May Fairs

May 1 used to have far more significance than it does nowadays.  The Celts called it Beltane and celebrated with hilltop fires, around which they danced “sunwise”.  Greeting the dawn on 1st May stems back to those Pagan Beltane celebrations, young women believed that bathing their face in the early morning dew on this day was good for their complexion.  Dews are common at this time of year as the earth is only just warming up.

Tall, straight trees were cut for maypoles, they were decorated with flowers and coloured ribbons, and raised on village greens as the focal point for the celebrations.  The flowers and foliage were often gathered at midnight, an activity known as “bringing in the May” and it gave good cover for other human interactions.  The link between May Day and fertility was so strong that in Charles I’s time the Puritans banned the erection of Maypoles and generally tried to supress the celebration.  When Charles II returned to the throne on 29 May 1660 some places moved their May Day celebrations to that date and others to Rogationtide.

Rogationtide is not a fixed date but determined by Easter, which in itself is determined by the full moon.  The four days from the fifth Sunday after Easter are the Rogation Days, the last of which is Ascension Day (40 days after Easter).  The earliest date on which it could occur is 30th April and the latest 3rd June, so essentially it is a May festival.  (In Western Churches – Eastern Orthodox churches usually use the old Gregorian calendar).

Ascension Day marks Jesus Christ’s ascension to heaven and is the end of the Easter Season.  In C5th France, following a series of natural disasters, this day was marked by blessing the fields, animals and people.  It later became customary to walk the boundaries of the village to do this, a procession known as “Beating the Bounds”.

In Britain today we have two Bank Holidays in May, one at the beginning to coincide with May Day and one at the end, the “Spring Bank Holiday”.  May Day was formally adopted as International Workers Day in 1889, which has sadly overshadowed its earlier purpose, but whatever they now mark, the fact remains that the two long weekends in May provide opportunities for festivities and fairs.

Fairs (or fayres) were traditionally important not only as an occasion for relaxation and entertainment but also for business.  Many of the oldest relate to agricultural sales (Priddy Sheep Fair was the longest running having moved from Wells in 1348 because of the Black Death).  Hiring Fairs were also common on the quarter days.  Several foods are associated with fairs – a sort of porridge known as Frumenty was often served laced with rum.  Gingerbread, often in the shape of a man or pig, was always found at fairs but in Florence White’s Good Things in England a complete “fairing” was described as including:

Gingerbread Biscuits

Caraway Comfits

Candied Sticks of Angelica

Almond Comfits

Macaroons

 

The history of gingerbread goes back a long way (see Ginger and Gingerbread) and the biscuits known as Cornish Fairings, which have been made commercially since 1886 are actually one of the most modern examples as evidenced by the inclusion of raising agents.  Miss Rogers of Marazion in Cornwall who contributed the list of a traditional fairing also noted of the macaroons that they are “quite different from the English variety, much thicker and softer and crumbly, not tough”.  I’m not entirely certain what these may have been like as today we distinguish the English Macaroon from the more modern (1900) French Macaron which is a pastel-coloured sandwich of something more akin to a meringue.  I doubt these were being served at Cornish Fairs but perhaps they were!  Anyway, Florence White’s Macaroon recipe is the English version of the almond biscuit that came from Italy.

Fairing Recipes

Fairing Recipes

Cornish Fairings

 

Although the name harks back to the oldest form of Gingerbread, the biscuit recipe below is more modern with raising agents being a significant ingredient. These have been made commercially by Furniss of Truro since 1886 although their recipe is a trade secret.

A rough, irregular surface is a distinguishing feature and, containing raising agent, they are left to spread creating a less precise round somewhat thicker, and therefore less crisp, biscuit than the Ormskirk type above.

 

8 oz plain flour

½ tsp salt

2 level tsps baking powder

2 level tsps bicarbonate soda

3 level tsps ground ginger

2 level tsps mixed spice

1 level tsp cinnamon

4 oz butter

4 oz caster sugar

4 tbsps golden syrup

 

Sieve together the dry ingredients then rub in the butter (as you would for pastry).  Stir in the sugar.  Heat the syrup gently and then pour in sufficient to bind the mixture, which will be fairly stiff.

With floured hands, take walnut sized pieces of the mixture, roll into a ball and place on a greased baking sheet. Cook in a hot oven (200°C) for 5-7 minutes or until the biscuits are beginning to brown then turn out the heat and leave to cook for a further 5 minutes.

 

 

Macaroons

 

These are the old-fashioned type traditionally served in the UK, crisp on the outside but chewy in the centre, as opposed to the modern macaroons, pronounced macaron, which were developed in France in 1900.

Makes 20 – 36 (depending on whether you want to serve them as biscuits or a petit four)

2 egg whites

250 g caster sugar

125 g whole blanched almonds (+ flaked almonds for decoration)

30 g semolina flour (or rice flour)

1 tsp orange flower water

Edible wafer paper (or rice paper)

 

Pre-heat the oven to 140°C (Fan)

Put 4 sheets of rice paper, smooth side down, on a large baking sheet.

Process the almonds until finely ground.

Whisk the egg yolks until fairly stiff.  Add the orange flower water.

Combine the caster sugar and semolina flour with the almonds and fold into the egg whites.  It will make a stiff paste.

For petit fours use a teaspoonful of mixture or for biscuits a dessertspoon.  Place the heaps on the rice paper allowing room for them to spread out to about double the size.  For biscuits add a flaked almond in the middle of each.

Bake for 15 minutes for petit four size or 30 minutes for larger biscuits – until just lightly coloured.

As soon as the macaroons are cool enough to handle move them to a wire cooling rack tearing off the excess rice paper that surrounds them.

Store in an airtight tin for up to 10 days.

 

Lambing Time

Pasture for Life celebrated its 10th year this month.  Over those 10 years, the certification scheme has greatly advanced understanding of the benefits of pasture fed meat, yet as Easter approaches I am gnashing my teeth whilst reading all the articles in the press that recommend “Spring Lamb” as the centrepiece for your Easter celebrations.  Open your eyes and look around – or just look at the pictures on social media – in Britain lambs are just being born in the spring, they are not ready to eat!

A very defined breeding cycle exists for lamb, only the Dorset Horn (and its polled variant) can breed all year round.  The various breeds have developed to reflect their local climatic conditions, with the first lambs being born early in the year in warmer parts of the south, gradually being followed by the Scottish Lowlands, the Welsh hills and finally the Highlands. Each of these areas produces lamb with its own distinctive flavour,  due in part to the breed and partly to their forage.

Even lamb which is not reared to Pasture for Life standards remains relatively immune to intensive farming methods and is usually reared outdoors, after all grass is cheaper than buying sheep nuts, although it has become common practice to finish them on cereals.  This has a detrimental effect on its Omega 3 content as well fuelling the criticism that in place of animals we could grow crops for human consumption.  This criticism of course only bears weight if the land is suitable for growing crops which most upland areas are not.

So, what would be involved in producing a lamb that was ready to eat at Easter?  Well in Britain that would, as I have already mentioned, only be possible with the Dorset breed.  It would be born in the Autumn and would then spend most of its life indoors.  Initially it would drink its mother’s milk, and there is a market abroad for very young, milk fed lambs.  However, by introducing silage, cereals and protein (often soya) it might reach what is considered a marketable weight at around 5 months.  Waitrose does sell a limited amount of this Dorset breed lamb, although there was none available when I searched the internet this week.  What their website does say is “because English and Welsh lamb is seasonal, we source high quality [Spring Lamb] from trusted farmers in New Zealand until June when British Lamb comes into it’s prime”.  So, if you are buying Spring Lamb for Easter, if fresh it will probably have been imported from New Zealand, although it might be possible to buy British frozen.  The option I prefer if I want to serve sheep meat at this time of year is to serve Hogget, which is from a lamb that is slaughtered over a year old.  Pasture for Life certified lamb spends approximately 50% more time grazing (52 weeks on average) than those finished on cereals.  They enjoy a longer and more natural life that enables me to enjoy watching the newly born lambs frolicking in the fields in Spring.

