Tuesday, November 23, 2010

This Time Last Year

This time last year we were on holiday in Morocco. It has taken me a year to write about this because during our time there I spent four days confined to either the bed or the bathroom sicker than I have ever been in my life. We were all ill to varying degrees, but all ill enough to have to make arrangements to go to a doctor and check out the local hospital. The upshot was that none of us has been over fond of coriander since and none of us will ever touch pastilla again. In a bizarre way it was a good family holiday - we all got to bond in ways we had never anticipated.
So Fes particularly will always be etched in our memories, not least because it was a very interesting place.

Was it something we ate? This is what we ate for breakfast on the first day - milk coffee, fresh goats cheese, honey and a variety of breads


We sampled a variety of different bread-y things.The most interesting were the giant crumpets although we now suspect that they might also function as giant petri dishes.

We were there for Eid el Kebir  (or Eia al-Adha) the Feast of the Sacrifice of the Lamb or just the Feast of Sacrifice or even the Grand Feast. This is a major event with every family who can afford it purchasing a sheep to slaughter. The streets were busy before the event with sheep being transported around one way or another and after the event it is very hard to avoid coming into contact with some evidence of the deceased.


We didn't try camel or smen the amazing fermented butter that is a traditional ingredient (apparently blue cheese is a reasonable substitute). We did consume large quantities of mint tea and we did get to see warka pastry being made and we even got to play with it at a cooking class we did.

The markets were endlessly fascinating.

And tempting though the food stalls in the Djemmaa el-Fna in Marrakesh may be we didn't push our luck.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cooking History

Although the recent Sydney International Food Festival was mainly about restaurants, chefs and eating out there were one or two non eating events. One was the screening of this little film 'Cooking History', a documentary about army chefs and the logistics of feeding armies during wartime - but also about food and nostalgia, food and memory, food and identity. Filmed in Europe and dealing with conflicts from WW2 to Tchechnia it was  interesting and thought provoking. Worth looking out for if it ever gets a run on television - or at a film festival?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Foraging Frenzy

Luis Melendez, Still Life with Gherkins and Tomatoes
 October is Food Festival month in Sydney which means an orgy of chefs and restaurants strutting their stuff. This year the highlights included a presentation by René Redzepi at the Sydney Opera House. Over the preceding weeks and indeed subsequently there has been much written about Mr Redzepi, his restaurant and his food philosophies. So although I haven't actually met the man I would have to say that I feel reasonably well acquainted with him. He is a pleasant enough young man, he speaks well, he has some interesting things to say and he has a sense of humour, something which few others appear to have noticed.
How else would you explain the fact that he gets away with foraging for bits and pieces in the forests, fiddles with them in the kitchen, charges a fortune for them and gets called the greatest chef in the world? I had thought that I was perhaps the only person who had seen the irony in taking wild raw materials, torturing them a bit (quite literally in the case of the live shrimp he dishes up), serving it on a warm rock and then suggesting to the consumer that they were in some way communing with nature. Many of his dishes take hours if not days to prepare, how can he suggest that he is keeping the link from origin to plate as unbroken as possible? Can he be serious in suggesting that anything you eat in a restaurant  is likely to bring you close to the forces of nature? So it was with a sense of joy and relief that I read Keith Austin's piece on his experience sitting at the feet of the great man - here.
Don't get me wrong - I find the Redzepi approach fascinating and I wish the man well but doesn't it  make you stop and ask  'Que?'
The big disappointment is that Mr. Redzepi's visit does not seem to have engendered any on-going interest in some of the bigger questions about our fascination with restaurants (why we go out to eat, what we expect from the experience ) and with celebrity. The media has however taken up the cause of indigenous ingredients and why we don't use them or even appreciate them (see Carli Ratcliff here) which gets us back to the old problem of culture and cuisine. If, as Mr. Redzepi affirms, cuisine is 'a palatable experience of your culture' then what do our palatable experiences tell us about our culture?

Monday, October 25, 2010

David Mitchell Chews Over Public Mastication

The anthropologist in me just loves this piece. I've been doing a good deal of reading about dining out and the rituals of the restaurant and this was a refreshing change from academic writing.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

I told you so

Van Gogh  Interior of a Restaurant
 (oil on canvas, 1887)
 Science comes to the rescue! The fact that I don't like noisy restaurants may well be due to the fact that I am a grumpy old person but the fact that noise does affect the enjoyment of the food you are eating is just that - a fact! So noisy restaurants beware!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Revisiting Elizabeth David

Last night I attended a tribute dinner to honour Elizabeth David at Bird, Cow, Fish restaurant. Coincidentally the evening also celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the publication of her first book A Book of Mediterranean Food.
There were a few speakers who reflected on Ms. David's work, her influence at the time and her legacy which provoked some interesting discussion of her relevance today, somewhat along the lines of a similar discussion in the Guardian (here) which, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, most of those in attendance had had the time to read before coming to the dinner.
The general conclusion would seem to be that whilst we have come a long way since 1950 we haven't actually travelled very far - more like just going around in circles. David celebrated fresh, seasonal ingredients, handled simply and well which might have been revolutionary at the time but since then we have just been reinventing the wheel.
Whilst there is some truth in the argument that some of what she wrote sixty years ago is perhaps a little outdated and some readers might find her authoritarian approach both intimidating and rather old fashioned,  the general consensus last night was that what might be perceived today as her weaknesses are more correctly appreciated as her strengths. As Alex Herbert herself remarked  a 'teacup' full of this and a 'handful' of that do not make for a precise formula but the idea of David's recipes was to inspire people to experiment, to taste, to gain confidence to learn how to cook and to enjoy doing so. In that context another strength of her books is that there are no pretty pictures - there is no 'plating up', there is no template to aim for, there is no in-built expectation.
And almost universally around the table there was a lament that there seems to be so little good food writing in print today. Newspapers and magazines in Australia simply do not publish anything much other than restaurant reviews, recipes and brief, journalistic advertorial. Print media is supposedly in its death throws - perhaps that's as much because there is never anything in the daily paper that is worth reading as anything else. I would venture that most of us interested in more than just the consuming of food get most of our reading via the Internet but even so there is precious little that is well written, stimulating and informative - unless I am missing something.
As to the dinner, Alex Herbert did us proud -
 Chicken Liver Crostini (An Omelette and a Glass of Wine)
 Moules Mariniere with grilled olive bread and rouille (A Book of Mediterranean Food  with a nod to Damien Pignolet and Claudia Roden)
Grillade au Fenouil
(Grilled Snapper on a bed of grilled fennel with Pommes Anna)
A Provencal salad with celery, watercress, orange and parsley (A Book of Mediterranean Food)
Lemon Soufflé with strawberries and vanilla ice cream (French Provincial Cookery)
Yarra Valley Black Savourine goats cheese, panforte, lavoch and 'fruitons'
 and finally coffee with Budgi Werri prunes in Kennedy and Wilson chocolate
All washed down with some very delicious wines including a luscious 2008 Ata Rangi Crimson Pinot Noir.

