Wednesday, 19 September 2012

More "real world" than "real food"

Every now and then, the system breaks down. This blog is supposed to be about real food, but sometimes the real world takes over - and I suppose that's the point really. If I had all the time in the world to be a 21st-century hunter-gatherer, I don't even think I would be.

While I admire people like Mark Boyle (see link above), and I appreciate the ideals that he's espousing, it's a way of life that is clearly not for everyone. He represents the extreme, at one end of the spectrum, just as heavily processed food and the industry that creates it represents the opposite end. The reality is that most of us live somewhere in the middle, and this blog is about trying to tip the balance in favour of the Mark Boyles of this world rather than ripping up the food industry, capitalism and all that jazz. The extremes are vitally important, as they allow us to benchmark the moderate, the middle-of-the-road, but neither pole should necessarily be taken as a single, exclusive approach.

You've probably guessed by now that this is all a preamble to saying that I failed the 30-day food challenge. I did spend the whole of last week on a boat in the Adriatic, where (though my Serbo-Croat wasn't good enough to check) the majority of my food came out of the sea close by, but then I came back to the UK with a bump. I've been doing some contracting work, you see, and by dint of my location in Suffolk, that has involved long days travelling in to and out of London, which has left precisely zero time for shopping and cooking - so much for the freedom of being self employed!

Last night, having got home late and sat in front of my computer trying to figure out my expenses, I succumbed to that most "real world" of meals - processed food from the freezer. With a few frozen sausages, some oven chips and a squirt of ketchup, my hunger was sated. You'll forgive me if I don't post a picture.

So, even those of us who try sometimes fail. But the point is that we try. We strive to do the best we can, but sometimes the need to put food on the table for the family by going out and earning the money to pay for it overrides the ability to ensure the quality of that food.

"Do or do not, there is no try", said Master Yoda, but he was wrong. Always try, accept it when you don't succeed, but never give up trying.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

You're eating what now?

Toad in the hole. Try explaining that one to a foreigner. My Norwegian brother-in-law was suitably confused, not helped by the fact that we all resolutely refused to explain the term. I went to the great length of consulting the etymological wiseman, The Word Detective (a site which, on its own, justifies the existence of the internet) to see if he had ever had to explain this curious phrase, but even he seems perplexed.

Here I offer my own definition:
 "toad in the hole", noun. 1. A traditional English dish of sausages cooked in batter. 2. Utter loveliness, with a slight tendency to place consumers in a food coma. 3. Utter repulsiveness, crap served up by misanthropic dinner ladies at schools across the land.

All three definitions hold water, showing once again the importance of what Mikhail Bakhtin referred to as "cultural specificity" - the idea that the meaning of a word is a function not only of the object (in the case of a noun) that it refers to, but also of the cultural background and experiences of the one experiencing (uttering, hearing or reading) that word. In the same way, the term "cheesy", when applied to music, to me means "unutterably bad, shallow, worthy of contempt and apt for immediate disposal", whereas to Mrs Jay it means "glossy, fun, undemanding entertainment, apt for dancing".

Both definitions are true, based on our own opinions. (Bakhtin should not always be trusted - according to legend, much of his writing was lost because of a shortage of cigarette papers in WWII Russia. He smoked it all.)

Back to the toads though. I concocted this little delight with some of my Baylham House sausages, and I must say, it was delightful, although after eating only two of the "toads", I did need to have a little nap.

Isn't she lovely?
However nice it was, it did set me to thinking about school dinners. I went to the sort of school where we were men enough at the age of 11 not to have to run home to Mummy every night, which meant that not only did I have to endure the school canteen (or "refectory", more properly) at lunchtime, but  all the time. Three meals a day of the sort of thing that Ronald McDonald or the Colonel would reject as both too processed and too - well, crap, really.

We boys weren't bothered by that though. Indeed, not only did we eat three meals a day there, but we also found ways to play the system so that we could have 4. It was a simple ruse really, which relied on the kindliness of those who served the slop out: at lunchtime we would push in to the front of the queue in one "ref", gobble down whatever delights were being served there, and hot foot it round to the other end of the hall where a separate serving was taking place. There, with a well-placed compliment, and a sad smile that we hadn't seen our parents in a fortnight, we could cajole the kitchen staff to serve us "poor boarders" another helping.

