The Joys of The Table

Sir, Respect Your Dinner,

Idolize it, enjoy it properly.

You will be many hours in a week,

many weeks in the year,

and many years in your life, happier if you do.

(William Makepeace Thackeray)

The Thackeray quote above is one I try to live my life by – it is included in my introduction to Food Culture.  Over the past year, I have been reminded to return to it and re-examine whether my approach to setting a table is in keeping with the sentiment.

The annual Real Farming Conference, which takes place in the first week of January, provides a perfect platform for making food related resolutions.  The topics debated are of the utmost importance to the future sustainability of farming in the UK.  Against this worthy backdrop it is almost apologetically that I tell you that my food resolution for 2019 relates to how I set the table, but please indulge me!

The catalyst for this was not the Real Farming Conference, but a new responsibility I have taken on for looking after my two nephews after school until their parents get home from work.  It includes giving them their evening meal.  Interesting them to a wide variety of food and learning how it is produced is, unsurprisingly, my main focus.  The bigger surprise to me was how important the table is in this endeavour.  Being comfortable whilst you eat is important.  Ideally, children should eat at a table of a size where their feet will touch the floor.  I cannot provide this, but have observed carefully what else I can do, and it seems that involving them in setting the table helps.  Initially, my husband and I ate after the children had been picked up but, and thankfully it is only once a week, we now eat with them at 5.30 pm.  Rather than being presented with their meal already plated, they like to have dishes on the table from which to help themselves and frequently return for more.  Yes, this makes more washing up, but it got me wondering why we save our best tableware for the occasional dinner party.

There has been quite a backlash against formal dining.  Dinner Parties have been replaced by Kitchen Suppers.  Please don’t mistake me, I am not an advocate of formality.  I can’t bear to eat in the sort of establishment that won’t even allow me to pour my own wine.  At the same time, I have become fed up with having to fold paper to stabilise my table, sit down gingerly on a chair that looks as though it might be about to collapse, and drink wine out of tumblers that would look more at home in a bathroom.  Showing proper respect to the winemaker by serving wine in a glass that will enable the bouquet to be appreciated is surely a better approach to drinking alcohol than treating it as mere plonk?

I have been asked in the past whether my insistence on knowing how, and by whom, my food has been produced doesn’t get in the way of my enjoyment.  Actually, I find quite the opposite.  I am very fortunate that I have often either visited the farm or know something of the producer’s history for the vast majority of food that appears on my table.  The feeling of connection is deeply satisfying.  In a similar way I am rediscovering the pleasure to be found in remembering who gave us this of that particular plate or dish.  It is not only children who find lighting a candle makes an occasion special.

Therefore, my food resolution this year is to extend my mindful approach to the presentation of the table, even if it is nothing more than ensuring the kitchen table is clear of other clutter and picking a few extra herbs as decoration rather than just for the pot.  Life is short, but every meal is an occasion.

The Cheese Course

The cheese course should be easy – you just need to buy good cheese, but is often a disappointment.  Here are some ideas to help you get it right.

How to incorporate a cheese course into the meal

In a British menu the cheese course invariably means a cheeseboard served after the dessert. You feel that to offer less than four or five different cheeses looks mean, but if each portion is to look generous it will be an expensive course, and unless you have a large number of guests, you are likely to have a lot of cheese left over.

Then there is the question of wine.  Often a red wine that accompanied a main course can take you through to the cheese if it follows immediately, but dessert, accompanied by a dessert wine is less easy to follow.  There are, however, some cheeses that work well with a sweet wine.

Serving just one cheese has the advantage of allowing you to make a feature of it, and choosing an appropriate wine rather than an “all purpose” one.

The cheese course in an English menu did not always means a cheeseboard.  There are many traditional hot savoury dishes that were originally served after the main course, such as Lockets Savoury consisting of watercress, pears and blue cheese on toast.

Alternatively you could feature your cheese in a salad, especially if the menu is already quite heavy.

If you feel unable to decide whether to serve the cheese before or after dessert, why not leave the decision to your guests?  Many people feel unable to do justice to both and some (mostly men!) are just not that bothered about desserts.

Which cheese to choose

Cheeses are to a certain extent seasonal, usually being best made with spring milk, so that the time at which the cheese appears depends on how long it needs to mature.  Cheeses that are served fresh are therefore only available for a limited period each year, whilst those that are sold matured will be available all year round but at different stages of maturity.  If you have a good cheesemonger near to where you live than take their advice.

