Category Archives: Food issues

I’m back – with reservations….

What a funny old year. I know, I know, it’s been forever since I posted, but there’s a reason. Well, there are many – being inundated with work, having all sorts of things to keep up with on behalf of clients, etc, etc. So much, so no excuse really. But I do have a better excuse: this is a food blog, and last year I developed something that stopped me eating what I wanted. LPR: laryngeal pharyngeal reflux*. Lovely.

It started, I think, with a bug. That was not helped by a dodgy hog roast and/or a half of dirty beer. I know, I know again: at a festival or whatever, drink beer in bottles or cans. Yeah, right.

I was not well.

To avoid increasing my problems I had to trim my diet right down. Plain rice was fine, mashed potato was just about OK as long as there was no milk (I’m lactose intolerant anyway) or excessive fat. The same applied to cold meat, and I generally ate cold chicken; I knew beef would be too fatty and ham, good ham, just needed too much delicious fat trimming off. All fried food was out, and boy did I get fed up with scrambled egg. In fact, if I never scramble another egg I’ll be happy.

I drank loads: water. Coffee was out. Alcohol was unthinkable. Some herb teas were OK though – camomile, fennel. Pepperminty things were out.

Anything acidic was out. Anything with oomph – lots of onion, garlic, chilli – was out. Fruit? Even my beloved apples were out. I’d got lots of purée in the freezer, the result of the usual glut,

but no. Bananas? One a day. Maybe. Depending. What kept me semi-sane, hilariously, were chewy sweets – wine gums, pastilles, that sort of thing – and chewing gum, but not mint varieties. This does not an exciting food blog make. Oh, and eating out was a no-no. Or a complete nightmare.

Come October and I was down in London, still being very careful (such a waste). We strolled round the warehouses at Spa Terminus (nobody goes to Borough Market these days, ho ho); I tested nothing. We went out for dinner. I had the plainest dishes on the menu, and water. I wanted to buy something to eat on the journey back to Wales, and in the whole of Euston could not find anything my stomach could tolerate other than a tube of Rowntree’s Pastilles. Boring, boring, boring.

LPR does, however, eventually go (I’m having a mini flare up at the moment, again prompted by a bug that’s been doing the rounds, but very mini and I’m damned if I’m taking the tablets again). In the meanwhile a few things did save my sanity, and one was a miso sauce from a fabulous reader’s recipe I found in the Guardian. I’ve still got the cutting, so I can credit it correctly to Anna Thompson who ran a guest house in Kyoto with her husband. I adapted it for my needs and quantities, and this is my version. You need a small jar with a lid you can seal (don’t ask me why I’m putting so much stress on the seal; let me just say that cleaning ceilings is awkward at the best of times).

3 tsp miso paste
4 tsp olive oil
3 tsp rice wine
2 tsp clear honey
1 tsp shoyu
grated fresh ginger to taste

Put all the ingredients in a small jar with a decent lid (see above). Shake violently to combine; if it’s a bit thick, let it down with a very little water. Then use it as a dressing – for a salad, for crunchy oriental greens or, as frequently in my case, for plain rice.

The original also includes crushed garlic, but I couldn’t handle that raw. I can now. Yippee!


*LPR is a variety of acid reflux, sometimes called ‘silent reflux’, marked by constant coughing and throat clearing and hoarseness from damaged vocal chords, as well as the lovely feeling that you’ve got something stuck in your throat. It’s often the result of some infection, as with me. Happily it usually clears up with treatment, and usually doesn’t result in complications; unhappily, the treatment ‘requires larger doses of medication for weeks to months’ than normal acid reflux. And I didn’t get on with the drugs.



Flour power

Oh, I know, such a predictive post title – but I couldn’t resist! Yes, it’s rant time. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s more a ‘shaking my head in sad bafflement’ time.

IMG_6863I’m a baker. I love making bread, hands and/or ancient Kenwood permitting, and do so on a regular basis. I slice it and store it in the freezer, and always try to have stock in. That’s because if I run out I’m back to the boiled baby’s blanket that passes for a loaf – even a supposedly ‘artisan’ loaf – in a local supermarket. Oh, all right – rant alert: what the heck is ‘artisan’ about any Tesco bread anyway? But I suppose ‘mass-produced in some giant factory and then shipped out to stores for a quick tart up’ doesn’t have quite the same marketing spin, does it?

Artisan, my arse. Ahem.

