Another Conundrum

Following my dissertation on the mechanics of pork pies last year, I’ve been pondering another conundrum.

Why, when you shake a few drops of Angostura bitters to prepare a pink gin, does the the first drop invariable overshoot the glass by a considerable margin? What causes it to emerge from the bottle on a totally different trajectory from the following drops, which just fall obediently into the glass.

And why does the same thing not happen with, say, Worcestershire Sauce, which comes in a similarly sized and shaped bottle?

I don’t know the answer yet but I’m thinking about it. Watch this space.

Thoughts From Another Dimension

Imagine a parallel universe, a world in which – as in our own universe – humans have for the most part been omnivorous throughout recorded history. However, there is a small but growing and increasingly vocal minority who for various reasons have committed themselves to only eating an animal-based diet. These people– let’s call them carnarians – are inclined to justify their choice on purportedly ethical grounds which may not always stand up to close scrutiny or extol the alleged health benefits of their diet despite evidence that some plant-based food might be good for them. The more outspoken of them may even be prone to lecturing others on the moral superiority of their lifestyle at the slightest provocation.

But here’s a curious thing. In this parallel world scientists have developed a potato substitute made entirely from meat which can be cut into strips and deep fried. Carnarians like to eat these with their steaks and burgers and refer to them as “carn chips” or “carn fries”. They may also have a side order of carnarian peas – little spheres of green-dyed chicken – or meat mushrooms. Perhaps they even wash it all down with a fermented animal secretion called carni-wine.

You’ve probably guessed where I’m coming from. In the real world, vegetarians have a tendency to describe plant-based dishes in terms which normally relate to animal-derived foods – veggie burgers, vegetarian sausages, vegan cheese, vegetable suet, almond milk etc. But why?

If people want to subsist on an entirely plant-based diet, I don’t have an issue with that. I’m not necessarily convinced by their arguments, but it’s their choice and it’s still (mostly) a free country. But why this compulsion to describe what they eat by reference to meat or dairy produce and even try to make it look and taste the same?

Is it because they – consciously or subconsciously – miss what they’ve chosen not to eat? It has been said that the smell of bacon is the thing most likely to cause vegetarians to waver in their convictions. Incidentally, I’ve never heard of “vegetarian bacon”; perhaps it would be too much of a temptation to return to the real thing.

Are they perhaps hoping by using these terms to persuade us carnivores to try the ersatz version? If so, it won’t work on me.

I read recently about a restaurant which claims to have produced the ultimate veggie burger. After hundreds of hours of research and experimentation they came up with a plant-based recipe which tastes exactly like – a Big Mac. Seriously! All that trouble to make a concoction of vegetables which were probably not unpleasant in their natural state taste like a mass-produced blob of mechanically recovered meat? I shake my head in bewilderment. Now if they’d managed to make it taste like a gourmet burger made from prime Wagyu beef, I might be prepared to give it a go but I rather doubt that would be possible.

And today my weekly email of recipe suggestions from OddBox* pointed me to a recipe for stuffed peppers. Of course, I have my own ideas for stuffing peppers, including wild rice and baby squid with the tentacles arranged like the Alien bursting forth from the hapless astronaut’s belly, but this was clearly a veggie recipe and specified vegan cheese. I must admit I’ve never tried vegan cheese. I would accept a morsel if offered it, if only to confirm my suspicions and because I’ve always poured scorn on those who claim to dislike a food without having tasted it, but I really can’t imagine it having the intense nutty flavour of a mature farmhouse Cheddar or the piquancy (let alone the variable texture) of a good Gorgonzola or the pungency of a ripe Epoisses.

Why try to turn food into something it’s not? I just don’t get it.

* In case you’ve never heard of OddBox, they’re a food rescue operation who supply their subscribers with weekly deliveries of fruit and vegetables which would otherwise go to waste due to cosmetic “defects” or over-production.

Some Thoughts About Beer

I’ve been thinking about a couple of beer related issues lately.

The first came up over a pint with Ben Viveur, who had been thinking along similar lines. We both agreed that most of the beers we like are either less than 4% ABV or over 5%. Those in the 4-5% range (and that’s probably a significant majority of British ales) we tend to find a bit lacklustre.

