Labelling Failure and The Horsemeat Crisis -Needing to Know our Food

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With the horsemeat scandal still unfolding, the central issue is do we know what we’re eating? The media narrative is one of distaste, disgust at eating hidden matter, complex food chains, uninformed moments of blame, as well as possible criminal actions. No matter what we think of eating horsemeat the central issue that is relevant in such an obscure, complicated market is that food labelling is central to our trust in the products we buy and consume. Without trust in the label, the food system as it is presently configured, fails.

Such complex food networks act as a veil shrouding the origins of our food. The distance between us as consumers and the spaces of food production are not only widening, but are becoming blurred and obscure. After the UK food scares of the 1980s- BSE, Salmonella in eggs and 2001 -Food and Mouth disease, the local food sector has arisen as an alternative to agro-food industries. The central device of organic and local food products is their ‘knowability’. Underlined through quality assurance schemes such as Red Tractor, Freedom Foods, Organic Certification etc., food bought can be understood as meeting a benchmark of quality. Not only is this good for us as consumers, it is a lifeline for farmers producing wildlife and welfare-friendly products.

However, there is a major flaw in seeing these schemes as the solution to the current crisis. The crisis exists in cheap, value range supermarket food where the costs have been shaved acutely. Such products are shipped between countries in order to find the cheapest mode of supply and construction, resulting in the use of degraded meat fillers and additives. The gulf between these products and those made by small-scale artisanal producers is huge. This encompasses a gulf in construction, freshness and proximity between consumers and producers but most importantly in convenience, cost and the transparency of production processes. They are so different from the value range burgers as can be, by intention. However by being so different they remain on only a margin of shoppers’ consumer radar. Many consumers have got used to buying cheap products, taking the descriptions on the front of packets on face value. Many commentators over the last few weeks have expressed how obvious it is that how such products are described cannot match their material reality.

It is true that many of these organic and local food products that ooze with vitality, are affordable. But only if you are in the know…In order to buy fresh, local vegetables that are no more expensive than supermarkets’, the consumer either has to source a weekly farmers’ market, or search out for a reliable veg box scheme. Or if you’re really in the know, you might grow your own veg and chickens – what could be a more transparent process? However, all of these processes require effort, added time or knowing that these options exist. Here the difference between affordable, traceable veg and meat is significant when it comes to price. Veg can be sourced affordably, if you know where, whereas meat comes at a cost. Meat eating is seen as a sustainability issue and there are campaigns to reduce its consumption, with the argument that by buying less a consumer may be able to afford better quality. It’s a great argument, but comes back to requiring the consumer to make a commitment to altering food habits, or having the means to alter them.

Such commitment to organic and local food products is still presently marginal. According to public health researchers those living in inner city areas with the least income have poor diets partly due to the local supply of convenience shops that sell no fresh produce[1]. For such consumers a supermarket would increase their chances of eating healthily. Another obstacle for all sectors of society to eating fresh produce, is cooking skills[2]. Without the basic ability to turn unprocessed food into tasty meals as urged by celebrity chefs etc., diets are limited to the processed, ready meal variety. So it’s to be welcomed that cooking is finally back on the school curriculum thanks to the work of many campaigners[3].

This post is about exploring the complexities of not only agro-food industrial supply chains, but at a more intimate level, our personal relationships to food. We cannot urge a blanket solution to the present food crises as the obvious one of eating only accredited food ignores the issues of accessing it for a wide section of society. Commitment to local food is a starting place for those with the means of not only money, time and knowledge, but also the confidence to transform such produce into enjoyable meals.

Presently Industry and government responses to this crisis are to investigate the DNA of food products, revealing further causes for concern. A recent report has found the fraudulent labelling of fish products in America[4]. Trust will be further eroded, revealing how far we’ve come from knowing the food we eat. The alternatives require us as consumers committing to knowing our food better. This process can take many forms from phone apps scanning QR codes, to getting our hands dirty with the wonky veg we’ve grown ourselves. However, this is a complex, deeply rooted problem that not only requires us getting to know our food better, but also requires government regulation and concern for the matter of our food, not just it’s profits.


[1] Bowyer, Caraher et al. 2009- Shopping for Food Lessons from a London Borough, British Food Journal 111 (4-5)

[2] Little et al. 2009- Gender, Consumption and the Relocalisation of Food:

A Research Agenda Sociologia Ruralis 49:3

[3] School Food Plan (2013) Cooking on the Curriculum (online available at)

http://www.education.gov.uk/schoolfoodplan/news/a00221479/school-food-plan-cook-curric

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NEGLECTING THE PLOT

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At times plots can get neglected, which may prove to become a continual state of affairs if it’s left to get out of hand. However, whilst the lack of time or bad weather is a common factor, for some plot holders there are other considerations that leave them to consider hanging up the hoe and letting it pass on to someone else. Whilst many slope off seeing themselves as a gardening failure, perhaps it is time to air this issue, as supportive committees or understanding neighbours can make all the difference in preventing that final decision to be made. Below are two field notebook entries detailing such moments for me as a new plot holder, would my gardening strife see me walking away from the plot?

