Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Food security in the UK – time to worry

Tim Lang (right), professor of Food Policy at City University’s Centre for Food Policy, is the go-to person by the media when food policy and security make the headlines. He was a frequent contributor to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme when it became clear that the UK faced food shortages in the event of a hard Brexit. Reading his latest book, Feeding Britain: our food problems and how to fix them, one can see the extent that he should host the show, not just contribute to it when the headlines demand. Food security in the UK is a big problem, and its fragility has much to do with British exceptionalism, a situation that, in the context of Brexit, is fast receding. This is the first book that I have read that actually makes a credible case for Brexit; it is not intended to do so and it is something that Lang stumbled upon rather than explicitly endorsed. More on that in a moment.

Feeding Britain is published by Pelican Books (below left), an imprint of Penguin/Random House, The imprint publishes work on hugely topical issues in accessible styles. In reading Lang, one senses the haste with which it was written. It is in no way sloppy, far from it, but Lang knows every reference whether it be a long-published academic article, government report or personal interaction. It has inspired me to get moving on my own work. It demonstrates what is possible from a life of accrued knowledge. There are 470 pages of text. Each one is a gem.  Each one leaves the reader out of breath.

Where to start? Actually, it is quite simple – some history basics. Britain’s imperial past is, to put it generously, chequered. It is, seemingly, the origin of the British thought, paraphrased here, that someone else will feed us, so we do not need to bother growing stuff ourselves. The growing is usually done by people in far-away lands, the rural poor, who receive a small fraction of the value of the product ascribed to it by end users, usually in the rich West. And even when fresh produce comes from near neighbours such as Spain, the back-breaking work is done by migrant labour often paid below minimum levels in the country, and affording them a lifestyle far short of that enjoyed by the beneficiaries of their labour. It also comes with a huge carbon footprint, a consequence of mono-culture and extensive transportation.

Coupled with the imperialism argument, the concentration of land ownership in the UK which started with the Enclosures of common land in the 17th and 18th Centuries; annexation of Church land under Henry VIII and more recently, enclosures arising from the privatisation of much of the public sector since 1980. Lang puts a figure on it – 189,000 families own 2/3 of UK land or one-half of England is owned by 25,000 people (p368). This is all made worse by the commodification of land – it is an investment, not a source of sustenance or habitat. 3,660 per cent is the figure by which land values have increased in the last 50 years. This means that, at the very least, it is difficult for small farmers to produce appropriately and sustainably. It forces tenants – and they usually are tenants – to use intensive methods to increase yield and further inflate the value. And on top of that, owners attract production subsidies from the EU – and post Brexit, presumably from UK taxpayers! (That mechanism is described in pages 370-7.)

Allied to the land ownership debate, Lang charts the changing percentage of income people spend on food vis-à-vis other things; notably, housing costs. The land owners, by this argument, not only enclose land and extract a high Gross Value Added from it (relative to the growers), they also own the properties in which the majority live. In extracting more from tenants, the margin has to be squeezed out of food prices (and by definition costs). Cheap food, argues Lang, is then equated with good food (not because it is nutritious, but because it seems to be good for someone else’s wealth). Moreover, the price of food rarely incorporates the externalised costs of production – environmental damage, health and society more generally such as life expectancy (which bad food shortens).

More positively, shortening supply chains would be a positive example of taking back control! And this is the Brexit argument. Though we know only too well, that Brexiters see the extension of food chains as being a Brexit benefit, and with it a reduction in quality, safety and increased insecurity, the UK no longer has the capability to defend those supply chains against hostile state actors or have the global influence to guarantee supply in time of scarcity, unlike in the imperial past. Security is also threatened by cyber attack on those supply chains, something that Lang believes is under appreciated within Government (and society more generally).