It’s no surprise when beers in the upper range are enjoyable. Greater strength generally goes with more body and more pronounced flavours. And they cover a variety of styles – IPAs, stouts and porters, old ales, barley wines – and that’s before we include Belgian dubbels and trippels, lambics, imperial stouts, Baltic porters and suchlike.

But I also enjoy some comparatively weak beers: milds, like Moorhouse’s Black Cat, and light hoppy ales like Dark Star Hophead or Oakham Citra.

What then is the problem with those in the middle? I admit it may be partly a question of taste (as in the preferences of one’s palate). My tastes have changed since I began drinking beer over 50 years ago and many of those beers are the type of traditional “bitter” that I cut my teeth on but now find overly sweet or bland. But I don’t think that’s entirely the answer. I’m inclined to believe that a lot of beers in that 4-5% range actually are rather poor quality. Though I now tend to eschew the traditional amber bitter, I don’t mind drinking a good example of the genre (e.g. West Berkshire Good Old Boy) occasionally, but most of them do very little for me.

And don’t get me started on those dreadful 4.5% Christmas specials with gimmicky names – as beer sommelier Sophie Atherton memorably put it a few years ago “with few exceptions they’re all turkeys”.

The other issue is related in a way. It seems to me that, while small “craft” brewers are producing all kinds of exciting new beers (and a few which stretch the definition of beer a little too far in my opinion), most of the long-established breweries are remarkably conservative in their offerings. When they do produce a new beer, it’s usually little more than a half-hearted attempt to embrace a new style.

Take for example Palmer’s Dorset Gold. Now, I have to say that I have a lot of time for Palmers of Bridport. I admire the way they’ve maintained their estate in west Dorset all these years without being taken over or getting too big for their boots. And I’m very partial to their strong dark ale Tally Ho!, which fortunately my local manages to stock on a fairly regular basis. With Dorset Gold, a newish addition to the portfolio, they had an opportunity to create a modern golden hoppy ale, but what they actually came up with (and I had a pint of it only yesterday) seems to me just a paler version of Palmer’s IPA*. And yes, it is 4.5%.

So why are established breweries reluctant to step out of their comfort zone? I appreciate that in many ways it’s easier for a small outfit to diversify and experiment. But most large breweries these days have a one or two barrel pilot plant where they can try out new ideas before putting the successful ones into mainstream production.

And another thing: when the big boys do come up with something a bit different, why is it so often only released in keg form? I’m looking at Fullers here – I’d love to see Black Cab and Wild River in cask again. It’s not only youngsters prepared to part with the best part of a tenner for a pint who enjoy drinking interesting beers.

* Which is of course nothing of the sort. The name, like Greene King IPA, is a hangover from last century when it was fashionable to call your best bitter “IPA”, even though it bore little resemblance to the original concept of “India Pale Ale” – a strong, hoppy beer designed to withstand the sea voyage to the subcontinent – or indeed the “real” IPAs being made today.

The Lives of Crustaceans

Today I made prawn sandwiches for lunch – mashed avocado spread on on slices of fresh corek, topped with handfuls of cold water prawns with a dash of lemon juice and a grinding of black pepper.

As I scattered the prawns, I was struck by the thought that each of those little pink things had been a creature with a life of its own, albeit probably a short and somewhat uneventful one.

And then I wondered whether whales ever have similar thoughts about the hundreds of thousands of krill they swallow every day.

Brewing in Space

The other evening Mrs QR and I were taking our post-prandial whisky and moaning about Lockdown and the associated tedium and lack of recreation which has become a feature of our daily lives. “Let’s get away from it all” said she, then added “Perhaps we could go to the space station”. “That might have its own drawbacks,” I mused “for a start, I doubt there’s much beer up there.” “Then we could set up the first brewery in space.”

I began to ponder this idea. Apart from the suspicion that it might not be high on NASA’s list of priorities, could it be a practical proposition? You’d have to ship quantities of malt and hops up there – perhaps Mr Musk could help with that – and you’d also need a fair amount of water, but I gather the space station is pretty efficient at recycling liquids so, once the operation was up and running, beer would be just another phase in the cycle.

