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.