Friday, 28 June 2013

Lusty Elizabeth David, and Broad Beans. Published in the South Shropshire Journal - 28/6/13

The great foodwriter Elizabeth David wrote thus of summer food: “Meals will be primitive…entirely delicious because perfectly appropriate to the time, the place and the circumstances…You are on holiday. You are in company of your own choosing. The air is clean. I ask no greater luxury. Indeed I can think of none.”

Having enjoyed a few warm days recently, I may perhaps have come over all wistful and romantic prematurely. Peaked a touch early maybe, but when summertime arrives, pretty girls put on floaty dresses, the babies smell all of sun-cream and strawberries, it’s then that I turn to dear old Mrs David.

The best summer food is indeed primitive in its simplicity and so much the better for it. At the time of writing it is the eve of the Summer Solstice (call me disorganised would you? I wrote this a good week ago dear Reader!), and traditionally tomorrow is the day that the last of the asparagus is harvested. Cheerio spring, hello summer. So the ‘grass may be gone, but for me the primitive gobblings will be peas fresh from the pod, strawbs straight from the punnet, ice creams direct from the jingly-jangly van. Elizabeth David was a partisan of lustiness, and summer food is sexy. Have you ever podded a pea or picked a crab with someone you’re likely to spend the night with? You should try it.

With a bit of luck – the Met Office don’t unfortunately seem so optimistic – we may enjoy a few more days of alfresco dining over the next few months. Lounging around all Bridesheady and Cider with Rosieish on picnic rugs and up against hayricks. Phwoar.

In my little garden the first broad beans are just appearing. And by the time you’re reading this I reckon they may well be ready. I love a broad bean, in their cool fluffy pods. I will commit vegetal infanticide and harvest them when the beans are no larger than a little fingernail. As affords such a seasonal treat, I will go to the bother of blanching them in boiling water for a brief minute, chilling them in iced water, and then popping each one out of its tiny jacket. Tossed around in the best virgin olive oil you can afford (do me a favour with this rapeseed malarkey – there’s a time and a place, maybe), the teeniest squirt of lemon juice and a little chopped mint, this is a moment I look forward to every year.

Although the longest day has been and gone, summer is only just beginning. Enjoy the seasonal treats that come your way because round here we have them in fleeting abundance. Come rain or shine, it’s an opportunity that’s too delicious to be missed. 

Monday, 24 June 2013

Badgers and Cheese (pre-editing) - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 21/6/13

The Great British Badger Bash is underway down in the West Country. It’s too early to work out if it’s going well (“well” being an entirely objective term depending on whether you’re a badger or not) but unsurprisingly it’s already causing a hoo-hah.

I’ve read the pros and cons of this operation and perhaps it’s not really in my remit to delve too deep into this, but as a fully paid-up and dedicated cheesemonger it’s of frontline relevance to me. Like any dedicated cheeseman ought to, I deal with many of my suppliers directly. Many - arguably often some of the best - cheesemakers are dairy farmers. The impression I get is that bovine tuberculosis is a massive pain in the what-nots, and that old Mr Badger is far from an innocent bystander when it comes the spreading of this disease.

Now we all know that badgers have been being bashed by farmers since BTB began. You’ll never find anyone who’s actually done it, but everyone knows somebody who has. Let’s get real here, how many people have really hit a badger with their car? And how many badgers do you find “sleeping” (as I frequently lie to my daughter) by the side of the road? Quite. We may as well make it legal for a bit and see what happens.

So it’ll be interesting to see how this cull works out. In time the figures will speak for themselves. Until they do, I wish that people would get their heads around the fact that the countryside and its goings-on are not always pretty and fluffy. Nature does not organise itself, and because we’re at the top of the food chain and considerably more intelligent than badgers and dairy cattle, we need to get involved. Unless of course you’d rather not eat meat, vegetables and fruit, or drink milk, wear woolly jumpers and so on.

I need to sell good cheese in order to make a living, so I could do without badgers buggering things about. And good cheese, properly made by people who care, is quite the most remarkable thing. Possibly more messed around with over the years than lovely old bread that I extolled last week, by the early ‘80s artisan cheesemaking had all but died out in the UK, but now, and especially in our neighbouring counties and our own, craft (not Kraft) cheese production is thriving.

The work of the artisan chessemaker is so incredibly skilled. There’s science there, but more than anything else there’s the intrinsic instinct and ‘feel’ that comes with passion and experience. When tasting proper cheese you’ll get a sense of place – what the Frogs call terroir – of where the cows grazed, what the weather was doing, and what the milkmaid was wearing. Really, you will, and I don’t want those pesky badgers getting in the way of something as gastronomically glorious as that. 