The key thing when making your choice is the quality of the cheese, which should have been stored in perfect conditions and sold to you in peak condition.  If you do intend to offer a selection you should aim for a variety of styles, e.g. creamy/crumbly, strong/mild, sheeps/goats/cows milk.  You might decide though to theme your selection, by country, region or style, e.g. unpasteurised.  There are many excellent British cheeses, yet still many people are unfamiliar with them.

What to serve with the cheese

Serving biscuits with cheese is peculiarly British and there are some pretty awful examples about, so this is a potential pitfall.  Avoid at all cost the “biscuits for cheese selections” and stick to classic oatcakes or Bath Olivers.  Making your own is really worthwhile when you are focusing on just one cheese.

The best breads for serving with cheese often incorporate some of the other classic accompaniments of dried fruits or nuts.

The following are all good partner for cheese: apples, pears, walnuts, celery, grapes.  Although chutneys are good with cheese they kill wines so avoid them at dinner.

Here are some classic combinations:

Blue cheese & Walnut

Pecorino & Pear

Cheddar & Apple

Vacherin & Quince jelly

Brie & Apple

Storing your cheese

Buy the cheese as close as possible to when you intend to eat it.  Cheese is best stored at a temperature of around 8C, but most people have no option other than to store it in the fridge.  If so, don’t forget to remove it at least an hour before serving to develop the flavour.  Cheese sold by a proper cheesemonger will be wrapped in wax paper for storing.

Cut Choice to Cut Waste

Michelin-starred The Checkers restaurant in Montgomery, Wales, made news this week by announcing that they have abandoned their À la Carte menu in an effort to cut food waste.  Various food critics and guides then confirmed that À la Carte is passé but please excuse me a moment of cynicism before I applaud.
It appears that the no (or at least limited) choice menu that I hoped we were returning to is not quite as it was.  Several critics cited as their example of the demise of À la Carte the dreaded Tasting Menu, usually consisting of at least 7 tiny courses that leave you wondering when the amuse-bouche will be over and the main event will commence.  Others referred to the growth in sharing plates but again this is not at all what I had in mind.
Twenty years ago Britain boasted many no-choice restaurants, they were especially popular in Scotland, where one could enjoy a carefully structured, i.e. balanced, three or four course meal.  The last of these, Sally Clarke in London, reluctantly had to give up the fixed menu format 8 years ago.  For me, the beauty of these restaurants lay in their menu planning skills, which always created an experience greater than the sum of the parts.  Sally Clarke’s Book is my bible on the subject of menu planning and still very relevant for the home cook inviting friends for dinner. Her latest book, 30 Ingredients, to celebrate 30 years in the business, is pleasant enough but not a patch on the first.
It has not been lost on me that the chef-patron at The Checkers is a Frenchman.  Even a simple home meal in France is likely to consist of several courses, whereas we British have long been derided for our tendency to put everything on one plate.  Meat and two veg for a simple meal, but for more of an extravaganza the one-, two-, or at most three-course rule applies.  Comedy sketches come to mind, but truly the British seem to be happiest piling their plate high at a buffet.
And how are we teaching our children to eat nowadays? I would not wish to return to the days when you weren’t allowed to leave the table until you had eaten everything on your plate.  But I am extremely uncomfortable when I watch the current trend to offer variety, not just verbally, but physically on the plate, so that babes can help themselves to whatever takes their fancy.  It is supposed to be successful in improving their relationship with food but the waste at every meal makes me wonder what other messages we are conveying.
On those occasions when am lucky enough to be eating in an establishment that offers the limited choice that is essential if everything is to be cooked on the premises rather than bought in, I have sadly observed how many of the customers just don’t seem to get it and still insist on asking for “just steak/salad/ice cream” or something else that isn’t on the menu.
Whilst I applaud The Checkers and anyone else attempting to improve their offering by cutting choice, I’m far from convinced that the British are ready for it.  But if you want to embrace the concept at home how about starting with cheese?  A Cheeseboard, offering a choice of cheeses, is a ridiculously costly and wasteful concept and usually results not only in waste but also less than perfect cheeses being offered.  Try serving just one, in perfect condition with exactly the right accompaniments, to appreciate the benefits of no-choice.

Ideas for Serving Cheese

Five traditional eating habits we should resume

When the Pasture Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) was launched at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in 2012 I wrote here about the impact on taste of the use of grain rather than grass to feed cattle.  How different farming methods affect the flavour of food remains my primary focus but always within the context of environmental concerns, animal welfare, fair trade etc.  What I confess is usually of least interest to me are health considerations.  It seems that health professionals contradict their own advice from one day to the next and I am more than happy to concur with Colin Tudge’s general view that for our own health and that of the planet we need to consume “not much meat, plenty of vegetables and maximum variety”.