The equipment might take up a bit of room. There would be a mash tun, a copper and a fermenting vessel and maybe, given the likely cosmopolitan tastes of astronauts, a lagering tank. I could foresee some objections from more abstemious scientists about such things competing for space and resources with their precious experiments, but maybe some ingenious brewing technologist could design a super-compact brewing plant with minimal footprint which cleverly combined all the above.

As for the brewing process, the initial stages shouldn’t present too many problems; it’s at the fermentation stage where things get interesting. As we all know, there are basically two types of brewing yeast: “top fermenting”, the vigorous strain used for making ale, and “bottom fermenting”, the more lethargic beast used in lager production. Without gravity to distinguish between the top and bottom of the vessel, might the yeast become disorientated, perhaps even suffer an identity crisis?

OK, let’s suppose the brewers develop a new, robust strain of yeast unbothered by such technicalities, the next issue is carbon dioxide. Fermentation produces a lot of CO2 as a by-product. Normally it just bubbles to the surface and is dispersed into the air, but that won’t do in space. Firstly the fermentation vat would have to be completely enclosed – you can’t have globules of partially-fermented wort escaping and floating around randomly, so you’d need some kind of semi-permeable membrane to allow the gas to escape while retaining the liquid. And it wouldn’t do to simply release the CO2 into the air – in the confines of the space station it might seriously alter the composition of the atmosphere with potentially disastrous results, so you’d have to pipe it to the exterior and discharge it through a one-way valve.

But therein lies another problem. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so releasing a stream of gas from a vent in its side could subtly drive the space station off-course. It’s probably not a major problem though. I’m sure the station’s computers could monitor the drift and instigate a compensatory thrust now and then.

In other circumstances the effect could even be used to advantage. Just imagine, on a long voyage to Mars or beyond, a spaceship’s onboard brewery could provide additional propulsion as well as keeping the crew happy. Who needs ion drive?

Have I just come up with a stroke of genius? I think I’ll write to NASA today!

Meat Counter Mentality

A couple of months ago my esteemed butcher announced that he was retiring. I wished him well of course and was somewhat relieved to hear that he was selling the business as a going concern, but good traditional butchers are a rare breed these days so I was naturally apprehensive about what this might mean for my future meat buying activities.

The shop reopened this week, having been closed for refurbishment for over a month. In the meantime, a new butcher had opened a bit closer to home so of course I had to check that out.

There seems to be a growing, and to my mind unwelcome, trend for butchers to sell pre-cut and packaged meat. This was particularly evident in the brand-new establishment and to a lesser extent in the reopened one. I say unwelcome because I like the sort of butcher who, if I ask for a joint of pork, will bring out half a pig and say “Which bit would you like?” (OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, although it did actually happen when I visited a butcher in Penkridge whilst on a narrowboat holiday a few years ago).

I find myself pondering the reasons behind this new trend. Is it something to do with (regulations concerning or changing public perceptions regarding) food hygiene? Have customers become so accustomed to picking up plastic trays of meat in supermarkets that they think of it as normal? Are they so squeamish that they prefer not to witness the act of butchery? Or do they perhaps lack the vocabulary to articulate their requirements to a real butcher? (How many people nowadays know what hand and spring, a chump end or a Barnsley chop is?)

Whatever the reasons, I don’t like it. Not only does it tend to produce more unnecessary packaging which is bad for the environment (particularly non-recyclable polystyrene trays), but it restricts choice and it surely can’t be in the best interests of the business, except perhaps at unduly busy times. So why are so many butchers succumbing to the meat counter mentality?

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, by keeping a carcase largely intact up to the point of sale, the traditional butcher is keeping his – and his customers’ – options open. A whole loin of pork can potentially become a few roasting joints or a lot of chops or a mixture of the two. A sirloin of beef can similarly become several joints or a selection of steaks. But once bits of meat have been sliced up, boned (as they almost invariably are*) and wrapped in plastic there’s nothing the butcher can do except hope to sell them before their sell-by date.