Certainly those at dinner last night have a lot to thank Elizabeth David (and Alex Herbert) for.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rolling in Clover

Last weekend my daughter and two friends, slightly hungover from the night before, wanted eggs Benedict for 'breakfast'. I know I could have made this for them myself and had they wanted breakfast at 9am rather than 11am I might have considered doing so but as it was I suggested they go out to one of the local cafes. Rather than trust to chance my daughter rang ahead to make sure that what they wanted was on the menu but no one answered the call.  While they were pondering what to do next our phone rang and it was the proprietor of the cafe ringing back returning our call.
Me: 'Oh, is that Clover?'
Clover: 'Yes. I just had a missed call from this number.'
Me: 'Yes that was my daughter wanting to know if you have eggs Benedict on the menu.'
Clover: 'Um no but I could do them. How many do you want?'
Me: 'That would be fabulous. There's three of them.'
Clover: 'Fine. I'll get the hollandaise started now and I'll reserve a table for them.'
Me: 'That's wonderful. Thank you so much. They're just about on their way so they'll see you in about five minutes.'
Now that is what I call service!!
 Although we live in an inner city suburb, surrounded by some very busy thoroughfares we also have a small, local 'village' shopping area with  a couple of independent supermarkets,  two bread shops, a butcher cum deli, the post office, two chemists, a good book shop, two hardware stores, an independent plant nursery and several cafes and restaurants all within a short stroll from the front door.  All these places depend on the patronage of the local community and reciprocate by offering friendly, personal service which usually comes with a smile and a chat and the willingness to listen to customers and respond to their needs.
I do most of my weekly shopping locally. I travel a bit further afield for fruit and vegetables but even then only to the green grocer in the next suburb.
But Woolworths have their eye on this best of all possible worlds and plan to build a supermarket at the end of our street. Not in the local shopping strip but only three blocks away. Why? Because they can I suppose. Do we need a Woolworths supermarket? No we don't. Do we want a Woolworths supermarket within easy walking distance? No we don't. Can we stop it happening? Worth a try but Buckley might have as much chance.
And by the way the verdict was that the eggs were delicious!

Clover Cafe
78 Booth Street
0433 258 252

Month in Review - September 2010

Jar of Apricots, Jean Simeon Chardin (1758)
oil on canvas, 57.2x50.8 cm
Art Gallery of Ontario
I have spent most of the month busy pretending to be an anthropologist. Reading, reading and more reading with a bit of eating and gardening thrown in.
It is a long time since I have grown anything from scratch. Our last two gardens were already well established when we inherited them and all we had to do was make sure nothing died. Growing vegetables is much more exciting. I prowl the garden several times a day and now the weather is warmer you can actually see things growing by the hour. My first attempt at tomatillo seedlings was a disaster because I tried to start them too soon. The seeds I planted out two weekends ago have gone berserk. I now have a forest of little green plants growing stronger everyday. And there are beans on the broad beans. Did you know that the pods grow upwards? During the month I've planted eggplants. If they all survive, and at the moment it seems that they will, we will have nine bushes which means we should have enough fruit to set up our own stall at the markets. And there are zucchini - only six plants this time. I am so excited about harvesting my own vegetables.Even though the choice is a bit limited at the moment it is such a joy to wander out at dinner time and come back with fresh lettuce and 'squeaking' spinach leaves.
This month we have also planted a lemon/lime (Eureka lemon grafted with a Tahitian lime) and a passionfruit vine - at the moment just a stick with half a dozen leaves but we hope that it will eventually sprawl over the outside loo.
Over the years I have made a collection of bromeliads and orchids of one sort or another and most of them are in flower at the moment. At the bottom of the garden we also have an old cottage rose - one I planted twenty years ago - which I have nurtured and nursed back to health after many years of neglect and that too has flowers. So with the roses and the orchids and the borage and the flowers on the beans the garden looks very festive.
The bromeliads are grouped around another new addition - the frog pond. The other week I enlisted a friend to help me drag home one of those blue plastic shell sand pits which was discarded on the footpath. Then I enlisted my son to dig out and level a shallow depression to sit it in. We filled it with water from the tank, organised some duck weed, an aquatic plant or two and some tiny little fish. Now all we need are the frogs. Despite the fact that we live in the thick of the inner city suburbs in a row of narrow terraces there are frogs in the neighbourhood because last summer we heard them calling every night. Surely they won't be able to resist our luxurious accommodation?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Month in Review - August 2010

1. Starting to pick green leafy things from the garden - goodness that mizuna is prolific. The borage is all in flower and so are the broad beans. The rhubarb is doing well, the tomatoes are in and the chilli plant has its first flower.
2. Reading weighty tomes with titles like 'The Sociology of the Meal', 'The Cultural Politics of Food and Eating' and 'Consuming Passions. Food in the Age of Anxiety' for the anthropology class I have enrolled in this semester. All very interesting even though there are rather a lot of multi -syllable words to get through. And reading keeps me away from writing - have yet to find a way of being able to do both at once.
3. Making bread. Have decided to stick with the Dan Leppard idea of baking the loaf in a covered container so that it generates its own steam - so far so good.

Low lights.
At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old person.......the other weekend we ate out a a newish venue in nearby Newtown, much reviewed and highly regarded. First gripe - the policy is not to take bookings. I know there are probably very good reasons for this approach but for us it meant going there at 6pm on a Saturday rather than risk having to wait around outside in the cold (in a part of town where there isn't much else to do) and/or fill up at the bar on drinks we didn't really want or need. As it happened we got a table straight away.
Second gripe - the tables were so close together that I was actually sitting closer to the strange next to me on the bench seat than I was to the person I was sharing dinner with. It wasn't possible to move from my seat without (and I quote) 'having to hang your arse over someone's dinner'.
The food and the service were fine - an interesting menu, attentive staff - but, gripe number three, the noise level was almost unbearable. The quasi-industrial decor with all those hard surfaces is not conducive to private conversation. It was hard to hear the waiter, it was hard to hear my partner across the table, it was even hard to hear everything that the stranger next to me was saying to her partner. In fact all the noise made it hard to concentrate on the food and even though the duck with cumquats was delicious we couldn't finish it fast enough so that we could get out of there. Rounded off the evening at home with a slice of homemade cake and a cup of tea watching an old James Bond movie on the telly and still got to bed before midnight.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Cookbooks - useful or good?