At this year’s Real Farming Conference I caught up with developments in the Pasture Fed Livestock Association and surprised myself by how enlightening I found the session by Caroline Watson regarding the nutritional importance of 100% pasture-fed meat.

Caroline is not a trained nutritionist but began research over 5 years ago to heal herself and now helps heal others.  I pretty quickly recognised that I had recently visited her website www.primalmeats.co.uk when I was searching for suet, which I have found increasingly difficult to get as it seems the local abattoir is not returning this part of the animal, but more of this later.

Caroline’s presentation was structured around five traditional eating habits that we have largely abandoned but need to get back.  Although Caroline arrived at these mainly from a nutritional viewpoint, they chimed so closely with my own experience from a culinary standpoint that I found this advice very easy to swallow!  The five habits are:

  1. Eat 100% pasture-fed meat.
  2. Eat animal fat – butter, lard, dripping (and of course the elusive suet).
  3. Eat more slow-cooked food.
  4. Make stock from the bones.
  5. Eat the weird bits.

1.     The importance of 100% pasture-fed meat

This was, for me, the most revelatory point of Caroline’s presentation.  I have supported the PFLA since its launch, but some of the meat I buy, whilst predominantly grass-fed, is not 100%.  Assuming you have the land, grazing sheep and cattle on grass is the cheapest way to feed them and so the majority of farmers still graze their animals for most of the time, making silage or hay in the summer to feed in the winter.  The main time they feed other food is leading up to slaughter, to ensure the animals reach the conformity expected by the supermarkets and which attracts the highest price at market.  I have reasoned that, if the animals have been fed on grass for, say, 90% of their lives the meat will have 90% of the qualities of 100% pasture-fed.  It is probably worth saying here that the term “grass-fed” can legally be used for animals that have a diet at least 50% from grass, although the animals I buy, definitely graze the fields surrounding where I live for much more than this.  Caroline was adamant that 100% pasture-fed is vital and her blog explains why.  Briefly summarised, it is to do with the balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 that our bodies require.  Caroline is an advocate of the paleo-diet, which aims to replicate what our hunter-gatherer forefathers ate.  Their diet would have provided Omega-3 and Omega-6 in equal proportions but in modern diets Omega-6 predominates, sometimes by as much as 25 times!  Massively elevated Omega-6 consumptions contributes to inflammatory diseases including type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, cancer and heart disease.  Our major sources of Omega-3 are meat and fish but for animals to produce this, their digestive system needs to be producing the right fermentation bacteria.  When they are fed grass they will have a healthy pH of 7, creating the right conditions, but just 30 days of feeding a bovine grain can throw their pH downwards towards pH4 and undo the chemistry of 200 days of munching grass.  So the habit of “finishing “ livestock on cereals is actually undoing much of the good of the previous grazing.  I need to talk to the farmers whose meat I have been buying to convince them to change to 100% pasture-fed.

2.     Eat Animal Fat

Thankfully most people now understand the harm that trans-fats do but it is relatively recently that advice to eat margarine rather than butter has reversed. Vegetable oils and spreads are very high in Omega-6, one of the causes of the imbalance mentioned above. The demonization of animal fats has made it very difficult to find them – fresh and with the provenance of the animal they came from clear.  So we find bakers making cakes that would originally have been made with lard using palm oil instead – because they can get this ingredient organically certified but not lard!    Butter, lard and dripping are the animal fats that are traditional in the UK – the fat upon which a cuisine is based has a major influence on the character of that cuisine.  That’s my culinary standpoint rather than Caroline’s health one – but we can enjoy them again without seeing them as inherently “unhealthy”.

3.     Eat more Slow-cooked Food

I knew Caroline and I were absolutely on the same page when she got to this point, especially when she spoke of the absolute importance of reacquiring traditional cooking skills!  Although she didn’t actually mention the word Umami, the 5th taste which results predominantly from the freeing up of glutamates that occurs during long cooking or other processes such as fermentation, she did explain that these processes release not only flavour but also nutrients.  I have written about the flavour element before here .  What is also relevant is the use of the whole animal (more of which in point 5) but our need for a speedy supper results in a far higher demand for the lean cuts than those which require longer cooking.  Often when I teach cookery I am asked for inspiration for quick supper dishes.  Of course I can give some, but the wider picture is that you will get bored if you essentially rely on the same quick-cook methods all of the time.  A well-run kitchen, both professionally and domestically, relies on the continuous cycle of using ingredients to their full, so that there is always something being made from yesterdays leftovers and something being made that will form the basis of tomorrow’s meal.  Starting from scratch every time is very limiting.  I have two freezers – a chest freezer mainly used for meat, which enables me to buy meat a whole or half carcase at a time; and an upright freezer that contains home-made stocks and flavour bases made from mushrooms, tomatoes or other seasonal goodies.