And what happens to the bits that don’t make it into the plastic trays? I’m a great believer in “nose to tail” eating. If we’re going to eat animals, we have a duty not only to treat them humanely and ensure they have as natural a life as possible but to use all the edible parts, not just the most succulent or those that are least reminiscent of their origin when wrapped in plastic. Which reminds me – I must put the new butcher to the test by asking for a pig’s head and some sweetbreads.

* That’s another gripe – I like my joint, whether it be rib of beef, loin of pork or shoulder of lamb, on the bone. Not only does it tend to have more flavour but I then have bones from which to make stock (which normally ends up being reunited with any meat that’s left after the roast and the cold cuts to form an unctuous broth for a mid-week supper).

[Update – The new proprietor actually did the “half a pig” thing when I went in for my joint of pork the other week. I’m definitely warming to him.]

What makes a good breakfast?

Last week I had three excellent breakfasts. I don’t normally take breakfast (although I sometimes cook a breakfast-style lunch) except when I’m on holiday. A good breakfast will set you up for a day’s bell ringing or vigorous sight-seeing and keep you going until dinner time. And the first of the three aforementioned breakfasts in Sennybridge – a glorious plateful, perfectly cooked and presented – provided the sustenance needed for the arduous trek to the top of Pen y Fan and Corn Du.

A fourth breakfast – at a different establishment – proved to be adequate but, compared with the preceding three, sadly lacking in both quality and quantity. Which set me thinking, not for the first time: what exactly makes a good breakfast?

I’m talking proper English (or Welsh) breakfasts here of course. Whilst the continental variety may be appropriate and even interesting when holidaying in foreign parts*, it doesn’t cut the mustard when you have some serious activity ahead of you. Only the “full Monty” will do the trick. [Incidentally, I’m sure you’re aware that that expression originally had nothing to do with nudity but refers to Field Marshall Montgomery’s insistence on a full English breakfast wherever in the world he might be.]

To my mind, there are only two absolutely essential components to an English breakfast – bacon and eggs. Everything else is optional but I would feel short-changed if a “Full English” had fewer than six to eight ingredients.

The eggs may of course be scrambled or poached but they really ought to be fried, “sunny side up” or – ideally in my opinion – with a little fat splashed over them so you don’t get the snotty bit but the yolk is still runny. Obviously, I expect my eggs to be free range. I deplore factory-farming, both for the cruelty involved and the poor quality of eggs produced thereby. Unfortunately, true free-range eggs, from hens which have the run of the farmyard, are a rare treat.

Bacon has many attributes and, whilst the bland water-injected stuff is less common than it once was, there are still enormous variations in quality. My perfect rasher would be outdoor-reared, dry-cured, middle cut, thickly sliced, rind-on and preferably (for breakfast, though not necessarily at other times) unsmoked. Most bacon nowadays ticks some of those boxes but not all of them. Middle cut (i.e. a long rasher combining back and streaky) is virtually unknown and rind a rarity (although I did buy some rind-on streaky at a farm shop on the way home from my recent trip). Grilling bacon is fine although I usually fry mine.

Sausages are often the biggest disappointment (as was the case with the fourth breakfast above). Flavoursome meaty sausages are easy to come by from local butchers and even supermarkets, so why do some hoteliers consider it acceptable to serve those flaccid pink plasticky things at breakfast?

Mushrooms are a desirable component, preferably flat field mushrooms fried in butter. Tomatoes are good too, ideally fried in a mixture of extra virgin olive oil and butter with freshly-ground black pepper. I find grilled tomatoes tend to be hard and relatively tasteless. Tinned tomatoes are absolutely beyond the pale!

Black pudding of the right sort (e.g. from Bury) is good. I realise it’s not to everyone’s taste, although it does seem to have become more commonplace in recent years. I also enjoy a grilled lamb’s kidney but sadly it’s been many decades since they were considered standard breakfast fare.

I suppose I should mention baked beans, which have become ubiquitous. Looking at another blog about British food a while ago I was surprised to read that breakfast includes “beans – there must be beans”. Why must there be beans? I suspect the author was somewhat younger than I am (he or she also seemed to think that meat is an optional component of a Sunday Roast).