 

See also The Absolute Importance of Upland Mutton for more information about the characteristics of mutton from different locations and how to cook and serve it.

Slow Fermented Bread Recipes

Hot Cross Buns

All of the following recipes use the “Sponge and Dough” method described in the Food Culture Article Take Time to make Good Bread.  This may also be combined with cool overnight fermentation.

HOT CROSS BUNS

First class ingredients will make your homemade Hot Cross Buns better than any you have ever bought.  It really makes a difference to hand cut candied peel and grind spices just before using rather than buying ready prepared alternatives.  Likewise use organic stoneground flour if you can – it will give the buns more character, flavour and texture.  White stoneground flour is harder to come by than wholemeal so, if you can only find industrial roller-milled white flour, mixing it with a proportion of stoneground wholemeal flour is a good alternative.

Fresh yeast gives the best results, but if you are unable to find it, try to buy traditional dried yeast, such as that made by Allinsons, rather than “easy-blend” or “fast acting” alternatives, which include flour improvers.  Use half the quantity of dried yeast to fresh, and halve this again if you have to resort to an easy blend version.

Note that the ferment needs to be made a day in advance.

Makes 16

The Ferment:

140g strong white flour

20g fresh yeast

150ml water

The Dough:

 

310g stoneground strong white flour (or use 170g industrial white mixed with 140g stoneground wholemeal)

1 tsp salt

3 tsp mixed spice *¹

55g light muscovado sugar

55g butter, melted

1 egg, beaten

125ml milk

85g hand chopped candied lemon peel

85g sultanas

For the crosses:

 

50g plain white household flour

Pinch of baking powder

40 – 50ml water

1 tsp vegetable oil

For the glaze:

1 egg

2 tbsp sugar

2 tbsp boiling water

Mix up the ferment 12-18 hours before you want to make the hot cross buns.  Heat the water until it feels lukewarm to the touch then stir into the fresh yeast until it is smoothly blended.  Mix this liquid into the flour, cover the bowl with cling film and leave in a cool place to rise and drop again.

When you are ready to make the dough, mix together the flours, salt, sugar and spice then create a well in the centre.  Melt the butter and pour it into the well together with the beaten egg and 4 fl oz of milk.  Stir the liquid with your hand, gradually drawing in some of flour mixture.  When the centre is no longer liquid add the ferment from the day before and begin to knead to create a homogenous mixture.  Absorption rates vary from flour to flour so be prepared to add more water or flour to get the right consistency – quite moist but manageable.   It will take the yeast a little while to recover from these additions, so it pays to cover the dough and let it rest for half an hour or so before kneading in earnest.  Whilst the dough is resting you can chop the peel and, if you like, pour a couple of tablespoons of sweet sherry over the sultanas to plump them.

Once the dough is smooth and elastic, stretch it out, as far as it will go without tearing, into a rectangular shape.  Scatter the chopped peel over the dough and then fold the bottom third over, followed by the top third.  Now give the dough a quarter turn and stretch it out again.  This time scatter with the sultanas (minus any excess soaking liquid) and repeat the folding process.  Put the dough into a large bowl, cover with cling film and leave in a warm place, such as an airing cupboard, until the dough has doubled in size.  This will take about 2 hours at this temperature or see note*2 below for overnight fermentation.

Briefly knead the dough to knock out the air and then divide it into 4.  Further divide each quarter into four and shape each piece into a ball.  Place these onto greased baking sheets allowing a gap approximately the same size as each ball between them for the dough to rise.   It doesn’t matter if the buns just touch as they cook.  Cover and put back in a warm place for the dough to rise again, which this time will take about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix together the ingredients to make the crosses.  The mixture should be quite firm but just runny enough to pipe.  Put the mixture into a piping bag fitted with a broad plain nozzle.  Pre-heat the oven to 210ºC/190ºC (fan ovens)/Gas Mark 5.

Pipe a cross over each risen bun.  Put the buns into the oven and turn the heat up to 220ºC/200ºC (fan ovens)/Gas Mark 6.  Bake for 12-15 minutes until lightly golden in colour.  Whilst the buns are baking mix together the ingredients for the glaze and brush over the buns immediately they are removed from the oven.

Notes

*¹ Mixed Spice is a blend of predominantly sweet spices that used to be known as Pudding Spice.  The exact blend varies but almost always includes cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.  Other additions might include: coriander seeds, allspice berries and ginger, these latter two providing heat as well as flavour.  Elizabeth David recommends: two parts nutmeg, two parts white or black peppercorns (or substitute allspice berries for a milder blend), one part cinnamon bark, one part whole cloves, one part dried ginger root.  She further notes…To this mixture a fraction of freshly ground cumin seed can be added.  This is particularly successful for Hot Cross Buns.

*² If this rising time is inconvenient, for example if you wish to eat the buns in the morning, the dough can be put in a cold place to rise overnight.  The second rising, after the buns have been shaped, should be in a warm place and slightly longer should be allowed for the dough to warm up and begin to rise.

PANARY’S OVERNIGHT LONDON BLOOMER

This recipe is from Paul Merry’s Traditional British bread making course, which he runs from his cookery school Panary .  It is based at Cann Mills, near Shaftesbury in Dorset, from where I buy all my stoneground flour.  For further detail see www.panary.co.uk or email Paul at info@panary.co.uk

Paul Merry

Many traditional British loaves were based on this dough, the main differences being down to shape, which might, for example, give more or less crust.  On Paul’s course we made a Cottage Loaf from the same dough, using two thirds to form the base with the remaining third, also shaped into a ball, secured to the base by pushing a floured finger right through the middle.

First Stage – The Overnight Sponge

450g/1 lb strong white bread flour

300ml/½ pint cool or luke warm water  (depending on ambient temperature)

15g fresh yeast (note: I find 10g quite sufficient, or 5g traditional dried yeast – SW)

Disperse the yeast in the water and then mix in the flour.  Mix thoroughly then knead briefly.  Cover the bowl with a cloth or plastic sheet, ensuring there is plenty of room for the dough to expand.  Leave overnight at room temperature.   NB Overnight is a minimum of 6 hours, if more than 12 or if the weather is very hot, half the salt from the second stage can be included to slow down the fermentation.

Second Stage – The Bulk Fermentation

450g/1lb strong white flour

15-20g salt

250 – 300 ml/ approx ½pint water

The overnight sponge

Add the flour and salt to the overnight sponge together with sufficient water to bring it all together.  Knead vigorously to develop the gluten in the fresh flour.

The maturity of the overnight dough will ensure that the yeast works on the fresh flour of the second stage surprisingly quickly, and if the dough has finished reasonably warm it will probably only require about 1½ hours for its bulk rise.  Allow 2-3 hours to prove if the dough has finished cold.  To test whether it is properly proved and ready for the next stage, gently poke the dough with a floury finger tip.  If the cavity you make stays then it is ready, if it closes over as you withdraw your finger then it needs more time to mature.

