Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Slow Food in Cardiff

Slow Food stands in opposition to fast food. Instead of production lines of industrially-produced year-round products, Slow Food champions locally-sourced and traditional products and regional, seasonal cuisine. A revival of traditional food culture, it encourages the farming of plants and livestock characteristic of local ecosystems.

Slow Food was founded by Carlo Petrini and fellow activists in Italy, three years after a pivotal 1986 campaign against the opening of a McDonalds near Rome’s Spanish Steps. It was conceived as part of a broader ‘Slow Movement’ (see footnote). Slow Food is today a non-profit organisation operating in 150 countries worldwide. Its mission is to celebrate and protect traditional foods and cooking traditions, and to support grassroots producers of artisan and sustainable food and drink products. One of its main achievements has been the Ark of Taste, an online catalogue that gathers information about disappearing local food products (e.g. fruit and vegetable varieties, rare animal breeds, cured meat and cheeses). Anyone can send a nomination for a food product to the Ark, which this week had 2,312 products on board. 

Members within national Slow Food organisations are associated with local groups. Local groups have opened all around the UK (Slow Food UK), with Slow Food Cymru having branches in north and west Wales.

The inaugural Slow Food South East Wales meeting was held in The Cwtch at Chapter Arts Centre on Monday 23 Feb 2015. The meeting was organised by Carol Adams, Director of Food Adventure Ltd, a company much in line with the Slow Food agenda in that it takes groups on tours of local food and drink producers. I joined a diverse group of food producers, chefs, food activists and food writers/bloggers to hear three guest speakers explain what Slow Food means to them.

Margaret Rees is the Slow Food Board representative for Wales, was a founder committee member of Slow Food UK and set up the first Slow Food group in Wales, in Carmarthenshire in 2002. She described the development of Slow Food Cymru, where active branches are also centred on Anglesey and Machynlleth. She pointed out that the UK was late to join Slow Food, yet is one of the member nations where the loss of food culture is most acute. The role played by the Chef Alliance within Slow Food Cymru was noted; for example, Slow Food Cymru leader Gareth Jones is a chef and top Welsh chefs, such as Shaun Hill, are actively involved. Margaret also noted the Welsh pig and sheep breeds in the Ark of Taste. A recent development is a possible link with a Slow Food group in Patagonia.

James Swift of Trealy Farm Charcuterie in Monmouthshire spoke of how inspiring it was to attend Terra Madre. This is the International Slow Food event (organised by the international Terra Madre network of food communities), held every two years, at which small food producers, farmers and chefs from all the Slow Food nations meet and exchange experiences. It was held in Turin last year, where a 30-strong delegation from Slow Food UK attended (7 from Wales). James contrasted the UK ‘dining club’ approach unfavourably with the more dynamic contributions from other countries, which were more inclusive and political (with a small p) with campaigning being a more typical mode of operation. He noted the sense of injustice driving many Slow Food groups worldwide.  James concluded by stressing the need for better networks to link small food producers in the UK. 

The final speaker was Shane Holland, Chair of Slow Food UK, the Slow Food Board representative for England and group leader for Slow Food London. Slow Food London is an actively campaigning group that takes on an educational role in schools and crowd-funds cookery demonstrations for those with limited cooking skills. Shane believes that Slow Food UK groups should interact with the wider community, which makes them more inclusive and increases membership. A survey conducted by Slow Food London showed that events did not drive membership, but specific campaigns can, for example, on sustainable fishing, rare breeds, heritage crops, and seed saving and swapping. He noted that ‘terroir’ can be used in a wider sense, for heritage crops and animal breeds cultivated and reared in their traditional areas, and that the landscapes we value look the way they do because of food production. Therefore, the way to maintain both food culture and the environment is to support traditional, artisanal and quality food and drink production.

The speakers reiterated the Slow Food view of consumers as ‘co-producers’. Consumers through purchasing decisions can support local food products, and by taking an interest in how food is produced can also help producers by campaigning to overcome the problems they face.