Lang argues that the National Minimum Wage or the National Living Wage needs to be re-calibrated to pay for, what he calls, sustainable diets. The factors above have been made worse – and particularly in the UK – by the population moving on to super-processed foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS). Again, the costs of this are externalised (the National Health Service costs obesity alone as £6.5bn and a wider societal cost of £27bn – p207). Lang is adamant that an escalator tax on HFSS foods needs to be introduced. Pension funds, too, should divest from firms that manufacture HFSSs. Ad-spend (marketing is also disproportionate relative to health promotion, and it is targeted at children through social media. Lang also argues that the large supermarkets – singling out Tesco with its 30 per cent share of UK grocery market should be broken up.

Lang is not making an argument for growing out-of-seasonal foods in the UK in the middle of winter under lights and heat (even if


Source: Billy Hathorn

they had taste, which he clearly thinks such produce does not); that does not help the carbon footprint much. Rather, he is saying, that we have to grow more food in he UK (the country produces only 53 per cent of its own food) that is consumable directly and not, as seems to be true of much of arable farm produce in the UK, fed to animals, some of which like ruminants are hugely inefficient converters of plants into meat as well as huge greenhouse gas manufacturers. They fart. A lot. Land use is dominated by rearing and feeding animals. That very process, too, has an external cost that could be fatal in the future, antibiotic resistance as such valuable medicines are routinely fed to animals to retain “yields”.

There are also things about imported foods that I had not thought about. For example, we should not take water for granted, even though the UK is temperate and generally wet. If we import food from countries that are short of water, but whose products are full of it (fruit, vegetables, etc.), there is a net imbalance and a cost to the growing country and its people, nothwithstanding their foreign earning from the produce (often imported by air). Huge volumes of water are in foodstuffs that we do not anticipate, such as rice. Lang’s section on water imperialism is a must-read, pp225-44.


Cornish Aromatic apples (source: Brogdale)

Lang highlights that the UK produces so little of its own fruit. Whilst many exotic soft fruits are not viable in the UK, apples, pears and berries are eminently feasible and desirable. The population does not get anywhere near 5-a-day fruit and vegetable consumption (which seems truly bizarre and frightening at the same time). On horticulture, in 1950, there were 3000 apple growers in the UK, by the mid-1990s there were 800. Government grubbing regulations facilitated the destruction of orchards through subsidy! (p91). Lang contrasts the UK case with France where small growers and cooperatives are significant suppliers (the cooperatives provide the scale). Scale in the UK is provided by very large and concentrated growers and importers.

Finally, there is an important role for education, not only in terms of teaching children about food, its origins, how to grow it (sustainably), and how to cook primary ingredients, but also in what children are fed at school. Diet regulations for school meals, argues Lang, need to be universal, not just in the poorest, most regulated schools.

OK, I’ve done some hard work on the reading; it is time for us all to do some hard work in changing the way food is understood, used as a political tool, traded and prepared.



Nudged into not wasting

It can take a serious nudge to get people to do things that modern living has sanctioned as not necessary, such as not wasting anything. Covid-19 and impending climate change have been nudging me. I’ve also been nudged – or prodded – by experiencing a self-inflicted reduced income. Over the years, I’ve been pretty good at not wasting, but a few things have found their way into my bins.

I am a big fan of brocolli. I do not recall it actually existing when I was growing up, but it is ubiquitous now. That stalk has always been a bit of a problem. In to the bin, out of sight, has been its normal fate. In recent weeks, I’ve been eating it. Largely in soups. This one on the left has a couple of stalks in it, plus a load of celery that was beyond crunch, put perfectly nutrious. Also in there is pepper, onion, silken tofu and, of course, water. It looks a bit anaemic, but it does the job. I think a good pot adds to it. This one from a ceramacist working out of Beverley in East Yorkshire. Her name currently escapes me. I’m a bit of a sucker for ceramics.

If you want to know more about not wasting food, this is Alex Andreou talking sense.

Seville in December – where did we eat?

Breakfast is not so difficult. There are plenty of cafes doing it; though what constitutes breakfast is mixed. In Seville there is lots of Churros and chocolate sauce. Churros are long and thin doughnuts.