Last weekend the Observer Food Monthly (OFM) published their list of the 50 best cookbooks. Who decides these things? In this case the panel was made up of restaurant critics, food writers and chefs (some of them the authors of books which appear on the list). Who defines what is best? How 'best' – good to read, most interesting, most original, best researched, recipes most likely to work, most original recipes, most comprehensive? In 2005 Waitrose Food Illustrated published a list of the ten most useful cookery books ever. Now useful I understand. Like any collector of recipe books and books about food there are many volumes on the shelf which are there largely because they are important to have and then there are those which are spattered and dog-eared and regularly used.

What makes a book useful obviously depends on who you are, where you are and what you want to cook. I would turn to Stephanie Alexander's The Cooks Companion before I would consult Delia Smith because Stephanie speaks my language, she uses the ingredients I know I can find locally, and although both of them are a bit bossy if I had to choose one of them to be trapped on a desert island with it wouldn't be Ms Smith.
The good people at Waitrose put The Cooks Companion at number 10 on their list with Delia's Complete Cookery Course at number 2. Over at the Observer they rated number 31 and number 12 respectively but I would guess that a similar list compiled in Australia would reverse those rankings, if indeed Delia got a look in.
If I wanted definitive Italian food I would probably go to Marcella Hazan and Jane Grigson for English food and David Thompson for Thai but if I had to limit myself to only one food book would I choose the really useful book which would get me through pretty much any situation? If I could have only one book on the shelf would it be The Cooks Companion?
Comparing the Waitrose list with the Observer's top ten it appears that good and useful recipe books don't fall into simple categories of instructive versus informative although there are more books that have stood the test of time and/or broke new ground, either in subject matter or format, on the good list, for example, Robert Carrier's Great Dishes of the World (1963, number 10), Jane Grigson's English Food (1974, number 6) and David Thompson's Thai Food (2002, number 7).
Whilst obviously 'good' and 'useful' aren't mutually exclusive categories  precious few authors made it on to both lists. Elizabeth David scores at number 7 on the useful list (for a compilation volume of Mediterranean Food, Summer Food and French Country Cooking) and number 2 on the good list (for French Provincial Cooking). Nigel Slater's Real Fast Food is useful (number 3) his Kitchen Diaries is good (at number 4). Claudia Roden's New Book of Middle Eastern Food is useful (number 5) and her The Book of Jewish Food is very good (number 3).
It goes without saying that the latest list generated a slew of comments with poor Nigel being criticised not only for his close association with the OFM but for his purple prose and, worst of all for any recipe writer, for recipes that don't work.
For all the back and forth in the comments about the pros and cons of various books and authors there was no mention, for or against, of the one book which appears on both lists, which Waitrose ranked as the most useful and the OFM rated at number 5 – Simon Hopkinson's Roast Chicken and Other Stories.
Because I have made myself a promise that I will limit my purchases of food books, due both to lack of space and difficulty in justifying the expense, I have only recently acquired my own copy of Roast Chicken – the American version, purchased from the bargain table at at Green Apple Books in San Francisco. (I seem to be able to find room for the book somewhere if I haven't had to pay full price for it.)
This is a small, unassuming collection of some of Hopkinson's favourite recipes for a selection of his favourite ingredients which dates from 1994. It's interesting to read, Hopkinson is an engaging personality and his writing is entertaining and informative. But, in a book of only forty chapters, does devoting space to ingredients that are hardly main stream or universally popular - brains, kidneys, liver, sweetbreads and tripe, squab, rabbit and grouse - really help to qualify this book as a kitchen essential? True, if you are after a definitive recipe for roast chicken, or aȉoli or rice pudding or custard sauce, or poached salmon or slow braised pork belly or Saltimbocca alla Romana then this would be a good book to turn to. Also, buried in recipes for more complicated dishes, are classics like mayonnaise, vinaigrette and béarnaise but this book makes no pretence to be comprehensive. (Read my full review at The Gastonomer's Bookshelf.)

Some of the comments relating to the OFM list suggested that I am not alone. For many cooks there are two classifications of recipe book – those that you read, enjoy and learn from but rarely cook from (either because the recipes are too complicated, the ingredients are too esoteric or simply because the book has more to do with memoir/travel/history/ethnic background/ process etc., is more of a reference than an instruction manual) and those that you turn to regularly for  recipes, cooking ideas that are both relatively straightforward and trustworthy, like those of Delia, Stephanie, Margaret Fulton, Marguerite Patten and the Women's Weekly. These are books more concerned with sustenance than fashion.
For me Hopkinson's book fits somewhere between these two - it is good but not likely to be come overly besmirched and bespattered, although it could become a good deal more useful if I ever decide to put the family on an offal diet. If I should ever have to confine myself to choosing only ten food books Roast Chicken might well be one of them, I just hope I never have to face that challenge.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Month in review - July 2010

Foodscape by Carl Warner

As always at the end of the month there are a few items still lingering on the 'to do' list. Rather than add then on to the list for the next month I'm giving them a bit of space here.

1. Spent a good deal of July agonising over a review of Ottolenghi The cookbook. This is a book I love. There is something about it which is invigorating and exciting but I found it very hard to put my finger on just what it was that made it so. In part my enthusiasm stems from having eaten at 'Ottolenghi' in Islington and so going through the recipes and the photographs in the book I can relive that experience, but there is also something about the generous use of ingredients and the imaginative combinations which give the recipes a vitality and joyousness which is sadly lacking in many cook books. You can read the final result at The Gastronomer's Bookshelf.

2. Not too many notable eating out experiences of late although we did encounter something called 'Watermelon crème brûlée'. Ordered in the interests of gastronomic enquiry this dish turned out to be a thin, pink, slightly vegetable tasting custard topped with a crisp caramel shell – not something to be repeated at home or anywhere else for that matter. Where do people get these ideas?

3. I have an on-going fascination with food and art – food used to portray non food (as in the photograph above – for more Carl Warner see here) and vice versa (like crocheted and knitted food, food made from felt, sculpture etc), food in paintings (nothing better than a good still life) and food in literature and the movies. Wouldn't it be fabulous if Sydney could have an International Food Film Festival – they have one in New York, they have one in Chicago, they have one in Coffs Harbour so why can't we have one here?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Life beyond the blog.

There is more to life than blogging. Despite having grand plans to write something for this blog every week more often than not real life intervenes and the time slips away. These are photographs of some of the other ways I spend my time.

Patchwork - hand pieced and machine pieced - and hand quilting eats up a lot of time but is very satisfying. Every Tuesday I spend a day with friends stitching - better than therapy.

Just for a bit of fun I've started playing around with the idea of using non-food materials to represent food stuffs. Below are my first attempts at knitting and crocheting cakes, biscuits and tarts.

And then because I spend a good deal of my time in the kitchen I like to be well dressed.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Never say never.