23rd October 2011:

“I had almost dreaded coming up to the plots because of weeds on two counts. Firstly the ones that got away, refusing to be vanquished through my attempts to defeat them. These are entrenched down the path and through the front right section, where even covering them failed to impede them. Even though they are mostly brown, dead looking things now, they dislike being pulled up, resisting strongly.

 

Then there are those more singly, spaced ordinary weeds that are removed easily enough through hoeing but can grow tall and flower, spreading seeds- the cardinal sin of allotment gardening. These are in place, growing sequentially on the paths around the veg beds as well as on the beds themselves where the earth is bare. However, having no compost bin at the plot and having my tough ‘compost’ bag being full, I have been hoeing and leaving the weeds in-situ, albeit weighted down. This action brings guilt attached, as I know proper allotmenteers worry about dead weeds blowing onto their plots. In fact Shirley who is to the north of me, in the past month, has erected a substantial mesh fence at soil height between her plot and mine. My first reaction was guilt, thinking it was precisely due to prevent weeds blowing from mine.

 

I’ve been thinking about this situation, planning to remedy it through the winter. Firstly by rotavating the entrenched weed area and secondly by installing a compost bin for weedings. Then the thoughts turn to: how am I going to get the plot rotavated? By whom, when etc? Can I dismantle the old, unused compost bin at home, made over 10 years ago to bring up here? Am I skilled enough to do that myself? Probably not. Can I afford to buy a compost bin? At another level- what about the desire to avoid such machinery, trying the no-dig method? Unfortunately, that takes time, commitment and strategic working – most of which I don’t seem able to give my plot. I started off sharing this space, but now am in sole charge and although the cropping has done well, so too have the weeds. Frustration and despondency abound, even though this first season has kept me in veg from August through to mid-December.

 

However, these semi-paranoid thoughts were soon transformed after arriving at the site. Not only did I discover that my crown prince squashes were looking ready to pick and my struggling butternuts had recovered sufficiently to produce 6 pint sized gourds. But very importantly for a guilty, neglectful plot holder, I was met by several friendly faces who empathised with me on trying to keep on top of the plot. One man said, that for him, it was the veg that mattered, the harvest, not the aesthetics. In fact I had a long and friendly chat with a couple who I hadn’t seen for awhile who were also trying to get on top of the weeds.”

Of course the amount I managed to achieve over the winter didn’t quite live up to my hopes, but I did get stuck in once the days got a little longer, laying plastic down on the path with the extracted stones on top. So with a large seed order done, in the early spring I got stuck into the weeding, preparing the site and planting potatoes, onions, garlic and parsnips. Then a catalogue of catastrophes began with a severely pulled back when trying to lift bags of sodden weeds into the car to take to the dump. So firstly 4-6 weeks out at the most crucial planting and maintaining time was followed by a series of further impediments (that are too dull to go into)…resulting in basically an abandoned plot for several months leading to the following field notebook entry.

4-6th October 2012:

“Here I am, closing down my plot having tried and failed to get back on top, in the last few months I’ve decided to try and share the space. I kept expecting a nasty letter from the committee complaining about my failures, but I had kept in touch explaining what was going on, which I think helped. Then, a few weeks ago, I decided to swallow my shame and face the plot. It’s both crazy and totally expected but after unavoidably neglecting the plot for several months, I developed a feeling that I couldn’t show my face there. It was a sticking my head in the ground moment, which I finally conquered after speaking to a plot holder friend who claimed that many plots were very neglected following the combination of a sodden but warm summer. So loading up the car with all the tools I own and two reluctant helpers (persuaded sons used as moral support), we arrived. Fortunately I had picked a quiet moment and of particular importance to my fragile gardening ego, was that my sharply observing neighbour wasn’t there. The unflappable and ever pleasant chair of the committee was there and welcomed me back, noting how well prepared I was in bringing shears [A positive comment! What a relief!].

 

We began. I’ve set the differently sized and aged boys a quarter of the plot each. Last time my older teenage son had the physical ummph to get stuck in, weeding and digging, a real help. Today he looked wan, uninspired and as if he’d left his muscles somewhere he couldn’t remember -great! My younger son had helped a lot when we began plot life, helping to set it up. This had led to a rejection of further involvement, which had been apparent last time I’d persuaded him here. Today however, he had taken on board that this was a big deal for me, bringing a can-do attitude. We worked fairly well, except that my older son finally told me that he was suffering with a bad back after a skateboard fall. So with weeding being unpopular, I set him to digging up the potatoes planted all that time ago. Between us we did make a difference, and filled up several large plastic dumpy bags with weeds. However, the involvement of my sons was on a strictly time limited basis and we soon had to leave. As we were packing up, the secretary of the committee came up to talk. I spoke again about how bad it was I hadn’t been on top of the plot etc. and that I would like to share the space, otherwise I would have to give it up.

 

Within the week, this secretary emailed me to ask if I would move off my plot to take a half plot over the other side of the path. This vacancy was due to another female plot-holder wanting to downsize her gardening commitments.