4.     Make stock from the bones

Bone-broths (stock) are truly a Superfood in terms of both flavour and health.  They feature frequently in the “cooking for invalids” section of old cookery books – a skill that most modern cooks have not even attempted to master.  Chicken soup is often referred to as “Jewish Penicillin”, so much store do Jews set by its healing properties.

Whilst I have always used my meat bones for stock, I have now noted the cautionary notes on Caroline’s blog …”these critical points make the difference between creating a nice flavour to add to soups or stews and creating a truly healing medicine that also tastes amazing”…  Three points follow, abbreviated below:

  • The bones have to come from animals that contain all the nutrients (i.e. 100% pasture-fed)
  • The stock has to be cooked very slowly – for a minimum of 24 hours
  • There should be no artificial additions

The biggest change for me here is the length of cooking – I usually make my stocks in about 4 hours.  If you have a range cooker that is permanently on (such as an AGA) this won’t be a problem in the lowest oven.  Unless I switch to freezing the bones for occasional mammoth stock making sessions I don’t fancy switching my oven on for this long.  However, in the winter when the wood-burning stove ticks over all night I might well be able to continue cooking on this.

What are the health benefits you might ask?  There are myriad but amongst the most important is healing the gut.  Like animals, we would all once have instinctively craved the foods that could heal us, and bone broths are certainly what I crave when I am ill.  Chicken stock with the addition of root ginger is my go-to soup whenever my stomach is upset – just as onion soup made with beef stock is my answer for clearing chesty colds.  So whilst my stocks could be improved to make them more beneficial medicinally, I can already accept the truth behind their health giving claims.  For more examples see Caroline’s blog.

5.     Eat the Weird Bits

This is more than just an extension of the Nose to Tail eating principle already discussed under Slow Cooking.  Offal, and particularly the brains and head of an animal, contain nutrients either absent or in lesser quantity in lean muscle.  Caroline explained that this is why predators will frequently take just the head of an animal.  If we are to eat less meat it is particularly important that we gain maximum nutrients from what we do eat, so make sure that you learn to love offal and all the other weird bits.

Find out more

My previous articles/recipes:

Pasture or Grain Fed – a question of Taste

Mutton and Caper Suet Pudding Recipe

Making Stock

Primal Meats Blog:

https://www.primalmeats.co.uk/bone-broth/

https://www.primalmeats.co.uk/grain-free-beef

Books by Jennifer McLagan:

Odd Bits

Fat

Bones

Is eating meat just once a week really the answer?

I read in the press over the Christmas period that government advisor Professor Tim Lang is now recommending that people eat meat no more than once a week.  Aside from the scientific flaws in his argument that meat is responsible for obesity, type 2 diabetes and global warming, for any government to try to implement his suggestion would be such political suicide that I can only assume the comment was never meant seriously but merely to provoke debate.  In that vein, I want to examine whether it really could be the only possible solution to feeding the world’s growing population.

Whilst Professor Lang uses the medieval period to demonstrate that there is cultural precedence for eating meat only on feast days, history also shows that we have not enjoyed our past days of enforced fasting, whether they be as a result of financial, religious or wartime pressures.  And in the past fish was seen as the main alternative to meat, whereas nowadays the dwindling stocks in our seas would not be sufficient for us to increase our consumption.  In addition to limiting meat to weekly “feast days”, Professor Lang talks also of cutting out dairy produce, which of course carries its own environmental costs, and appears to be suggesting an almost entirely vegan diet.

He is, I’m sure, addressing his comments to the vast majority who buy their meat from supermarkets, and whose meat eating consists mainly of the more intensively farmed animals.  It never ceases to amaze me how limited the range is even amongst meat eaters –of the principal four farmed meats lamb is now considered too dear by many, and eating genuinely wild game, such as pigeon, is quite a rarity.  Yet wild game has very little environmental impact – that is to say beyond the damage that they do to farmers crops and sheep often make a positive environmental impact through their grazing.