Those excellent breakfasts included, in addition to all the above, beautifully crisp slices of fried bread. Now that is becoming a rarity, except perhaps in transport cafes, which is a shame. No doubt too many people are worried about calories and cholesterol but I’m sure it does one no undue harm once in a while.

One item which has become common but for which I can’t muster much enthusiasm is hash browns, those industrial triangles† of potatoey stuff. Now, fried left-over potatoes or bubble-and-squeak, that’s a different proposition entirely, but I guess, food hygiene regulations being what they are, hotels and guest houses have to be a bit careful about using left-overs. Seriously though, that’s something that ought to change, given the enormous problem we have with food wastage.

There are a few regional things like white pudding (mainly on the Celtic fringes) but I think that more or less covers the mainstream breakfast ingredients.

Then of course there should be toast and marmalade to follow – not jam, which seems to be the only preserve offered in some places (see #4 above); jam is for teatime. Nor namby-pamby corn syrup marmalade with microscopic bits of orange in it but proper English marmalade, dark and dense with thick pithy chunks of peel. And tea or coffee – I will concede there may be an argument that tea is more correct but for me it’s got to be strong black coffee.

* I should make it clear that I’m never averse to trying local specialities – when in Costa Rica, for example, I was happy to start the day with gallo pinto con huevos.

† OK, home-made hash browns might be wonderful, but I’ve yet to encounter any.

On the Ubiquity of Certain Vegetables

Yesterday I was presented with one of those unsolicited video clips on Facebook – some chap saying he was going to show us how to make a 60-egg omelette. Well that sounded a bit strange for a start. An omelette surely is a personal dish – three or four eggs carefully crafted into a disc of just the right consistency and wrapped around some suitably complementary filling, or even just folded over on itself, lightly speckled with golden brown on the outside and deliciously moist within.

I decided to watch the beginning. He broke the eggs into a large bowl (there was a fair amount of fast-forwarding or “here’s one I made earlier” at this stage – I don’t suppose many people would sit through watching 60 eggs being broken one at a time). Then he took a cleaver and chopped up a bunch of spring onions (interesting, I’ve never thought of using a cleaver for that) before stirring them into the eggs. OK, so it was probably going to be something more like a frittata than a classic omelette. But then he threw in a handful of grated carrot – at which point I stopped watching. Why the f*** would anyone put carrots in an omelette?

It’s not that I dislike carrots per se. I quite enjoy carrots if they’re freshly dug (i.e. they were still in the ground a couple of hours ago) and preferably home-grown on lovingly nurtured compost. But you don’t often get carrots like that. Most of the carrots offered for sale parted company with the soil days, weeks or even months ago. And it shows in the flavour, or rather the lack thereof.

I’m reminded here of JD Wetherspoons’ carrots. It’s been several years since I last ate in a “Spoons” and maybe the food has improved somewhat, but it used tolerable – with the exception of the carrots which were execrable. It wasn’t just that they were bland; they were slimy and what little flavour they did possess was actually quite unpleasant.

What’s more, carrots have a habit of turning up in places where they ought not to be, and not just the aforementioned omelette. They are far too prevalent in most coleslaws and piccalillis. They appear in way too many dishes at third-rate Chinese restaurants, usually in a gloopy sauce with bits of bubbly beef or hard pre-cooked pork. Do carrots even grow in China? At least Thai chefs are more inclined to sculpt them into flowers for merely decorative purposes.

I’ve even known people put carrots in Chilli con Carne. A good Chilli needs no more vegetable content than the kidney beans, the chillies, tomato paste, a modest amount of chopped onion and maybe red pepper (definitely optional). It doesn’t need carrots – or, God forbid, sweetcorn. (There’s a general principle here – adding extra ingredients to a recipe doesn’t necessarily improve it; on the contrary, it may well ruin the dish.)

So why are carrots so ubiquitous, both as an accompaniment to main dishes and as an ingredient? It’s surely not a matter of esculence, given the general diminution of flavour between the soil and the plate to which I alluded earlier. Is it because they’re cheap (unless sold in some semblance of freshness, in which case they become a premium product commanding several times the normal price)? Or is it because people are downright unimaginative in their choice of vegetables?