 

Fast forward to the 4th October, where I am closing down my plot after being asked to vacate, as someone on the waiting list wanted my plot. I have a few tools at the plot, which needed retrieving- my spade, fork and wheelbarrow, as well as digging up a proportion of my strawberry plants to transfer to my new space. I decide to take another look at the beds I planted and discover another load of potatoes – Jerseys this time. I’m not going to leave them behind as I had especially chosen the variety for flavour, so get stuck into forking them up. They haven’t grown spectacularly with only one or two here and there, but eventually, after turning the bed, I’ve gone from hoping to harvest enough for a meal to packing a plastic bag’s worth. Muddily I turn to the onion bed; here the results are more disappointing with the bulbs barely grown. I consider leaving them, but most are large enough to pass for a shallot and being easy to pull, I decide to harvest these too. Having never grown garlic before, I take a look at this crop. Swathing back the weeds massing in a roll over the bed, I take a look. Oh they don’t pull well and the dry upper stalks disappear as the weeds are pulled back, leaving me to carefully hunt through the bed for the variously sized bulbs. Again, I had planted a specific recommended variety and had a huge urge to try them, so work slowly and carefully through the bed. Whilst working this way, I also inspect the parsnips that have miraculously grown here with no care, thinning out or other attention. Some are thin long-tailed whips but others have a hearty girth, suggesting good growth. I retrieve a mixed bag of garlic – approximately two good-sized bulbs and a handful of diddy ones and decide to come back for the parsnips another day.

 

It seems that my new growing space is in an unofficial women’s quarter. I talk to the friendly new neighbour who had shared the space I’m taking with the woman growing in from of it. They had planted a variety of fruit trees, which she was in the process of extracting. We talk and she too displays that plot-holders guilt, worrying about the neglect of her plot (which was hard to spot, being well organised in my eyes). The soil where a fruit tree had been removed, looks lovely and rich and I say so. She tells me that it had all been dug originally but that it was terribly stony. After extracting enough stone on my old plot to crazy pave a large garden, it looks ok to me. I lovingly plant my strawberries – several large heads and a number of runners in this new space. It has only a thin covering of weed that looks easily removable and on having to weed out forget-me-nots to plant the strawberries, I suddenly feel that I’m in an altogether more genteel space. Next to this new strawberry bed I notice that a neighbouring plot to the east has raspberry runners encroaching onto my space, better and better!

 

On the 6th October I return for the much-desired parsnips. I had wanted to leave them insitu until after the first frost, but am told that the plot is required immediately. Therefore I return to harvest these roots and to remove the large rectangle of thick plastic sheeting that had protected a portion of the plot from weeds. The rain the night before had been relentless, leaving several parts of the site and my plot flooded, so it wasn’t a good day to garden but there was no choice. So each time I dug the fork in, it came out weightily engulfed in thick mud. Each time, I had to pull, with my gloved hands, the mud off as other attempts of removal left it squishing into a more compact brick. This all takes more time and muscle power than it would in dry conditions, as when I simply pulled by the long stemmed leaves several roots snap off. So I have to systematically fork each one, before the pull and then attempt to remove a modicum of mud.

 

There is only one other grower here, Tasha, busily preparing her empty beds for the winter. I wonder at any one doing such work in these conditions, but know that she works full time, leaving the weekend her only free blocks of growing time. Tasha, and her neighbour Elaine, counter the picture this post may be making, of women struggling to manage their plots. Tasha has a double plot and lovingly tends it, resulting in her winning the runners up allotment prize this season. It is a picture of allotment order and care. Elaine, her neighbour has been even more successful, winning for two years in a row the main allotment prize for her fabulously kept plot with a huge variety of produce grown. She has admitted to me that she may spend 14hours at the plot in one sitting, to keep it such a model of allotment bounty.”

 

At last, I can walk away from this plot that I haven’t succeeded in maintaining, not with my head held high, as it is still a mess. In the beginning I started off sharing it, before I took it on alone. Last season I was researching at the sites enabling me to spend time there, this year I am working hard to get my thesis written, creating a hierarchy of competing priorities. However, without a sympathetic and realistic committee I would have had to totally walk away. This post shows how the community support at the site can work in many ways. Now I can look forward to a manageable plot that should be easily bedded down for the winter. What this closing down process has shown, is that whilst this neglect is not a plan to be advocated, it is surprising how much the vegetable crops can survive under such conditions. We are left with some tasty harvest at home, the main crop potatoes providing delicious roasted wedges, the onions and garlic offering a wealth of meal possibilities. Not to mention the impressive looking parsnips…

EATING OFF THE PLOT – CHRISTMAS DINNER DECEMBER 2011

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As Christmas got closer I realised that I had most of the veg I needed on the allotment for our dinner. I had carrots, cabbage, shallots and squash; this meant I needed to buy brussel sprouts and potatoes. The week before Christmas my friend’s husband gave me a huge bag of potatoes, he and a friend had grown a field of potatoes locally. On December 23rd I went to the allotment to harvest the carrots and cabbages, of which I had green and red ones. There weren’t many cabbages that were ready but I managed to find a couple of green ones and a red one. The green ones were like ‘hispi’ summer cabbages – very fresh and cone-shaped. The carrots planted in the no-dig area were small with thick, grey mud wrapped around them, with a number of purplish worms. These hadn’t been planted until the autumn and so I couldn’t compare them to the ones I’d planted in the late spring. However, they were quite small and once I wiped some of the mud off I could see a number of holes and decay on the carrots. I wasn’t sure if this was due to wormholes or carrot-fly. Keith and his wife were also at the plots harvesting for Christmas. I dropped by and chatted to them and they showed me their purple brussel sprouts that I was fascinated by. They offered me a bag of them to try which I was pleased to do.

