Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Last orders in the last-chance saloon?

Lord Leveson.
With the Leveson Inquiry report set to be revealed tomorrow – Prime Minister David Cameron received a copy today – there has been a veritable torrent of coverage demanding no statutory regulation of the press.

In the last 24 hours, a cross-party group of more than 80 MPs and peers have written to the Guardian and Telegraph urging no statutory regulation, but calling for self-regulation to be strengthened.

The Daily Mail went into absolute overdrive in mid November, as apoplectic editor in chief Paul Dacre used a whopping 12 pages of a single edition in an attempt to smear Leveson and all those even remotely connected with it.

Yet for some strange reason, it doesn’t seem to be entirely convincing Joe and Joanna Public.

In the past week, a YouGov poll for the Media Standards Trust found that 79% of those polled were in favour of an independent press regulator underpinned by law.

The same poll found that 81% of Daily Mail readers want an independent press regulator established by law.

This, together with the cross-party nature of that open letter, might at least help to put paid to suggestions that views on the issue are governed by political allegiance.

But at the same time, there is a pattern of obfuscation from some sources about just what might happen.

Self regulation patently does not work. Indeed, at present, publications can simply withdraw altogether from the limited process that does exist.

Yet attempts to pretend that independent regulation, underpinned by law, is a synonym for state regulation/censorship are disingenuous – at best.

Plenty of countries have both independent regulation – and a perfectly free press. Denmark is but one example.

And nobody pretends that the bodies that regulate areas of life such as advertising, for instance, are somehow Stalinist extensions of the state, censoring everything.

One argument currently doing the rounds is that the law already exists to deal with cases of illegal practices such as phone hacking.

That is correct.

But Leveson was not set up to look at illegal practices alone. The problems, as I’ve illustrated before (here, for example), go beyond the question of legality.

And indeed, the full title of the inquiry itself rather gives the game away: Leveson Inquiry: culture, practice and ethics of the press.

Little wonder that Dacre has been so vehemently opposed to it all along.

The law as it exists does not cope with all the issues raised. Since we do not have a privacy law, for instance, the invasion of privacy can occur without any serious public interest justification.

And once someone’s privacy has been invaded, then like Pandora’s Box, no amount of legal recourse can restore that privacy. And that, of course, assumes the victim has the wherewithal to launch a legal challenge in the first place.

What is effectively happening here is that elements of the media publish gossip and kiss ‘n’ tells etc – the more salacious the better – because it is profitable. They worry about dealing with any fallout afterwards, when the damage is already done and when their own profits have been made. 

With no legitimate public interest element, what they’re effectively doing is peddling a form of voyeurism.

It would probably be difficult to find anyone who would say that that was ethically justified.

But it’s profitable – or at least, the publications that trade in such stories make money. Some of the press may be struggling to makes ends meet, but some are not. The likes of the Sun and the Daily Mail make tidy sums.

That means that such publications need to pretend that any challenge to their unethical behaviour is an assault on free speech – and we’ve seen that in recent months.

It reached its apotheosis when Rupert Murdoch’s Sun published the picture of a naked Prince Harry – with the Dirty Digger himself claiming that it was a blow for free speech.

It was nothing of the sort. It was simply Murdoch, worried by what Leveson may produce, putting two fingers up at the whole process and probably trying to intimidate the government.

Various senior editors/proprietors have squealed about how it’s ridiculous that they can’t publish what is doing the rounds on social media.

Well, it would make a nice change for some of them to think beyond Twitter as the prime source of news these days.

Here’s some news: Joey Barton’s latest tweeted comment is not news. And scouring social media to report it is not proper journalism either.

The original point, though, is ridiculous. Just because social media is full of people suggesting names of alleged paedophiles doesn’t mean you actually print it – as might have been rather clearly illustrated by recent events.

But the events referred to there illustrate perfectly the hypocrisy of some in this wider argument: they wanted the BBC crucified (possibly even by government) for a problem that a programme created – but reject even the hint of any independent regulation of their own frequently tawdry behaviour.

There has been an accusation that the idea of regulation is beloved of the ‘liberal elite’ that is Murdoch’s great bugbear.

This too is laden with hypocrisy, since the same people who come out with such an argument also like to consider themselves as having power – up to and including as ‘king makers’.

They take on themselves the right to pass judgment on others who are then unable to defend themselves. They make up the rules as they go along, on the prime basis that anything that makes them money either is acceptable or damned well should be.