Most days I walk in an area of the Mendips known as Ubley Warren that was once mined for lead.  The name Warren crops up in a number of farms and roads in the area and stems from the time when rabbits were kept here.  Rabbits were first brought to Britain by the Normans following the conquest in 1066.  At this time Britain was considered too cold for the rabbits to survive and so Warreners were employed to build mounds for them to live in and to trap them for their fur and meat when needed.  One of these mounds, some 60 metres long by 3 metres wide, survives at Ubley Warren pretty much intact, with a second one running parallel to it now appearing a row of humps as a result of disturbance by subsequent mining.  The whole area is covered with rabbit holes and you need only sit still and quiet for a minute or two before the rabbits start popping up all over the place.  Periodically their numbers are reduced by an outbreak of Myxomatotis, the disease that almost wiped them out back in the 1950’s and which has led many who remember it never to eat rabbit again.  However, whilst the disease did pass to some other animals, it never transferred to humans and the rabbits themselves eventually developed some immunity, such that it is now estimated that only 50% of those that get the disease actually die from it and, according to a Land Registry survey carried out in 2005, the rabbit population as a whole continues to multiply three-fold every two years.  So Myxomatosis, controversially introduced first into Australia to control rabbit numbers there and subsequently illegally into France from whence it spread to the rest of Europe, has not ultimately proved successful in its goal.  During the war we were actively encouraged to kill and eat rabbit, which was outside of the usual meat rationing, and presenting a great threat to crop production. Farmers are still eager to allow shooters onto their land to control this pest and whilst some of this rabbit finds its way into the food chain, the vast majority of rabbit sold in our supermarkets is imported rabbit farmed in China.  Now how ridiculous is that?

In addition to rabbit what other meat could we be eating that has minimal environmental impact?  Well, venison, the meat of kings and a King amongst meats, also needs controlling in the wild.  It is actually getting so popular to eat that it is farmed as well, and whilst some people claim only to enjoy farmed venison, others, myself included, take the opposite view.  Roe deer is considered the best of all the deer for eating, on French menus it is always accorded the distinction of being named as Chevreuil rather than the generic term of Venaison. Serendipitously roe deer also happens to be the species whose numbers are getting most out of hand.

Pigeon may also be shot as a pest and historically of course they were also kept in dovecotes for eating.  The reared Squab pigeon (one that has had its wings clipped to prevent it flying and thus it puts on more weight) is considered fine restaurant fare, but even the humble woodpigeon provides meat that can be cooked and eaten like steak.

Two other garden pests that sometimes find their way to my table are snails and grey squirrel.  Granted, there is not much meat on either, but snails, long enjoyed by the French, also have a cultural connection with this area.  They favour the limestone of the Mendips as it is said to strengthen their shell and Mendip Wallfish, as the snails were known in these parts, were gathered from the dry stone walls and served at the Miners Arms for something like 30 years until no-one could be bothered to gather them anymore.

Most of the rivers run deep underground in the Mendips, but elsewhere in the country crayfish (first the Signal, and now some other foreign invader) are breeding in vast numbers and need to be caught.  Perhaps we could also build ponds, as used to be found in all monasteries, and breed Carp or other non-carnivorous fish.

So you see for me there is little need to be forsaking flesh protein anytime soon, but I do think we need to be much more open about the form it takes.  If we ate meat only on a weekly “Feast Day” presumably for most people this would be the Sunday Roast – with perhaps a steak cooked on the barbecue in the Summer.  So with prime cuts the choice of for most people for their weekly feast what would become of the rest of the carcase?  When would we eat faggots?  Perhaps it will take something as radical as the non-availability of the more usual farmed options before people will consider these alternatives and perhaps this is what Professor Lang is actually trying to provoke.

I think also that we need to become equally open-minded and adventurous in our choice of vegetable matter.  A well-to-do medieval household would have had a garden full of herbs and cultivated wild greens that we use very seldom nowadays.  We have become very narrow in our “meat and two veg” mentality, so much so that even when visiting those foreign countries that have reputations for a much greater consumption of vegetables, we can miss them if we opt for our familiar main course meal structure.  In his recent six-month experiment with vegetarianism, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall also found that the solution to enjoyable vegetable consumption was to abandon the very British meal structure in favour of something more akin to the mezze or tapas style you might experience abroad.  Personally, I love this relaxed way of eating, which is usually associated with meals that last for hours, but whilst the British rarely take their full hour for lunch, opting instead to eat a sandwich at their computer, there is a lot more that needs to change in our culture before I can see this style of eating catching on in a big way.