After reading the Bourke Street Bakery book the thought of baking my own bread has haunted me, despite my declaration that I didn't ever want to become involved in the whole sour dough process.
So .... I began by going back to the Dan Leppard approach which involves preparing a leaven which is then frozen in loaf size nuggets. When you want to make bread you revitalise the frozen chunks, and add flour and water . The rest of the process is pretty simple, a few seconds kneading every hour or until the dough is ready to bake. What put me off this method was the 4 or 5 hours of messing about with kneading the dough - like it or not this would mean having to devote a whole day to the process.
A bit more web based research came up with the technique for baking Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. The real appeal of this approach is that there is absolutely no kneading involved. All I have to do is remember to get the dough our of the refrigerator a couple of hours before dinner and we can have freshly baked bread with our soup and cheese. I'm still playing around and getting mixed results. Finding the best flour involves a bit of experimentation. Developing a good starter takes patience - rather than start from scratch with each new batch I am adding a portion of the last batch every time I make up a new mix. I'm also varying the time I allow the dough to rise before baking and I want to try Dan Leppard's method of baking in a covered pan rather than messing about trying to create steam in the oven.
The results look a bit rustic but all the loaves so far have had a very acceptable texture and flavour - and if there is any left over it makes great toast. And whats more baking bread is not a chore - it's fun!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The latest on the garden.

Before (the garden in December 2009) and after (July 2010)

Progress on the garden has been slowish but steady -getting rid of rubbish, finishing the paving, building the walls to define the garden beds (using the sand stock bricks recycled from the building renovations) and finally, last Friday, taking delivery of 3 cubic metres of garden soil - and suddenly we have a garden! Not a finished garden by any means - there are still some edges to fix up - but planting has begun!!
The herb garden now boasts marjoram, thyme, lemon thyme, bay, parsley (both flat leaf and curly), chervil, lemon verbena, lovage, borage, sage, mint, rosemary and tarragon. The garlic has all sprouted and elsewhere there are rhubarb crowns, and seedlings of kale, sorrel, spinach, tatsoi, rocket, mizuna, cos lettuce, red oak leaf lettuce and radicchio. The seed potatoes and the seeds  - broad beans, nasturtiums and marigolds - should arrive this week.
We have been collecting the inner tubes from toilet rolls and I am using the old fish tank as a little hot house hoping to get the seeds I saved from the ground cherries and tomatillos to germinate.
It is so exciting to be growing things again - going out every morning to check on progress (there hasn't been much yet). It is also wonderful to see everything looking so green and healthy thanks to the recent rain and despite the cold weather - last week we had frost on the car which is almost unheard of here in the inner city. There's also some vivid colour in the garden - spikes of red and purple bromelliads, which always flower at the most surprising times, and the cerise, frilly, droopy bells of the zygocactus which the native soldier birds love and go through all sorts of contortions to get at. All the orchids are full of flower buds and this year even the cymbidiums have come to the party - out of the 5 or 6 pots there are only four flower spikes and three of those are all on the same plant but that is a big improvement on nothing at all for the last couple of years. All these plants along with my collection of succulents have had a bit of a hard time over the last year, moving around from one place to the next in pots or neglected on the building site to fend for themselves, so I am more than grateful that they have survived and thrilled to see them thriving now that they are getting some care and attention.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Bees on film

Home from San Francisco there was barely time to unpack the suitcase before heading off to the 57th Sydney Film Festival. I always scan the programme for anything to do with food and of the few films I managed to see this year only two had prominent food content.
Food was unexpectedly significant in I am Love, a lavish Italian film which has Tilda Swinton falling for her son's friend who happens to be a chef. She is seduced in part by a dish of prawns which said chef prepares for her which looked none too appetising on the screen, certainly not the sort of thing you would be prepared to leave home for. The dramatic ending hinges on sharing the recipe for a favourite Russian soup which also seemed to have lost something in translation and didn't look as though it deserved all the emotional turmoil it unleashed. Obviously it is not so easy to make food look as glamorous as Tilda Swinton in a simple, beautifully cut dress or to use a plate of prawns to convey messages in the same way as scenes of Milan wrapped in snow. There is a lot more going on here of course than just cooking and eating although the scenes which showed food being prepared and served were used to good effect to demonstrate a range of important elements in the story such as power, class, sensual pleasure, desire, satisfaction, love, reciprocity, nurturing and belonging.
The one film which was specifically food related was Colony  a documentary about bees and bee keepers in America and the threat of Colony Collapse Disorder to their livelihoods, focusing on David Mendes (Vice President of the American Bee-Keeping Federation) and Lance and Victor Seppi, novice bee keepers of Pixley, California.
The Seppi family are worthy of a documentary in their own right. Fundamentalist Christians they struggle with the conflict between their religious beliefs and the need to be business men and to do business in difficult times and with the tensions doing business creates within the family. The parallels between the workings of the bee hive and the family are obvious, especially the role of the Seppi matriarch and that of the Queen bee. More subtle is the mirroring of the collapse of the hives in the collapse of the life of the bee keepers and the suggestion that whilst bees normally know their role and work in harmony for the common good the same cannot always be said for humans. The Seppi's struggle to keep their fledgling business alive, meanwhile David Mendes tries to find a cause for Colony Collapse Disorder and to keep the members of his association informed.

I was especially interested in this story because I had just returned from seeing acres and acres of almond trees in California. What I didn't know then was that the pollination of these trees is the biggest managed pollination event in the world. American bee keepers make their money out of shipping their bees around the country from Florida to Maine and over to Washington and California to pollinate various crops like apples and blueberries as well as almonds. Thousands of hives are packed onto semi-trailers and moved from one pollination event to the next. In California the pollination of the almond trees takes place in February and requires more than 1.3 million hives! A grower usually needs 2.5, 6 frame hives per acre and negotiates a contract with bee keepers to supply the number of hives he needs. Growers pay somewhere between $US 120 -150 per hive which means that the cost of pollination accounts for around 20% of their overall costs.

Bee hives suffer attacks from fungi, viruses, bacteria, parasites and other insects most of which are understood and manageable. Numbers of bees also decrease in winter because of the colder weather. Colony Collapse Disorder is a newly defined phenomenon, first properly identified in 2006, without, it would seem, any one particular cause. Just how significant loses from CCD are seems difficult to determine. Figures suggest that US bee keepers typically lose around 30% or more of their bees over winter but keepers who suffer CCD can lose 45% of their bees hence their concern to know what to do to either combat the problem or prevent it. David Mendes is shown as prosecuting the case with pesticide manufacturers who appear to be typically uncaring, convinced they are in no way responsible and uninterested in finding a solution. There seemed to be no move on the part of the growers themselves to help the bee keepers either financially or politically.