The Mail, for instance, has taken it on itself to print details of non-criminals’ families, enabling them to be identified, just because it doesn’t approve of some entirely legal action that individuals took – the individuals are usually public service workers, who the Mail particularly loves to vilify, without anything approach balance.

Our press has been caught in a vortex of ratings chasing and has dumbed down in order to better keep up with the chase.

The wider result has been a coarsening of the public discourse as a whole, a celebration of stupidity and an increasingly dubious approach to stories based on chequebook journalism, churnalism, the conflation of editorial and reporting ... and so forth.

The British media has been drinking in the last chance saloon for too long already.

But it’s not simply a case that ‘Something Must Be Done’. In taking serious action, perhaps – just perhaps – proprietors will start to consider real, serious journalism as an option, and make the country’s fourth estate something that’s a genuine force for good.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Marketing at its brightest – the low-fat version

If you ever wanted a single reminder of why, with all its faults, the BBC is still a national treasure, it might well be adverts.

Since, like most other people, I do actually view things on commercial channels, I end up seeing adverts. And while some adverts may be amusing and others merely tedious, some are downright annoying or even nauseating.

Take Flora Cuisine, a relatively new product from Unilever, which is apparently perfect for “frying, sautéing & making sauces”, as well as baking and roasting and probably just about anything else.

It has “45% less saturated fat than olive oil”, proclaims the producer in advertising materials.

Well wow. Perhaps if saturated fat was actually a problem, that might be worth noting. But it isn’t.

And olive is actively good for you (like other natural fats). And, of course, it's actually natural.

It’s equally no coincidence that, on it’s own bragging brand page about Flora Cuisine, the manufacturer includes nutritional data – but not the details of what actually goes into the product.

The most is says is that: “Flora Cuisine is a healthy cooking liquid that’s made from a blend of linseed, rapeseed and sunflower oils.”

But that’s not all it contains, is it, Unilever? Let’s look what else is in that curvaceous plastic bottle, courtesy of

Vegetable Oils (Sunflower Seed Oil, Rapeseed Oil, Linseed Oil), Water, Salt (0.9%), Emulsifiers (Soy Bean Lecithin, Polysorbate 60), Soy Protein, Stabilisers (Guar and Xanthan Gums), Colour (Beta-Carotene), Preservative (Potassium Sorbate), Citric Acid, Flavourings, Vitamins (A, D).”

Now, for the sake of being at least a little bit scrupulous in approach, let’s examine the ingredients in a bottle of olive oil.

“Olive oil.”

But,  claims Unilever of Flora Cuisine, “it really is the healthier approach to everyday cooking." Well, Unilever, some would disagree.

It’s at this point that I’m going to ask your forgiveness in advance. Because here is a link to an article from yesterday’s Daily Mail – but it is very much worth a read.

It quotes a doctor – Dr Aseem Malhotra, the lead cardiologist of the National Obesity Forum, no less – on the small matter of saturated fat and health, and artificial fat substitutes.

Most of what he’s saying has been acknowledged by some people for some time, but it’s good to finally see the message finally drifting through into more mainstream media.

People like Dr Aseem Malhotra, together with Dr John Briffa – and many others – would be among those disagreeing with Unilever’s health claims.

According to Dr Malhotra, “the whole saturated fat argument has been ridiculously overhyped.”

He quotes a 2010 review of studies, which “revealed no consistent evidence linking saturated fat and cardiovascular disease.”

Further, he told the Mail: “Really strong data is increasingly showing that the saturated fat from natural dairy products may even be beneficial in reducing heart attacks.”

And he continued: “Other research, by Dr Dariush Mozaffarian from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, found that people with higher levels of the trans-palmitoleic fatty acid (found mainly in dairy products) in their blood were about 60% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes over the next 20 years than those with the lowest levels.”

‘Dairy produce’, you say, doctor? Is that the ‘French Paradox’ we can see coming into view?

Because according to the great saturated fat con, the French should have the highest rates of heart disease in the world, because they’re the biggest consumers of dairy produce in the world and, in the south west of the country, they also produce (and consume) such glories as duck confit and foie gras, which are seriously high-fat foods.

But no, they’re not dying from heart disease more than people in the UK. In fact, the figures are lower.

Anyway, if you think that Flora Cuisine – its very name attempting to imbue it with some class – is bad, then let’s have a look at another of Unilever’s current portfolio; Stork Baking Liquid.