Mark Adams, of Food Adventure, summed up proceedings. The interest expressed from a cross-section of people interested in local food (both producers and ‘co-producers’) suggested that a South East Wales Slow Food group could make a valuable contribution to supporting local food culture.

Slow Food (International):

Slow Food UK:

Slow Food’s European campaigning (pages 10-11):

Food Adventure Ltd:

The wider Slow Movement offers a step-back from many of the accelerating or unsustainable practices of modern living (e.g. Slow Cities, Slow Finance, Slow Living, Slow Design, Slow Travel, Slow Cinema, Slow Sex…). A key text for this wider movement is Carl Honoré’s 2004 book ‘In Praise of Slow’. Slow Food has emerged as the most successful manifestation of the Slow Movement.

Friday, 23 January 2015

FeD, Cardiff

FeD (Food Exploration Destination) launched in style last night. It is Cardiff’s latest ‘world cuisine’ buffet, and can be found in Mary Ann Street around the corner from Cineworld and opposite the Motorpoint Arena.

Sachi and Shailesh Bajpai, both formerly on the management team of the Red Hot World Buffet chain, have opened FeD to feed the Welsh capital’s insatiable demand for diverse buffet under one roof. FeD can seat around 300 diners and offers hundreds of dishes at its themed zones: Salad and Sushi, Tex Mex, Indian, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Grill, and Ice cream and Desserts.

At last night’s VIP launch event, Sachi Bajpai in his short welcoming speech explained the restaurant’s philosophy and the innovations that distinguish it from other world cuisine buffet destinations in Cardiff. The main emphasis at FeD is on the nine live kitchens, where chefs cook food to order. Different crockery complements each cuisine, such as the little dishes designed for sushi. The small plates handed over with your food choices by the chefs mean there are fewer people wandering around with bizarre food combinations than would otherwise be the case. Dishes that take a little longer to cook, like the steak I order from the Grill (which came with a mushroom and well-fried onion) are delivered to table (so remember your table number).

The dish I enjoyed most was a seafood pasta dish, followed by a very tasty lamb curry. The interaction with the chefs is a key part of this food destination experience.

Food prices at FeD range from midday lunch for £8.99 to weekend evening dining for £14.99. Kids under 10 eat for half price, though I thought this was a more adult-oriented take on the world buffet model than previously seen in Cardiff.

All food was provided free by FeD at VIP event night.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

James Sommerin, Penarth

If you’re self-employed you don’t get invited to office parties, so we do an annual dinner-for-two instead. This year we chose Restaurant James Sommerin in Penarth, which opened on the seafront last summer. We went along on the day this family-run restaurant reopened for business in the New Year.

The philosophy at James Sommerin is to marry three or four distinct flavours in innovative ways. Therefore, the menu just lists these main components for each dish. The waiters do the extra work of describing how the components have been prepared. The menus change seasonally. We went for the seven-course taster menu, the Clogwyn (cliff), which was preceded by some extra starters (£70). There are also five course (grey mullet, guinea fowl) and ten course tasting options menus, the latter is a surprise selection that currently includes such Sommerin specialities as bubblegum panna cotta.

A row of three amuse-bouche comprised a delicate pyramidal gougère made from choux pastry and parmesan cheese, a small truffle arancini on a stick, and a sweetcorn panna cotta topped with smoked haddock. All great, though the crispy outside and melting interior of the arancini was the best of the three for me. The panna cotta was served in a little glass bottle (giving me, the probably unintended, resonance of feeding babies!). An addition amuse-bouche arrived next, with baked potato and Caerphilly cheese but not in a form you would expect.

Wholemeal and white bread rolls were accompanied by two types of butter, one with laver (Welsh seaweed). The butter was served on a large pebble, apparently collected from the beach outside.