Friday, 14 June 2013

The Love of the Loaf - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 14/6/13

A few weeks ago I – perhaps slightly acerbically – took a bit of a pop at the New Foodie Revolutionists. All beards, trust funds and yeastiness, they’ve got a long way to go when it comes to having a grip on reality and commercialism, sustainability and feeding the world. But they mean well, really they do, and they reap harmony from the baking of real bread.

Have you ever baked a loaf of bread? Of course you have. Scratch that. Have you ever baked a proper loaf of bread? A loaf that is made from nothing but flour, water and microbes and LOVE?

Real Bread amongst the foodists of San Francisco and London is pretty much the status quo, but for the rest of us, not so much. It used to be the norm, but no longer. It ought to be though, because properly made bread is an embodiment of everything that is meet and right, so to do. It is an outwardly simple yet intrinsically mind-boggling thing. Like bread, many of the finest and most brilliant things contain very little. Think cheese, wine, beer, salami and Wayne Rooney.

Bread, like booze and cheese is the most ancient and wondrous of comestibles. Bread is warm, it is sharing, it is family, and it transcends everything. There is no single culture on earth that doesn’t make, break, and share bread.

My mate Peter who’s The Man at Price’s in Ludlow gave me some of his ancient sourdough starter a little while ago. Sourdough is where it’s at when it comes to bread and you need Starter to start it. Food is subject to trends just like clothes. Take your Aztec-prints– so last year, like quasi-modish tiger bread and foccacia-with-stuff-in-it. Faintly daft now. Looks like fun, not much to it, and will never make the distance. The good sourdough loaf is the well-judged A-line skirt, a Loake’s boot, a Panama hat. It will go on and on.

Anyway, I’ve been playing around with Peter’s starter (a mad amalgam of natural yeasts, which feed from the atmosphere they live in) for yonks. It’s taken a lot of work, but I’ve finally nailed it and this week I a made a damned-near perfect loaf. The most satisfying (publishable) thing I’ve done in ages.

It’s fun to have a bash at this at home, but if you can’t be fagged and you live where I do then why bother? We have a plethora of brilliant bakers on our doorstep. Peter at Prices, Robert at Swifts, Anna at the Ludlow Food Centre, and many more. The phenomenal artisan bakers of Shropshire may not be in the trendy-set yet, but we’re bloody lucky to have them in our bucolic back yard.

The Shropshire Map of Death

Frankly I find it utterly stultifying that the government, after everything that has happened over the last few gruesome years, is still pumping (or surreptitiously slipping) cash into quangos. Big dozy white elephants implemented to make it look like actual governmental departments are doing something productive. But they’re still there, being all serious and expensive.

Public Health England (“an Executive Agency for the Department of Health”) has carried out a project called Longer Lives. Part of the Longer Lives project was to draw up a map – presumably done by a bunch of GCSE geography kids on work experience – to highlight the fact that people in the southern half of England live longer than those in the northern half.

I haven’t found out how long it took PHE to work out that folk up north smoke more fags, eat more takeaways, and go out on the lash more often than the fairies down south, but I’ll bet it took them a fair while. Maybe Jeremy Hunt was on holiday that week. I could have saved them a whole bunch of time and just told it to them straight, but strangely I wasn’t approached to opine on this particular matter. Hey-ho. The interesting thing though is that whereas the north south divide was always traditionally a diagonal line from the Severn Estuary to the Wash, it is now a nice horizontal-ish line from the Humber to the Mersey. Much more north south and them-and-us. Result for Shropshire: as far as death goes, we’re southerners. Yay!

It’s great. You can have a look at a pretty colour coded map on the PHE website. Green meaning premature death outcomes are “best”, yellow, orange and down to red. Red get the idea. So there I was looking at this map, most of the southern half nice and green with odd pockets of red here and there in places like Luton, Coventry and so on, and as my eyes moved upwards and across I was thrilled to see Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire all verdant, free of junk-food, lung cancer and untimely death and feeling really quite proud to be a man of the Marches and then…then there was this bloody great red blob pulsing like a bubo in the top right corner of my home county.

Telford and Wrekin. As red as you like. After Much Wenlock, you’ve pretty much had it. To be honest it’s of no great concern to me, as callous as this may sound. My own Shropshire stops at about Church Stretton, but it just makes our county’s Fat Map look untidy. A blot (or a Blott – RIP dear old Tom Sharpe – nice Shropshire cultural reference there young man, thanks very much) on our lovely and aged landscape.