As we had had a roast dinner in November, I had ideas on how to make the dinner more colourful and veg focused. As the cabbage looks so tender, I decided to shred it for a ‘slaw’, along with grated carrots from the allotment. On Christmas day we first of all go for a walk up the hills and woods behind the house. As we have a footpath going up behind the house, the cat decides to come with us, for the whole walk. When we come back it’s definitely time for cooking lunch, we have a some snacks and I have some cooked veggie sos rolls but the boys have so much chocolate they’re not keen to have any right now, so I have a small piece whilst I cook. I’m looking forward to some Bucks Fizz, but again decide to wait until the dinner is ready.

The mud was so thick on the carrots I had to scrape them off with the back of a knife before I could scrub them. As I scrubbed them I could see a lot holes and I had to spend time cutting out the bad bits. In the end, a hand full of carrots leave only enough good produce for the slaw and the stuffing for the seitan roast.

The seitan roast was requested by my eldest son  as it’s his favourite vegetarian dish. It is something I learned to make at The Natural Cookery School. As it is literally made from flour and water, it is a very cheap dish. Whenever people ask me what it is, I’m always reluctant to explain as it can’t help but sounds unappetizing: it is bread dough that is soaked in water, then washed approximately 8-10 times to remove the starch. This leaves the gluten behind in a now, springy, stretchy dough that is boiled for approx. an hour in a tasty shoyu, garlic and ginger broth. At this stage the Seitan is now made, however, like meat, further processes can be done to it to match your favourite cooking styles. For the Christmas loaf, before it is been boiled in the broth, it is stretched out on a board and ‘stuffed’ with tofu, veg, rolled up and tied with string. I’d chosen marinated tofu, carrot sticks and garlic for the stuffing. A few years ago, when making this for Christmas dinner, I’d discovered that this boiled loaf could then be roasted in the oven to add a crispy texture that was very popular with the family. As I had allotment squash that I was going to roast, I decided to use a large baking tray that they could both sit on.

I’d made the stuffed seitan loaf on Christmas eve. Again, learning by experience, I didn’t let any of the starchy water go down the sink, as in a house with old pipes it doesn’t take much to clog them up. Therefore, after each wash, alternating with cold and warm water, I kept the water in a washing up bowl which was eventually emptied in a corner of the garden. On washing the dough, you have to gentle squeeze it together as there is a risk of it not keeping together, although I’ve never had that problem. The idea between the differing water temperatures is to shock the dough into sticking together. Wash after wash, the water turns milky, soft with the repeated squeezings, however you have to keep on until the dough becomes stretchy and the water is mostly clear. This takes about 8 washes. So although the process is time consuming, once you are confident in doing it, it is a cheap and simple enough way to make protein. On the finished article – the texture is much more ‘meaty’ than tofu, with more flavour. It also has a nice, light texture.

Anyway, I’d sat down and worked out the timings for the cooking, as well as the oven space, as I’d discovered when I last made a roast dinner, juggling oven space was quite an issue. I’d decided that we wouldn’t do Yorkshire puds this time, as we would have a substantial meal anyway. So the menu was:

Starters- Veggie Sos Rolls
Dinner– Seitan roast with roast squash and roast potatoes, served with Winter Slaw, steamed brussel sprouts with sultanas, steamed red cabbage and roasted brussel sprouts with shallots. Accompanied by Cranberry sauce and gravy.
Pudding – Christmas pudding and Yule Log, with Cider Brandy butter and Vanilla cream

A couple of days before I’d made the Christmas pudding from a recipe I’d developed about 7 years ago and has been declared by my mum to be ‘the best Christmas pudding ever’ – praise indeed. Anyway, it contains the usual dried fruit, breadcrumbs etc., but also has grated carrot and is soaked in orange juice. This year the grated carrots were from the allotment, it was a little tricky to grate these as the late carrots were poor quality, but tasty nonetheless. I used to buy a miniature Cider Brandy for lighting the pudding but the local shop no longer stocked them. This is made locally and was a cause celebre several years ago as they won the right to call it Brandy (rather than Calvados) at the European court. I follow them on twitter and have always wanted to buy my own bottle (for cooking with as I’m not a brandy drinker). It has been made famous by Hugh F-W for cooking uses. So I had earned loyalty points at my local Somerton shop and decided to buy a small bottle. The night before making the Christmas pudding I soaked the dried fruit in cider brandy topped up with orange juice. I made a large pudding along with a small pudding that I thought I’d take to my Mum, as I often do at Christmas.