Pea, Parmesan, Sage, Serrano Ham
Pea ravioli is a James Sommerin signature dish from his days at The Crown at Whitebrook (Monmouthshire), where he was Head Chef from 2003 to 2013. He won a Michelin star there in 2007. The dish comprises a large ravioli (raviolo?) with an intensely-flavoured pea stuffing and deep-fried crispy sage leaf and Serrano ham. The whole is topped with creamy parmesan foam.

Those concerned that they might be in for a gimmicky molecular gastronomy workout need not worry. This is a single and well-used incidence of foam, and there are no i-pods in sight (listen carefully though and you might hear the actual sea). When James Sommerin was name-checked by Jay Raynor, as one of the Observer’s chefs to look out for in 2008, the chef said in the accompanying interview that he was interested in the new wave of cooking as long it was not “out of control”.

Jerusalem artichoke, Egg, Truffle
Regular readers will know I follow developments in the world of Jerusalem artichoke fairly closely (having co-authored the only English-language book ever written about this vegetable). I can safely say that this is the best Jerusalem artichoke dish I have ever been served in a restaurant. The tuber is best enjoyed in moderation (for reasons we won’t go into here), so lends itself to small plate cooking. Here the Jerusalem artichoke comes as a purée and as small slow-roasted pieces. A runny egg bursts to ensure creamy mouthfuls, and the dish is topped with black truffle shaved at the table.

Duck, Swede, Maple, Soy Sauce
The different courses came on different styles of china crockery. This cultural melange of crispy duck with balls of swede holding sticky maple and soya sauce arrived as a concise arrangement on a typically pretty but understated plate.

Turbot, Carrot, Cockles, Ginger
The fish course was a chunky piece of turbot served with sweet roast carrot and a sauce containing the cockle and ginger. James Sommerin once said, in a food industry magazine interview, that spices play a huge part in his cooking; subtle and unusual spicing is certainly a key component in the tasting menus’ success.

Welsh Venison, Beetroot, Savoy Cabbage, Port
The main course was venison, served as round loin medallions that melt in the mouth. Port in the jus provided a Christmassy touch. The winter root vegetable theme concluded here with sweet beetroot, including a bold red swirl across the plate. Caerleon-born James Sommerin likes using local ingredients, as noted here with the venison. However, I am one of those people who like to read about where food is sourced, and the minimal menu and website offer few clues.

Apple, Cinnamon, White Chocolate
We passed on the optional British cheeseboard and went straight into the two dessert courses. The apple here is in the form of a terrine. The cinnamon ice cream was wonderful, actually one of the highlights of the whole meal. The dish was completed with dainty white chocolate biscuit.

Prune, Vanilla, Blood Orange
The perfect course to finish: a James Sommerin soufflé. This rose out of a cup and looking good. Do be careful – the orange sauce at the bottom is hot! The cinnamon ice cream set the bar too high for the prune ice cream, which was still a pleasure and served here alongside vanilla egg custard and slices of seasonal blood orange.

There was optional coffee served with a selection of petit four, which we passed on.

Diners should not be fooled by the word ‘taster’ on the menu. This is a four-hour feast, so book for an earlier time and don’t snack beforehand!

Saturday, 27 December 2014

We ate the reindeer on Christmas Day

We ate the reindeer on Christmas Day. Well, we ate the reindeer pâté I had bought back from Sweden. Still, the kids were shocked that we could eat Sven - Rudolph’s temporary replacement as ‘most lovable reindeer’ (Note to those without children under 12: he is the reindeer in ‘Frozen’). It was a very gamey venison pâté (that worked well alongside a milder and sweeter Ardennes pâté).

There is a reindeer farm in Wales, at Poundffald Farm on the Gower (see links below). However, they are not eaten; they earn their keep as a visitor attraction and by being hired out, for instance, to the annual Swansea Winter Wonderland. Robert Owen, the farmer, started the herd in 2006 to accompany his Christmas tree business (Gower Fresh Christmas Trees). The herd is now 19 strong and includes 12 breeding cows. In a recent Wales Online story, he describes how, in addition to grazing, he feeds them on specially-formulated food pellets and reindeer moss (the lichen Cladonia rangiferina) imported from Sweden.