More to our liking was warm croissant with jam. Easy. Coffee comes as leche (with milk), solo (espresso) and Cappucino. For meat eaters, add ham. And ham.

We have frequented a locals’ place called Picatoste. It’s fast, furious, loud, of mixed clientele. And inexpensive. We’re off there now.

Seville is full of Tapas. I recall a few years ago in Malaga finding many veggie options; not least aubergine and courgette. But Seville (and Cadiz) serve largely tapas with fish and ham. There is one place, though. Habanita is tucked away in an alley near to the cathedral. It is meat and veggie – the latter predominating. Not only can you get aubergine, but also banana balls, garlicked yucca, wok-ed vegetables, stuffed pepper some sort of black bean pancake thing and even veggie steak (we didn’t try it). For dessert, the caramelized apple custard is a must (right). We also had cheesecake. Interesting. The online reviews are mixed; in relative terms, it is inexpensive, cheerful, cosy and welcoming.

The only exclusively veggie place we found was Restauranto Ecovegetariano Gaia. We had a couple of visits with mixed results. The set menu is probably best avoided as the better dishes are excluded. For example, there was a tofu/spinach egg-less quiche that lacked something. By contrast, the sauteed bulghar, tofu and vegetables was great as were the pasta and salads. A couple of vegan cakes for dessert finished off the meal nicely.

If one has to do battle with the tapas bars, then there are some hidden veggie dishes. At one place we had gazpacho – a cold tomato and cucumber soup. It came with grilled aubergine, courgette and mushrooms. Excellent. There are a number of variations: Salmorejo, for example. This comes without cucumber and is topped with olive oil. We also got served spinach and chick pea stew. It was not stew at all! But very welcome.

Veggie Christmas dinner

Being in Germany over Christmas, one must have the special meal a few hours earlier than in the UK. Heiligabend is the important time to share food and exchange gifts. So, this year I took a couple of recipes from the Guardian newspaper website and amended them, as one must.

Mushroom_tartFirst is the mushroom tart (left). This one looks a little over-baked, but it was rescued from the oven in time. The creator, Yotam Ottolenghi, admits the recipe is complicated for what is, essentially a stuffed mushroom starter. However, even by my standards it was interesting. The mushrooms are marinated in a hot mixture of fresh thyme, rosemary, vegetable stock, garlic, lemons, cinnamon, butter, salt and freshly ground black pepper! They then sit in a baking tray with pastry and topped with pine nuts and parsley. And to ensure a snug fit, I added grated carrot mixed with honey.

The main course owes its origins to a recipe by Tom Hunt – Fig, chestnut, ricotta, and beetroot-top rotolo.Root_pie Actually, it became a bit of a pie (I used the same pastry that I had used for the starter and I was unable to roll it, not least because Tom Hunt’s recipe uses pasta and not pastry). Mine, therefore, is more of a root pie – grated beetroot, carrot with onions, leek, fennel, dark brassica leaves, chestnuts, figs, red wine and flavoured with fresh mint and black pepper. It was started in a wok before being transferred to a dish and baked for 30 mins at about 150 degrees celsius.

It was complemented with roast potatoes and Quinoa salad containing broccoli and pomegranate seeds.

If there is any thought about it, chestnuts tend to be quite dry, so a sauce of some benign kind might have helped. Again, interesting.

Cooking kohlrabi

2014-05-31 19.56.13I’ve never cooked kohlrabi before. Probably because it looks too much like a turnip. I have never liked turnips.

So, to find one in the refrigerator required some action. I diced it and sautéed it in olive oil in a wok along with a few mushrooms, cooked black lentils and cashew nuts (left). I seasoned the mixture with black pepper and fresh parsley. I then wrapped the mixtureKohlrabi in rice paper (right) and fried until crunchy. Not entirely successful. Rice paper needs to be dampened to use but, if it is too wet, it will not fry very well. In fact, not at all.

I think my rolling needs to be better, but as for the taste, not bad.