Now, I have grumped about the former since I first saw it advertised. I hadn’t seen the latter until the weekend. Never mind grumping about it, I wondered if I was going to vomit.

Let’s have a look at the ingredients here (again taken from

“Seed Oils (Sunflower Oil, Rapeseed Oil), Water, Salt (0.9%), Emulsifiers (Soya Bean Lecithin, Polysorbate 60), Soy Protein, Stabilisers (Guar Gum, Xanthan Gum), Colour (Beta-Carotene), Preservative (Potassium Sorbate), Citric Acid, Flavourings, Vitamins (A&D).”

So, did you spot it too?

The only difference between this product and the Flora Cuisine is in the type of oils used – seed oils as opposed to vegetable oils. Everything else is identical. Mind, the size of the bottle and even the shape of the bottles are too. So perhaps there’s little to be surprised about.

Not that the price is the same.

According to, the Flora Cuisine is usually £1.98 for a 500ml bottle or 20p per 100ml. It’s currently on offer at 99p for a bottle.

That compares with £1.59 for a 500ml bottle of the Stork Baking Liquid (32p per 100ml).

So when not being sold under a special offer, the Flora Cuisine will be the more expensive of the two products – now why would that be?

Is that because it’s being marketed as a more 'sophisticated' product?

After all, the marketing is based on health, uses a word like ‘cuisine’ and, in making the claims about saturated fat the way that it does, links itself to olive oil and presumably is intended to appeal to those who would at least consider using olive oil.

Further, via the Flora brand website, we can see that “Michelin starred chef Jean Christophe Novelli has created some tasty recipes for you to try.”

Actually, when you click a link or two, it’s clear they’re not actually his creations, but simply ones that he’s picked that were sent in by members of the public and are now in a cookbook.

The marketing approach to the Stork Baking Liquid is different. On the Stork website, there’s a sense of the retro; much more of home baking – all of which ties in neatly with the current trend for at least claiming that ‘baking is back’, plus retro design.

But since we’re being very even-handed about this, let’s check the ingredients in the best possible fat for baking – butter.


Come on now: hands up who really wants to eat a cake that’s been baked using a liquid fat?

One simply finds oneself wondering whether, like that icon of artificial US fats, Crisco, these two also double as an effective lubricant for anal sex.

Monday, 26 November 2012

The world's my oyster

Oysters: top –rock; bottom – native.
There are times that we seem to be so scared of random dangers that we allow ourselves – or others – not to experience life fully.

Risk can be rewarding.

But we live in a society where companies tell us that we need to buy antibacterial agents to clean every surface – and then other antibacterial agents to clean our hands, and then still more antibacterial products to clean the surfaces that we touched while reaching to wash our hands with those other antibacterial products.

And different companies (or possibly the same ones) also tell us to buy yogurt drinks to put bacteria back into our bodies.

Presumably, they don’t all waste money on developing, producing and then marketing these products – there is a market for them.

So it’s the old chicken and egg question as to which came first: the fear – or the products that milk that fear.

Not that fear is restricted to what we buy in the shops: it’s also part of what people talk about when they condemn the ’elf ‘n’ safety culture.

Health and safety itself isn’t a problem – people dying or becoming ill because of their work, for instance, is something that any sane person would want to avoid.

The problem, however, is in the culture that uses health and safety as an excuse for not doing something – whether because the person or organisation/company concerned can’t be arsed, or because of a fear of litigation.

And of course fear can also be perfectly healthy and sane – if it’s a block on our doing something genuinely dangerous.

But there is a sense in today’s UK that we seem to be afraid of our own shadows sometimes – in spite of reality. Whether we like the idea of empire or not, Britain punched massively above its weight in creating one – and it didn’t do it on the basis of fear.

Yet today, people are so scared of child abuse, for instance, that they cocoon their children – despite ‘stranger danger’ being so, so, so much less rare than abuse in the home or by trusted, known individuals, they ‘prefer’ to be educated by sensationalist headlines than by facts.

Or there’s the fear-related behaviour mentioned at the top of this piece, whereby people buy those products (presumably) because they don’t understand that natural ones are better or that there is a strengthening of antibiotic resistance that may be at least partly caused by the rise in use of antibacterials in everything from liquid soaps to chopping boards.

On the latter, in Bad Food Britain, Joanna Blythman cites a 1994 study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which showed that bacteria spreads more quickly on plastic chopping boards than on wood.