In northern Sweden reindeer are herded by Sami communities, while there is also a large elk farm. Reindeer and elk are commonly eaten in Scandinavia. You can buy reindeer and elk burgers in the UK from the touring ‘Exotic Burgers’ business. This often puts down in Cardiff during the ‘Cardiff International Food Festival’. However, I encountered it last outside Tate Modern in London earlier this month. The vendor does not eat meat himself, and says he tells the burgers apart because they all look a little different when cooked (possibly due to different fat contents etc.). Here’s a photo of their Christmas menu:

The menu was a bit lighter on the deer and antelope than compared to last summer in Cardiff (when I had the springbok). I had an elk burger to see me along the wintery South Bank, where I saw ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ again on the big screen at the BFI (the film starts with our ancestors killing antelope).

There are over 100 types of deer worldwide. Many of these are semi-domesticated in parts of their range and their meat (venison) is eaten: different deer are eaten in different countries. There are six deer species in the UK and venison in the UK could potentially come from five of these: Red deer, Fallow deer, Roe deer, Sika deer and Muntjac (you are unlikely to be eating Chinese Water Deer). Most farmed deer meat comes from the native Red deer, the largest of the UK species, with Fallow deer being the only other species farmed commercially. Consumption of venison in the UK is on the increase. In the 12 months prior to June 2014, one survey found that retail sales of venison were up over 400%.

Wales’ only reindeer herd:

We are eating more deer:

Monday, 8 December 2014

The Smoke Haus and some notes on the cooking of meats

In which I ponder about burger trends and “pulled” pork, but first I eat some slow-cooked meat.

The Smoke Haus is a south Wales-based American diner. It has locations in Swansea and Cardiff (Mary Ann St, Cardiff CF10 2EN); the latter, and more-recent outlet, was the destination for our lunch for three.

I had the ‘Smoke Haus Pulled Pork Hoagie’, billed as a “smoked shoulder of pork slow-roasted for 12 hours, pulled and served in a hoagie roll with dry slaw, baby gem lettuce and apple sauce.” As with everyone on the sandwich menu, it was served with ‘slaw and skin-on fries. My companions had the ‘Slow cooked brisket deli sandwich’ (“served in toasted bloomer bread with red onion, cheese, sweet mustard, pickles and Russian sauce”) and the ‘Philly Cheese Steak’ (“pan fried wafer thin top side of beef topped with melted Emmental cheese, sweet fried onions served in a hoagie roll”). Other US-themed sandwich choices included the Reuben, the Elvis Po Boy and the Texas Link Po Bo. I rated mine the best; though it was all very tasty meat. The Smoke Haus is a very welcome addition to the Cardiff food scene.

The American influence at The Smoke Haus extends to portion size. You are likely to get served more than you can eat. The table next to us were making good use of ‘doggy bags’. You don’t have to treat it, as their website encourages, as “a challenge not for the fainthearted”. There are Brits we know living in the United States who assume they are going to get fed twice when they go into a restaurant: once at the table and again at home from the take-away left-overs (though some people apparently do feed their pets). I did eat most of my lunch at The Smoke Haus, and just demoted my next meal to a light supper.

The “challenge” at The Smoke Haus extends to the desserts. If you look past the ‘Mississippi mud pie’ and ‘Chocolate oreo sundae’ on the menu, you will see ‘The Smoke Haus Ultimate Dessert’, which comprises “a huge bowl of Vanilla ice cream, banana ice cream, marshmallows, doughnuts, chunks of pecan brownie, fresh banana topped with  squirty cream, chocolate and toffee sauce.” We passed on this.

