Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Slaughter of Tiny Birds, Golf & Committees (Unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 20/9/13

I’ve got a bit of an issue with committees. Committee people, a bit like golf people give me the willies somewhat, all earnest and laughing at things that aren’t really that funny, not laughing at things that really are funny, odd clothes, a poor grasp of personal hygiene and that sort of thing. I’ve been on a few committees myself and never went the distance. Those that I’d like to be on won’t have me, so I’ll take a pop at all of them. Silly me, I’ve already probably alienated half of my readership and I’m only 87 words in to a 450 word piece (at least half the population of Shropshire are on a committee and / or play golf). Mneh, I’ll manage without them.

Anyway, long story short, I was reading about the Committee Against Bird Slaughter, and by heavens they’re a busy bunch. Based in Germany the CABS dash about all over Europe (sometimes the Near East too), causing havoc for all those who delight in, well, slaughtering birds. Most recently several members of CABS have been expelled from Les Landes in France by the local gendarmes for protesting about the trapping of the ortolan.

The ortolan (emberiza hortulana – should there be any classicist ornithologists amongst my remaining readers) is a tiny little thing – highly rated by greedy Gauls - that is force fed in a little dark box, then drowned in Armagnac and roasted before the whole thing is scoffed, bones and all. To get the most from the experience, one should apparently drape a linen napkin over one’s head to enjoy all the tasty birdie aromas.

I can kind of see what the CABS’s objection is, but if you’re going to eat miniature buntings, you might as well do it properly.

It’s around about this time of year when I turn my mind to personal gains that can be achieved from the mass slaughter of tiny birds and begin to drool unattractively in gluttonous anticipation. Within the next couple of weeks there will be young partridge in the local butchers’ shops, blasted from the skies above landed estates and perhaps the tastiest treat of early autumn. More affordable than the grouse, and with a less scatological flavour, this is a dickie-bird I really relish.

Woodpigeon too, shot over the stubble fields are available now. Plump-breasted, cheap, and plentiful (which reminds me of a weekend I once lost in Amsterdam – maybe an anecdote for another time), this is vermin worth seeking out. Braised whole for a long time with peas – frozen work fine, those grey-green French jobbies in jars are even better – or just the breasts sautéed quickly in butter with some fried field mushrooms…Oh my!

Sorry CABS members, I won’t be signing up any time soon, so I’m out. 

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Ludlow Food Festival (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 13/9/13

One sunny Sunday in September 1994 I turned up – under familial duress - to help out at the first Ludlow Food Festival. I was fifteen years old and my parents with some of their friends had got this thing together in Castle Square.

My parents owned a small cookware shop on the High Street, Dad was a member of the Chamber of Commerce, and a brand new Tesco was about to open up on the site of the old livestock market.

In the Church Inn one evening (you give me a properly Great Idea that wasn’t born in a pub, and I’ll give you a tenner), a bunch of likeminded people bashed their heads together in defiance, and decided that Ludlow had enough independent food shops and local producers to create a bit of a celebratory hoo-ha. Shaun Hill, who opened the legendary Merchant House restaurant at about the same time tells me, “It was obvious even to a blind man that a small town that could support three cheese shops, half a dozen world class butchers and two first rate greengrocers contained enough people who cared about food.”

It was a sort of  farmers’ market back in September 1994, but there had never been a farmers’ market, in Ludlow or anywhere else. I was there, reluctantly chopping up sausages for people to taste, not realising or caring what this would become.

It’s hard to imagine a time when food festivals didn’t exist, but truly they’re modern phenomena. Ludlow gave rise to the food festival and in turn to an epicurean awakening that exists and flourishes nineteen years on.

The impact that the Ludlow Food Festival has had on reviving artisan food production in this country cannot be underestimated. There are now many food festivals, and some are undoubtedly more highbrow in elite foodie terms. However, Ludlow’s independent traders all those years ago put a peg in the ground that has stayed put.

Ludlow Food Festival is a part of me, and it’s in my blood. I’m not a director, or even on the committee, but every second weekend of September I’ve been there. I’ll be there this year too, amongst other things co-hosting King Pong (a smell-off of the world’s stinkiest cheeses, brought to you by the Ludlow Food Centre). The sun will shine, and I shall beam with pride that I live in a small town where something as huge as this happens every year.
In 2013, my Mum is still a director of this glorious event along with a few other stalwarts who were there in the Church Inn at the beginning. 2013 promises more demonstrations, tastings, workshops and – most importantly – local food and drink producers than ever before. Come one, come all, and enjoy the party.

This year’s Ludlow Food Festival runs from 13th – 15th September. For information visit or call 01584 873957

Blackberries and Foraging (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 6/9/13

                                “At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
                                 Among others, red, green, hard as a knot…
…Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for

Dear old Seamus Heaney had late summer bang-to-rights when it came to blackberries, and I’ve delighted in watching my eldest daughter tottering around inky fingered and crimson mouthed, foraging food for free. In my aspirational head it’s all so very kids’ section of the Boden catalogue, but in fact it’s M & Co down the passageway by Shropshire Building Supplies. I don’t mind revealing where we get our blackberries, because by the time you read this Bea and I will have had the lot of ‘em.

For me, blackberry picking is the very apotheosis of the childhood idyll, along with climbing trees, throwing sticks at conker trees, and attempting to buy rude magazines from petrol stations. The “lust for picking” however, is a thrill that I wish to instil in my children much in the same way it was passed on to me. I remember as a small boy at prep school taking unripe apples from a tree that was very much out of bounds, eating the lot of them and soiling myself within twelve hours. Those were the days.

Foraging is currently the Big Thing. Historically, foraging was a bit of a necessity because peasants didn’t have Tesco. Now it’s unnecessary but cool. And actually grubbing around for food from the verges (one reader recently warned against this – fie to them I say) and fields is jolly good fun, remarkably rewarding, totally free and often legal. My lovely friend Liz, based down the road in the Golden Valley is a full-time forager and furtles around in hedgerows turning her pickings into the most wonderful edible lotions and potions:

As much as I love a scrumped apple or a blagged blackberry, fungi is where the fun guys (geddit?) forage. My old Dad was something of the amateur mycologist and would often take himself off to ******* Common or ***** Hill (serious ‘shroomers never reveal their hunting grounds) armed with a small knife, a basket and Roger Phillips’ seminal book, Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain. I would accompany him from time to time in the woods, always on the search for the elusive boletus edulis, the penny bun, the cep. On our way to the hunting grounds we would find field mushrooms and puffballs to take back for lunch. It was only ever when Dad was foraging on his own that he’d find a cep that was always “eaten by slugs and not worth bringing home.”

Next week, a preview of the beautiful beast that is the Ludlow Food Festival. In the meantime, happy foraging!

Moments before filing this piece I heard on the news that Seamus Heaney died today (30th August 2013). I dedicate this week’s column to the memory of Heaney, one of the greatest wordsmiths of the modern era.