Food Stuff

Fat Tuesday, No Pancake

So, today is Fat Tuesday! Mardi Gras, if you prefer, or Pancake Day here in Britain.

I don’t know about you but pancakes are one of those foods which you imagine are better than they actually are. Fried batter with raw lemon juice and white sugar. Yum. Like you could eat any of those ingredients on its own, in quantity, with relish.

In my youth, I vaguely remember an eatery chain dedicated to pancakes. What was it called? Pancake Hut? Pancakes R We? Flat Batter Fry House? I honestly don’t remember. Inside, the menu was almost entirely pancakes. You chose a savoury filling for the main course and a sweet filling for dessert. I think the savoury ones were stuff like chilli con carne, ratatouille or fried beans; the sweets were predominantly stewed fruits with ice cream on top. It was somewhere to take your girlfriend when you wanted to impress her without much money. We were young, see!

Well, much like Christmas mornings and Hallowe’en, Pancake Day hasn’t a lot of traction without kids about the house. I think we may forgo them this time. We have some venison meatballs in the freezer and I might do a wild mushroom and shallots gravy, some parsnip mash and lightly steamed cavolo nero. Enjoy your pancakes!

image: detail from The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel, the elder (1559)


Think on: Does any cheese complement a tomato?

The UK’s popular, and probably populist, newspaper, The Sun, states, following a poll of its readers, that a fraction above 62% of them would vote Leave if there was a second referendum on Brexit. Quelle surprise, as they may say in Brussels.

Polls are silly and I don’t like them, so much so that I might respond to any in a mischievous and inconsistent way just to subvert them. Am I alone in this? Let’s take a poll….

Seriously, I wondered if any of our other esteemed papers had instigated their own agenda driven readers’ polls. I didn’t find any but stumbled across a YouGov analysis of different paperstypical reader. It was all pretty banal until I read,

“A Daily Mail reader enjoys eating cheese and tomato sandwiches…”

Now I’m not saying reverse logic can apply and that knowing your character traits can point you towards the appropriate newspaper but, really, is there any way I can pick up the Daily Mail knowing this?

In my world, sliced tomatoes have no business between two slices of bread anymore than say a sliced lemon does (by all means try one and let me know). But then with cheese?!

I know, I know, the pairing of Cheese and tomato, have history – but how on Earth did that happen?

As usual, answers on a postcard, please, as we used to say….

YouGov Poll on UK newspaper readerships (via The Guardian) – old news

Fishless January

It seems a bit cruel to decree this a month in which we must abstain from alcohol AND meat when most of us are struggling to give up CHOCOLATE.

It’s staggering to read there are now probably 3.5 million UK citizens who identify as vegans. This is about 7% of all British men, women and children. Though, significantly, the motive has shifted from mainly cruelty concerns in farming to personal health benefits and awareness of climate change, and given a tremendous lift by social media and following celebrity lifestyles.

I’ve received a bulletin email from my supermarket of choice, Waitrose, announcing a launch of their “Fishless Fingers“. Presumably it’s aimed at people who shamefully admire fish fingers but wouldn’t eat fish. This is, surely, imitation-alternative gone too far; the food equivalent of jumping the shark.

I remember the debates back in the 70s as to what part of the fish their fingers actually came from. Today, I find that their history goes way back to 1900, and the commercial product gained popularity in Britain in the 50s. Clarence Birdseye, the doyen of frozen foods, first marketed them as “herring savouries” though public opinion preferred cod fish, so he dreamt up instead “battered cod pieces” which sounds like the aftermath of a terrible fishing accident. His employees rescued the day in an opinion poll, considering “fish fingers” to be the most attractive marketing name.

I’m sure they used to be a way to get young kids to eat fish – which was considered as “brain food”, benefiting their developing intelligence. However, more recently, and with improved quality, it has found favour with adults as a convenient and easier way of packing fish into a sandwich. Hence, I suspect, the necessity to invent the Fishless Finger alternative.

Beyond the year 2050, when we’re all vegan, what will future generations who won’t have known meat make of the term, Fishless Fingers? Or will it be just a flash in the pan?