The film covered the tense and mutually dependent relationship of the growers and the bee keepers. The bee keepers have to contend with growers who renege on contracts and source cheaper bees elsewhere or drive hard bargains, arguing that $120US per hive favoured by growers is not economical. The growers on the other hand do not trust the bee keepers to supply healthy bees or to be able to honour their contract based on the number of frames/hive/acre. In the case of the almond crop the situation gets even more complicated when you add in problems for the growers such as decreasing prices for almonds and decreasing yields and acreages because of issues with water allocation in California, and increasing cost for the bee keepers.

No bees does in truth mean no honey, no work and no money on a vast scale. This was a very interesting and thought provoking insight into just one corner of our food supply and the complicated, fragile web of interdependence so vulnerable to influences that we cannot control.

Colony Collapse Disorder gets a mention in the press from time to time – the latest suggestion is that it might be caused by radiation from mobile phones.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

What I did on my holidays - part two.

Our time in San Francisco wasn't devoted entirely to food  but where you are going to eat and what you are going to have become serious preoccupations when you are away from home. One of our first stops was Wholefoods on 4th Street to stock up on some basic bits and pieces.
 I was excited about having a look around here but in the end it was just another supermarket - albeit with an extensive range of organic products and high prices. I don't quite know what I had expected but  the diverse and interesting cheese counter and the bakery and the displays of vegetables,  the demonstrator sampling barbecue flavoured organic chicken sausages, the shelves lined with boxes and packets of processed foods looked pretty much like Coles or Woolworths to me.
Nor was it necessary to trudge all the way to Wholefoods to find organic products. Because we were intrigued we purchased a tub of 'Wallaby Organic' Dulche de leche creamy Australian style low fat yogurt which claimed to be "as delicious and distinctive as the Australian yogurts which inspired it". Apart from not approving of their spelling of yoghurt I was more than a little surprised that the manufacturers had spent their holidays in Australia studying our product.
According to the label "Wallaby's signature style comes from a small batch cooking process that includes long culturing and gentle handling" and the tub we sampled (which was classified USDA organic) contained
organic cultured pasteurized reduced fat milk (sourced from pasture-based family farms in Northern California)
organic evaporated cane juice
organic tapioca syrup
natural flavour
organic caramel colour
organic locust bean gum
organic vanilla extract
Clearly it is important not to confuse 'organic' with 'natural'. I don't really think I felt any better about eating this than I would do about eating any other  flavoured yoghurt - which now I am no longer on holidays I am not likely to do.
For me it wasn't possible to be in San Francisco without going over to Berkeley and eating at Chez Panisse.

I have to admit to being a little concerned that the reality might not meet my expectations but I was oddly reassured from the beginning when we actually walked right past without realising we had arrived. We ate lunch in the cafe upstairs - timber floors; simple chairs and booths opposite the long narrow open kitchen; paper covering the white table cloth, linen serviettes; not full but busy and tables turn over quickly; lots of friendly and very knowledgeable floor staff; a simple photocopied menu with plenty of choice - 9 'starters', 5 main courses and 7 desserts; smallish, manageable portions presented on small coloured plates - cream and mushroom*; no fancy cutlery or other doo-dads on the table. A relaxed and comfortable atmosphere, with no hint of  international notoriety, which obviously belies the careful thought which has gone into its creation.
The open kitchen was a revelation - long and narrow, with the wood fired oven blazing away - not only could you see what the chefs were doing but many of the raw materials were on display, so close that you could reach out and touch them - should you want to of course.
The food was excellent, unfussy, fresh and tasty. The Terra Firma Farm grapefruit and avocado salad with ginger vinaigrette and the Monterey Bay sardine toasts with cucumber salad and anise hyssop were followed by Sweetcorn pudding souffle with morel mushrooms, spinach and cipollini and Northern halibut baked on a fig leaf with snap peas, carrots, little turnips and herb butter. And then we squeezed in Bing cherry tart with pistachio ice cream and a plate of Meyer lemon puffs with Lucero Farms strawberries and kirsch cream . The former was the best cherry anything I have ever tried. The latter translated as three profiteroles filled with a mixture of lemon curd and creme patisserie served with macerated strawberries and a dob of cream - the pastry was magnificent (not hard and chewy, not soggy) and the balance of the lemon tang was swoon-worthy.
I was a bit surprised to find that the majority of the wines were imported - from Italy, France, Germany, Spain and even Austria. We stuck to local product and even tried the Natural Process Alliance Sauvignon Blanc from the Russian River Valley which apparently comes in 750ml reusable stainless steel containers. This wine is so virtuous that it has no added sulfites  and is unfiltered which means that the glass comes to your table looking like a sample you might take to the doctor with some trepidation  - unfortunately it didn't taste as morally uplifting as it sounded.
So no disappointments or downsides at all although this restaurant does have the smallest 'ladies' I have ever encountered (even this can be forgiven because of the fabulous handbasin - you need to see for yourself).

Another must-do eating experience was to visit a taqueria in the Mission District. We made our way to La Cumbre, because this was the most convenient for us, and waded through an enormous plate of puerco with all the trimmings. How anyone eats one of their burritos without wearing most of it is a total mystery. Chez Panisse this is not but lots of fun all the same.

Other food related experiences involved eating freshly cooked Dungeness crab with our fingers down at Fisherman's Wharf and hunting for recipe books. I had most success at Green Apple Books on Clement Street but loved going into City Lights  - the only bookshop which has a category headed 'muckraking'.

And we didn't eat here but it did put me in mind of  our garlic lunch at Sunnybrae!

* The dinnerware  at Chez Panisse is made by Heath Ceramics, based in Sausalito. The colours of the Chez Panisse range are in fact jicama, ginger, cardoon and forest! The food actually filled the plates which brought to mind Gay Bilson's ideas about the isolation of food on a white plate with a wide rim. Here the food tended to blend into the dish it was served in, making it seem more interesting and less intimidating, much less 'restauranty', altogether more approachable. Heath Ceramics have an outlet at the Ferry Building and if I had had a way of getting some of their plates home I would have been very tempted, even though it is cheaper to have the menu de jour at Chez Panisse ($26US for 3 courses) than to buy just one of the plates on which it is served ($42US for the dinner plate).

Friday, June 25, 2010

What I did on my holidays - part one.

It might seem a bit self indulgent to fly all the way to the west coast of the USA for just one week but that's what we did. I'm fascinated by America  - it's vast and diverse and the reality is both very familiar and quite different from expectations founded on television and movies. I was seduced by the culture when we lived there briefly many moons ago and have jumped at every opportunity to visit again since then.
Our destination was San Francisco but our first stop was Yosemite National Park. Not normally one to wax eloquent about  scenery and natural wonders I have to admit that Yosemite was spectacular. Five million visitors a year are similarly impressed! We were there for the Memorial Day weekend which pretty much marks the beginning of the summer holiday season, the weather was fabulous and the traffic jams in the park had to be seen to be believed.