I buy flour in bulk. I used to share a sack with a friend, but I’m using much less wholemeal now, having finally twigged about excessive fibre giving me digestive problems. So I now buy five 1.5kg bags of Marriages Strong White Organic from a wholefood co-op, and add a little wholemeal for extra oomph. I’ve been quite happy with that, but the latest batch has been rather different. It’s softer than normal, much lighter, even finer. It’s got a completely different feel, and I’d be happy to make cakes with it which I would normally avoid with bread flour. It also makes perfectly good bread, but I’m intrigued. I know flour varies enormously – even the flour you get from one field of wheat can be different from that produced by the grains grown in the next field – but this is a huge change. Maybe it’s time to look at some different flours?

white flourI’ve tried quite a few, all stoneground – the Marriages is roller-milled, but until now I’ve been fine with that; it’s the only roller-milled flour I’ve felt was comparable. I’ve tried other roller-milled flour (the standard way of producing flour, at least in a more ‘commercial’ setting) and I can tell the difference, or I think I can. I like my flour to taste of something, and I find that other roller-milled flours are rather bland for breadmaking. Great if that’s what you want (or, of course, what you can afford) and absolutely fine for some circumstances, but I did a comparison bread test and yup, I could tell. Or maybe it was a case of emperor’s new clothes – I’m still not sure.

If I am right, there might be good reason for it. Many bakers think roller mills run too quickly, thus generating enzyme-damaging heat and giving rise to flour which lacks character. In addition, roller-milled flour has all the goodies – like the wheatgerm – removed and then added back in at the end of the milling process.

quernBut I’m not going back to prehistory, either: grains ground between the stones of a quern like this one could a) take forever – I know, I’ve done it, and b) add extra tooth-grinding grit to the flour, depending on the material used for the quern. Using a quern also wrecks your knees, neck, back, hands and wrists – women’s work, eh?

Nope, I’m happy with perfectly normal stoneground for my bread, so I’m going on a mission: to try all sorts of flours from small mills, big mills, artisan mills, little mills up obscure lanes in the Welsh countryside who sell their flour though a single outlet in Aberystwyth, Machynlleth, Conwy or Bangor. Whenever I find something a bit out of the ordinary, I’ll buy it and give it a go.

I can easily get Marriages and Dove’s Farm, and those are what I’ll use in between. I can also lay my hands on Bacheldre (the mill was up for sale in the summer, can’t work out if it’s been sold or just withdrawn from sale), Gilchesters, Little Salkeld Watermill and Shipton Mill, because they’re all available through the co-op or local healthfood shops. But I’m really after the unusual (plus I had a weevil-based experience with Shipton Mill’s strong white which has rather put me off retesting that one).

It doesn’t have to be wheat, either; of course there are other grains to try. I’ve used spelt and I love it for soda bread; its perfect for that. I’ve tried emmer and einkorn (as an acrchaeologist, even an ex-archaeologist, I felt obliged to give these neolithic grains a go) and I’ll happily have a bash at almost anything. But for me, it’s fundamentally wheat flour. But which one? I’m no nearer to my answer, though I have now set myself off on a Flour Quest for 2015 (think Shrek and Donkey going after Princess Fiona, though I’m female, not green and am unaccompanied by Eddie Murphy). But am a lot nearer to a beautiful fresh loaf. Must let it cool down, must let it cool down…


PS: since writing this I’ve been in contact with Marraige’s, and they’ve asked me to send a packet back to them for them to check out. Luckily I still had one unopened pack – the rest had gone in the flour bin – and it’s on its way back to Essex as I write. A strange Christmas present for the miller, but there you go… us flour-obsessives are a strange lot.

The elephant in the foodie room

I can’t ignore this one any longer, and I’m not apologising if it turns into a rant (though I’ll try and control myself, honest, keep my red flag furled and my barricade-building tools firmly in the shed).

Sometimes the world of food writing can seem a little precious. Obviously there are some great exceptions, from food campaigners to bloggers who push eating well on extremely little money, and they’re brilliant. But it really hit me in the run-up to Christmas this year, reading reviews and flashy ‘best-buy’ comparisons in the media, that many food writers appear to operate in an exclusively well-off, middle-class, home-counties bubble full of exclusive restaurants and exotic ingredients. And yet there is a massive food story going on at present which many people are failing to cover. It’s not glamorous, it’s not going to inspire an elegant table setting or chic contribution to a dinner party. But it’s everywhere; nowhere is immune, even my own community here in beautiful, picture-postcard Snowdonia.

