Thursday, September 11, 2008

Liberate the Land

Forget your Waitroses, your Tescos and your Sainsburys, your Asdas, your Morrisons and your Lidls. There's an even cheaper source of food - it's free - and I have seen it with my own eyes. It is unlikely to sustain even the most minor human though. Yes it definitely will not sustain you, unless you are a fruitatarian.

Blackberries are ready and waiting to be picked in a piece of countryside near you. Nature's wonderful bounty - packaged in fruit form and accessible to those who ramble through the brambles.

It is a wonder of Britain - the fact that there is land in private ownership ("common land") over which we, the masses have certain rights. Whether those rights extend from the grazing of cattle, something I don't have much call for, to the picking of fruit and fungi seems to be in dispute. However, the general consensus seems to be that if you are picking them for your own use, then you are on safe ground.

When we went picking last weekend the dismal weather seemed to have produced a crop of small and incredibly soft fruit, but with a small team of highly trained pickers we managed to snaffle up a couple of pounds of purple berries in just over an hour.

The unseasonal downpours had turned the byways to small inland waterways, so care was required not to get bogged down or to fall unceremoniously into a deep puddle whilst straining off balance to reach the most inaccessible ones.

Quite why they are called blackberries is a mystery, since after our stint in countryside crop collection, my hands were stained purple with flecks of red, ravaged with cuts from the vicious thorns. I must make a note to tell whoever is in charge of these things that they are definitely wrong on this one.

So, the food to feed your family is out there. Forget the credit crunch and go get 'em people.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Right time, right plaice

It was a cataclysmically damp day and the lights of my destination shone out like a beacon from the gathering early evening gloom. The gleaming white surfaces of the interior and the shiny steel of the mainstay of the operation oozed with consumer confidence, attracting the occasional visitor and regular alike. The staff in this place of off-site catering know their business and do their utmost to ensure that you leave as soon as possible, laden down with the fruits of their labours.

Which is odd really, since the one thing you won't find in The Avon Fish Bar, in Newbury is fruit, or vegetables for that matter. Never mind though - taking a break from healthy eating for a night will not hurt anyone - please consult your GP if you are unsure. What you will find is fish - the clue's in the name of the place and very good it is too.

Now Newbury is not renowned for being near the sea or anything like that so we are not talking "just landed" cod or "off the dock" plaice, but sheer honest to goodness catches that have been whisked down to the mean streets of this market town, lovingly coated in golden batter and thrown into that fiery steel fryer, nanoseconds before you enter. The result is pure white moist flakes enveloped with a crisp textured jacket and accompanied with plump fluffy potato chips, fried to the perfect state of bite.

For the sea averse diner, as per the younger members of the party, you can always salivate over the obligatory deep fried jumbo sausage, or if an actual fried fish is too simple in concept you can always opt for the fishcake. As with all good restaurants, the choice is strictly limited, but what they do serve they do well and you cannot say fairer than that.

Up and down the country this scene is being played out, the humble emporium serving its local community with its national dish. There are so many reasons not to cook: poor weather, end of the week, nothing in, stressful meeting. These saviours of the day are there to rescue us all. Purveyors of the fish supper, we salute you.

This is not just food, this is solid British food. It's not fancy, but it's fine.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Low Expectations

The omens weren't good. The weather forecast looked mightily similar to where we leaving behind; our youngest had a wrist in plaster, having managed to acquire a green-stick fracture in the first week of the holidays, which seemed to be increasingly doom-laden. The raison d'être for the trip was to have been to cycle and swim - but these were now out of the equation for one of our number. So, when our flight to Nantes in North-West France arrived bang on time and completely without incident, things seemed to be looking up. Our convictions were further reinforced when the hire car was better than the usual dross that gets palmed off on unsuspecting tourists and had the added bonus of Sat Nav to boot. Of course all of this good fortune was lulling us into a false sense of security as the charming female tones of the directional device led us straight into a humdinger of a holiday jam on the Nantes peripherique.

We might have expected this. After all, August in France is prime season: the bête noire is that the patriotic Gallic hordes take en masse to their Renaults, Citroens and Peugeots and head for the sun. In this case they all seemed to have opted for our destination of the Ile de Re and had set off at exactly the same time. We travelled around the ring road at escargot's pace, but on reaching the autoroute the confiture subsided and we picked up speed towards our villa for the week, which had been booked through Homelidays. Our hopes were dashed once more as we settled into a slow-moving queue north of Marans, now off the fast road and into the Marais Poiteven, a marshy wonderland criss crossed by canals but few roads, so we had little option but to sit it out - only punctuated by calls to the villa's owner with tardier rendezvous times for the all important key handover ceremony.