And talking of donuts, The Smoke Haus has contributed to the growing trend for pushing the burger boundary with its ‘Donut Burger’. Admittedly, some of the buns that fast-food burgers are served in are very sweet, but the Donut Burger (as served by The Smoke Haus, though it is also served in other burger joints) takes the burger in a different direction in that the donuts are glazed and the cheeseburger patty with grilled streaky bacon is served with a sweet sauce. This breakfast, dessert or stupid burger variant, depending on how you view these things, attracted some (not unwelcome) media attention. The thick stacks of the other The Smoke Haus burgers come with (not always helpful) US-themed names, such as ‘New Orleans’, ‘Southern Comfort’ and ‘The Hog Father’.

Also in the news recently was the ‘Yorkshire Pudding Burger’, served by the north of England based Rift & Co chain, described by the Independent as just the latest in a line of “stupid burgers”. It was inspired by the Donut Burger. I am wondering where the Welsh burger needs to go from here. Should the lamb patty lie between bara brith or Welsh cakes? Incidentally, an indie burger outlet has opened in Scotland called ‘The Silly Burger’, though the burgers it serves are very sensible and down-to-earth.

The Smoke Haus menu features pulled pork and pulled lamb. The term ‘pulled’ was originally restricted to pork, to describe the process when a potentially tough cut of meat (e.g. shoulder) is slow-cooked at low temperatures so that it becomes tender enough to be pulled or easily broken into small shreds or pieces using, for example, a fork. This process can also be called shredding. Its recent prevalence on menus is due to modern US-led marketing initiatives. In addition to pork and lamb, you can now see pulled beef (i.e. shredded beef brisket), pulled chicken and pulled duck on menus. In fact, KFC have predicted that 2015 will become “the year of pulled chicken”. I suspect that other critters will soon also be “pulled” (e.g. goat and rabbit have been cooked this way for centuries). As shredded meats feature in all the world’s cuisines, the possibilities for jumping on the pulled bandwagon appear endless. However, as the innuendo element is lost when you pull anything other than your pork, I think its marketing value may have climaxed.

Christopher Hooton in The Independent on "silly burgers":

Felicity Cloake on KFC and pulled chicken in The Guardian:

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Barrack Lane, Cardiff

When the Food Blog was last on Barrack Lane, in June 2012, work had only recently started on the nearby Admiral Building and only the unit nearest the building site was occupied (Cafi BARICS). Barrack Lane, part of Cardiff’s Retail Enterprise Quarter, is owned by Linc-Cymru, who specialise in the affordable housing, social care and health sectors. Along with 27 small residential apartments, there are 9 retail units along the lane. These are now all occupied by local businesses. Four of them are dedicated to food and drink.

The Grazing Shed
1 Barrack Lane CF10 2GS
After Cafi BARICS closed, this end unit was taken by The Grazing Shed, which opened in Sept 2013. This independent burger joint uses local suppliers and has an innovative ‘Super Tidy Burgers’ menu. The burger menu splits into beef, chicken and a smaller vegetarian section. It was my first visit, so I started near the top with a Spicy Uncle Pedro (pictured), though tempted by the Rasta Hen and other creative burger options. The bread is locally produced in an 'artisan bakery', making for a superior bun, and the sauces are homemade. The burgers are more rustic than gourmet, of a piece with the cobbled-together wooden décor. Ideal if you want quick alternative fast-food (Food Hygiene Rating 5: very good. Feb 2014).

The Magic Wrap
3 Barrack Lane CF10 2GS
The Magic Wrap is a local business founded in 2008 by Ed Jones. It specialises in wraps of a heathy nature, using Lebanese khobez bread and plenty of salad in the fillings. The website describes the bread as ‘made with unbleached flour, light, soft and low in salt and without any added fat, artificial colourings or flavourings. It is also suitable for Vegans’. You can make up your own combinations or go for one of their suggestions. The current favourites listed on the website include Falafel, The Bilbao, Brie and bacon, Spicy Jamaican, Piri piri chicken and the Chinese-style The Emperor with mixed-herb chicken. The Magic Wrap also has an older outlet in Cardiff University Student’s Union (just along from the Sherman Theatre) and a recently-opened outlet in Cardiff Bay (Food Hygiene Rating 5: very good. Jan 2014).