But on the positive side, vegetarianism has made inroads in the UK that are unparalleled in other European countries.  There is now almost always a vegetarian option on even the shortest of menus in mainstream restaurants and school dinners.  Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall found that his vegetarian options were more popular at the first course than the second, or, when chosen as a main course, only at lunchtimes.  Both of these however seem eminently do-able steps towards lowering our meat consumption to once a day rather than once a week.  Vegetarian options should not however always be considered the most sustainable choice – after all they nearly always include cheese and/or imported nuts.  But they will help us widen the range of foods eaten, and when meat is chosen, if this can also be from more sustainable options such as wild game or pasture fed lamb and beef, we will be making very positive steps forward.  We need then to continue to campaign for more sustainable farming practices, such as bringing back pigswill rather than paying for expensive food disposal. This is the vision of Real Farming that I will be taking forward in our Food Culture section this year.  Challenging you to consider new options but stopping well short of suggesting a complete revolution that overturns everything about our historic food preferences.

Better a dinner of herbs…

…where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred with it.

(Proverbs 15:17)

The exact meaning of this biblical proverb has been much discussed, but it seems generally to be accepted that a dinner of herbs represents a very lowly lifestyle, whilst the ox represents wealth.   This article considers the contribution that herbs make to our dining and whether their status really deserves to be more elevated.

It’s interesting that the existence of herbs seems pretty much to have been taken for granted, even in the lowliest of circumstances.  This is because originally herbs would have been gathered in the wild, so they were available to everyone.  In much the same way that cattle will seek out the herbage that will remedy their ailments, so to our ancestors seemed to have acquired this essential knowledge.  For herbs were originally consumed entirely for their health-giving properties, in fact several of the foods we eat today only found their way into the kitchen via the physic garden.  It would have been noted that some medicinal herbs were more palatable than others, and these were then used as flavourings in the kitchen.  Today we tend to separate herbs into two categories: medicinal and culinary, but in reality most culinary herbs also have medicinal properties, although some more pronounced than others.

I’m not sure quite why we lost this knowledge – Industrialisation, I suppose.  For herbs were still very important in the 18th and 19th century kitchen gardens.  However, by the latter half of the 20th century only a very few were considered garden staples – the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme of Simon and Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair.

I think we have Jamie Oliver to thank for re-introducing a wider range of herbs to our cooking.  He, of course, focussed mainly on Italian cooking, and it was in particular vast quantities of Mediterranean herbs that his recipes required – armfuls of flat-leaf parsley, coriander or basil.  Even before he was an ambassador for Sainsbury’s he carried considerable clout with the supermarkets, in much the same way as the Delia effect had been notably caused by his predecessor in television cooking.  So now we have pots of growing herbs in the supermarket as well as packs of quite a large range of cut herbs.  With the exception of supermarket pots of basil, which needs to be grown indoors over most of Britain, I consider most of these herbs a terrible waste of money and usually very insipid in taste.  How frustrating it must be to read a list of ingredients for a recipe and find that you have to take a trip to a supermarket for herbs before you can make the dish.  Herbs are meant to be grown within easy reach of the kitchen, so that they can be cut, often in very small quantities, on an almost daily basis.

Some herbs are suitable for growing in pots on the kitchen windowsill, or in an outside window-box, so almost everyone can grow at least a few.  For those herbs that require a little more space, consider the fact that most have been cultivated from plants that originally grew in the wild.  You can forage for wild herbs, but, because you want to be able to nip out and cut them at any moment, I would think they are actually a prime candidate for Guerrilla Gardening.  Grow them in any piece of land you can find near your front door – around parking areas are ideal.

In addition to having the more common herbs at your fingertips, growing your own also enables you to venture into rarer varieties.  Edible flowers have lately become trendy, but we used to use them quite regularly as a flavouring.  Throughout this year I will be focussing on the growing and culinary use of a particular herb each month.  Some of them really can give you the basis for an entire meal (think of pesto), others play more of a supporting role, but all can make the world of difference between a boring dish of leftovers and the inspiration for a meal that is bursting with flavour and fit to grace any table – thus belying the opening proverb.

See January’s herb – Winter Savory

Other featured herbs: Basil, Bay, Calendula, Chervil, Mint, Parsley, Rosemary, Sage, Sorrel, Tarragon and Thyme.

What’s in your lunch box?

For many of my years’ working as a training consultant lunches were the Achilles Heel in my otherwise carefully planned eating.  We were expected to eat with the participants and a buffet lunch was provided.  You know the sort of thing: some very unexciting sandwiches on pre-sliced bread, sausage rolls and other pastries, followed by a dessert of Pavlova or something similar.  If we were very lucky there might be some fresh fruit as an alternative dessert option.