When we finally made it we were greeted by Michel, white van man and proud possessor of a chic pied-à-terre on the edge of Sainte Marie de Re. This was no fin de siècle monstrosity though but a modern clean lined single storey structure finished in the vernacular whitewashed walls, curly red tiles and green shutters. The villa was supremely equipped for holiday activity with pool, trampoline, ping pong, boules and brick barbecue. He seemed to be up on his technology though and had installed a PC with internet access thrown in, electrically operated security shutters and wireless surveillance devices around the property. Our French wasn't good enough to ask him if he could monitor our every move - a creepy thought. Hopefully he only used this for when his charming place was unoccupied.

Goals - it is important to have these and never more so than when on your annual vacation. Mine were simple - oysters - I had to try some. I had lost my oyster virginity in Whitstable a while back, and was keen to re-kindle my relationship with these beautiful bi-valves. These are a speciality of the Charentes-Maritime region: trying the local chow helps to root your holiday with a sense of place and increase your joie de vivre. I finally ticked off this off my list on a visit to the busy port area of La Rochelle, a town with heritage, like the fifteenth century 'Lanterne tower' an ancient vertigo inducing 55 metre lighthouse - worth a day's visit. My family were not impressed by the odour of my hors d'oeuvres however and opted for the tried and tested favourite of moules frites - not haute cuisine certainly, but the standard of 'ordinary' French cooking beats most British pub grub.

It is the cuisine that keeps drawing us back to our nearest neighbour. I mean you have to be bowled over by a country that celebrates bread - one the most basic foodstuffs known to man. The French pay homage to their bakers - a hard working profession who toil away while the nation sleeps to supply us with tasty breakfast items. They elevate some to artisan status - there is no higher honour - these are experts at their chosen craft but with their skill comes the added benefit that the product that they sell arrives with scarcely a few food kilometres on the clock. This bread is designed to be consumed close to the point of origin or else it turns to inedible dry sandpaper and nobody wants that.

A visit to the market - like the medieval one at La Flotte - one of the island's larger towns and another busy port, can easily consume a morning. Away from the practicalities of earning a crust, you can afford to linger over tables heaving with spices, fruits, vegetables, every conceivable kind of fish, seafood and souvenirs carved from stone or fashioned from iron. The trusty traders know how to display their wares to greatest temptation - designed to extract the maximum number of holiday euros from the thronged customers weaving their way around the stalls.

St Martin de Ré, whose harbour harbours its own islet also accommodates attractions for the visitor. The largest ice-cream shop I have ever encountered sits there on the front, enticing the clientèle with its array of ices. There were more flavours than there are days in the long school summer break and I believe the counter, which seemed to stretch for three shop units width had to be that long so that they could display the names of the different ones they offered. The milling hordes were three deep at the bar, but I don't know how many of them were queuing for the most exotic taste of 'caviar and oyster'.

No visit to the Ile de Ré would be complete without a trip to the salt pans. This 'cottage' industry had declined massively from its peak in the nineteenth century, but there is still something supremely satisfying about their year round struggle to harvest the natural resources of the sea. Another basic element but vital to the preparation of the region's most flavoursome dishes, salt has to be persuaded to part company from its watery home by a combination of wind and sun and man made pools of decreasing depth. Anyone au fait with the skill of the salt worker would know that they use paddles and scoops to extract the salt first from the surface - literally 'salt flowers' and then through more strenuous sloshing of water to scrape the crystallised salt into a rectangular pyramid. These regular snowy peaks dotted across the landscape give rise to a scene like none other.

Back at our holiday home, our own private hexagonal pool (an unashamed luxury) provided many hours of enjoyment, but also an unexpected added bonus. The sheer pleasure of watching the pool cleaning robot scurrying about on its underwater quest to rid the pool of damp debris and submerged slime, brought about a state of tranquil relaxation and je ne sais quoi that could not be induced by the local wine alone. The decking of the patio and pool surround revived memories of my own construction in a previous residence - the warmth of the wood when exiting the pool was a sharp contrast to the usual cold, rough tile. In the evening sun, you could sit at the table, shaded by the electrically operated awning (de rigueur around these parts), sipping your Ile de Re rosé. C'est la vie!

Friday, February 08, 2008

Doctor, doctor, am I a Luddite?

It had to happen sooner or later. After all it was nearly fifteen years old and the chrome wasn't quite as shiny as the day we bought it. It was a design classic: just past its diamond anniversary and barely changed in all that time. I was as accustomed to its beautiful ticking sound, as I am to the voices of my own family: it signified the imminent arrival of a warm breakfast. Two slices of bread were never transformed into toast quite as effortlessly as in our Dualit toaster, which went wrong last week.