Sex Words

With luck, our forthcoming house move will happen in the new year and I am beginning to look at home improvement and gardening projects more and more. Only this morning I looked into how to wire up a wall-mounted TV above a fireplace before moving onto asparagus beds. In our allotment years, we had inherited an asparagus bed from previous tenants and the fresh shoots, cut, cooked and eaten within a half hour, were so divine, a new bed is at the top of the list of gardening endeavours.

I hadn’t realised asparagus is sexed. That is to say there are male and female plants, the females bear fruit while the males push up more spears, and are more desirable to cooks. Of course, I then remembered about the holly and hunting at this time of year for red berry bearing twigs to make Christmas wreaths – the female plant again bears the fruit.

The British don’t really think about gender beyond the animal kingdom and even within it, they tend to make crazy assumptions: how many readily assume any cat is a “she” while any dog is a “he”. I remember listening to a man wax fondly about his banger of a car. It was “she’s a good little runner; she doesn’t like hills as much as she once did though; I can still get a good many miles out of her for a gallon…” etc. while I’m thinking “it’s a car: bits of metal, rubber and plastic”. Fair enough, I’ve never been one for cars.

When learning Spanish as a “foreign language”, or French or Italian, the native English speaker will have some trouble with gendered words. Not only are we required to use the correct grammatical article before the noun, and the correct adjective form after, but we trouble our logical minds with why certain things are masculine or feminine in the first place. For example, why is a man’s jacket (una chaqueta) female and a woman’s dress (un vestido) male?

I suspect the problem arises with our chronic presumption about gender assigned characteristics. A woman can wear a jacket and a man a dress. For native speakers learning their words from birth, there isn’t a problem; it is what it is (I believe this is a secret to learning new languages too – don’t over analyse, just accept it).

Sorry if I’ve misled you with the title. Did you know asparagus is considered to be an aphrodisiac? El afrodisíaco, in Spanish, even though Aphrodite was a goddess? Don’t over analyse!

He regresado

As you guessed, I have been away on a short break. They do have internet in Spain but I choose not to indulge in normal habits on a break. Ironically, even my daily Spanish lessons (Duolingo) were put on hold.

In the Province of Granada in southern Spain, it appears that complimentary tapas is obligatory in bars when you order a drink. It’s certainly the case you don’t have to ask; you simply order a cerveza or a vino tinto or any round of drinks, and a few minutes after they arrive, the patron presents you with a snack. This varies between a humble baked potato with garlicky mayonnaise to finger-licking sticky kebabs or grilled, spicy chorizo and morcilla, a melt-in-the-mouth black pudding.

I used to think you couldn’t beat a traditional English pub but now I’d settle for a Province of Granada bar. It’s a lovely touch and for two beers, you won’t want for lunch.

Though tapas is available elsewhere in Spain, I don’t think it’s complimentary. In Seville last year, we had to order it separately and there wasn’t the element of treat or surprise. I tried to image it happening in English pubs but all I thought of was a bowl of peanuts and pork scratchings.

Bakery Fakery

Amongst my news feed is a finding that from 19 supermarket loaves marketed as “sourdough”, only 4 were identified as genuine. The rest contained yeast which, as anyone who knows sourdough, is like putting feathers on a pig and calling it chicken.

But is anyone surprised about the loaf fakery? To be honest, if a loaf looks good, feels good and proves to be tasty, they can call it what they like as far as I’m concerned. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and when they said, once you’ve tried sourdough, there’s no going back, they were wrong. As fabulous as sourdough is, and it is, variety still remains the spice of life and other breads are just as exciting.

So, yes, a slap on the wrists of all those naughty, cynical supermarkets but come on people, teach yourselves discernment.

Thinking about it, bread is probably my favourite food of all time. You know those restaurants which give you a basket of bread samples while you wait for your order. With luck, there might be sun-dried tomato bread, some bread infused with herby flavours, or seeded bread and even fruity breads. I eat the lot. When the waiter comes for the order, I sometimes feel like saying, forget the starters, just bring me another plate of those fine breads, my good fellow! (because that’s how we speak in England, in restaurants, don’t you know?)