However bad it may have tasted, it certainly didn't do us any harm though. Vast amounts of fat,  sugar and salt must have been consumed, and our teenaged bodies, by and large, did not balloon out of control. That's probably because we were outdoors most of the time, running around and playing sport - contrary to popular myths about boarding schools, such was the way we passed our time in the absence of television and internet.

It also taught me one of the most important life lessons a boy can learn: always be on good terms with those who cook and serve your food.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

What to do with the old trout?

The trout that was nearly out of date, that is. Smoked trout, all the way from Orford. I was going to opine that it couldn't possibly have been sourced locally, and that I was breaking my own rules due to the fact that it was only processed locally. But then I looked at the website, and it seems that sea trout are quite common off Orford. Who knew? None of you, I'll wager, but you do now, which should make you all feel better about yourselves.

About an hour after I cooked up this little lot, a message came through from my previous post suggesting smoked trout on a bed of braised chard with a poached duck egg. Well, my dear Charlotte, it seems I beat you to it, though I steamed the chard and boiled the eggs. So maybe I didn't. Maybe I should have waited an hour and I would have been overjoyed with the results. In the event, I didn't wait, and was merely delighted.

Delighted, that is, because it was frankly quite random, but it seems to have worked. Smoked trout is one of those things I don't have very often, because Local (National) Supermarket doesn't often stock it. Which just goes to show how I should look a bit harder for my dinner, and Suffolk will prevail. (That's not something you get to say often - "Suffolk will prevail" - unless you're referring to an inter-county competition for the worst rail line in to London.)

So that's smoked trout (local) with duck eggs (local), chard (local), cucumber (local) olives (unlikely to be local unless my barren olive trees in the garden ever decide to get their arses in gear, assuming they have arses) and honey mustard dressing (distinctly unlocal, as it came from Lidl). Not bad, eh?

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Think local? Time to act!

It's amazing what you can learn from reading the local paper. For instance, this week I learned that a small bush caught fire on a slip road on the A14, and that the fire brigade took about 15 minutes to put it out. I also learned that the local Young Farmers Association had a camping weekend in which they managed to avoid setting fire to anything, unlike last year. They were a credit to their parents, apparently. Now that is news gathering at its finest. It's a wonder that they don't have Piers Morgan beating a path to their door.

More usefully, I found out about an organisation called Transition Ipswich, and the People's Community Garden not far from here. Now, Ipswich is not exactly a hot bed of radical activity, so it's something of a relief to me to learn that there are people actively working on issues like climate change in the area, and I went down to their open day to see what was going on. Very impressive it is too - lots of people working together to come up with practical schemes to help local people change the way they live, and interestingly for me, there's a good focus on food.

Don't get me wrong, I don't agree with everything they say. They seem to have a sort of pre-apocalyptic paranoia which, while they will almost certainly be proven correct in the fullness of time, makes them look like those American survivalists who cache weapons and baked beans to defend themselves against the day when the government decides to give them free healthcare. Damned commies.

Anyway, they have a really interesting challenge on the go this month. The idea is that we should try and eat only food produced in a 30 mile radius for the 30 days of September, and that sounded too interesting to ignore. You can cheat a bit, giving yourself 3 wild cards - chocolate, for instance, or tea - that can't be produced locally. I have decided to give it a go, with a further caveat that I'll use up ingredients that I already have in the larder, as throwing stuff away seems to defeat the object of the exercise somewhat.

I have started well, going out to a couple of the farm shops I mentioned in a post last year to get my ingredients for the week. It's a bit of a change for me - I normally plan a menu and buy specifically for that, whereas shopping like this I have little idea of what will be available until I get to the shop, so I have to make it up a bit more.

The other place I discovered is Baylham House Farm, a great rare breeds farm a couple of miles outside town, which, in addition to 1/2 kilo of sausages (£3.50, and worth every penny), provided a morning's entertainment for Master Jay. It does transpire that he is afraid of chickens, which I reckon can't hurt you, but not of goats, animals which are solely driven by food and which will bite, kick and butt you for a small handful of oats. There's obviously a little way to go before I can leave any major survival decisions to him.

So, using up some potatoes I had in the cupboard, and some beans from my friend's allotment, I had a little slap up lunch which you can see below. The sausages were great - lean and peppery, and chunky enough to make me feel that three of them might have been a bit much....

Tonight I have a pie with potatoes and cabbage - total food miles around about 8, by my reckoning.

And I will leave you with a question: what the devil do I do with some chard, smoked trout, and duck eggs?