The Gravity Station
9 Barrack Lane CF10 2FR
This ‘take-away bottle shop and tasting bar’ is owned by the Waen Brewery of Llanidloes, which was started in 2009 by Sue Hayward and John Martin, and has that breweries ‘hand crafted in Wales’ beers on tap and in bottles. The Gravity Station stocks the regular T.W.A. (3.7% ABV) and the ever-changing range of seasonal Waen beers, which currently include Snowball (7.0%), which is a chocolate, coconut and vanilla stout, Chilli Plum Porter (6.1%), Blackberry stout (3.7%) and Pamplemousse (4.2%). I sampled some Mistletoe & Waen from the tap, which contains fortified wine and has a pleasing chocolate-port-like flavour. There are bottles from a range of other Welsh breweries available to take-way, including Celt, Otley, Pipes and Untapped, along with a well-selected range of beers from Belgian (include Trappist ales), Germany, Holland, England, Scotland and the USA. As well as some Waen brews, I took away a bottle of Scottish brewery Harviestoun’s ‘Old Engine Oil’. Live acoustic music can be heard here on the last Friday of every month (they had Harri Davis on the bill last week).

9 Barrack Lane CF10 2EF
This small independent Italian café does good Italian coffee and cake. Founded by Daniela Francesca Ferrari and opened in July 2013, the emphasis here is very much on home-made food: traditional breakfasts and lunchtime pasta dishes, with daily-changing sauces, along with soup and paninis. Outdoor seating in a sheltered and relatively quiet corner of Cardiff city centre, which is just around the corner from The Hayes (Food Hygiene Rating 4: good. July 2013).

Loyalty cards are available in all four of these local Barrack Street businesses. I suspect they all have their regulars. It's good to see this street flourishing now the Admiral Building has opened. Indeed, with FED soon to join The Smoke Haus along Mary Ann Street, this part of Cardiff is definitely on the up.

Previous post on Barrack Lane:

Saturday, 22 November 2014

European Week of Waste Reduction 2014

A blog post of two halves today, firstly with information about a European initiative to reduce food waste and then a look at how food waste is collected here in the Vale of Glamorgan (Wales).

The European Week of Waste Reduction (EWWR) starts today (22-30 Nov 2014). This initiative aims to raise awareness about sustainable resources and waste management. In particular, it encourages people, either through a group (e.g. public authority, NGO, business, educational establishment) or as individuals, to take actions to promote waste reduction. The annual EWWR was first launched in 2009 and has been co-funded by the European Commission’s LIFE+ Programme.

The EWWR’s Prevention Thematic Days 2014 focus on the issue of food waste and how to prevent it. Around one third of the food produced globally is lost or wasted, which makes no sense economically or ethically, and represents a massive loss of resources: land, water, energy and labour. Over 100 million tonnes of food are wasted annually in the EU (2014 estimate), a figure that is expected to rise if active measures are not taken.

A number of EWWR food waste factsheets can be downloaded, which cover areas such as food donation campaigns, gleaning and eco-restaurants:

The Eco-Restaurant concept, for instance, aims to optimise a restaurant’s performance in all environmental aspects, including waste prevention, reducing energy and water consumption, and reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions. In terms of food waste, customers are encouraged to take left-over food away in paper ‘doggy bags’, customers should be offered tap water (in preference to bottled water), and more consideration should be given to different plate sizes on the menu.

The information for a Zero Waste Lunch aims to help you dramatically reduce the amount of food and packaging that ends up landfilled or incinerated. Avoiding unnecessary shopping and buying in bulk, making use of reusable bags and containers, reusing left-overs and composting food waste all contribute.

Food can be composted at home or via a local authority food waste collection scheme. Here in the Vale of Glamorgan, kitchen waste is collected weekly from the kerbside. Residents in the Vale can go along to the farm where it is processed near Cowbridge (Cowbridge Compost Ltd) and pick up some of the compost for free. We spread a load of it around when we established the Nightingale Community Garden in Dinas Powys.