Third Stage – Shaping and Final Proof

When you are satisfied that it has matured fully, shape the dough into one huge long loaf or two smaller ones.  The rounded ends are important to the look of a London Bloomer.  Place the loaves on a baking tray or, if you are baking them on a hot earthenware tile (which would be more authentic) prove them in floured cloths.  Once shaped the final proof will take about an hour.

Just before the loaves go into the oven (preheated to 220˚C/Gas Mark 7) make a dozen diagonal cuts across the loaf’s back.  Bake for about 30-45 minutes depending on the size of the loaves and the heat of the oven but the loaves should be well baked with a thick and crunchy crust.

©Paul Merry

Spelt Recipes

FRUMENTY WITH LEEKS AND WILD GARLIC

Use this recipe as a basic template, the vegetables and flavouring ingredients are infinitely variable.

25g butter

1 onion

2 leeks

Clove of garlic, crushed

Bunch of wild garlic leaves

160g pearled spelt

Approx. 500 ml chicken stock

Salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a heavy-based pan. Add the chopped onion, leeks and garlic, season with salt and pepper, cover the pan and sweat gently for 5 minutes. Meanwhile bring the chicken stock up to simmering point in another pan.

Add the pearled spelt to the vegetables and stir in enough stock to cover. Leave the pan open whilst this stock simmers away, stirring every now again to prevent the spelt sticking. Add more stock whenever the mixture is getting a bit dry. Begin tasting the spelt after about 15 minutes – it usually takes about 20 minutes to reach the right consistency – soft but still with plenty of substance. Wash and chop the wild garlic and add towards the end of the cooking time.

FRUMENTY BAKED IN THE OVEN

Frumenty predates the invention of an enclosed oven, but having made the traditional recipe, the similarity with rice pudding occurred to me and also that this would be a much easier method. I tried it, and personally prefer it made this way.

50 g pearled spelt

75g sultanas

1 tbsp caster sugar

500 ml good creamy milk

Cinnamon (or saffron)

Cream for serving

Butter an ovenproof baking dish, ideally one that has a lid but foil can be used instead. Put the rest of the ingredients into the dish, stir and cover. Place in a low oven (120̊ C) and cook for several hours until the milk has been absorbed. Serve with additional cream.

 

 

NETTLE RAVIOLI

Makes 16-18 ravioli

200 g refined spelt flour

2-3 eggs (depending on size and absorbency of the flour)

Carrier bag loosely filled with young nettle tops

Oil

Butter

Clove of garlic, finely chopped

200 g ricotta

2 tbsps of grated parmesan cheese (plus extra for serving)

Salt and pepper

Make your pasta dough several hours in advance; the dough will stretch more easily for having rested.

It may be frowned upon in Italy, but I usually make my pasta dough in a food processor and can judge the right consistency by when it begins to come together in a ball. Put your flour into the food processor and crack in two whole eggs. Process, and at this stage the mixture will probably form crumbs. Separate the third egg and add the yolk. Process again. If the mixture has still not formed a ball, lightly whisk the white, to break it up so that you can add a little at a time, and do so until the mixture forms a ball around the blade. Take the dough out of the bowl and knead it briefly on a worktop. Put the bowl in a plastic bag and rest it in the refrigerator for several hours (up to a day).

Wash the nettle tops in a sink full of cold water. Lift the nettles out into a colander, leaving any grass or other debris behind. Place the colander in the sink. Boil a kettle of water and pour it over the nettles to remove their sting and wilt the leaves. Refresh by running briefly under cold water. Drain using the back of a wooden spoon to press out excess liquid.

Heat a mixture of oil and butter in a frying pan. Add the drained nettle tops and cook for a minute then add the chopped garlic. Cook for a further minute, leave to cool slightly, and then transfer to a food processor. Process until the nettles finely chopped. Season with salt and pepper. Add the ricotta and parmesan cheese and process again to blend smoothly.

Roll the pasta dough into sheets about 10 cm wide. Place teaspoonfuls of the filling in a line along one (the shorter) sheet leaving a gap about the width of two fingers between each spoonful. Dampen a circle of the dough around each pile of filling. Lay a longer sheet of pasta dough on top of the first using your cupped finger to form a seal around the filling taking care not to create an air bubble as you do so. Cut around each raviolo (you can use a pastry cutter, knife or scissors). Now take each raviolo and seal firmly between your thumb and forefinger. This is another opportunity to check for air bubbles, which you should be able to expel before sealing firmly.

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a rolling boil. Meanwhile melt some butter in a saucepan to serve as a sauce. Drop the ravioli into the boiling water. You will probably need to cook them in two batches, removing the first with a slotted spoon when cooked, but they take only a few minutes. The ravioli are cooked when they have all risen to the surface. Drain, but only briefly, before turning in the melted butter.

Season with freshly cracked black pepper and Parmesan cheese before serving.

 

SPELT, ROSEMARY AND RAISIN BREAD

 

Overnight Sponge:

10g fresh yeast (or 5g traditional dried yeast)

300 ml water

500g refined white spelt flour

Blend the yeast in the water then stir in the flour. Cover the bowl and leave at room temperature overnight.

Dough:

20g sea salt

300 ml warm water

500g wholemeal spelt flour

Overnight sponge (see above)

50g butter

Needles from a 10 cm length of fresh Rosemary

50g raisins

Begin by melting the butter and infusing it with the chopped rosemary needles.

Dissolve the salt in the warm water and then stir in the flour. Add the overnight sponge mixture and melted butter/rosemary. Knead together to make a smooth dough, adding more water if required.

When the dough is smooth and elastic, stretch it out into a large oblong (as large as it will go without tearing). Sprinkle the raisins evenly across the dough and then fold one-third of the dough over, followed by the other side so that the raisins are enclosed. Give the dough a quarter turn and repeat the stretching and folding. This will incorporate the raisins more easily than kneading as well as giving the gluten in the dough a good stretch. Fold the dough into thirds a final time before placing in a bowl, covering and leaving in a warm place to prove for about 1½-2 hours.

Shape into two small loaves or 16 individual rolls. Push any extruding raisins back under the surface or they will burn during cooking.

Heat the oven to 220˚C whilst the loaves or rolls rise again.

Rolls will bake in only 10-15 minutes, for loaves the oven temperature should be reduced to 180˚C after this time and the bread baked for a further quarter of an hour.

©Suzanne Wynn

THE FULL ENGLISH CASSOULET

I have pinched the title of this article from a book by Richard Mabey.

Unlike journalist Clare Hargreaves, who has pledged to eat solely British produce for a year, we at The Campaign for Real Farming are quite prepared to include some imports to supplement our mainly British diet.  We do, however, applaud Clare’s experiment and her findings, only a couple of weeks into the year, have already revealed that you have to cook from scratch if you hope to avoid undesirable foreign additives like palm oil and soya.  We’re absolutely on the same page here.

Richard Mabey, best known as the author of Food for Free advocates adapting recipes to use the ingredients you have to hand.  Its about embracing the spirit of a recipe rather than authenticity.  I suspect the French would throw up their hands in horror at the mere idea of a “Full English Cassoulet”.  I find it fascinating to note the cultural variations around common ingredients. A Full English Breakfast might well include baked beans, and will almost certainly include sausage and bacon, and so suddenly a Cassoulet with its baked beans, pork and sausage doesn’t sound so French after all.

Yet at the same time I love the passionate discussions that you find in countries like France and Italy where people will argue for hours, even years, over which village makes the best and most authentic version of a dish.  Their pride in their local cuisine is something from which our food culture could learn a great deal.