Peas are the undoubted leaders in the vegetable ubiquity stakes (a subject I’ve written about in an earlier blog and at greater length in my book) but carrots come a close second.

In third place is probably broccoli – not the tender succulent shoots of purple sprouting, which is most enjoyable in season, but the thick-stemmed green stuff which, while not exactly unpleasant, fails dismally to excite my palate whenever it appears on my plate.

I don’t understand why any vegetables should be so ubiquitous, not just in public eating places but in the domestic kitchen as well. Subject to availability, I like to choose my vegetables on the grounds of quality and freshness, seasonality and affinity with the meat or fish with which they are to be served. It amazes me how little attention is paid to the latter criterion – some combinations are truly harmonious, others less so and some quite jarring.

But, as I’ve probably said before, some people just don’t want their taste buds to be challenged, they actually prefer bland food. Others are seemingly impervious to nuances of taste and to the effects, good or bad, of juxtaposing flavours (for example, drinking Coke with pizza). Many are reluctant to be drawn out of their culinary comfort zone to experience new and exciting dishes (such people often claim to dislike foods they haven’t even tried).

So it looks as if frozen peas, tasteless old carrots and uninspiring broccoli are here to stay for a while yet.

Sweetness – What’s it all about?

Yesterday I bought sweetcorn which was described on the packet as “supersweet”. (Yes, it was in a plastic packet instead of its own natural protective covering – but I’ve done that rant before and, much as it irks me, it’s not the theme of today’s blog.)

I suppose one might expect sweetcorn by definition to be sweetish but why supersweet? Why are tomatoes, to take one example, routinely commended for their sweetness? Why this apparent obsession with describing vegetables and other savoury things in terms of sweetness? Is it a peculiarly British phenomenon? I suspect it is.

Ok, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth myself. I never take sugar in tea or coffee and I do like dark bitter chocolate and seriously hoppy beers. I don’t always bother with dessert but when I do, I expect something small and exquisite with tangy fruitiness or rich chocolate, coffee or nutty flavours, not bland sugariness. I put very little sugar in the puddings and ice creams I make and invariably find ready-made ones far too sweet for my liking. Fortunately, the other half of my household has similar tastes; I buy a small packet of light brown sugar maybe twice a year.

It seems to be a generational thing to some extent. In one sense it is obviously so, insofar as children like sweet things but their palates become more sophisticated as they get older, but there seems to be a longer term trend here too – I’m fairly sure my generation is generally less sweet-toothed than my parents’. A few years ago, I used to take a minibus load of old people on a fortnightly shopping trip and was astounded at the enormous amounts of sugar (and milk) they bought. It’s arguably a class thing as well, but I’d better not go there.

To get back to the point, what is this sweetness-as-a-criterion thing all about? Do people really rate carrots by their sugar content? And is it even a virtue in fruit? I’ve recently seen “supersweet” blackberries. I didn’t buy them. I wouldn’t dream of buying big cultivated blackberries, supersweet or otherwise. Indeed, I remember as a young man newly-arrived in London being shocked to see blackberries on a greengrocer’s stall – blackberries were wild fruit that one picked in the hedgerows (and they were small and deliciously tart), it had simply never occurred to me that people might actually buy them! As for what a certain company does with 90% of the British blackcurrant crop, it makes me weep. If the Good Lord had intended blackcurrant juice to be adulterated with tons of sugar, He’d have made them that way.

Is sweetness just a marketing buzzword or does it go deeper than that.? Is it a symbol of prosperity and the craving for it a reaction to years of deprivation and austerity? There are examples of sweetness being used as a metaphor for good times in the Old Testament (e.g. a land flowing with milk and honey), although fat, oil and corn are used similarly. (My favourite among Solomon’s chat-up lines is “Thy belly is like an heap of wheat.”) But we’re not recovering from famine; most of us in this country are well fed and have no obvious biological need for excess sugar.

It occurs to me that sugar, like salt, can mask the absence of more subtle and interesting flavours. Sugar and salt are cheap. Blandness is easier to create than flavours that entice and challenge the palate. Is that what people really want or have become conditioned to?

Is the whole sweetness thing a marketing ploy that we could well do without? Or am I a lone voice crying in a saccharin wilderness?