 Yosemite Falls and Mirror Lake
  All the accommodation - hotels and camp sites - had been booked out for weeks so one of the really interesting aspects of our few days there was to see how all these people were catered for. All the hotel accommodation and food is handled by Delaware North Companies and they provide a range of eating options from restaurants, fine (and expensive) dining at the 'rustic and elegant' Ahwahnee Hotel in the cavernous dining room and less formal, noisier dining at the busy Mountain Room Restaurant with its view of Yosemite Falls, to burgers and other fried goodies at the Village Grill  in Yosemite Village. There was nothing especially surprising or different about the food we ate here -  very good braised lamb shoulder, seared duck breast, Alaskan halibut, juicy and perfectly cooked flat iron steak - but I was intrigued by the information about what we were eating provided on the menu.

The Ahwahnee Hotel (the Dining Room is on the ground floor at left)
To start with there was a little warning at the bottom of the page
Thoroughly cooking foods of animal origin such as beef, eggs, fish, lamb, pork, poultry or shellfish reduces the risk of food-borne illness. Individuals with certain health conditions may be at higher risk if these foods are consumed raw or undercooked. FDA Consumer Advisory 3-603.11.
Less scary was finding out where the food had come from and how it was produced. The seafood is chosen based on the Best Choices and Best Alternatives lists published by Seafood Alliance and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch while local , organic and seasonal vegetables are sourced from T&D Willey Farms based in the San Joaquin Valley. The beef used at the Ahwahnee is produced by Brandt Farms who maintain 'a pasture to plate philosophy which involves raising .. livestock humanely and naturally without hormones or the use of antibiotics' and at the Mountain View Room they use grass fed beef  from Open Space Beef. Free range chicken and duck comes from the Pitman family who run Mary's Chicken. Whilst this sort of attention to the provenance of their food might be expected at a place like the Ahwahnee it was refreshing to find that the same attention was paid to the ingredients at the 240 seat  Mountain Room. What I couldn't determine was whether this sort of information was expected by their customers or whether it was just a reflection of the policies of the Delaware Group.
The drive from San Francisco to Yosemite takes you through the amazingly lush farming areas in the valleys of the San Joaquin and Merced Rivers, where these businesses are based , through Modesto, Merced and Madera  or along the 120 through Oakdale - past acres (this is America) of  vegetables and fruit and nut trees - pistachios, almonds, plums, peaches and cherries. Modesto is not only the setting for George Lucas's American Graffiti but also the home of Blue Diamond Almonds.
And if you live in San Francisco you can buy produce from the farms in the valley at the various farmer's markets which operate in the city. On Saturday morning our first stop was the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market which is based in and around the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero at the bottom of Market Street almost in the shadow of the Bay Bridge. It was stone fruit season and there was a bewildering number of varieties of peaches available, huge mounds of cherries, 'pluots' for sampling and glorious displays of fresh vegetables. Again there was nothing we didn't recognise but it was interesting to see bunches of dandelions, stinging nettles ($US10/lb), amaranth ($US5/lb), lemon verbena, borage flowers and lemon balm which are not regular features of the markets we go to in Sydney.

 The market was very busy but how many of the crowd were locals actually doing their weekend shopping and how many were tourists like us was hard to determine. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is a California Certified Farmer's Market. This means that only California Certified Producers can sell there. To quote from their brochure -
'All of the farmers who sell at our market are certified as producers by the counties in which they grow. This guarantees shoppers that their purchases are grown in California by the people who are selling them. Growers submit to their county a production list complete with crop types, number of acres, location, estimated harvest and harvest season. Based on this information, a producer's certificate is issued and the county's Agricultural Inspector visits the farm to confirm that the farm is growing what they claim to be.'
 They also make the point that being a Certified Producer is not the same as being certified organic.
Whilst on the one hand this sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare the stipulation that anyone selling in the market should have to identify the source of their wares is something I would very much like to see happen at my local market.
We spent the morning wandering around the stalls in glorious sunshine and then sat by the bay enjoying coffee and sandwiches - watched over  by a statue of Mahatma Gandhi which for some reason was given to the City of San Francisco by the Gandhi Memorial International Foundation.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Original thinking or just chanelling Gay Bilson?

Punch 15 August 1951

Every now and again I think I have come up with a good idea or have at least managed to harness enough grey cells to come up with a thought that is somewhat original. Sometimes I even get organised enough to write these ideas down with a view to writing about them here. Unfortunately I should have written about some of them before I read Gay Bilson's Plenty. Digressions on Food because it appears that she has had the odd bright idea herself from time to time.

Thought number 1.
While we were in Adelaide recently we were eating with friends who always say grace before their evening meal. Whilst I don't share their religious conviction I was impressed by the idea of taking a moment to pause, with your plate of food in front of you, before starting to eat. You might want to give thanks, you might want to reflect on your good fortune or you might just want to contemplate the food and anticipate how it will taste. Whatever the reason taking the time to pause gives you a moment to think about what you are doing and to bring your mind to the table as well as your appetite. See Bilson page 171('there is a point to saying grace for it makes us pause to think about the circumstances of our well-being') for confirmation that this may not be an original idea although it is still a good one. Recently I also came across this piece by Suzanne Lenzer on 'an eating meditation' which requires that you sit in front of your food for a full minute and think about what you are feeling. Then you start eating slowly and mindfully, paying attention to all the sensations eating produces. This meditation doesn't sound like something I could manage too often – meal times usually involve a fair bit of conversation which tends to interfere with the mindfulness bit.
I also recently read a justification for photographing your food which argued that by pausing before you attack the food to make a record of what was on your plate was perhaps not a bad thing. Well you can see what they are getting at but I don't think taking a photograph is in the same league with saying grace.