Thinking some more, I used to have a go at baking my own. Maybe I ought to get back into that too.

image by Helena Yankovska via

The Great British Fake-off

A Bit of Englishness

In Winter months, on occasional weekends, we like to have a traditional roast in a country pub: moist, pink beef slices, roast potatoes, baked root vegetables, sour red cabbage, cauliflower cheese, a Yorkshire pudding and gravy. Delicious, bit really it’s all an excuse to sit in a pub on an afternoon and enjoy a decent English ale.

When the warmer weather comes, albeit unreliably and all too brief, a roast isn’t always agreeable, but the pint still beckons. Our considerations turned to the Ploughman’s Lunch, and here’s the thing: pubs don’t seem to be doing them much any more. Not around here, anyway. It’s either gastropub menus or sandwiches.

This lunchtime, we tried out the pub in the Cotswold village of Withington, about nine miles from us, though this was our first visit. Things were looking up as we entered the car park and found parking under some trees, out of the sun. We walked through the open garden which had plenty of tables, many unoccupied, and almost all with wide parasols. Inside the quaint, old building, on top of the bar, there was a small chalkboard on which was written: PLOUGHMAN’S LUNCHES – Stilton & cheddar or Ham & beef.

We sat in the garden, a table on the lawn by a babbling stream. The sun shone in a clear sky but the breeze was cool and gentle. A church wedding was in process – we’d seen it on coming into the village – and the church bells rang. Somewhere behind us, through some trees, there was a tennis court and when the bells paused, they were replaced by the softer puck, puck, puck of a tennis match.

The only thing the scene lacked was a vicar strolling along the lane and a bobby on a bicycle.

If only every day could be like this.

photograph: Pinterest

Compound Interest

You know that trick about Compound Interest? You start early, put a modest amount away regularly and then some years later, you see what you have and find it’s quite an impressive amount, and accumulated relatively painlessly.

Then you kick yourself, wishing you’d put a little more away and started even earlier, instead of blowing it on silly things like magazines and take-out coffees and designer label jeans. My own stupid awakening has shown me I could have paid off my mortgage a decade ago and be retired by now. Hindsight, eh? Never mind.

I think I’m becoming aware of other things which act not unlike compound interest but in an intellectual sense rather than a financial one. Reading has to be the most profound and obvious of these. Since I was about sixteen, I’ve nearly always had a book on hand, reading. I wouldn’t say I’m an avid reader and I’m definitely not a fast reader, rather a continuous and steady one. I think my tastes have been broad; I tend to mix it up, avoid getting into genres or sticking with a particular writer’s oeuvre to exhaustion; it’s been a varied habit. And it has taken on the character of a habitual endeavour. Often I can’t remember the books I’ve read, can’t recall the story precisely or its conclusion. But I do remember most of the best details; they seem to embed themselves automatically in my subconscious. I’m sure it’s the same for most people who read.

Lately, I’m becoming aware of the benefits of a longterm reading habit. Knowledge, wisdom, facts and ideas seem to crystallise and form an interconnecting whole. It’s a bit like reaching for an ingredient whilst cooking and finding it close at hand. It feels quite wonderful.

In its own way too, cooking is an art and a life skill acquired with a modicum of effort, regularly over time. I’ve always liked to cook; funnily enough, I enjoyed cooking probably before I enjoyed eating; I used to be a fussy eater as a kid. Without much effort, I now have enough confidence to prepare a good range of meals without recourse to recipes, have an understanding of food pairings, flavours, nutrition and diet, all simply from getting stuck in in a small way, from an early beginning.

And there are other skills, picked up in a similarly effortless way, which pay dividends in time. Simple life skills. I trust you’ve each got one or two of your own. I can’t help thinking, if we’d only dismissed the stupid, trivial, nonsensical things we habitually do over a lifetime, we’d be better people in the longer term. Is that wishful thinking?

When we eat

I am a breakfast man. It gives me great pleasure, when holidaying, to find a good spread put on for our morning meal. The best of these must have been the chain hotel we stayed in in Stockholm a few years ago. It was a buffet breakfast, eat as much as you like, and I was like a kid given a free pass in a sweet shop.