My pleas for healthier lunches, fell on deaf ears – they tended to cost more and these were generally popular with participants, who didn’t have to face them every day.  Eventually, battling an ever expanding waistline, I rebelled and insisted that I be able to take my lunch apart from the group so that I could eat something I had brought from home.  I fully appreciate the pressures that workers are under, especially with jobs in short supply, to work through their lunch break.  Hopefully few people will be up against the expectation that they regularly eat the food provided for them.  You will see from my article Is eating meat only once a week really the answer? that I envisage lunch normally being a meat free meal and whilst this option is available even if you are buying ready made sandwiches, making your own lunch opens far more possibilities.

Taking a lunch to work at first seems like a lot of hassle, but on the basis that we all have three opportunities every day to take pleasure in eating, it is well worth the effort.  If you do have some discretion over how you use your lunch hour, I would also strongly recommend that you spend part of it taking a walk in the open air.  You will feel so much better for it.  The ideal lunch would also be very portable so that you need not stay indoors to eat it.  A flask of soup very often fits the bill and is as welcome to someone whose day is mainly spent travelling as to one trapped in an office.  From a practical standpoint, it soup can be made in a larger batch and frozen in daily portions.  Sometimes I make just the soup base, so that it takes up less space in the freezer, and then stock or other liquid is added to make up the soup when required.

The very mention of stock is enough to put many people off making their own soup, although it should become an automatic habit whenever you are left with meat bones.  For me, a good meat stock does enhance the flavour of soup, even those that are otherwise vegetable, but for strict vegetarians, or whenever you find yourself without a meat stock, you can use water or a vegetable stock which is faster to make.  What I would not recommend is using a stock cube – better to have an under flavoured soup that ruin it with artificial ingredients that seem to dominate everything they come into contact with.   For more notes of stock making, and why meat bones create the most complex flavour see here.

There are only really a few variations on soup making method and once you have learnt these you can adapt them to other flavours.  My Soup of the Month for January is Curried Parsnip, which will provide you with the basis for making soups with almost any root vegetable.  Because the parsnips themselves contain plenty of body it is not actually necessary to thicken the soup with anything else although a little flour does will enable you to add more stock without compromising the flavour.  More seasonal soup recipes will be found each month.

Seville Oranges – for more than just marmalade

Seville Oranges are in the shops for the next couple of weeks and I’m making an exception to my usual principle of discussing only British produce because apparently our consumption of marmalade has fallen by 5.6% over the last two years – a pattern of decline that looks set to continue given that the majority of marmalade eaters are over the age of 65.

Does this really matter?  Not much in the great scheme of things I have to admit, but I will be a little sad if the time comes when Seville Oranges no longer make their brief appearance in late January.  So, I imagine, will the Spanish, since they are grown almost entirely for the British marmalade market.  During the Second World War making marmalade was considered so essential to British morale that special efforts were made to ensure the supply of Seville Oranges, so what has changed?

One heartening suggestion is that, dissatisfied with commercial offerings, we have returned to making marmalade at home, although I have not been able to find statistics to support this theory. Were it simply that we have realised that a breakfast of toast and marmalade has little nutritional benefit and now started our day in a more healthy way there would be some comfort in marmalade’s demise.  However it seems that in the same period increased sales of chocolate spread and peanut butter more than covered the drop in marmalade sales so health doesn’t appear to be the motivation.  Sales of jams also continued to increase, with only honey joining marmalade in seeing declining sales.  Honey is of course worthy of further discourse in its own right, but for today let’s consider what we will lose if indeed we are losing our appetite for Seville Oranges.

In common with the rest of the citrus family, bitter oranges are native to China.  Following the Citron, Citrus aurantia (bitter oranges) were the next member of the citrus family to be cultivated in the west.  They were apparently grown in Sicily in the early 11th century and around Seville towards the end of the 12th century, no doubt introduced by the Arabs. The first sweet oranges, Citrus sinensis , reached Lisbon in the 1630’s and thirty years later theatre goers in London were offered them as refreshment, and although they quickly gained popularity over the bitter orange, sweet oranges were expensive and bitter oranges continued to be the norm in cooking.   Up until the early nineteenth century, unless sweet oranges are specified (sometimes referred to as Portugal oranges) you should assume that bitter oranges are required.  The casual substitution of sweet oranges has led to the ruin of such previously fine recipes such as Canard à la orange .  