Cassoulet has become the dish of lockdown 3 for me.  The primary reason for this is the long cooking and the smell that therefore fills the house for a whole day.  It is so comforting and reassuring.  I guess if you have an AGA or similar you might miss some of this delicious aroma, so effective is the seal on their door.  However, on my gas and electric range the anticipation of the evening meal begins around lunchtime!  During lockdown it is essential that the confident cook can adapt a recipe to suit the ingredients they have to hand.  With this in mind, I discuss the main points below before giving what I believe to be a traditional cassoulet recipe but which you should then be equipped to adapt as you like.

I use dried beans more frequently during the gap between the maincrop potatoes beginning to run to seed and the first new potatoes appearing.  Richard Mabey suggests that in the summer it could be made with fresh broad beans, but that really wouldn’t be cassoulet as far as I’m concerned.  I do usually use the traditional French haricot bean (the same one that makes our beloved baked bean) but if you wanted to use a British bean here you could buy dried fava (broad beans) grown and dried in the UK by Hodmedods.  I have occasionally grown enough borlotti beans to dry a few, but generally we eat all our homegrown beans fresh.

The first thing to know about dried beans is that they have to be reconstituted by soaking them overnight.  It’s no good deciding in the morning that you are going to make cassoulet – you have to have done this the night before.

The soaked beans then need to be boiled for 10 minutes to remove any toxins.  Don’t add salt to the water as it toughens the skins and then they will never soften.  For the same reason I don’t use cured pork (bacon) for the long cooking although cured meat can, and traditionally is, added once the beans are soft.  An addition I do recommend if you have it is the herb winter savory – it is said to help counteract the tendency to cause flatulence that beans are renowned for.  Something else that helps is to cook them in an uncoated earthernware pot.  I use the same chicken brick that I use for cooking game, it is blackened from years of use, but I still find it the best pot for cooking beans.

 

Cassoulet traditionally includes either goose or duck legs, often already preserved in their own fat (confit).  If you don’t have confit then use fresh but remember that they will need a longer cooking time.

Garlic is a dominant flavouring in the traditional cassoulet, and there are no tomatoes as there would be in English baked beans.  If you do decide to include tomatoes, remember not to add them until the beans are already soft.

The traditional topping for cassoulet is breadcrumbs, stirred in a couple of times before finally being allowed to brown – you can think of these as the toast for your baked beans if it helps!

The finished dish is somewhat fatty, so the accompaniment needs to be fresh and plain as a counterbalance.  In its native Gascony the salad would be dressed with walnut oil, which if you are lucky you can buy from https://www.kentishcobnuts.com/ and I usually still have some fresh English walnuts to scatter over.

 

CASSOULET

 

Serves 4

10 oz haricot beans

piece of belly pork (approx 1-1½ lb)

4 cloves garlic

1 tbsp molasses or treacle

2 sticks of celery

parsley

winter savory or thyme

2 bay leaves

2 level tsps. whole grain mustard

black pepper

4 duck legs (fresh or confit)

4 Toulouse sausages

fresh breadcrumbs

 

 

Preparation time: 10 minutes          Cooking time: 8 hours

 

 

Soak the haricot beans in cold water overnight.  The following morning drain them and cover with fresh water.  Bring to the boil and boil hard for 10 minutes.  Drain and place in an earthenware pot together with the belly pork and flavourings, tying the herbs between the sticks of celery to make a bouquet garni that is easily removed.  Cover with cold water and put in the oven.  Bring the temperature up to 200C/Gas Mark 6 (or start in a cold oven and transfer up to a hot one so as not to crack the earthenware pot).  Once the liquid has got really hot reduce the temperature to 180C/Gas Mark 4 so that it remains simmering.  Cook for 2 hours, checking the water level after the first hour.

Now that the beans are just cooked, reduce the oven temperature to 150C/Gas Mark 2 and continue cooking for a further 3 hours, checking the liquid level occasionally and adding more water if necessary.

Then add the duck and sausages, pushing them well down into the beans and cook for another 1 –1½ hours (the longer time for fresh duck).

Remove the lid and cover the surface with breadcrumbs.  Cook without the lid for a further hour, turning the meat and breadcrumbs three times to brown.

Serve with a green salad, preferably dressed with walnut oil.

 

Truly Wild Deer

In 2012 I wrote here about the irony that despite large parts of the country being over-run by wild deer, we were importing 1000 tonnes of farmed venison from New Zealand every year.  The situation has continued to deteriorate since then, with the wild deer population in the UK now estimated to be over 2 million, the highest it has been for 1000 years.

Why is this a problem? Top of the list is the impact on trees.  With more emphasis than ever on the need to plant trees to help control climate change it is imperative that our efforts are not hampered by deer.  Deer numbers also need to be kept in check for the health of the herd. When their numbers outstrip the amount of food that is available to them in the wild, they turn to farmers fields, gardens, and allotments.  It is estimated there are up to 74,000 deer-related traffic accidents each year in Britain, and Highways England believes 400 motorists are injured in deer-related accidents every year.  Unless you have been directly impacted by one of these problems it can be easy to underestimate just how many wild deer are hiding in our woods. Even though I see a few during my walks with my dogs, on an occasion when I flew over the same woods in a hot air balloon, I was astounded by just how many we disturbed.

However, wild deer should not be seen merely as a pest but as a valuable source of delicious and healthy lean meat.  A market for wild deer meat is vital for hunters and, with the aim of strengthening this, The Wild Venison Working Group was recently set up.  The group is chaired by The Forestry Commission and involves stakeholders from woodland management, shooting, gamekeeping and venison suppliers.  I have been trying to understand the issues they face in finding a market for wild deer meat and the Food Culture in the UK is one.

Although the number of wild deer is increasing across most of Europe, the rate of increase is kept in check by up to half being harvested by stalkers each year.  In Scandinavia and Eastern Europe hunting is very much a part of their food culture and people retain the traditional knowledge of the appropriate cooking methods required by different varieties, ages, and cuts of wild deer.  In the UK, 50% of venison is purchased from a supermarket, and they will not sell wild deer because of their inconsistencies particularly regarding carcase conformity.  The majority of the farmed deer sold in supermarkets will come from the Red Deer species, which will have been reared in a confined environment, with rotational grazing supplemented by pellet feed, sileage or other crops, especially in the winter.  They may be housed in the winter and the calves are usually weaned.  It takes about 15 months for them to reach the desired carcase weight of 60 kg, although with more intensive feeding this can be achieved sooner.  As with the rearing of other animals, practices vary in their degree of intensity – the UK has 7 deer farms certified organic, however, the lives of all farmed deer differ considerably from one that has existed entirely in the wild.

To meet the supermarket demand for farmed venison, The Scottish Venison Association has for years been trying to encourage farmers south of the border to take up deer farming with them supplying the starting stock.  Ironically, there are no native deer in New Zealand, so most of their breeding stock came from Scotland but the number of farms soon overtook those in Scotland.  The Scottish government recently paid for detailed market research to assist the Scottish Venison Association.  The research covered the whole of the UK and showed that the home market for venison increased by almost 11% in 2019.  The retail market is dominated by two brands accounting for 59% of sales – Highland Game and Waitrose.  Almost 50% of venison is bought in supermarkets, of which a third is sold by Waitrose and is mainly imported from New Zealand.   However, Sainsbury’s (13%), Morrisons (10.7%), and most recently Tesco, all sell venison farmed in the UK “when available”.  Most of this is supplied by Highland Game.