I’d seen a Hugh F-W recipe for roasted brussel sprouts and decided that I had to try it out as I had all the right ingredients including some remaining allotment shallots:

Below is  a link to the recipe for roasted brussel sprouts by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall:

http://www.channel4.com/4food/recipes/chefs/hugh-fearnley-whittingstall/roasted-brussels-sprouts-with-shallots-recipe

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I decided to get the seitan and squash roasted first whilst I was chopping, shredding and grating the veg for the winter slaw. That way I could ensure they had got what they needed out of the oven, before I gave it over to the roast potatoes. For this I chopped the squash, removing the seeds and the skin, leaving them in large chunks. I’d poured a little olive oil onto the baking tray and then placed the seitan loaf and squash pieces on before sprinkling some salt and pepper on the squash. I put the oven to Gas Mark 6, expecting them to need about 30 mins before it could go onto the lower oven shelf. Once the slaw was made I scrubbed the muddy potatoes, before chopping them to size to be boiled for 5 mins or so. These pots are firmly textured that need a little more boiling than others before they roast. Whilst they are boiling, I get the baking pan ready with olive oil, garlic and rosemary that is warmed in the oven ready to use (here a multiple of ingredients are combined then seen as a single unit as it has a single use). I can also get the brussel sprouts ready for roasting, by firstly washing them and chopping off their outer leaves. By this stage the potatoes are ready for roasting. I remove the potatoes, keeping the hot water for steaming the greens. I arrange the potatoes in the pan, sprinkle a little more salt and then put them in the oven, to start with on the lower shelf. I have to keep an eye on the time, as in ten minutes the roast seitan and squash should be about ready and I will swap them over with the potatoes that need a good hot oven for successful browning and crisping.

During this time, I prepare the shallots that were left over from my crop. I’d used up the larger ones that I’d used like onions and was left with the small definitely shallot sized ones that firstly need peeling. I only have half a dozen of these, so the aim is to try out the recipe and add another layer of flavour to the meal. By this time, the roast seitan and squash is cooked perfectly, cooked and browned. I remove the tray, taking the potatoes up to the top shelf. I now know I have approximately 30-40 minutes before dinner will be ready. I quickly finish preparing the roasted Brussels and get them in the oven on the lower shelf.
I now give attention to the steamed greens and onion gravy. The red cabbage isn’t large and so is quickly washed and chopped large. Chopping the brussel sprouts takes time, as the outer leaves need to be peeled off individually. I have a few purple allotment ones to prepare and the supermarket bought ones as well. I’m a big fan of brussel sprouts; the boys happily eat them too and so make sure we have plenty. I place them in the steamer pan over the hot water, adding some sultanas to jazz up the dish. I now get my large iron frying pan on, whilst chopping onion and garlic for the gravy. I pour in some olive oil, add a bay leaf or two then the onion/garlic mix with a pinch of salt to release the sulphur, which makes the onions cook to softness. Once they’re soft, I add a tablespoon(ish) of plain flour, cook this in and then begin to add some of the steamer water. This needs to be stirred as it warms and thickens to prevent lumps. Once I’ve added enough water, I add a couple of teaspoons of mustard, stock powder and pepper. Again this needs adequate stirring to mix the ingredients thoroughly so that they combine with the liquid, onion mixture; merging, breaking down individual barriers to become a single entity called onion gravy, in which only the onion pieces can be seen to have individuality.
During this process the steamed veg is ready and turned off. I check the potatoes, turning them over to crisp on a different side. I stir the roasting brussel sprouts for similar browning. As the potatoes need only another 10 minutes, I place the seitan/squash tray back in on the lower shelf, propping the roasted Brussels on an up-turned cake tin on the floor of the oven. The table has been prepared with a candle/ivy centerpiece and I call in my younger son to help get out the cutlery, crackers etc., which he happily does. I had already made a salad dressing, which I’ve put on the slaw to get it softening. The cranberry sauce also goes on the table, whilst I begin the process of dishing out the dinner onto plates. As I cut the seitan, I can see that it has worked very well and call my eldest son into see it; he looks excited. However, once cut some pieces sort of fall apart, however at this stage I’m past caring! The boys choose not to have roasted squash as they’re not keen, I find this amazing as it’s probably my favourite taste on the plate, so more for me (as leftovers).
We open the buzz fizz and I make the boys weak ones, we toast, pull crackers and begin eating. I’m pleased that everything has come out successfully and looks how it should. However, I’m so hungry (and a little tired) that I have to control an urge to skip the cracker jokes and just eat. Instead I tell the boys that I just want to taste the seitan roast first, which they’re happy with. It is just right, with a great chewy texture, savoury flavour contrasted with the sweeter marinated tofu and carrot. I’m content with a good, successful dinner and can relax into the occasion. On eating I’m particularly in love with the roasted squash, its thick, savoury sweetness is so satisfying. The roasted brussel sprouts were finished with lemon juice that adds another layer of taste into the meal. The pots are great, the onion gravy tasty and I’m quite a fan of cranberry sauce too – why save it just for Christmas? My only doubt is the winter slaw – yes it’s tasty, fresh and a nice change, but on the Christmas dinner plate it seems too cold. A slight disappointment, but not the end of the world. However, it meant I got to use a range of allotment veg and we have a colourful display on our plates. We all eat up happily, with the boys having seconds of seitan.
I like a break between a large main and puddings when eating at home. The boys are keen to too, partly because they’re full but mostly because we’re doing present opening after dinner. We’d talked in advance that the boys would share the washing up today and luckily they’re keen to wash different things. I make sure everything is rinsed, so one washes the plates, cutlery and a few other things. Then the other washes the pans, baking trays etc. It doesn’t take too long and I’m very glad to have shared the work. I feel most of my work for today has been done and can now relax. This is important as preparing for this meal has taken a number of days.
Halfway through presents we pause to eat the Yule log, deciding to leave the Christmas pud until the evening, so that we can eat that as an evening meal (along with nibbles and snacks such as sos rolls or cheese and crackers, or of course, chocolate!) The Christmas pud needs to steam for half an hour to warm it up. I make some brandy butter which doesn’t look right as I only have margarine (won’t do that again). It doesn’t come out of the dish easily and becomes a mush, which won’t light after pouring cider brandy on it. On tasting it, I’m really disappointed as there is just too much cider brandy in the mix and not enough of the fruity flavour it usually has. By now my youngest has a stomachache and doesn’t want his, whereas the eldest keenly eats his. A week later I take a small Christmas pudding up to my mum. Without the extra cider brandy in the butter and the lighting of it, it is actually very nice. However, next year I’ll go back to my usual recipe with moderate amounts of the lovely Cider Brandy.
I’m pleased with using the allotment veg and not having to buy much for the dinner. During the following week I also enjoy making a tasty soup with the vegetable leftovers.