Thought number 2.
Most meals in our house are served at the table, that is everyone helps themselves to what they want. I don't do 'plating up' in part because we have a small kitchen and finding room for four plates on the bench is sometimes a bit of a stretch; in part because when my children were younger it seemed that they would be more prepared to eat if they weren't presented with a daunting plate of food but had some chance to choose exactly what and how much they would like to eat. It also seems to me that helping yourself to food not only gives you the chance to choose but gives you some involvement with what you are about to eat and suggests a commitment to eat what you have chosen. It also allows you to think about the arrangement of the food – what goes with what, which bits get sauce on them and which don't . Sharing the food in this way also means you don't need to put everything on your plate all at once if you don't want to and you can come back for second helpings whenever it suits.There also has to be some acknowledgement of the amount of food available and the exercise of a certain amount of self restraint if there is to be enough to go around. One way or another serving yourself gives you some connection to what you are about to eat.
Gay Bilson notes that although at home you don't get a choice of what you will eat for dinner in the same way as you would in a restaurant at least, at home 'food is not prescribed in portions' She criticises the notion of 'plating' calling it creating 'pictures on plates' and taking away 'the loveliness of eating as much as you want, of a whole dish and of different parts of a dish'. Another notion Bilson considers is the isolation of the food on the plate ('The spotless, great white border of the plate is still the defining difference between restaurant food, which is presented, and domestic cooking, which is served.' pages 189-190) and the idea that doing something at the table combats that isolation. I can only agree with her idea of the perfect restaurant -
In the perfect restaurant, which more and more I equate with eating at home, there would be no choice and all the food would be set down on the table so that diners helped themselves.(pages 302-303)
Thought number 3.
When I wrote my piece on the book Bourke Street Bakery  I quite liked my analogy of sour dough starter being like a teenager. Well Ms Bilson has a far better relationship with her sour dough starter which she 'mothers'. I was pleased to read though that she gave herself  'about two years to begin to understand the interaction of temperature, humidity and the health of the culture, different flours, different ovens, and many more variables', and that even after 3 years 'I know I am only just at the point where I might start to say I make bread.' (page 121). I rest my case!

Thought number 4.
I have complained here before that recipe books tend to talk only in terms of what to do rather than what not to do and/or why you should do things a certain way and in a certain order. In other words, Bilson's words,  most cookbooks are 'manuals of practical instruction' and as such a poor replacement for 'generational instruction' (page 255). Cooks learn by cooking and in the domestic situation cuisine is transmitted by a tradition of manual skills and instructions within the family (page 285).

Of course, all this points to the obvious: you need to learn to cook by working with someone else, not by reading books ...The point of a recipe is the final product and you need to know what the final product should be like. All recipes should include what many of them don't; a guide to what you are aiming for – texture, taste, consistency.' (page 61)
According to Julian Barnes* mere photographs in a book don't do the job. I would suggest that Nigel Slater is the best example of a writer who makes a conscious effort to use language to try to bridge the gap between sterile, written instructions and the look and feel and taste of the food he presents.

Which leads me to thought number 5, perhaps the success of Master Chef and all the other chefs on television has to do with this idea of learning to cook by cooking along with some one. If you haven't learnt to cook by standing next to someone in their kitchen then perhaps the next best thing is to at least see the process in the comfort of the lounge room. Whilst most television programmes don't necessarily show the whole process they do demonstrate most of the significant steps– how big the vegetable dice should be, how finely the herbs are chopped -– and some of the concepts difficult to put into words like what egg whites look like 'whipped to soft peaks'. And when chefs demonstrate processes and have to actually explain what they are doing they do tend to talk more about why they are using a certain technique and what might go wrong at various stages of the preparation – if only to fill in the time.
Please do not take this grudging acknowledgement as in some way legitimising programmes like Master Chef. On page 191 Bilson quotes Michael Carter (from a paper delivered at Aesthetics of Food symposium, Sydney University, 1998)
A rise in the esteem in which cooks and cooking are held is not in itself fatal. It is the aestheticisation of culinary activities which opens the gates to decadence since it is the aspiration to art which subordinates the nutritional role of food to the demands to spectacle, performance and transgression.
Which pretty much sums up what I think too (and attempted to articulate here ) and just goes to show that having the thoughts isn't much use unless you also have the words to communicate them. (But is 'aestheticisation' a real word?)

*The Pedant in the Kitchen (Julian Barnes, Atlantic Books, London, 2003) pages 56-63 where the author struggles with the photographs in Nigel Slater's Real Cooking.

Plenty. Digressions on food.
Gay Bilson
Lantern, Camberwell, 2004

An apple a day.

The plan for yesterday was to write about what I had been doing (spending a week in San Francisco) and what I had been reading (Plenty by Gay Bilson) but that was before I read the morning paper.
The article which caught my attention was entitled 'Crunch time as apple growers wait on import ruling'. In summary Australian apple growers are expecting to hear soon from the World Trade Organisation as to whether or not they (the WTO) will approve the export of apples from New Zealand to Australia. The article suggests that growers are primarily concerned about the risk of introducing Fire Blight, an infection which is described as 'the foot- and- mouth disease of horticulture', into Australia and the effect this would have on their future.
Like many newspaper articles the information presented raised more questions than it answered so I set out to try and educate myself on this issue.
I am in no way qualified to ague the pros and cons of an international body which regulates trade nor any sort of expert on how that body works. However it appears that in this case the  New Zealanders have 'complained' about the existing 'phytosanitary' measures which Australia applies to the importation of apples from New Zealand. This complaint was made back in August 2007 and it is only now that the WTO is ready to give its findings.(See here for a summary of the goings on.) . The WTO regulations do allow countries to put their case as to why certain products should be restricted and in this case Australia has argued for the present restrictions to remain in force on the basis of biosecurity.
At the moment Australia does allow the importation of apples from Japan and New Zealand and pears from China subject to quarantine policies. Biosecurity Australia is also in the process of considering the importation of apples from China. (China  is the world's largest producer of apples (26 million tonnes in 2006), accounting for around 50% of global apple production, of which they only export about 3%. These figures are taken from Biosecurity Australia's Issues Paper July 2008).

According to the newspaper growers are 'aleady struggling with an oversupply of apples on the domestic market' and apparently we have not imported any apples despite the policies which would allow that to happen. Over the period 2003-2008 Australia exported 3,351,113 kilos of apples but I have no idea what proportion this is of our total apple production (see here).
What I still haven't discovered is why New Zealand wants to export it's apples to Australia. If they have a glut of apples too then obviously they would want to off- load them but why do they imagine Australia would want to buy them? Do they intend to try to sell off their surplus at ridiculous prices? Are they just interested in the principles involved? If the WTO finds in New Zealand's favour then they can export apples to Australia but we don't have to import them. Similarly the claim by Australian apple growers that 'we'll see Chinese apples here by Christmas' is only valid if an Australian food distributor/retailer decides to import them. The Chinese/New Zealanders won't send boat loads of apples just in the hope that someone might buy them?

It appears that the WTO has already communicated its decision to the Australian and New Zealand governments and the gossip is that they have found in favour of New Zealand. As far as I can tell no official announcement will be made  until the Australian government has had the opportunity to review the decision and make any corrections to the data already presented.
Local growers are surely right to be concerned about the possibility of Fire Blight being introduced into this country and the consequences for their business. That New Zealand's complain has required a complex investigation is evidenced by the time it has taken for the matter to be resolved.  I still don't understand why we would need to import apples from anywhere or why anyone would want to but I suppose if we are already bringing in asparagus from Peru and fish from Uganda we might as well add apples from New Zealand and coals from Newcastle to the list as well.