 

Parkland Venison

A somewhat halfway house between farmed and wild are Parkland Deer.  Keeping a herd of Fallow Deer on your estate became de rigour for large properties, you will find them still on many estates managed by the National Trust as well as larger private houses.  Red Deer are also kept in some larger public parks, Richmond being the most famous example.  Parkland Deer are classified by DEFRA as wild and so can only be culled during their official hunting season.  The herd will be enclosed but the parkland should provide them with a similar habitat to that which they would choose in the wild, i.e. a mix of pasture and woodland.  However, unlike wild deer, which will have to rely entirely on what they can forage, the diet of parkland deer is usually supplemented during the winter and they may even be provided with some shelter.  The supplemental feed may just be sileage and fodder crops grown on the estate, but it could also be in pellets form.  The sight of a parkland deer keeper tipping out a bag of feed is such a long way from what I consider to be wild game that I would quibble with the DEFRA designation, even though it is intended to afford the protection of regulated culling seasons.   “Wild” venison from parklands is however particularly popular with the restaurant trade as it provides them with a consistent product.  I recognise that it is better they buy this than imported farmed venison, but it doesn’t do much to help the control of truly wild deer.

Truly Wild Deer

The term venison was originally applied to any furred game, including hare, although now it is used only for the meat of deer, which still encompasses many different beasts worldwide.  The characteristics and flavour profile vary considerably depending on breed and diet.

Red Deer and Roe Deer are both native to the UK and Fallow have been with us since at least Norman times if not since the Romans.  The rest (Muntjac, Sika and Chinese Water Deer) are escapees from zoos or wildlife parks and are more of a problem in some parts of the country than others.  Chinese Water Deer, for example, are found predominantly in the east of the country, the wetlands of the fens being the closest to their natural habitat.

Wild Red Deer are most closely associated with the highlands of Scotland where their diet will consist largely of heather and berries, but Red Deer are also farmed in the lowlands, where they are more likely to be fed on barley.  So, diet as well as breed will have a significant impact on flavour.

The taste most often disliked in wild venison is usually described as gamey or livery.  Yet some species are more often likened to lamb (or mutton) and beef.  This is particularly so for Muntjac, but opinion is definitely split over whether this is preferable to the more gamey taste of Roe or Red deer.

The texture of wild deer is also much firmer than in farmed or parkland, their muscles developed because they travel over a much wider area to obtain food.  Roe, which is never farmed or managed, has a close-grained texture; whilst fallow deer, usually from parklands, is very soft, some might even describe it as “pappy”.  Its flavour is mild making it an ideal beginners venison.

Red deer have the strongest flavour; they have interbred with Sika deer to such an extent that there may no longer be pure native Red Deer in Scotland, but in any event the flavour of Sika is usually on the strong side.

Chinese Water Deer, unlike most deer which are very lean, have a thick layer of fat across their backs, which prevents them drying when cooked but could also be a factor in them often being likened to lamb.  They are small animals so their cooking needs to be adjusted for this too.

It is really high time that we stopped referring to venison generically when their characteristics can be so different. Roe deer, highly rated in France, are always specified as Chevreuil.   In Sweden Roe, Reindeer and Elk are always specifically named although a generic Hjort is used to cover “other” deer.  It amazes me that sellers, particularly online, tell you that they manage herds of both red and fallow deer but then fail to tell you which you are buying!  Each seller is, naturally, convinced that their venison is best but if a consumer has had a bad experience with venison once they will often write the whole thing off when all they need to learn is their own taste preference.

From field to table

Talking of bad experiences, these can often be the fault of an amateur stalker who doesn’t have the right facilities to process the carcase.  Whilst the problem of poaching still exists, most legitimate stalkers are actually very well versed in all aspects of deer handling, thanks to qualification through the British Deer Society.

The size of a deer carcase brings its own challenges.  A red deer stag could weigh up to 190 kilos, although the hinds (females are usually smaller and lighter than males) come in at between 60 and 120 kilos. A fallow deer will be about half the size and a roe about half again.  The stalker will need a refrigerator large enough to hang the carcase otherwise the meat may spoil; and the skill, space, and equipment to butcher the beast into manageable joints.  They will usually want the customer to take the entire carcase although if they have a sales outlet (such as a farm shop or stall at a farmers’ market) they will be able to sell individual cuts.  As with many other foods nowadays, the onus is often on the seller to do much of the preparation and cooking too.  To overcome a lack of cooking ability it is considered necessary to present game in an easily recognisable, non-challenging format, like sausages and burgers, or sell ready cooked pies and meals that just need heating.  These actions help sell venison, but don’t address the long term lack of knowledge about the meat and how to cook it.

 

Further Information:

Market Research for Scottish Venison Association:

https://www.scottish-venison.info/uk-retail-venison-market-increases-in-value-by-almost-11-during-2019-latest-research-shows

Waitrose Deer Policy:

A presentation by John Gregson of Waitrose to the Game and Wildlife Conservancy Trust was primarily intended to explain their ban on lead shot game.  The lead shot issue is not really in dispute, the various shooting associations having all committed to phasing this out over the next five years and work on alternatives is coming on apace.  The presentation does, however, share a lot of Waitrose’s thinking on satisfying the Millennial market, on which they are clearly focussed.

https://youtu.be/xus_4kHaX0I

Wild Venison to Feed Children

The Country Food Trust provides games meals to those in need.  In 2020 they have focussed on the provision of meals to children and also added wild venison bolognese to their range of meals.  It costs them £5 to provide each meal.  You can read more and donate via their website.

Deer Management Training:

The British Deer Society organises courses for those managing and stalking wild deer.  You will also find information, including open seasons, for the species found in the UK on this website.

https://www.bds.org.uk/index.php/training/deer-management-course

Deer Farming in the UK

Insight provided by a vet.

https://veterinary-practice.com/article/deer-farming-in-the-uk

Species Tasting Guides:

What information exists mainly comes from the shooting community and you will see from the results of the tasting I conducted for my previous article that opinions vary.  The more this is discussed the better!

https://www.shootinguk.co.uk/recipes/venison-recipes/deer-species-produces-best-venison-106388

Bluebell Woods Wild Venison (Norfolk) https://wildvenison.co.uk/species_taste_guide.php

My cookery tips:

http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2012/11/venison-recipes/

 

Walnut Recipes

The first of these recipes needs to be made in the summer, before the walnuts have formed a shell – see my article http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2020/09/british-walnuts

How to Pickle Walnuts

Green Walnuts

Pick Green Walnuts between mid-June and mid-July (21st at the very latest) before the shell has begun to form around the inner kernel.  You can test for this by passing a thick needle or skewer right through the walnut.  Wear gloves when doing this as the clear juices exuded by the walnut will dye anything they come into contact with a very dark brown.

Step 1 – Brining

This is necessary to draw out the toxins.  Make a brine at the strength of 150g salt for each litre of water.  You need sufficient water to completely cover the walnuts.  Prick the walnuts in several places to help them eliminate the toxins.  Over the next few days the water will turn dark – it is a good idea to drain this off and replace with fresh brine every three days.  It will take 9 days to draw out all of the toxins.

Step 2 – Drying

Rinse in fresh water and then leave to dry on a rack, in the sunshine if possible. The walnuts should not be touching and should be turned occasionally.  After two to three days (depending on the drying conditions) the walnuts will turn black and you are then ready to proceed to the next stage.

Drying Walnuts for Pickling

 

 

 

 

 

Step 3 – Making the pickling vinegar

Having experimented with different cures I prefer the sweet cure recommended by the WI, although have substituted cider vinegar for their malt vinegar. 