There’s a reason that beech is the idea wood for a chopping board – it has natural ‘antibacterial’ properties.

Yet even some councils still try to insist that food outlets use plastic chopping boards instead of wooden ones.

But many of us are affected by some form of fear – and I’m far from being an exception to that.

Back in the dim and distant past, I could eat mussels. I quite liked them too, even though this was my pre-foodie days.

However, after two successive incidents, where I was violently ill after eating them, I was rather put off.

Yet later, when I’d become really interested in and in love with real food, I found myself regretting that I had never tasted oysters – and never would.

That thought nagged away for years. I discussed it with Vikki, my Broadway Market fishmonger, who suggested that oysters in general are cleaner than mussels, and that farmed ones would be pretty safe.

This point was mulled.

A month or two ago, I realised that a supplement I’m taking has a warning about not being suitable for anyone with a shellfish allergy – but I can take it with no problem.

So in August, in Collioure, I decided to test this out: I planned to eat one – or more – at a lunchtime. The time was important, so that if I was going to be sick, it would not happen suddenly, when I was in bed in the middle of the night.

But that plan never came to fruition.

Then, with my birthday hoving into view – and it’s a big one – I settled on Corrigan’s of Mayfair for the celebratory dinner. Looking at the menu, The Other Half commented that there was a certain emphasis on oysters.

Okay, not as much as Richard Corrigan’s Bentley’s, which is famous for them; but yes, I had noticed it.

While in one sense having a first taste of something so decadent as an oyster on my half century would have been quite a wonderful way to mark it, I didn’t want to risk having the runs in the middle of the night of my birthday.

There were options. There’s a stall that does them on Broadway Market these days. There’s also a small, independent coffee chop/café just off Columbia Road that does them too on a Sunday morning on a rickety wooden table.

And yesterday, when we pottered down there to go Christmas decoration hunting, I resolved to hunt a new taste experience too.

The very first ever taste.
In the event, I had two. One was a native – rounder and flatter shell – with just a squeeze of fresh lemon. The second was a rock oyster – more of a tear shape, and with the characteristic craggy shell – served with a hint of shallot vinaigrette.

It seems that some people don’t take to them instantly – like tobacco or alcohol, it takes time. I loved them straight away.

My god: they were wonderful. A clear, crisp, fresh taste of the sea.

I wanted more but decided not to risk it.

Yet was that going to be my one and only taste of them?

The afternoon ticked by. I was acutely conscious of every single tiny rumble or comment from my gut.

Please, please be okay.

It was.

I can eat oysters again – and perhaps other shellfish too.

Funnily enough, I mentioned it to a group of colleagues today: the one who I’d discussed it with before – a fellow foodie – was delighted for me, but still (a tad ironically) described it as “shellfish roulette”.

Others almost shivered and expressed the view that what I’d done was far too much of a risk.

See what I mean about fear running your life?

But this isn’t the end of this story.

Way back when I was living on my own in the north west of England, in my twenties, I went for close on a decade without going on holiday.

After moving south for work, and lodging for 18 months with my parents – who were then in Reading, from where I commuted daily to London to sell books to office workers – they dragged me away for a frankly rather strained fortnight in Torquay.

Why no holidays?

Well, I’ve always said that it was the lack of money. And to a large extent, that’s very true. I was (mostly) working, but I was always on very low pay.

But I was also frightened.

From travel agents I got brochures – for skiing trips and for summers in Ibiza. I took them home and spent hours looking at them. They seemed to be filled with young people – just like me – having a good time.

But I was scared. Oh, I was shy and really rather gauche when it came to dealing with my own peers. Very serious, I never knew how to party.

And so I never went any further than gazing longingly at the glossy pages: and then setting them quietly to one side and tying to forget them; only to repeat the exercise with each new season.

A decade ago, I finally went through an adolescence. Better late than never. The cutting free: the fledging – god alone knows how The Other Half put up with it.

Hanging over me ever since, though, has been this fear and this memory of avoiding adventure, of avoiding travel. And I’ve wanted to correct it for a long time.

Next year, I am going to exactly that.

It might not be exotic (whatever that means), but I will travel, outside the UK, on my own.

There are already some plans in place. I’m exhilarated – but nervous at the same time.

But I will do it.

We have one life – and we really shouldn’t waste any of the opportunities that we have. And if we grasp the nettle of our fear later in that life rather than early, then that has to be better than never at all.