There's no need to mourn though - no speedy send-off to appliance heaven with this little beauty: oh no my precious, no! As I have done several times before, I will repair it. The sheer simplicity of its design is its greatest strength: there are a mere four different active parts, which makes fault-finding easier than the Sun crossword. As the design evolves at geological speeds, there is no need for the manufacturers to maintain a colossal inventory of multifarious parts in a huge, anonymous warehouse just off the M23. I fondly imagine that they are stored in the equivalent of an elderly gentleman's front room, on plain shelves, just high enough for the elderly gentleman who's in charge of them to reach.

When working perfectly and standing proud and gleaming on the granite worktop, it has the air of an instrument that knows it's going to last. It seems to be constructed in metal from which I fondly imagine 'black-box' flight recorders are made. If the worst happened and an atomic bomb landed on Rod K Mansions, I think our ape-like descendants who may eventually roam the planet would be able to crank up a generator, pluck the toaster from the wreckage, plug it in and make a decent round of crispy bread snacks in no time at all.

It is the ultimate green option: in this era of the disposable, the durable is king. Who needs the gimmicks, who needs the add-ons? Who needs pop-up, auto-timing, kitchen-coordinating features when they can have something that works and goes on working when the lesser white goods have been sent for scrap?

But is this the only uncomplicated gadget that I have ever owned or does my choice of home technology tend toward the Luddite? I thought long, I thought hard and finally an image of a revolving 12 inch, perfectly clear glass platter formed in my mind's eye. Who needs automatic speed changing when you can easily lift the turntable and shift the tiny rubber band from one spindle to another to switch between long players and 45rpm singles? This was the Rega Planar 3, a black slab and no-nonsense audiophile option for spinning the vinyl and generating the music of my youth.

It too was a design classic with few parts, but those that were included were highly engineered to deliver sonic perfection. I fondly imagine that the designers spent hundreds of hours honing their craft and delivering a platform worthy of Mozart, Brahms and Tchaikovsky: I of course played the Clash, but it sounded brilliant all the same.

Like the Dualit, the Rega was built to last, and last it did. Sadly, the software, as those Eighties Hi-Fi magazines used to call it didn't: usurped by the technically inferior but highly popular CD. It became harder and harder to find the tunes I liked pressed into the spiralling groove of the record and so the Rega was put out to grass and finally to the ignominy of the car boot sale.

I fondly imagine though in many aeons time, our ape-like descendants who may eventually roam the planet would be able to crank up a generator, pluck the turntable from the landfill site, plug it in and listen to an admittedly scratched copy of 'London Calling'.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Michelin Time

For the avid restaurant reviewer, January is the most exciting time; along with sitting down in a newly found eaterie for the first time. For why? One word: Michelin. The latest guide is due out in the coming week. This bible of all that is hot in the world of the professional kitchen will pass judgement on the performance of those that wore the toque in 2007.

Who's in, who's out, who's up and who's down: the premier league of chefs get delivered their end of season report and this will have a major bearing on those all important earnings for the year to come. For instance, has the new team at the Hare in Lambourn done enough to keep theirs?

A recent re-visit to the Yew Tree Inn, which boasts the name of the lifetime starred Marco Pierre White, has shown that a popular TV show can also help pull in the punters. The menu had changed little since our previous foray into the northern fringes of Hampshire, but was none the worse for that. What had changed though was the clientèle: there were loads of them. Tables didn't stay empty for long, as new occupants replaced old, eager to sample a slice of Hell's Kitchen. This wasn't H.K. food, or Michelin food, but the place had a buzz, an atmosphere, generated by people in search of a decent meal., which is exactly what they got.

Some people criticise the guide for concentrating on poncy nosh that real people would rarely eat, but having dined at and reported on a few that have earned themselves a coveted star or two, I can vouch that these chefs definitely try that little bit harder. A Michelin chef can produce a dish that transports you to another place - they bring out flavour that inferior cooks leave behind in the pan or indeed the field.

You can be sure of top quality ingredients which, in these post Big Food Fight days, Joe Public knows are really important. You can be sure that they have been treated with reverence. You can be sure that they have been lovingly combined with one aim: pure pleasure on the plate and on your palate.

Michelin chefs demand high standards in the kitchen, just as you should demand high standards in your chosen dining establishment, starred or nay. As Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have done for the supermarket chicken, you with your purchasing power can do for the humble restaurant meal. By voting with your fork, you can help drive up the quality of British food. We don't want to be a nation of culinary low achievers, so the next time I hear someone criticising the Guide, I will shed a tear for the poverty of aspiration that misguided soul represents.

We all have a choice as to where to spend our hard-earned loot. Please don't lavish it on junk.