1 litre cider vinegar

500 g dark brown sugar

Teaspoon each of salt, black peppercorns, allspice berries, cloves

1 stick cinnamon

1 tbsp peeled and grated fresh ginger

 

Heat the vinegar and flavouring ingredients for 15 minutes then leave until cold before bottling.

Step 4 – Cook in a water bath

The presence of sugar in the cure means that the bottled walnuts needed to be preserved in a hot water bath.  Find a pan in which the filled bottles can be completely submerged.  Bring the water temperature up to 88°C and hold it here for 10 minutes.

Step 5 – Maturing

Although hot cures will penetrate more quickly than cold, whichever cure and bottling method you have used, the spices will need a good length of time to penetrate the walnuts.  The walnuts will absorb vinegar so after six weeks if any are completely dry top up with cold vinegar to keep them covered.  They could be eaten the first Christmas after making but will be considerably better the following year and will continue to improve for up to 4 years.

 

Wow-Wow Sauce

When Dr William Kitchiner, scientist and enjoyer of the good things in life, died in 1827, a friend wrote of him that “to invent odd things and give them odd names was his special hobby”.  This is probably as close as we shall ever come to knowing why the doctor, who invented this sauce, should have called it “Wow-wow”.  The name may be derived from an exclamation at the sauce’s spiciness, or, more fancifully, since it was thought to go especially well with venison, from the warning bark of a deer.  Only Kitchener knew the truth and he took his secret with him.

The recipe first appeared in his Cook’s Oracle (1817).  It would be excellent served with barbequed meats.

Serves 4-6

2 oz butter

1 oz plain flour

½ pint meat stock

1 tbsp vinegar

1 tsp prepared English mustard

1 tbsp mushroom ketchup or port

1 tbsp finely chopped parsley

6 pickled walnuts, diced

 

Melt the butter in a pan over a low heat.  Stir in the flour and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring all the time.  Gradually add the stock, stirring well to avoid lumps.

When the sauce is smooth, add the vinegar, mustard and mushroom ketchup or port.  Simmer again, stirring from time to time, until you have the consistency you want.

Stir in the chopped parsley and the diced pickled walnuts.  Let the sauce heat through for another minute or so and serve hot.

SALSA DI NOCI

Use this sauce to dress fresh tagliatelle pasta or to accompany fish.

To dress 1lb pasta:

7oz/200g walnut pieces

2oz/50g pine nuts

2 cloves garlic

10 fl oz single cream

parsley

salt and pepper

 

Pound the nuts with the garlic using a pestle and mortar until you achieve small pieces but not a paste.  Chop the parsley and mix with the nuts and garlic.

Heat the cream to just below simmering point.  Mix with the nuts to form a sauce the consistency of thick cream.

British Walnuts

A fundamental principle of the Campaign for Real Farming is to use British produce as far as possible and import only those foods that we cannot grow here.  Walnuts challenge this principle in that we can grow them, but mostly don’t, at least not commercially.

As the country steps up its tree planting to help combat climate change could walnut trees feature in this planting and at the same time improve our food security?

Almost 40% of the worldwide export in walnuts comes from California, with the UK being their 5th largest market.  Walnuts are rich plant source of Omega 3, and so of special importance in vegan and vegetarian diets, although valued by all for their health-giving antioxidants.  The UK market looks likely to continue to expand whilst repeated drought and wildfires in California throws into question walnut production there.  However, Californian walnuts are sold in supermarkets for less than half the price of the rarely found home produced walnut.  The CBI provides market information for potential new entrants, although personally I would hesitate to recommend growing them from a purely commercial standpoint, although the value of walnut wood is apparently good.

My enthusiasm for English walnuts stems from their culinary attributes.  Californian walnuts are what I had eaten for most of my life until a friend brought a sack back from France.  These walnuts were from Grenoble, the first fruit to receive the French quality symbol that went on to become known as “Protected Designation of Origen”.  Périgord was later also awarded PDO status and is probably the better-known region for French walnuts.  The ones my friend had brought home from Grenoble were a complete revelation to me.  Finally, I understood the fuss about walnuts and from then on Californian just wouldn’t do.

The following year I saw “wet-walnuts” for sale in Somerset and, despite their unappetising appearance, leapt to buy them.  Walnuts are “wet” when they first ripen in September and you could literally squeeze oil from them by hand.  The shells are blacker at this stage, so they don’t look particularly appetising.  When you crack them open the skin is still soft enough that you can peel it away and, as the skin is the most bitter part, you may wish to do this.  Wet walnuts are ideal for pounding to make a sauce – for example to serve with pasta or fish.  However, the nuts won’t store for long unless you dry them.  Walnut oil is very unstable, so even when dried they are best eaten within a few months.  The freshness is probably what made my first taste of Grenoble walnuts so wonderful, and I am now firmly wedded to the seasonal aspect of the nut.  If I see them listed amongst the ingredients of an otherwise clearly summer dish it really jars with me, so whilst some people might see them as a year-round provider of essential nutrients, for me they shout Autumn and Winter.

In addition to the over-riding importance of freshness, the question of the suitability of the trees to a particular area definitely intrigues me.  I accept that the regions of Périgord and Grenoble in France are ideally suited to growing walnuts, but what I can’t say, at this time, is whether we have similarly suitable areas in the UK.

Walnut trees are slow growing but long lived.  They require plenty of space and the land beneath becomes fairly barren owing to the chemical juglone produced by the roots, so it is often planted on the periphery in agroforestry.   It takes 10 years for a tree to start producing a decent number of nuts, and even then, nut production is fairly hit and miss.  No-one seems to be quite able to explain why some trees do well and others do not.  There is an old rhyme that hints at this problem although containing no sensible advice:

A woman, a dog and a walnut tree,

The more you beat them the better they be.

Certainly, walnut trees are unlikely to produce nuts consistently in the northern part of this country and locally in Somerset I have found them to be more forthcoming on the warmer southern flank of the Mendips than on the north, although even here I know ancient trees producing well and others that do not.

In the late 17th century Surrey was at the heart of walnut growing in the UK.  This came about when John Evelyn was asked by the Royal Society to draw attention to the damage done to England’s wooded estates during the English Interregnum and to encourage reforestation. His findings were published in 1664 under the title “Sylva or a discourse on forest trees and the propagation of timber in His Majesty’s dominions”.  He championed the growth of walnut plantations on several family estates, including his own around Godstone, and elsewhere in Surrey, notably at Leatherhead and Carshalton.  The walnut tree was clearly suited to the Surrey soil, although whether it was especially so or just the result of many large estates being found in proximity to the court is not certain. Whilst some people are lucky enough to have their own walnut tree, because of the space required they have always been more associated with large properties.  Their prestigious status is evident from the number of times their presence at a property, even as a single tree, is reflected in the house name.

However, Evelyn’s project came to an abrupt end just two years after his death, when the bitter winter of 1708 destroyed most walnut trees in northern Europe.

Trees were replanted, but commercially it became their timber that produced the greatest value.  Walnut wood is used in cabinet making, marquetry and for gun stocks.  Many trees were felled for this later purpose for the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century.  The same thing happened again in the Crimean War to the extent that one Birmingham arms maker had to transfer his operations to Turin where the supply of walnut wood was more assured.

And so, we find the current position in Britain today is that walnut trees are mainly grown in isolation, if the garden is large enough, an ever-rarer occurrence; or the remnants of large estate plantings might be found around its margins.  Bossington, part of the Holnicote on Exmoor, provides a great example of the latter.  You can find seven walnuts trees of varying ages around the green and more along nearby roadsides.  The once famous giant tree which had dwarfed a cottage beside the green was felled in the 1950s.