Risk can be rewarding.


Watch this space.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Memories of pies past

Saturday evening. The dishes had all been cleared away and we were sitting in the living room watching The Generation Game.

My mother was at the back of the room, seated at the table. A folded tablecloth was spread her end of the old, dark wooden dining table, folded away now.

In front of her, a chopping board and a white enamel tin, trimmed with a narrow blue stripe on the rim.

Slowly, methodically and laboriously she was cutting up beef; excising the cartilage and any gristle. And probably a lot of the fat too.

It was almost a surgical procedure, requiring huge concentration. And it always had the aura of being a chore.

But the following day, together with lamb’s kidneys, it would be cooked into steak and kidney; rich and tender, with an unctuously sweet gravy, served with a piece of a golden, crispy disc of shortcrust pastry.

It’s amusing to think that my mother deconstructed a steak and kidney pie – I have no idea, to this day, why she did it, but it is one of those dishes that I think back on with real fondness.

Yet food for her always had the element of a chore; it was ‘a duty’. And in many ways I’m grateful that she considered it such – she looked after us seriously, and on a very limited budget.

I simply wish that she’d have been able to take more joy in it – and that she’d passed on some of her knowledge.

Not that’s not still well and truly in the land of the living. But while we’ve slowly danced around the core issues in recent years, I still find the questions at the heart of the matter hard to ask.

Who had first deconstructed that dish? Her or her mother before her? And why?

She did make pies. I remember – with equal fondness – her pork pies. Cutting and trimming the pork would take at least as long, but these were Saturday lunchtime pies.

She hated onion, so would only add a little from a box of Whitworths dried, rehydrated in boiling water, to the pork and grated potato – I have no idea what else apart from the obvious seasonings.

There’d be two of these joys. The second would be finishing cooking as we dived into the first, with decent bread and butter on the side.

When I tried to reproduce one a few years ago, it was dry beyond belief. I haven’t repeated the experiment – mostly because I want to hold on to the memory, of which dryness holds no part.

But all this struck me again yesterday, as I stood in the kitchen in the early afternoon, cutting beef and removing the cartilage and gristle.

I was not as precise as my mother – well, not quite. But then it was not a chore. And the aim was not something deconstructed, but something retro: a steak and mushroom pie, straight out of the pages of the Hairy Bikers’ pie bible.

I had asked Matthew for chuck steak, but in keeping with these times, he didn’t have such a specific cut, instead offering me ‘braising steak’.

At home, I diced it and got rid of the gristle, then browned it in fat.

Now this was my first departure from the recipe. The book says, on the one hand, that it’s a real “heritage” dish, but then says to use an “oil”.

I used lard. Much more “heritage”.

When the meat was browned, it was removed to a dish and replaced in the pan with thinly sliced onion and three cloves of finely chopped garlic. These were then gently browned.

Now the recipe called for the meat to be decanted into a casserole dish and sprinkled with plain flour. But that means that the flour is not cooked through.

So instead, I added a heaped tablespoon of plain flour to the onion when it had softened, allowing it to cook through for a minute, before starting to add red wine and deglaze.

From then on, of course, it was a matter of playing it by ear, until it had reached a desired consistency. Approximately 250g of beef stock went into the mix too.

Once this was fine, it all went into a casserole, was brought to the boil on the hob, then lidded and popped it into an oven (130˚C fan) for an hour and a half.

Trust me – the smells were divine. But you do have to switch the oven on. I set the temperature and then forgot to turn the damned thing on – distracted by a call at the door.

Fortunately, it was simply a matter of things being delayed, not ruined. But I still felt like smacking my own head in annoyance.

Anyway, once that was done, approximately 250g chestnut mushrooms, quartered, were added – and it went back into the oven for a further half an hour.

In the meantime, it was a chance to get on with the pastry.

We’re talking 400g plain flour to 250g butter, plus one large egg – approximately.

I used 300g flour – and the relevant proportions of the other. Use whatever cold water you need to bring it together – add gradually.

Once mixed, it was wrapped in cling film and popped in the fridge.

Once the filling was cooked it needs to be allowed to cool. Reset the oven to 190˚C (fan).

When the filling is cool, the pastry is rolled and a tin lined.

It’s with the beef, onion and mushroom mix. The rim is brushed with beaten egg and then placed on top.  Once trimmed, glazed with more of the beaten egg, and with a couple of cuts in the top, it’s returned to the re-heated oven for half an hour.