Allotment Dishes-Roasted Squash, Tomato and Garlic Risotto

ROASTED TOMATO, GARLIC & SQUASH RISOTTO 

Cooked at home with allotment produce -15/10/1

Ingredients:

250g risotto rice

1 small butternut squash (roughly 350-400gms)

150g cherry tomatoes

1 large onion

50g Chard or spinach, washed

2 cloves garlic

Rosemary, salt & pepper,

750ml veg stock incl 100ml wine (optional)

Olive oil

Rocket, parsley or other green herb to garnish

Grated quality hard cheddar or parmesan to taste

Set Oven to Gas mark 5/ 190C or 375F

Method:

  • Place a tablespoon of olive oil in a roasting dish and place in the oven
  • Peel the squash with a sharp knife (chopping in half and de-seeding along the way). Chop into 1cm thick segments
  • Chop the tomatoes in half
  • Chop the garlic and rosemary
  • Place the chopped squash and toms, in the hot roasting dish. Season liberally with the garlic, rosemary and salt and place in the oven for 30mins
  • Meanwhile in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, put in a dsp of olive oil to warm. Chop the onions and add to the oil once it is warm, with a small pinch of salt (this releases the sulphur from the onions). Let this saute for 5 mins
  • Add the risotto rice, stir and saute for a further 5 mins.
  • Now add some of the stock water- approx a quarter. Stir frequently whilst it is absorbed.
  • Chop the washed chard or spinach. Add to the cooking risotto.
  • At this stage check the roasting veg. If the surface has browned, using two forks, turn all pieces of veg over to brown on the other side.
  • When the stock is absorbed, continue to add the stock bit by bit. This should take approx 25 mins.
  • Keep an eye on the roasting veg. It should be done after 30 minutes. Once a little browned and crispy, remove from the oven.
  • When the risotto rice has absorbed all the stock and is cooked, add the roasted veg. Stirring it in gently so as not to mush it.
  • Season with a little grated strong cheese and pepper to taste.
  • Serve with a covering of washed rocket, parsley or other preferred herb. Then grate some strong cheese over it.
  • Enjoy!

Somerton Allotments Opening – Community Harvest Cook-in 10/9/11

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An eye on the weather was uppermost in our minds to begin with for the opening day.

At home, I’d cooked the salad potatoes that Sabine had dropped round on Friday night, made a Balsamic & Honey Salad dressing as well as a Basil Vinaigrette which had a vivid green colour. The bags of equipment were packed up with chopping boards, knives, graters, large saucepans, cutlery, the dhal ingredients such as spices and red lentils. The 2 ring camping gas stove and gas bottle were also put in the car. I haven’t made the Dhal for a while, and so I looked up the recipe to remind myself of the processes needed. The salads were going to be very easy as I’d done them before.

I went up to the plots at 10:30, where the wind was very gusty and there was a light rain. The committee members were busy putting up a gazebo, ready for the start time of 1pm. On finding Johannes, I asked him for the produce we needed for the cooking event. Sabine had left their beetroots, onions and garlic for us and we went into their plot to pick the chard and carrots. Their chard crop was looking excellent with v tall leaves on resonant yellow stems; the leaves were approx. 40cm long. The carrots were well spaced, with purple tops, Johannes gently forked around them, whilst I pulled up a good bunch. These were impressive looking carrots, fairly straight and with a good girth. It would be interesting to try their flavour.