Bossington Walnuts

A more recent estate planting exists near Glastonbury.  Roger Saul decided to replant walnut trees at Sharpham Park when he discovered evidence of them having been grown there when it was a monastery.  300 trees were planted in 2004 and 12 years later they were producing enough nuts to sell.  British walnuts (and Sharpham Park’s are Organic) sell for about £20 a kilo. You can also buy British walnuts online from Potash Farm in Kent.

As yet, few people seem to appreciate the qualities of British walnuts enough to create much demand, although I am convinced that when they taste them, especially the young wet walnuts, they will never look back. The most widely planted variety of walnut tree in the UK is Broadview, but If you are thinking of planting there are many modern hybrids available to suit specific requirements – see the websites below.

I do now have my own walnut tree, but don’t get many nuts from it.  Squirrels are the main problem here.  The tree does produce a decent crop, but the squirrels take the vast majority.  In an effort to beat them to it, I have harvested some of the nuts when “green”, in early July, and pickled them.  Pickled Walnuts are the only culinary use for walnuts for which the British have gained any renown, although we are not by any stretch, the only culture to use this method to preserve them.  One researcher identified more than 60 distinct recipes for pickled walnuts from countries as diverse as Australia, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, India, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Portugal, Russia and Ukraine.  Two features stood out that distinguish “British Pickled Walnuts” (those originating in British speaking countries): – none of them include garlic and all of them include sugar of some type.  About half of the British recipes include ginger.

The use of pickled walnuts varies is as variable as the recipes, but here in Britain they are almost exclusively used as an accompaniment for cold or grilled meats.  I have given Dr Kitchener’s recipe for “Wow-Wow Sauce” which dates back to 1817 as an example of the particularly British use of pickled walnuts.

You can see my walnut recipes here.

References

A Passion For Trees: The Legacy Of John Evelyn, by Maggie Campbell-Culver 2006

Potast Farm – www.kentishcobnuts.com

Walnuttrees.co.uk

Sharphampark.com

https://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/why-you-should-grow-walnuts-juglans-regia includes a link to companion crops that seem unaffected by juglone.

CBI –  https://www.cbi.eu/market-information/processed-fruit-vegetables-edible-nuts/walnuts

How has Covid impacted on the UK Food Culture?

Although we are still in the grip of the global pandemic Covid 19, the three months lockdown from March 23rd 2020, which in the UK saw all but “key workers” confined to their homes, has now ended and some initial analysis of the impact is possible.

Our food culture is constantly being shaped by changes in our wider social, political, technological, and economic environment. When you look back, the differences between the food culture of one decade and another are quite marked and, whilst Covid is unlikely to prove as significant an event as, for example, the Second World War; this period when all “normal” activity was suspended is sure to have left its mark.  The two other significant influences working at this time are climate change and the role that agriculture plays within this; and our withdrawal from the European Union, leaving us free to determine our own rules, such as how we subsidise farming, but also with whom, and on what terms we will trade.

The Campaign for Real Farming has, since its inception, called for a radical rethink about the way our food is produced and distributed. It has long since given up hope that the level of radical thinking this will require is likely to be achieved by any political party, and instead recognised that change needs to be driven by “Ordinary Joes”.  Covid has already achieved what would have been unthinkable to anyone only a year ago, in that it has forced governments worldwide to put human issues ahead of financial growth; although the desire appears to be a return “to normality” as quickly as possible.  But, having been given the opportunity to step off the treadmill, some of Joe Public appear reluctant to step back on.

The obvious reason for this is a continued fear of catching the virus.  Medicine has made tremendous advances in the last century and we have almost come to expect that it can cure any illness.  Certainly, we do not live with an expectation that a proportion of our family will die prematurely owing to disease.  Beyond this there are many other forces at work, some of which are intimated in this poem, which has been widely shared during lockdown:

And people stayed home
And read books and listened
And rested and exercised
And made art and played
And learned new ways of being
And stopped
And listened deeper
Someone meditated
Someone prayed
Someone danced
Someone met their shadow
And people began to think differently
And people healed
And in the absence of people who lived in ignorant ways
Dangerous, meaningless and heartless,
Even the earth began to heal
And when the danger ended
And people found each other
Grieved for the dead people
And they made new choices
And dreamed of new visions
And created new ways of life
And healed the earth completely
Just as they were healed themselves.

Kitty O’Meara

 

Working from Home

Almost 50% of the workforce worked from home during lockdown (compared with about 4.7% in 2019) and many of them have decided that they don’t intend to return to the office.  Above all they want a better work/life balance, having realised what can be achieved by releasing an extra hour or two a day that was previously spent commuting.  Financially, those furloughed on 80% of their normal salary, realised that the cost of going to the office accounted for at least the other 20%. They were saving more than this in transport costs, office clothing, buying lunch and coffees.   On average, people were able to reduce their personal debt by £1000 during lockdown.   Of course, this lack of spending in cafés and restaurants was a major driver in the government wanting people to return to work, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Meal Deals.

Whilst not every job can be done from home, and not everyone wants to work this way, employers too have found that, thanks to modern technology, home working can be remarkably productive.  Providing office space, especially in cities, is hugely expensive and it is predicted that some 20% of current office space will remain vacant.

If these predictions are correct, and estate agents are confirming a rise in enquiries for properties further from cities and suitable for homeworking,  it will surely impact not just on those businesses that currently exist mainly to service office workers, but also on our food culture, which is what I am here to consider!

 

Home Cooking

Around a third of our household expenditure on food and drink is spent on “out of home” meals.  This caused one of the biggest difficulties for our food distribution system when suddenly all of the food that had previously been destined for the wholesale market was instead required at home.  Meanwhile, those at home found themselves required to cook for the whole family three times a day, day after day.  This came at the time of year commonly referred to as “the hungry gap”, when our winter store of fruit and vegetables is nearly depleted, and the seeds for the current year’s crop not yet planted.  We are more dependent on imports at this time of year than any other, and some produce, most notably flour, became in truly short supply.

People coped brilliantly.  From the National Food Strategy report¹ we learn that people were more likely to have cooked from scratch, eaten together as a family, cooked meals to freeze for later, eaten more healthily, shopped locally, and thrown away less food.  From social media we saw that making bread, especially sourdough, was particularly popular, and it seemed that everyone used up bananas by making a loaf.  If people needed advice they could always ask, and there was usually an on-line video available.  The lessons learnt during lockdown are now there for life, and pretty much everyone now has a repertoire of dishes that they can easily reproduce when the need arises.

 

Cooking from Scratch

39% of people reported cooking more food from scratch and buying less processed food ¹.  Ready meals have become a key feature of our food culture.  We spend 28% more on pre-prepared foods than France, 64% more than the Spanish, 101% more than the Germans and 178% more than the Italians ¹.

Why does this matter?  Health is usually given as the key reason as ready meals are likely to contain higher levels of salt, fat, and sugar than you might use if you made them yourself.  My brother made a birthday cake during lockdown and was astounded at how much sugar it used (he takes an artificial sweetener in his tea and probably therefore considers that he doesn’t really eat much sugar).  He lost weight during lockdown as a result of everything being cooked from scratch; although he was in the minority – 21%, compared with the 40% who gained weight during lockdown ¹.   However, under such stressful circumstances comfort eating (and drinking) is not unexpected.  A growing awareness of the link between obesity and poor outcomes for Covid sufferers has perhaps already seen some of this initial weight gain being shifted.  It will be interesting to revisit these statistics six months down the line.