Halal meat

HalalRecent revelations that most UK supermarkets are selling unlabelled halal meat is not really a surprise. Supermarkets respond to demand – the halal market in the UK is huge (estimated to be something in the order of £1bn). Not to be in that market, with so much money at stake, would breach of most supermarkets’ responsibilities. That is, to make money for shareholders.

From what I understand, halal slaughter – which usually involves no pre-stunning of animals – is allowed in the UK under religious exemption. As an atheist, I have a problem with that. But the arguments made by some that too much attention is given to slaughter and not enough to the quality of life, has some merit. But as an atheist vegetarian, I’m inclined to reject that, too. Too much meat is eaten. It is unsustainable in terms of ‘production’, and not so good for the human population generally consuming too many saturated fats.

With respect to the argument about too much attention is given to the moment of slaughter, I have this to say. So often I hear that halal slaughterers are skilled and make their incision with precision such that the animals lose consciousness almost instantly and hence do not suffer. Now it is quite some time since I have had intimate experience of animal slaughter, what is clear is that animals remain commodities. Slaughter is an industrial process. Slaughter is not a craft profession. It is a volume business.

Finally, where animals are stunned, they are unconscious when they are strung up and bled. Correct me if I am wrong, but where animals are not stunned, they will be hung upside down prior to throat cutting. That seems unnecessarily cruel and offensive.


Working with a professional chef

The birthday of my beloved, Ilonka, demanded this year a special celebration. Friends, family and others were invited to the2014-03-23 20.29.11 house for music (a piece of Cabaret – Rotraut Arnold; a four-piece jazzy ensemble – Vobbs, and a violin duet – Alex and Daniella) and food.

The food needed to be good for some of Bayern’s most sceptical carnivorous palates. We bought the recipe book from our favourite restaurant in Brighton, Terre-a-Terre and proceeded to convert the words and pictures into the real thing. We employed the services of a professional chef, Jana Bezold, to help manage the process. Her sheer food  and team management skills were invaluable.

DSCF0441Anyone familiar with Terre-a-Terre knows only too well the complexity of the menu, ingredients and jiggery-pokery needed to pull off each dish. The dishes are the work of creative chefs who primarily understand vegetarian food and take risks to create the unexpected by mixing textures, flavours and colours. Ultimately, one goes to a restaurant to eat food that is not so easy to make at home. This was our challenge: to convince 50 guests from different backgrounds, of various ages and tastes feel they are having a memorable food experience.

It took us over four hours to buy the ingredients from three shops. The ingredients ranged from potatoes to powdered mango, Papaya to Peanuts and pickled ginger. We opted for a couple of utility dishes, vegetable lasagne and spinach pie, not least because we had some children visiting who are not so adventurous and forgiving.

So, on the menu was: Chana Chaat, minty mushy peas (on toast), rice paper blankets (filled with salad), rice noodle salad, marinated tofu kebabs, samosas, quinoa and beetroot salad, aubergine parcels.

Our chef, Jana Berzold trained in one of Munich’s traditional Gaste Houses. Very meaty, veryCooking3 hectic. She then graduated to a Michelin starred restaurant in the city. She now works at a vegetarian café/restaurant in the city called Gratitude ( She worked through our menu and visited the kitchen to check that it was suitably equipped. She fielded our questions about ingredients as we struggled to identify and differentiate all that we needed. And then she turned up at 0830 on the morning of the event ready to cook.

Not all was in order, I sensed. She arrived with a box of own utensils, bowls and pans. Of particular importance were knives. Sharpe knives. It is a bit of a cliché, but our knives just were not up to the job. Onions do not get rapidly cut, sliced or diced with a blade anything less than razor sharp. Lesson one.

I also sensed that the training delivers a competence beyond reading recipes. The authors of theQuinoa_Kibbi_rolling recipe book note in the introduction that they were reluctant to publish the recipes because the alchemy required to make them work requires a skill that most amateurs do not have. We had the alchemist. She instinctively knew the balance of ingredients, herbs and spices. Taste is everything. If it does not taste right – or even taste, as was the case with the rice noodle salad – then add…something. It is that something that eludes many of us. Lesson two.