Jean came over with an armful of produce with salad leaves, chard, french beans, 2 lovely looking fennel bulbs, rocket leaves with some fennel fronds too. I looked at the array of veg, thinking about what we were growing, checking we had the right produce and the right quantities. Johannes was adamant that his purple french beans took about 60 mins to cook and so wouldn’t work in the dhal. I have the same bean, but a dwarf variety and find them easy to cook. However, it is a busy, full-on day and decided to use Jeans beans instead.

We talked about washing the veg and I decided to take them home to do this as I felt it would be easier than doing at the plots in such difficult weather. It took half an hour to wash all the veg, my sink became lined with mud from the carrots and beetroot, the kitchen table again had mud crumbs across it. The Chard and salad leaves were fairly clean, however, the responsibility of feeding the public kept me vigilant in washing it all thoroughly. I loaded the veg into a crate and returned to the plots at 12:30, together with my son Bodhi who is going to do some video filming of the event.

The weather was now brighter, but still v windy. The gazebo was up, with a large, solid wooden table underneath and several plastic tables alongside. The committee members were busy putting up a table with cakes and tea equipment as well as a table with raffle prizes. Meanwhile lots of cars were arriving, parking up. I unloaded my equipment, gas stove etc., arranged the wooden chopping boards etc.

By this time, some Lytes Cary plot-holders also arrived, who I spoke to and soon enough David Heath (MP) arrived, as well as many members of Somerton Town Council. At 1pm John Watts, the allotment chair, addressed the crowd, on a small pallet, platform. He thanked everyone including the landowner,Brian Perry, plot-holders and others. Then David Heath spoke, talking about how such growing-your-own activities were once common. He talked  about how growing-your-own provides an opportunity to access good food sustainably. Once he finished, Brian Perry, asked us all to thank the work John Watts had performed to get the allotments up and running. David H then presented the allotment plot prizes – Elaine won a shield, with Dave Vaughan  being runner up.

At this point visiting the plots was a popular activity. I began the salad preparation with Jean who quickly created a good looking green salad. I said that I’d been hoping to put some nasturtium flowers in it and Jean, went off to her plot to pick some. It was quiet for awhile whilst the plots were visited, however, soon enough several plot-holders began to get involved with the salad making including Sabine, Keith and a plot-holder I didn’t know. Keith asked what to do and I asked him to chop up the potatoes for the salad, Sabine took to grating the beetroot, whilst the other plot-holder chopped up the chard. I began to chop the onions ready for beginning the dhal. I had concerns about cooking this on a gas stove in such gusty wind. However, once lighting it, the chopped onions, spices and bay leaves, were soon sizzling; when it had sauteed for a few minutes, I added the chopped chard. As this was going on, I asked them about what they’ve been cooking and how their harvest has gone. Keith said he was very pleased with the season, with the main issue now being one of storage. He said that he’s thinking of building a potato clamp, which would involve giving some of the garden over to it. Sabine agreed that storage was an issue for them too. Keith said that he isn’t an inventive cook and just gets the produce cooked for eating. Sabine was grating her own carrots and we paused to sample them. They were very good- a full, sweet flavour.

Meanwhile, several of the town councillors came to chat including Judith, who Liz introduced me to. She was very keen to get stuck in chopping, being keen to chat too. She says that she isn’t much of a gardener but enjoys eating fresh produce, but again feels she doesn’t have broad cookery skills. She enjoyed helping by chopping the french beans for me. By now, the salads were all about done. The green leaves and nasturtium salad looked very colourful and inviting. The grated carrot and beetroot salad looked very juicy and I asked Bodhi to chop some rocket to add another colour in it. I also asked Jean to chop some fennel fronds to add to the potato salad.

It was now time to add the dressings. I used the basil vinaigrette, which was a thick, green dressing onto the beetroot and carrot salad as well as the potato salad. Then I added some Balsamic and Honey dressing to the green salad. This caused much interest and comment and I ran through what was in the dressings with several people:

Honey & Balsamic Dressing:

Ingredients:

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

1 tsp. dijon-style mustard

1 tsp. honey

1 clove garlic, minced (optional)

1 shallot, minced

1/4 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:

In a small bowl whisk all ingredients to combine or put all ingredients in a jar and shake to combine. Use immediately or keep, covered and chilled, up to one week.

Makes 2/3 cup dressing.

Basil Vinaigrette:

Ingredients:

2 cups basil leaves (about 1 large bunch)

1/2 cup good-quality olive oil

1/4 cup white wine or champagne vinegar

1 small clove garlic

Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

In a blender or food processor, whirl basil, oil, vinegar, and garlic until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Makes about 1 cup

At this time people began to taste the salads. I continued getting the dhal cooking by adding the water, red lentils, french beans and a little stock. Within 5-10 minutes, this was soon simmering; I placed on the saucepan lid and let it cook.

A crowd had now developed to taste the salads and I talked to many of the people tasting, including Pauline Clarke, who is a town councillor and was for many years the County Councillor for the area. She enjoyed the salads very much and we talked about growing, cooking and good food. She grows a little at home and has a big interest in food matters. I was also talking at length to Alison from Keeper’s Cottage, which neighbour the plot site. She was very interested in my research and asked to talk to me another time. She said that they’ve tried to be self-sufficient which means they’ve: ‘had to get inventive with what we eat.’ Both Alison and Pauline were very keen to talk again.