For me, pies are a discovery. And they are also a learning experience. They’re very much an English thing too – and I am learning to increasingly love them and understand them as part of my own heritage.

But when I think back to my mother, surgically chopping meat, I still struggle to unite these culinary discoveries and memories of pies past. Or rather, with the processes that led to those pies of yore.

I don't think my pie was as neat as my mother's – and I still make the error of rolling it so thin that it tends to collapse a bit when I'm serving. And I could do with a proper pie slice.

But do you know what? I really don't think that those are the cardinal issues. Because at the end of the day, I get pleasure and a sense of acheivement from making a pie – and most important of all, it's good to eat.

Friday, 23 November 2012

TV dinners

Bad cop, inheritor of Escoffier, and a teddy bear gourmand.
In the dim and distant past, when TV really was the centre of my childhood home's entertainment, I used to yearn for the lowering evenings that brought with them the autumn season.

But for most of my adulthood, television has played a considerably less important role.

There have been exceptions: Babylon 5, West Wing and a few more. But the advent of ‘reality TV’ was enough to make me glad I wasn’t addicted to the box in the corner.

But this autumn, there has been a glut of food scheduling that’s had me glued to my seat – and thankfully it’s not all been Nigella flirting with the camera and wearing white denim to cook beetroot.

Last year, entirely by accident, I happened on a reality show that I was utterly transfixed by – and this time, I was back right at the start: Masterchef: The Professionals.

Now I dislike the version of Masterchef that involves John Torode and Gregg Wallace. First, it isn’t the Masterchef I remember with a certain fondness from years gone by, where Lloyd Grossman hosted, in calming, mid-Atlantic tones, as three amateur cooks competed in a very gentle manner.

It’s odd that I remember that with such fondness, since it was on during a time before I had any real interest in or love of food myself.

But it’s also exactly the sort of thing that I don’t like about reality TV, with its tone of shouty aggression.

This version sees Wallace transformed into a sort of teddy bear gourmand, with Monica Galetti, the senior sous chef at Michel Roux Jr’s Le Gavroche, playing a bad cop role alongside him in the early stages of the competition.

And then, of course, there is Roux Jr himself, for whom all the contestants want to cook.

It’s grown-up telly that doesn’t feel the need to pander to sensationalism.

Criticism is dished out properly and fairly, while Roux Jr can also be seen coaching young chefs, giving tips and being encouraging.

Okay, there’s a bit of gurning from all three presenters, but this is ultimately about real, serious skills.

Which also means that it’s downright educative – and it’s inspirational too. Indeed, last year’s series was exactly what made me want to learn to lay out a plate of food better than a dollop here, a dollop there.

Only last week, I picked up a method of cooking pheasant, sautéing breast very gently in lots of butter. And as I found out last night, it works.

This is top telly, and something that I look forward to for the four nights a week that it currently occupies a slot on the goggle box.

But Masterchef: The Professionals has not been the only foodie programming in recent weeks.

There was also Escoffier: Britain’s first master chef, which was introduced – appropriately – by Michel Roux Jr.

It proved an interesting look at the great man – perhaps particularly in terms of his creation of the brigade system of service in restaurants.

And it was also a reminder of just how much the style of Roux Jr – and his father and uncle – is influenced by that kind of classic French cuisine.

How do you eat your jelly babies?
Nigel Slater’s Life is Sweets was a bittersweet trip down a sticky memory lane for England’s answer to Proust. There is simply nobody else on these shores who so wonderfully writes about food and memory.

Seeing old packets and wrappers brought an instant shot of nostalgia, even though I don’t personally have the same sense of sweets as having been at the heart of my own childhood as Slater clearly does.

But I do have childhood memories around visits to the sweet shop (or primarily the newsagent), and as usual with Slater, it had an emotional power that rang completely true even if you cannot identify 100% with his own experiences.

Calf's Head & Coffee: The Golden Age of English Food, gave Stefan Gates the chance to actually cook a calf’s head – which was interesting, although I won’t be trying it myself any time soon.

But this followed his rather astonishing claim that we are in the midst of a British food renaissance – a claim made, without any hint of his tongue being in his cheek, while standing in a supermarket.

‘Ah,” I thought. ‘Here we go again, with the sort of wild delusions that Joanna Blythman lambasts in Bad Food Britain.’