Though not formally so, I made it a five course meal: Fresh fruit salad;, Muesli and yoghurt; bacon, egg, mushrooms and tomatoes; Toast and marmalade; Sweet Pastries to go. And, of course, orange juice and fresh coffee refills. I also like the regional variations you sometimes find: lavabread, black puddings, smoked fish, cheeses, hams and charcuterie.

It’s a pity our conventional timetable, in England and much of the West, doesn’t allow the leisure of a good breakfast every day of the week. Instead, our main meal is shunted to the far end of the day, along with most of our leisure time. I am told the Industrial Revolution is to blame for this convention, and how it caused everyone to toe this line against the previous millennia of human evolution. And all subsequent technological advancements, business strategies and politics went along with the trend, alienating ourselves from our nature.

I saw today on a BBC news site, there’s a thing called Chrono-nutrition which is basically studying what time it’s best to eat. What do you know, they reckon it might be the morning – breakfast! Our evening meal, whether restaurant dining or family sit together, is looking a bit bad. It appears our circadian clocks don’t want to know late in the day.

It’s all very well but how on earth are we supposed to turn this drifting oil tanker around? Should we even try? Don’t get me wrong, I said I love a grand breakfast, but I also love a good dinner too. And I won’t pass up a decent lunch come to that. There’s something these nutritional articles and studies never seem to take into account when telling us what is good or bad for us: pleasure. We are human beings, not merely biological machines.

BBC News: Are we eating at the wrong time?


It seems as if I’ve spent my long life if not exactly intentionally avoiding Spain but having it never showing up on my radar, then, in the space of six months, I’ve visited the country twice. Prior to this, and not so long ago, we did a Winter city-break weekend to Barcelona; other than these three times, nothing.

Last November, we did another city-break holiday to Seville and I posted about it on this blog. In short, it made a very nice impression on us, not least the Autumn heat.

Now we have recently returned from a week in rural Andalusia, about 90 minutes drive west from Granada. The closest town is Baza (pronounced Bath-a, the first syllable sounding like “bath” is in the North of England, not like it is in the South), though we stayed in a very agrarian area some distance away.

My overwhelming impression is one of peacefulness, tranquility and solitude. There’s an old idea of Spain and the Spanish expressed in their word, Mañana. To a certain extent, there seems some truth in this here; it’s as if their time runs at a slower rate altogether, as if time’s main function is a space in which to relish life and to watch the world go by. The mountains, which appear in every direction you care to look, also seem to encourage this locking down of pace, like sentinels of timelessness.

The second impression is that they don’t have a traffic problem like we obviously do in England. If you’ve ever seen an historical clip of the M1 motorway in its earliest days, this is how it is now in Andalusia; there is so little traffic on the highways, and absolutely no potholes – I wish I’d had my road bike! Maybe next time.

Like most of southern Europe, the fresh food looks and tastes better than ours, though unlike what we’ve become used to, it appears seasonal, probably as it’s local. Frustrating for us if we’re after a certain vegetable but really this is how it ought to be: fresh, seasonal and low miles. Of course, it’s comparatively cheaper, the wine especially, and though I prefer a pint of bitter, I’m happy to recommend the beer there too, not at all like the fizzy lager found on tap in most of England’s pubs.

As for tapas, I really could get used to that tradition: order a drink, and a little time after they bring out a plate of some snack; order another drink, and another, different tapas is brought to you. Three rounds of drinks and you’ve almost had a meal. Depending on the bar, tapas may be as simple as a portion of crisps or a platter of local Serrano ham, cheeses or cooked meat on skewers. Much more palatable than a packet of branded peanuts or pork scratchings usually on offer in England’s bars.

As someone who moved away from busy, overcrowded London to live a relative easier pace in Gloucestershire, rural Andalusia appeared at first to be at least another level slower and quite a culture shock for this. Yet, at the end of our seven days, I could have stayed forever. Thankfully, we have somewhere to stay and, for sure, we’ll be back.