Pat (plot 35),  expressed alot of interest in the salads. She was especially interested in the dhal saying that she often didn’t know what to do with french beans and just blanched and froze them. She hadn’t thought that you could just cook them into a dish. Other people expressed interest in the grated salad, saying that they didn’t know that you could eat beetroot raw. I talked about this to Sabine, who is German; she is surprised about the limited range of British vegetable cooking and the reliance on pickling. By this time, the dhal was ready. Within half an hour the dhal had all gone, the eating of it generating much interest and comment. Many people asked me what had gone in it, what spices I’d used and what vegetables I used? John Watts jokingly asked: ‘Where’s the meat?’, but then came back for seconds and thirds. It was a popular dish creating much comment about the smells, the flavour, the use of veg and how quickly it’d cooked.

By this time, the event was drawing to a close and I had a chat with Elaine, who’d won the plot prize. (She had also given me swede plants for my plot about 2 months ago). Elaine is passionate about growing and loves being up at the plots. She has been known to put in a 14 hour day there. She has a broad selection of veg growing including asparagus, fennel, beetroots, etc. She told me that recently they’ve been living off roast-style dinners, especially using roasted beetroots. She’s been busy making damson jams and jellies, including damson and marrow jam, beetroot and ginger relish and damson jelly. She is going to do a pre-christmas, christmas dinner with a large group of friends where all the produce, apart from the turkey, will be coming from her plot.

Liz (my ex-neighbour and plot official leasee), was inspired by the food on the day. She said that its made her think about what she’ll grow on her garden beds next year, including beetroot, fennel and chard. She’d eaten chard before but hadn’t realised how good it is, with its slightly more robust texture and is now keen to grow some. Sabine, who had been running the cake and tea stall, told me that several people had told her that they’d been inspired by the food prepared, as it had given them new ideas on what to grow and how to cook the produce.

I took a lot of satisfaction from the day, being aware that on this occasion, the ‘kitchen’ had been brought to the growing space, the space of production, with 95% of what we’d been cooking and eating having been grown approx. 5 metres away from where we’d cooked and eaten it. Additionally, during the growing season, I had picked up many different growing tips from other people on the plots, directly or indirectly for preparing the soil and growing my veg. Today, I felt that I was giving something back, by sharing my cooking and meal preparation knowledge with the community. From what I was told, this sharing would change some of their food habits and choices. It had been a successful day for all; the cooking event had given the whole day a space of intimacy where knowledge was shared through the pleasure of food, as well as sharing the everyday act of cooking and eating.


			

Harvest 6th September 2011

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It may have taken awhile, but in the last few weeks, we’ve been having some regular harvests from the plots. Regular crops of potatoes, carrots, shallots, purple french beans, lettuce and peas. The peas were sweet, delicious and quickly devoured.

Due to time pressures, previous harvests have been simply steamed or lightly boiled and served with maybe a peanut butter sauce or some vege sausages. These cooking choices also stemmed from a desire to taste the veg naked, to judge how good it was. The carrots earthy, sweetness was apparent right from pulling them from the ground, making me want to eat them there and then. I managed to get them home, though, ready to scrub the lumps of clay off them. Once chopped, I did sample and the full, rich but juicy taste was thrillingly perfect. The shallots have the sharp, spicy tang that was hoped for too.

The only disappointment is the potatoes. They have a great texture and look beautiful, however, I find them slightly bland tasting. I more of a Pink Fir Apple girl, or prefer Charlotte salad flavours. But, I was given these to plant by another plot-holder, at a time I was chasing myself coming backwards, trying to get something planted in this first season. So another dish of boiled potatoes didn’t excite; therefore, something more exciting had to be achieved here. Being a lucky parent of two growing boys, I decided to ask them what they’d like. The suggestion from the 14 year old was chips, from the 10 year old was french fries. I explained that I couldn’t do french fries easily, but the idea of chips made me think of the pan cooked wedges my mum used to make (not frequently enough in her children’s opinion.)

I had The Soil Association’s Grown in Britain cookbook which is arranged around seasonally grown produce. On looking up potatoes they had a double spread with short recipes offering suggestions ranging from baked gratins to oven wedges. These wedges, were exactly what I was looking for. The recipe was a short paragraph long and looked so easy- it involved halving the potatoes, then quartering the halves, roasting them in a hot oven for 30 mins with olive oil, salt, cumin, curry powder and oregano. I also added chopped shallot. Turning them once half way, ensured both sides crisp up.

I decided to make a simple tomato sauce with onion,french bean, carrot and (bought) carvolo nero, and serve it with ripped lettuce leaves.

It was easy, quick enough and exceedingly good. Having two growing boys, used to rissottos, pasta sauces, stir fries with rice etc., they were excited to have a roasted potato dinner. They both enjoyed it thoroughly, with the older son asking for more wedges. I would definitely do this again and will forget any thoughts of frozen oven chips in future.