While it is most certainly true that the restaurant scene – particularly in cities – has improved massively in recent years, it’s difficult to believe in any sort of wholesale improvement when the UK consumes more ready meals than the whole of the rest of Europe put together.

Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner gave Clarissa Dickson Wright the chance to explore the history of our three main meals across three episodes.

Presumably filmed before she decided that Leicester was frightening and not ‘her’ England, there’s a certain irony then in her discussion of the origins of the cooked breakfast going back to religious rules, given that her beloved Catholic church has, in many parts of the UK, been saved by the arrival of migrants.

A couple of particularly fascinating aspects of this trio of programmes was learning that eggs were, a long time ago, roasted in the shell in the ashes of a fire – and also that the first reference to a soft-boiled egg anywhere in literature is in Jane Austen’s Emma, while Northanger Abbery actually references brioche.

It’s also well worth noting that our habit of drinking beer with breakfast had changed iby the 1620s – replaced by the arrival of coffee. In other words, contrary to what some may imagine, Starbucks did not introduce coffee to these shores.

So, for once, it’s been a delight to sit in front of the television and lap up a mixed menu of foodie treats.

And with iPlayer around, there's still time to watch some of these gems.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Notes from Brighton

Having dispensed with that educative visit to the Royal Pavilion, last weekend’s Brighton trip plunged into the rhythm of work and the slightly odd aspect of living away from home while not on holiday.

Work on Saturday meant that I didn’t get chance for lunch until close to four in the afternoon. By that time, with the staff dinner only about four hours away, I didn’t want to eat much – but fodder was required.

Standing outside my hotel, the smell of fish and chips drifted to my nostrils. That and the malt vinegar.

A tray of chips, freshly fried and drizzled with the holy combination of malt vinegar and salt, seemed the obvious solution.

It took a while to be served, as an entire hen party queued for sustenance, with one or two behaving really rather rudely to the young man – almost certainly low paid – who was trying to get their orders filled as quickly as possible, and even though he was clearly going as quickly as was possible.

And as I made an effort to stare down the particularly rude one, who happened to be nearest me, I couldn’t help but notice one of the older women with the group.

It’s well past 11 November, but she was wearing a poppy on her coat, making a winning combination with the deely boppers atop her bonce.

This particular one – a Crystal Buckley Poppy Brooch from the Royal British Legion shop – has the royal seal of approval apparently, because the Duchess of Cambridge has worn a larger version.

A hen party, deely boppers and a bling poppy: It seemed an odd way to remember the young men who died in the Flanders mud. What would Wilfred Owen have made of it all? Or Erich Maria Remarque, for that matter.

It was a classy as the shop window proclaiming: ‘We heart vajazzles’.
The chips, when they came, were eaten standing up, outside and gazing across the promenade to the sea.

And like that, it’s difficult to imagine anything much better.

Later that evening, a small group of us headed to one of the town’s two Zizzi’s, a chain of Italian restaurants.

Now I’m not generally enamoured of chains; Brasserie Blanc is the exception, but long-time readers here may remember the fun and games we had at a similar staff get together at Piccolino in Bristol two years ago (which did have a resolution).

Just as I would always look for an independent coffee shop over one of the chains, so I like to find independent eateries. But I don’t do the bookings – and my attitude toward food is not the dominant one.

So. Zizzi’s.

Well, I was very pleasantly surprised.

I started with arancini, the Sicilian speciality of mini risotto balls, packed with mozzarella and peas as well as the rice, then breadcrumbed and deep fried.

Then came with a tomato and chilli dipping sauce, and the inevitable pile of rocket.

My nearest fellow diner shared one of the arancini with me, swapping it for a generous half a dozen or so calamari, thus giving me the rare chance to taste two starters.

And it was very enjoyable; with well-balanced flavours and textures.

Next up, a dish of penne alla vodkapasta quills, paired with king prawns and peas, and a creamy tomato sauce with a hit of vodka and chilli.

To be honest, I never quite ‘got’ the vodka part of it, but the rest was tasty enough, if predictably there was far too much for me.

But the real surprise was dessert. Feeling unusually like a change from ice cream or sorbet, I opted for the tiramisu – and a good choice it was too, turning out to be light as a feather.

I let others select the wine and we had a New Zealand chardonnay that was light enough on the palate.

It wasn’t the greatest meal I’ll ever have. Yet in its consistency and balance, it was ultimately better than that at English’s the day before.

You really never can tell what you’re going to find.