Whatever Next?

I realise I’ve neglected this blog for a while but an item in the news caught my attention – and aroused my ire – the other day.

It reported that Sainsbury’s has introduced a new range of packet-to-pan chicken portions.  To start with, this strikes me as an horrendously retrograde step when people are campaigning vigorously for supermarkets to do away with unnecessary plastic packaging – and quite rightly too*.

But it appears that the rationale behind the new product is that some people, particularly in the “millennial” age group, cannot bear to touch raw meat.  Hence Sainsbury’s are pandering to them with this new package which allows the skinless, boneless chicken breast to be transferred from the packet into the pan or under the grill without manual contact. (I’m assuming it’s skinless and boneless because I can’t imagine Sainsbury’s would risk further offending the delicate sensibilities of the poor darlings by reminding them that their dinner comes from an animal with real skin and bones.)

My initial reaction – if you will excuse a vulgar social media abbreviation – was WTF?!  If they really can’t stand contact with a piece of raw meat I suggest they should seriously consider becoming vegetarian or even vegan – and I say that as an unreconstructed carnivore, a lifelong advocate for the pleasures of eating good quality, humanely-reared flesh.

The article implied that the aversion to handling raw meat derives from a fear that doing so is unhygienic.  Yes, I know raw chicken and pork can harbour nasty organisms like salmonella but every kitchen has a sink where you can wash your hands afterwards, and it’s not exactly difficult to segregate raw and cooked items.  Is this where decades of overzealous hygiene regulations have led us (as well as weakening our immune systems and making it almost impossible to buy pork chops with the kidneys in)?

In some ways the whole sorry episode sounds like a throwback to the 1960s and 70s.  Those were the days when food technology was actively celebrated (and never mind the loss of flavour); the days when TV adverts featured tinny-voiced aliens falling about laughing at the idea of peeling potatoes or serfs toiling over the manorial spit and dreaming of the day when “all manner of roast meats will come in little boxes”.

I thought things had changed for the better in the ensuing years, that we had eschewed the ethos of valuing convenience over quality and that we were collectively (perhaps with a little guidance from inspired chefs and food writers like Hugh Fearnley-Whittenstall) moving back towards a more natural relationship with our food.  But maybe I was wrong.

* Coincidentally I’m writing this on Earth Day (22 April) and the focus this year is on plastic pollution.

A Good Skinful

A few weeks ago I agreed to take part in a sausage making competition. I had never made sausages before but hey, I’m always up for a culinary challenge.

As the deadline loomed nearer I thought I had better get myself organised. It would appear that amateur sausage making is not as uncommon as one might think. You can buy a hand-cranked sausage stuffer for under 20 quid, although I opted for a slightly more up-market model, and there are on-line suppliers who will sell non-industrial quantities of natural hog casings (naturally I eschewed the inferior collagen variety) and pinhead rusk (some of which is necessary for the texture of a traditional British banger although I’m inclined to use it sparingly, preferring a meatier sausage*).

Stuffer and skins having arrived, I approached my friendly butchers for some advice about the best cut of pork to use. Obviously a little tact was called for – I wouldn’t want them to think I was shunning their sausages – but they were most obliging.

So about three pounds of meat went through my trusty mincer and into a bowl to be mixed with the rusk, seasoning (I’m not going to divulge my recipe lest a potential competitor should be reading this) and a little water. Then it was time for the shiny new machine to go into action. There were a few teething problems: sliding the skins onto the nozzle was difficult until I realised I was using the wrong sized nozzle, and the end plate was initially reluctant to be screwed onto the barrel. But soon I was cranking out real sausages. And they looked the part, albeit slightly wonky and flaccid and a little too moist – but they tasted fine.

I’ve just made the second batch. With a slightly refined recipe and a firmer restraining hand on the skins as they fill, this lot came out firmer and plumper. I’ll leave the final verdict until the tasting, but in the meantime I think I’ve earned a pint.

* If I remember rightly, by law a sausage has to contain at least 55% meat. Thankfully, most of them nowadays have rather more than that, including supermarket own brands, many of which are excellent. The exception of course is those ghastly cheap pink things for which, inexplicably, there must still be some demand and which some hoteliers seem to think are an acceptable part of a full English breakfast, even if they serve perfectly decent meaty sausages on their bar menu.

Good Riddance

I haven’t seen a single Elsanta strawberry this summer. A few years ago they were everywhere. It was difficult to find any other variety in the supermarkets. They were even sold at Wimbledon. Now they are nowhere to be seen.

Thank God. Have consumers, retailers and growers finally woken up to the fact that this is probably the worst variety of strawberry ever produced? Pale, orangey-red, over-firm, odourless and practically devoid of flavour.