My biggest gripe with ready meals is that we lose control of the source of the individual ingredients.  This bothers me most with meat.  Even in restaurants, unless the source of the ingredients is stated (and known to me), I tend to order a vegetarian option.  There is a lot of concern that when we strike trade deals with new countries, we will admit foods that have been produced to lower standards than we allow in the UK.  This is not an entirely new problem, and certainly food labelling does not make things clear. For example, whilst people might select an organic chicken if they were choosing  one to cook, when it comes to the chicken in their sandwich or ready meal they have no idea of its provenance and it is here that the most inferior produce lurks.  However, I would not classify all ready meals as “junk food”.  We might spend nearly twice as much on them as the Italians ¹ (presumably on twice the number) but following a delayed flight home from Italy the fresh produce and comparatively good quality ready meals available at Marks and Spencer’s Simply Food in a motorway service station on the way home made me feel almost proud of what we can find here in comparison to Italy.

 

Sharing meals at the table

Our tendency to grab meals “on the hoof” is evidence of our weak food culture.  The French spend twice as long eating each day.  Here is an extract from the full table, showing the lowest and highest figures:¹

 

 

 

 

Country Minutes spent eating per day
USA 63
Canada 65
Ireland 75
   
Spain 126
Italy 127
Greece 128
France 133

 

 

Pre lockdown only 58% of families were able to routinely share weekday meals and long working days, including travel time, were the main reason for this. The rise of not only after-school clubs but also breakfast clubs, evidence the problem.  During lockdown 26% reported eating together as a family more often. ¹. Its not actually as great an increase as I would have hoped, but I have a hunch that those who did have seen the benefits of doing so, it may even be something that they felt guilty about before.  Research from the Guy’s and St Thomas’s Charity in conjunction with Bite Back 2030 ² found that 60% of young people, when questioned about their eating habits during lockdown, thought that the increase in shared family meals had been good for their health and well-being.  Harvard psychologist Anne Fishel cites a daily family meal, during which children have a chance to share their feelings and be listened to, results in children who are more optimistic, do better at school and generally enjoy a higher level of well-being ³.  It is, she says, a warm and welcoming atmosphere at table that is most important, the benefits don’t spring from making a gourmet meal.

I normally look after my primary school aged nephews once a week and have been amazed by their fascination with our dining room and “formal” dining accoutrements such as knives and forks!  You only have to glance around a restaurant to see how many adults today seem never to have been taught to use them.  Laying the table is all part of the occasion and, I have insisted my husband join us even though it is earlier than our usual mealtime because I have seen how important it is to them.  The difference in behaviour between British children in a pub or restaurant and the behaviour of those native to the countries at the top of the table above cannot have gone unnoticed.

The current culture for feeding children seems to be “little and often”, yet our British snacking habit is one of the worst things about our food culture and a big contributor to type two diabetes.  At school too, “cafeteria style” options are now the norm and there seems to be little emphasis on the social side of enjoying a meal together.

I would suggest that if the government wants to tackle our obesity problem, they focus some attention here.

 

Growing your own

This is another aspect in which the government has a role to play.

Estate agents are already seeing considerable demand for properties suitable for home working.  Rightmove and Savills have conducted surveys into the changed priorities.4   The top priority, stipulated by 71% of property searchers, was a garden and outdoor space.  It is not clear how people intend to use this space although of those that already had a garden at the time of lockdown it was notable via social media how many began to grow their own vegetables for the first time.

The council houses that were built after the First World War always included generous gardens with the expectation that families would grow their own vegetables.  Horticulture is a difficult sector to make profitable on a commercial basis, the vegetables sold in supermarkets are so cheap that one almost wonders why anyone would bother to grow their own, unless of course you consider freshness and flavour within the reward!  People growing their own contributes to our food security but the connection to nature and the seasons is fundamental to good eating.  I would put a return to including gardens within housing plans top of the list of actions that the government could take to encourage the positive food practices that we saw in lockdown.  Where this is not possible, they should look at the provision of allotments.  Every school should have a school garden.  The contribution that gardening makes to mental well-being should amply repay the expenditure.  Even those without a garden should be encouraged to grow something – herbs or salad leaves are perfectly possible in a window box and unlike most vegetables, they are usually overpriced in supermarkets.

 

Obesity is not only caused by Gluttony

The final element of Part I of the National Food Strategy that relates to Food Culture has to do with our health, and particularly the impact that obesity has on Covid 19 patients.  Even before the report’s recommendations had been delivered the Government had announced a “new obesity campaign” proposing legislation to block TV advertising of “junk food”, displaying calories on alcohol and menus, and ending “buy one, get one free” promotions.

The National Food Strategy report expresses concern that the causes of obesity need to be more thoroughly understood and any campaign more precisely targeted and wholeheartedly agree.

It identifies 6 eater profiles and compares their typical BMI, both current(?) and projected at age 50.¹  This is a useful start point for considering the very varied reasons for weight gain, albeit of necessity still simplified into just 6 eater types.

Dr James Le Fanu, writing in the Daily Telegraph, expressed his own concerns about the likely ineffectiveness of the new Government Obesity Campaign stating that the tenor of the proposals, in attributing obesity to a combination of ignorance and self-indulgence, is patronising, moralistic and – wrong.  Whilst the average Briton may be a stone heavier than 50 years ago but, he cautions, as Cambridge nutritionist Andrew Prentice has pointed out we are eating one fifth less food than back in the Seventies.  The culprit, he concludes is not gluttony but a decline in energy expenditure and cites driving rather than walking as an example.

Exactly so, although the example that I most identify with is the introduction of central heating.  As a child in the 1960’s I vividly remember the ice forming on the inside of my bedroom window and a rapid scramble to dress in front of the living room fire.  Similarly, I remember the reluctance to leave the fire to visit the freezing bathroom when nature called.  By 1970, the point from which weight gain is being considered, 30% of households had central heating installed but the percentage increased rapidly from then – 60% a decade later and 95% by 2018.5  The 1970’s saw a plethora of convenience foods, “junk food”, the like of which I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole nowadays.  Yet I was a skinny child; and didn’t start to put on weight until I hit my 30s.  Of course, no-one would suggest we should abandon central heating, but perhaps turn the stat down a bit?  I find almost every public building unbearably hot and our planet might benefit too!

I’m sure there are changes to be made to our diet, which will also benefit the planet and our health, but the issues are complex and although Covid has provided a tremendous unplanned “teachable moment” we need to ensure we make the right decisions going forward – but I am sure Mother Nature will teach us more than any government could ever do.

 

 

 

References

¹ The UK has had no formal food policy since the end of the Second World War, but leaving the EU, who had been making the majority of our food decisions, had prompted government to call for a National Food Strategy.  DEFRA commissioned businessman and owner of the Leon chain of restaurants, Henry Dimbleby, to carry out a full review, which is due this Autumn.   Part One of this report, specifically considered the cracks in the food system exposed by Covid and mindful of the trade deals the UK is now negotiating, has been published.  The report contains some useful statistics relating to our food habits during lockdown, which I have referred to throughout this article. You can download the report at https://www.nationalfoodstrategy.org/

² Hungry for Change project https://www.gsttcharity.org.uk/what-we-do/our-projects/hungry-change

³ The Family Dinner Project  https://thefamilydinnerproject.org/category/food-for-thought

4 https://www.which.co.uk/news/2020/05/revealed-how-lockdown-has-changed-house-buyers-property-priorities

5 https://www.statista.com/statistics/289137/central-heating-in-households-in-the-uk