Before Seville orange marmalade was made in Scotland, preserves of bitter orange peel were already known in Arabic cooking, whilst “marmalade” was being made in Britain from quinces.  The other main use of bitter oranges derives not from the fruit but from the flowers.  The distillation of the flowers produces the essential oil Neroli, which is drawn off for use in perfumery, whilst the aqueous remains is known as Orange Flower Water and is used in cooking, particularly in the Middle East. In Southern France bitter oranges are called Bigarard and the area around Grasse is the main western producer of orange flower water.

But what of the implications of bitter oranges falling out of favour in our own cuisine?  Could it be, I wonder, a sign that we are losing our appreciation of bitter tastes as a whole?

At marmalade making time each year there is always some debate as to whether it can be made from other citrus fruit.  Technically, and even historically, the answer is yes, but what people are really asking here is whether the distinctly bitter taste is an essential part of the marmalade that has become culturally associated with Britain.  A grapefruit marmalade, for example, will taste zesty and refreshing, but is this really marmalade or just a peel jam?

A similar argument rears its head when discussing cider.  The eastern side of the country, and increasingly commercial cider makers from wherever they hail, make cider from dessert rather than cider apples, which, like Seville Oranges, contain the distinctive bitter element that for many is the essence of the true taste of cider.  Feelings also run high over the naming of pear equivalents – those made from genuine Perry Pears are the only ones that ought to be called Perry (although there is no law enforcing this) and to mistakenly call it Pear Cider (which would be made from dessert pears) is deeply insulting.

Bitterness adds a depth of flavour that is missing from fruit which is predominantly sweet or sour.  By including it you will literally be activating more of the taste buds so that the whole taste experience is more complex, less one dimensional.  Human beings are born with the basic ability to appreciate sweetness because it tells us when things are fully ripe but the addition of bitterness can prevent sweet dishes from becoming cloying. Sourness is the direct opposite of this and is often likened to the white in an artist’s palette in that a little of it will lighten and lift a dish and actually enhance our perception of the sweetness that exists.  Try squeezing a little lemon juice over strawberries rather than adding sugar and see which tastes sweeter.

If sour is the white in an artist’s palette then bitter equates to black, allowing the cook to create shade and depth in a dish.  Strangely people often confuse these two, perhaps because either, in excess, will cause one to wince and screw up the face in dislike.  The two can also exist together, making distinction more difficult: trying to eat a raw sloe is one example.

Unlike sweetness, an appreciation of bitter usually develops with time and this is probably a natural defence mechanism since it enabled hunter-gatherers to distinguish poisonous plants by their bitter flavour.  As their knowledge grew so did their realisation that not all bitter plants are poisonous, but still it appears that these receptors develop with age.  So food containing a degree of bitterness has sophisticated, adult overtones. 

Yet tea is the example usually used to taste bitterness caused by tannins without the added complication of sourness, and there can be no import more associated with British taste than tea!

Could it be that our basic taste receptors have adapted in response to industrial food production?   The main purpose of additives is to enhance the attractiveness of food to us, but it does seem that the majority of these are based on sugar or salt.  Consider our taste in chocolate for example.  Pure cacao is unpalatably bitter so a degree of sugar is needed to make chocolate for eating, but although we are beginning to appreciate chocolate with higher cocoa solids, the majority of that sold in the UK is still milk and quite sweet.  Palates do of course differ and gauging the degree of bitterness that others will enjoy is difficult – you have only to think about the differing amounts of sugar that individuals choose to add to tea or coffee.  A quick test to assess your own, or others, tolerance to bitterness is simply to add, one drop at a time, some Angostura Bitters to a glass of Perrier water.  Other brands will suffice, but I suggest Perrier in this instance because it is quite salty and the combination, plus the carbonation, should make an enjoyably refreshing drink but exactly how much Angostura to add will be quite a personal taste.

So what I would miss most about the absence of Seville Oranges is not their sourness – for which there are plenty of substitutes, but the bitterness that comes with it.  I do not eat much marmalade and thankfully there still seems to be a plentiful supply of good homemade offerings for what I do need, but there are plenty of other recipes for which I still buy a single kilo of organic Seville oranges when the season arrives.  It is sometimes suggested that a mixture of orange and lemon juice be substituted when Seville oranges are not available, but whilst this can give an approximation of acidity it really doesn’t provide the complexity and sophistication that comes from the bitterness of Sevilles.  I hope that some of this month’s recipes will convince you both to support the bitter orange, for the sake of biodiversity, but also to look for the pleasing touch of bitterness in other foods.