Presumably there was some commercial benefit – disease resistance, size, fast growth or whatever. But what use is that if they’ve got no bloody flavour?

In the 1960s and 70s they could get away it (I blame post-war austerity for creating a culture where all manner of bland, unnatural, processed crap could be foisted upon us). Thankfully people nowadays are a bit more discerning when it comes to food and drink. We’re getting there slowly.

Sweet Eve and Sonata aren’t bad but how about bringing back Royal Sovereign?

 

 

Indian Questions

Time was when on entering an Indian restaurant you knew exactly what to expect: Madras, Vindaloo, Rogan Josh, Bhuna, Dupiaza, Korma, Dhansak… (Jalfezi, Balti and the dreaded “national favourite” Tikka Chicken Massala came a little later as I recall.)

Nowadays every curry house seems to have its own selection of house specialities and chef’s signature dishes. The other day I had a Lamb Jaflongi. Is there some remote region of the subcontinent called Jaflong or do they just make these names up?

In case you’re wondering, it wasn’t bad – medium hot with a rich sauce in which I thought I detected a faint hint of mint, and what I took to be the last piece of meat turned out to be a chunk of pickled lemon peel.

While I’m on the subject – when did the practice of serving popadoms and chutneys as an appetiser become commonplace? When I first patronised Indian restaurants in the late 60s/early 70s, both items were taken as accompaniments to one’s curry which, as I understand it, is what they were originally intended for. But sometime around the 90s it became the norm to order a stack of pupadums* and spoon little dollops of mango chutney and lime pickle on them. Why?

* Is there a “correct” spelling of this word? It seems that any combination of the vowels a, o and u interpolated between the consonants p, p, d and m is acceptable.

 

The Last Straw?

There’s a petition doing the rounds at the moment asking a well-known junk food chain to cut down on its use of plastic drinking straws (3.5 million per day in the UK alone).

Plastic pollution is in the news a lot these days, and so it should be. You’ve probably heard the prediction that, at the current rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. You’ve probably seen that harrowing video of the crew of a small boat painstakingly removing a plastic straw from a turtle’s nose.

Two thoughts occur:

When I was young, drinking straws were made of waxed paper. Surely that’s more environmentally-friendly than plastic?

Why does anyone – unless they have a physical disability which makes handling a cup or glass difficult – need to drink through a straw anyway?

 

On the Construction of Sandwiches

I had a crab sandwich in a pub yesterday (a pub with no beer – although I gather there were extenuating circumstances). Each slice of bread was about three quarters of an inch thick.  It was good fresh granary bread but there was rather too much of it to allow the delicate flavour of the crab meat to shine through, particularly as it had already been diluted with rather more mayonnaise than I would have used myself. Another of our party had ordered a ham sandwich. When it arrived the bread was even thicker – the two slices, a good inch apiece, barely separated by a couple of thin slivers of ham.

Now, whilst I would not deny that the bread in a sandwich is important, insofar as it should be really fresh (i.e. baked today) and of a suitable type, it is not the star of the show. Its primary purpose is to contain the filling and its secondary function to provide some carbohydrates and fibre to complement the normally protein based delicacies within.

Confronted with the aforementioned travesty, I was prompted to promulgate:

QR’s First Law of Sandwich Construction

The total thickness of the slices of bread should not exceed twice the thickness of the filling.

I initially phrased it slightly differently: “The thickness of each slice of bread should not exceed the thickness of the filling” but then it occurred to me that, whilst that applied to the majority of sandwiches, i.e. those with two slices of bread, the revised version would cover open and club sandwiches as well.

No doubt some of you may already be thinking that’s all very well but some sandwich ingredients have a stronger flavour than others, in which case a lower filling to bread ratio is surely acceptable, desirable even. I take your point – if you are partial to Marmite sandwiches you probably don’t need a half inch layer of the stuff between your slices of bread. [Anyone of a certain age who remembers “The Perishers” is probably thinking of Marlon’s inch-thick ketchup sandwiches and Wellington’s ketchup fallout suit.] However, for most solid ingredients I think the law stands scrutiny.

QR’s Second Law of Sandwich Construction

The filling should extend to every edge of the bread.

No disputing that one, surely. Don’t you just hate it when a sandwich is plump and succulent in the middle and the corners are empty?

 

In Praise of a Good Butcher

I can’t claim I never buy meat in a supermarket – expediency and all that – but I seldom do. Picking up a plastic tray just doesn’t enthuse me.  And the so-called “butchery counter”, if there is one, isn’t much better. The choice of cuts is still limited and the staff, for all their stripy aprons and hygienic hats, aren’t that knowledgeable (try asking for a hand of pork or chump ends). I suspect training for the role is minimal.