Latest update here

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


It's hard to believe that it is a whole year since I started writing here and I haven't saved the world yet or become famous.

It was last year that I wrote about having seen Food Inc at the Sydney Film Festival and it is only now that it is being released in cinemas here. Talking about this film with friends who are interested in going to see it has made me reflect on what effect, if any, the film has had on me. Certainly I have made a conscious effort this last year to try to make more informed decisions about what we eat as a family, although I would have to admit to not necessarily knowing that much more about the Australian food business than I did before seeing Food Inc.
Last week I attended a session at the Sydney Writer's Festival hosted by Griffith Review and listened to a panel discussion on ethical eating. The panel members – Pauline Nguyen, Tony Barrell, Rebecca Huntley and Sarah Kanowski – were all contributors to the Griffith review Food Chain edition. As with most sessions at the SWF held on a weekday, at lunchtime, the audience were predominantly female, middle aged and middle class. Not surprisingly the panel were talking to the converted and there was much nodding in agreement with what was being said. What concerned me is that simply being earnest and interested is hardly enough. What can you actually DO to make a difference?
Tony Barrell's piece on Nile perch 'How many miles?' I think nicely encapsulates the sort of problems faced by anyone serious about trying to eat ethically and responsibly. The Nile perch on sale in supermarkets in Sydney is fully imported from Uganda. Although the fish isn't native to Lake Victoria it now represents 90% of Uganda's fish exports and the livelihood for fishermen from Kenya and Tanzania. The fish has become so popular that stocks are being depleted, fish processing plants are closing and there is a moratorium on fishing.
As an individual I can choose not to buy Nile perch (I don't think I have ever knowingly eaten any) but that won't stop it being available in the supermarket. Woolworths could make the decision not to sell the stuff, surely customers would buy something else if Nile perch were not available. But what about the poor Tanzanian fisherman – who is going to find him another source on income? And isn't is all too late anyway now that the Nile perch has eaten its way through all the indigenous fish in Lake Victoria?

Too many of the issues surrounding ethical eating involve these damned if you do and damned if you don't scenarios. For example, Walmart is now the biggest seller of organic produce in the USA but giant agribusiness comes at a cost – pollution, food miles, food security, work practises – whether the product is organic or not. (See here for a report on Stonyfield Farm the manufacturers of the organic yogurt featured in Food Inc.). At a household level eating ethically also involves a fair degree of commitment, a certain amount of confusion and can be time consuming and expensive. Just trying to get your head around the multitude of issues is daunting but there are some very good sources of information, like Barry Easterbrook's blog The Politics of the Plate , which at least keep you up to date.
 In the end though I think that all we can do is remain optimistic - if everyone took a small stand, made incremental changes in their eating and buying habits then big changes would be possible. If more people questioned the big supermarkets as to their policies and required them to justify themselves perhaps they would be forced to make some changes themselves. I was interested to discover that Woolworths do in fact have a Sustainability Strategy but I haven't seen it available in any of their stores. In the UK at least consumers do seem to think that supermarkets have a responsibilty to make it easier for consumers to shop ethically (here).

For my part I I have made the commitment not to buy any fresh fruit or vegetables or any meat from the supermarket. Not buying from the supermarket is partly a protest against the control the two big supermarkets have over what Australians eat and partly because I want to support my local retailers and buy real food from real people. This is an easy decision for me to make because I have four independent butchers, five independent green grocers and two weekly growers markets all within easy distance of home, and I don't have to worry over much about the extra I might be paying for the goods that I buy. Not everyone in Sydney is so fortunate.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A meal by any other name

Cartoon from Punch 26 September 1951
English is supposed to be a very rich language so why don't we have more words to describe eating – or at least eating events? Breakfast for example describes the first meal of the day but to say that you have just had breakfast, or indeed that you have just finished breakfasting doesn't give any clue as to what you might have eaten. Similarly lunch, or luncheon in its original form, is usually taken these days to mean the meal taken in the middle of the day. Lunch could be anything from a three course meal to a sandwich. Dinner commonly refers to the main meal of the day so dinner could be lunch but lunch could never be dinner. In other words you could eat your main meal at lunch time but your evening meal could never be called lunch, although you might call it supper. Supper is a word that doesn't seem to be used very much but I understand it to mean a light meal taken in the evening but again this could be anything from cheese on toast or a bowl of soup to a pasta dish.
I don't know enough about other languages to know whether other cultures have more definitive terms which describe not just when but what is eaten. Yum cha as I understand it describes the whole event of eating dim sum but does the term imply when the food is eaten? And what then is Greek Yum Cha which one restaurant proudly advertises? Tapas refers to the way the food is presented rather than any specific food stuff and, as bar food, is available whenever bars are open. Perhaps terms like merenda or merienda (an outdoor meal, a shared meal, a snack during the working day) hold more specific meaning, a clear idea of not just what might be eaten but when, for those who use them.

This ruminating was partly prompted by trying to write a review of Nigel Slater's Tender Volume 1 and thinking about why he might have come up with such an odd title. Briefly Tender is the diary of Slater's experiences with growing vegetables in his London garden with recipe ideas for using them. Why not Nigel Slater's book of the Vegetable Patch or Real Vegie​s? And given that Mr Slater is someone who chooses his words carefully he would not have happened upon tender by accident. As it turns out it is in fact an almost perfect word to use to describe both his relationship with the food he grows and cooks and his role in the garden.
A tender (noun) is a person who tends or waits on another; a person who attends or has charge of something - in this case the tender of the vegetable patch. A tender is also an offer of anything for acceptance, as in the author offering his ideas and observations to his readers.
Tender (adjective) describes something soft or delicate or soft or delicate in texture or consistency, easily broken, cut, compressed ,chewed etc; something needing protection, not hardy – which describes the state of the young vegetables as they grow and often also the cooked vegetable .
Someone who is tender is gentle or sensitive towards or about others, kind, loving, mild, affectionate; careful of the welfare or integrity of people and things, as in the tender loving care Slater lavishes on both his garden and his cooking. And of course he writes tenderly and affectionately too.
As a verb tender means to be affected, softened as in to become tender or make tender – as in cooking. A tenderer is a person or thing which makes something tender – so a cook is a tenderer.
To tender also means to hold forth, to offer, to present for approval, as in to tender an apology or perhaps to tender a book for approval or use.

Do you imagine Nigel lay awake at night thinking about all these connections? I wouldn't put it past him! Anyone who can call a recipe idea 'Squeaking spinach, sizzling bacon', who talks about dishes bubbling 'enticingly', whose ingredients become 'acquainted' and who eats 'supper' regularly and often obviously spends a good deal of his time thinking about the subtleties and meaning of the words he uses.

Read my review of Tender for The Gastronomer's Bookshelf  here.