Cooking is a team pursuit. And most in the team are kitchen assistants who take orders from the authority figure. Some TV chefs thrive on authority derived from fear. Jena demonstrated a more subtle authority. She inspired participation. The opportunity and willingness to learn demonstrated by the passing helpers was derived absolutely from Jena’s sense of mission. Lesson three.

When it came to serving, the snack food on arrival was appreciated not least because it was late in the day. Guests were actually hungry. More than nibbles, less than a main course. Colour. Also, when there are a variety of  unfamiliar dishes, guests like to try them all. Rightly so. And finally, it seems wholly appropriate to ask guests to bring dessert. Desserts are utilitarian – everyone can do dessert, whether it be a cheese selection, cheesecake or pralines. And certainly we were not let down. The array was impressive. And again, everything had to be tried.

A final Observation, seating. Guests do like to sit down and talk. We hired and borrowed benches and tables. These were decorated and well used, I suspect also that guests stayed longer because eating was not so hurried. And clearing was also easier.

For the labourers like myself, the enjoyment came from seeing guests relaxing, experimenting and anticipating  what was next. There was enough to see off even the most seasoned partygoer.



Recipes in an era of high food prices

Food has always been important for me. Very early on I went vegetarian and against my best interests it was an essential criterion for any girlfriend. Intimate eating with a meat eater suits me not at all.

I learned to cook by my first landlord, Patrick. Even though I only lived with him for three months, he taught me the basics of vegetarian cooking.

I have a number of staples that I will share in the future, but I am always on the look out for new dishes, especially those that seem counter-intuitive with respect ingredients. Yesterday, I cooked one of those dishes with surprisingly good results. I extracted it from the Guardian life and style section. It is the creation of Angela Hartnett (actually, her head chef, Diego) who is chef patron at Murano restaurant in London. The dish is called aubergine gratin. The counter-intuitive bit is cooking with balsamico vinegar. But it works.

Serves 2


1 large aubergine; 50ml olive oil; salt and pepper; 25ml good-quality balsamic vinegar; 250g buffalo mozzarella; 4 large tomatoes, halved; 1 tbsp chopped basil; 20g chopped black olives

Peel the aubergine, discard the skin and dice into large cubes.

Toss the diced flesh with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Roast in an oven preheated to 200C for 10 minutes (I gave it 15 minutes).

Remove from the oven and toss with the balsamic vinegar before mixing with the tomatoes, olives, mozzarella and basil. Check the seasoning to taste, and return to the oven at 200C for another 5 minutes (for me it needed a bit more time, another 10 minutes, even).

Rising food prices

Source: David Monniaux, Wikipedia

I woke up this morning to the not unexpected news that food prices are rising. Particularly wheat. In the UK we are talking about yields being 15 per cent down. The dry spring and wet summer are the key factors for the UK. Drought in the prairies in the US and Russia have just compounded the situation.

Speculators are, clearly, going to do well out of this. It strikes me that a monkey could have speculated on this when the seeds were originally sown. I’m told that it will be hard for poultry and pig farmers as half of the grain crop goes to feeding these secondary sources of protein. I do feel that it is about time that the price of chicken and pork reflected the real world a little better. Maybe more of us can cut down or even eradicate meat from our diets. It is not going to get any better.

However, rising food prices do hit the poor disproportionately. The Guardian quotes Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London’s City University speaking on the Today progamme on the BBC. “Lang said the poorest 10% of households in the UK had seen a drop in food affordability of 20% in the last eight years and that this was also a “disaster for public health” as the price of healthier produce such as fruit had risen by 34% in the last five years. Lang, who coined the phrase “food miles”, said: “Most analysts think the long drop in food prices, of affordability, is over. We are now in a new world, a world of new fundamentals, not just bad weather this year but a long-term squeeze.””