The weekend before last I went to the butcher for a joint of beef. Now, I normally buy rib but he said he was reluctant to cut the rib he had out the back as it would benefit from hanging for a couple more days, and could he interest me in this piece of sirloin? Yes, I was interested, but it was a substantial hunk of meat for two, even allowing for cold cuts during the week, and probably costing rather more than I had planned on paying. Then he said “I could take out the fillet”, which sounded like a good compromise, so I ended up with a piece of sirloin on the bone – and very good it was too – and someone else presumably got a few fillet steaks or a small, tender off-the-bone roasting joint.

Thinking about it afterwards, my butcher was being very canny regarding that piece of beef; not only was he keeping it intact so that it would go on maturing on the bone, he was keeping his – and his customers’ – options open. There were at least three other things he could have done with it (and probably other possibilities I haven’t thought of). He could have:

  • sold the whole thing as a delicious but rather pricey roasting joint;
  • sliced it into several T-bone steaks;
  • boned it and made several each of sirloin and fillet steaks.

You just don’t get that kind of service and expertise from a supermarket.

[And when I went in on Holy Saturday to collect my shoulder of new season’s lamb, there were kidneys – fresh ones still encased in their protective suet – just right for my signature dish “Kidneys in B Minor”.]

 

 

Food for thought?

I’ve been pondering on food labelling. Whilst I applaud any effort to encourage people to eat good quality, wholesome, responsibly produced and traded produce, it seems to me we’ve got the labelling business arse-about-face:

Instead of some vegetables being described as “organic”, the rest of them should be labelled “grown with the assistance of nasty chemical fertilisers and bee-killing pesticides”.

Instead of some bags of coffee and bars of chocolate bearing the Fairtrade logo, the others should carry a large red label saying “produced by exploiting poor farmers in Africa (or wherever)”.

Instead of some eggs being labelled “free range”, the rest should be in boxes with a picture of a caged hen and the explanation that “these eggs were laid by hens which have spent their entire lives in a cramped, unsanitary, unnatural environment”.

That should make the punters think twice.

Hard Cheese

Last week, against my better judgment and because the choice in my local small supermarket is somewhat limited, I bought a packet of so-called “extra mature” Cheddar produced by one of those frightful cheese factories that churn out millions of rectangular blocks of characterless stuff with a completely uniform flavour throughout*.

Obviously I wasn’t expecting it to be of the same quality as the farmhouse Cheddar I would normally buy but it really was a waste of money. Quite apart from the misleading appellation (if that’s their idea of extra mature I dread to think how appallingly bland the merely mature version must be, let alone the mild one), the flavour was actually bordering on unpleasant. Why is there a market for this rubbish? I shall struggle to find a use for it. And cooking is not the answer, poor quality cheese usually tastes even worse when cooked.

Cheddar is the most abused name in the culinary universe. Sadly it does not enjoy the same Protected Geographical Status (PDO) as Stilton. Virtually any old hard cheese can be called Cheddar regardless of its provenance or quality. Which is a great pity.

Apparently there is a PDO for West Country Farmhouse Cheddar Cheese which must be “Limited to cheese produced, processed and prepared in Dorset, Somerset, Cornwall and Devon, using traditional methods. The product must normally be made from pasteurised cows’ milk from cows grazed in the designated area”. But it doesn’t go far enough – or rather too far geographically – and why the insistence on pasteurisation?

If I had my way, the name Cheddar would only be permitted to be used for cheese produced in the county of Somerset, made by traditional methods from local cows’ milk (preferably unpasteurised), shaped into a truckle covered with cheesecloth and matured for an absolute minimum of 12 months. Anything else that currently uses the name would have to be called Cheddar-style Cheese or in some cases Curd Rendered Abominably Pathetic.

No doubt if this were the law, the likes of Episcopal See and Wayfarers Preference (names changed to protect the guilty) might complain that sales would suffer. Hard cheese! If they made something half decent they would have no cause to worry. For example, Lincolnshire Poacher, an uncommonly fine English hard cheese which stands comparison with the very best farmhouse Cheddars (Montgomery, Quick’s, Keen’s), has no need to hide behind the Cheddar banner, it sells on its own merits.

But they won’t listen to me.

* In a proper Cheddar the flavour typically intensifies towards the rind.

Spice

A couple of days ago while skimming through an abandoned newspaper on the train, my eyes lit upon the alarming headline “Spice should be Class A drug”. Hastily I donned my reading glasses and with almost trembling fingers perused the article to discover which of the contents of the little jars in my kitchen might be about to become an illegal substance. No more smoked paprika? Curries without turmeric? Chilli devoid of cumin or even chilli?

False alarm – it transpires that the “spice” in question (aka K2) is a form of synthetic cannabis.  But you can’t be too careful; in these risk-averse times, who knows what innocuous culinary ingredient might be next in line for official censure.