When I was about thirteen, I remember asking my father about the lack of younger people in the part of Sutherland that was so dear to us. Ever political, he took care to explain the economic situation in detail, much of which I don’t remember clearly. But I do remember his closing statement, almost something of a cliché, but true nonetheless: you can’t eat scenery.

Living somewhere beautiful is no barrier to deprivation. Turn your back on the beautiful views and look at the increasingly run-down council estates; go off the main road and explore some of the ex-slate-mining towns and villages which the newer road has bypassed. We tend to think of economic deprivation as being an urban problem, but it isn’t. Recovery? What recovery? There isn’t much of one in some of the places I know well. And this is where the food banks come in.

food bank hoursEighteen months ago there was one official food bank in North Wales, in Mold. Now we are further into this alleged economic recovery we are apparently having, and strangely they have increased in number, and are continuing to do so. Food banks now cover more of Flintshire as well as Wrexham, Caernarfon, Denbigh, Welshpool, Bangor and even the jolly holiday town of Barmouth. And those are just the ‘official’ ones.

There are many other community- and church-based ones, such as one in Pwllheli. Some have a web presence (like the splendid Telford Crisis Network), but more do not and rely on word of mouth. Some are purely individual, prompted by highly-motivated people, such as one which sprang up in Rhyl recently. Their contribution isn’t quantified but, bearing in mind that Trussell Trust food banks alone fed nearly 350,000 people in 2012-13, it has been estimated that they have helped over 500,000. The Trussell Trust pulled out the number of children from their stats: 126,889 kids were fed by their food banks in the same period. These figures do not include this Christmas season, when some anecdotal evidence I’ve been given points to even more use.

I find it depressing that there are members of the current administration who decry the existence of the food banks which, according to them, are unnecessary and have a ‘political agenda’. There have also been comments about the banks supplying exotica, so let’s look at the typical shopping list recommended by the Trussell Trust (I was given a copy when the Barmouth bank started collecting outside local supermarkets, but it’s on their website). Powdered milk, sugar, a carton of fruit juice, bottled pasta sauce, tinned soup, baked beans, tinned toms, tinned sponge pud, tinned rice pud, cereals, tea, instant coffee, rice, pasta, tinned meat or fish, jam and biscuits. Pretty wild, huh? And it’s also been reported that some people have been returning those items in their boxes which require heating up. They can’t afford it.

Now I’d like to think about the reasons why people end up – at the end of their tether, having tried everything else and often deeply ashamed – using food banks. Yes, there are more food banks, so more people are using them (that’s the ‘reason’ given by some members of the government for their increasing use), but a food bank is not something that’s set up on a whim, nor can someone in need just materialise at a Trussell Trust food bank and demand some tins of rice pudding – they have to be referred. Right, here goes: benefit delays bring 29.69% of people; low income, 18.45; benefit changes, 14,65; debt, 9.52% – and so on. The full list is on the Trust’s website.

Presumably the Red Cross have a political agenda too, since they’ve also been organising food collections in the UK in the run-up to Christmas. The last time they were involved in large-scale food aid here was during WW2. Just saying.

I’m lucky, and I know it. It’s not that I’ve got lots of money – I haven’t; I’ve spent years working around the book trade and that does not bring you great riches, even when augmented by freelance journalism – but if I want a delicious bar of artisan chocolate from the farmers’ market, if I want to test the latest blend from a local coffee roaster, I can afford it. I’m sensible, though. I don’t see this as meaning that I have to miss out on anything, except possibly roast peacock stuffed with truffles, but sooner or later Lidl will add that to their frozen foods alongside the lobster. I am lucky. And it’s no great loss to me if I add a tin or two of soup to my basket, or buy something I normally would not, like powdered milk.

Just one final word before I get off my soapbox and back to cooking. In the 1920s, Joseph Rowntree didn’t contribute to the soup kitchens in York (another place long combining picture postcards and poverty), despite his wealth. Instead, he set up his Trusts to try and do something about the root causes; check out the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s website for more up-to-date information on the whole issue. So while things like food banks will always be a sticking plaster, I take the view that the sticking plaster is necessary. People can and will be very generous (on one collection day before Christmas, the Tesco Extra shop in Talbot Green couldn’t cope with the amount being donated, for example; some people gave whole trolly loads to the Pontyclun food bank), but it doesn’t mean you should lose sight of the underlying wound…