tat that goes on between wannabe (and indeed existing) councillors on this so-called social networking website, has been anything but sociable. What’s the big fuss anyway? Once they’re in they will spend the next five years arguing about dog muck and who’s supposed to mow the grass in the cemetery. Important stuff granted, but come on girls, play nicely.

So, if the new guard hasn’t taken control of the South Shropshire Journal you will have read the first bit of this column, and if you live in Ludlow or its environs (or anywhere else for that matter) you can look forward to this town putting on a socking great party that celebrates victuals and grog. The Ludlow Spring Food Festival is like the sexy but demure sister of the big September event. Both equally luscious in their own way, but the spring one for me has the edge.

The Spring Event has a big old beardy beer tent and here Shropshire does its thing better than anyone else in the world. We are a county of understatement and quiet plodding, but we brew beer like nobody else. The sausages, the bread, the E-type Jags and Alvises (the Marches Transport Festival runs concurrently in the castle grounds) and a bit of iffy folk music is just so very British. And it takes place in May, the most splendid, verdant British month. A big hug of a festival that shows off what we do best in this not-so-quiet corner of England. And it makes me jolly proud to be a Shropshire Lad. 

Whilst Ludlow’s gastronomic crown may have slipped and slided around on her head over the years, it’s these weekend-long jollies that keep her steady. Michelin stars come and go, but the festivals make life gastronomically and socially sound in this town. The May Fair last weekend will no doubt have attracted it’s usual tedious dose of NIMBYism from Disgusted of Ludlow; “The helter-skelter was virtually in the upstairs drawing room, simply ghastly. And the smell of fried onions, uugh.” but actually, it all adds to the fun of living in a market town.

Festivals and fairs make places tick, whether you like them or not. Communities come together and celebrate the good things - bangers or candyfloss- and others flock in from afar and point out the things that we as natives take for granted: low house prices, friendly smiles from strangers, quirky independent shops, omnipresent dog poo, untended graveyards…We live in a good place. Let’s enjoy it. 

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Food Waste and Bare Naked Laziness - South Shropshire Journal (3/5/13)

You’ve probably gathered by now, that I’m not that hot on in-depth research. That’s what proper journalists do. Researching. And whilst I suppose I am a proper journalist (I write stuff in a newspaper, ergo I’m a proper journalist), I don’t consider myself as such. So gathering facts and quotes and general noteworthy hunks of journalistic hardcore is just not something I do. Let’s be honest, I’m lazy. Naked industry simply doesn’t number itself in my arsenal of attributes.

But, in a convenient Muhammad-meeting-the-mountain fashion, some research came to me a few days ago by way of a press release from which is apparently a women’s lifestyle website offering “practical tips and advice for busy mums…” It may not be a real website, I haven’t been bothered to find out but they threw some interesting nuggets in my direction which apparently they’d pinched from the Office of National Statistics. The general gist being thus:

Food prices have risen by 12% in the last five years; over the same period household income has dropped by 12%; consumer spending on food has increased by 3.5%; and the average UK household chucks out £480’s worth of food annually, 61% of which is avoidable.

Bone-idleness aside, this is why I don’t do much research, because the results are generally terribly boring (see above). We have a Ministry of Sums to do statistics for us. Not proper journalists.

But let’s go with it, because now more than ever this is a Really Big Issue and wherever these figures came from, we know what the situation is and it’s bloody scary. Thoughtlessly hurling food in the bin is an utterly heinous thing to do, whether you can afford it or not. We all know that the cost of eating has risen scarily over the last few years, the reasons being too numerous to discuss in the 150 odd words I have left today. As a species, we simply cannot ignore the impact that the desire to fill our bellies is having on our tremulous little planet, and all who live on it.

By unnecessarily wasting food, we’re waving two fingers at so much. And it’s odd because most of us are either of - or only a hop, skip and a jump away from – a time when food was respected and cherished. If this is some sort of a backlash, then we need to stop it.

Food retailers deploy use by dates to cover their backs, not to save our guts. Use your nose and taste buds, and your common sense. Buy only what you need and get inventive in the kitchen.

In this topsy-turvy world there are many things that we can’t control, but not filling up wheelie bins with perfectly good scoff is one that we can. There’s no time to waste.