The recent background paper on Waste Planning, part of the Vale of Glamorgan Local Development Plan 2011-2026, stated that the Vale handles 59,780 tonnes per annum (2012-13) of municipal solid waste, of which 5,459 tonnes per annum is food composting. It aims to increase the amount of food and garden waste being processed, and use some of it to generate bioenergy, through the creation of a new Anaerobic Digestion (AD) Treatment plant, in a joint venture with Cardiff Council.

In an announcement, unfortunately coinciding with the EWWR, the Vale of Glamorgan Council have said that it is to ration the biodegradable green bags they supply to households for food waste (Penarth Times, 20 Nov). This will make substantial annual savings, they say, because some people request unfeasibly large numbers of them. Although the local FOE group have attached the Council for this decision, it does make sense to issue a limited number of free bag rolls to households with the option of buying more.

The Vale’s kitchen waste system can seem a little overcomplicated. It involves a small caddy in the kitchen, into which biodegradable bags are inserted and a larger caddy to put roadside with the sealed bags in it. What I learnt recently is that you don’t really need the little biodegradable green bags at all, because you can just line the bigger caddy with newspaper and chuck everything straight in there. So don’t get too hung up on the little bags, just get as much kitchen waste recycled as possible!

Friday, 31 October 2014

Jerusalem artichoke – breaking news

So, what’s new in the world of Jerusalem artichoke, I hear you ask.

Well, Helianthus tuberosus has made the headlines on a few occasions recently. The Daily Mail, that repository of informed opinion, for example, reported on the case of Lyndsey Glassett, who returned home after a weekend away and was devastated to find that her Jerusalem artichoke plants had been sprayed and had died. The 67-year old liked to slow-cook the tubers in wine or grate them raw into salads. She watched the CCTV of her garden, and discovered that her sister, who lives across the road from her in Broxbourne, Kent, had done the deed. They have been at loggerheads for several years, apparently, and she accused her of killing the plants out of spite. She claims, rather unconvincingly in my opinion, that she was doing it because they looked like weeds. The case went to court:

It was National Chocolate Day this week, and Glamour magazine (again, not my usual reading I must admit) somehow managed to lump Jerusalem artichoke in with a bunch of ingredients du jour. “Beaming Superfood Cookie…  you won't believe all the other good stuff that's in this sweet treat: applesauce, Beaming Protein with greens (hemp protein, chia seed, yellow pea protein, brown rice protein, maca, mesquite, lucuma, vanilla, Jerusalem artichoke, coconut, sugar, cinnamon, Himalayan pink salt, chlorella, blue green algae, spirulina), coconut sugar, vanilla, sea salt, vegan chocolate chips, and sliced almonds.” It’s pretty unbelievable, I guess, but I did cut-and-paste it, so it must be true. For more healthy chocolate ideas:

Jerusalem artichoke have become a little bit fashionable again in restaurants, after many years of being neglected. This may continue this winter, as they are just coming into season again. For example, writing of a visit to Norse in Harrowgate this week, Elaine Lemm enthuses about “poached baby globe artichoke, pickled pear with Blacksticks blue, chervil root puree and chilled chervil broth as the first dish. For seconds, pan-fried plaice, Scottish mussels, salsify and sea veg with burnt cream and smoked Jerusalem artichoke.”  For more:

My Jerusalem artichoke have grown pretty well this year, but I don’t dig any until they have been subjected to a hard frost. As it has been positively tropical for late October here in Wales, I can’t see them being harvested for a while yet.

My advice when eating them is: a little goes a long way. Don’t overdo it. For a hint why, see my previous blog post on Jerusalem artichoke, which was entitled: ‘Why do Jerusalem artichoke make you fart?’ All is revealed at:

I extracted information for that blog post from a book I wrote, with Prof. Stan Kays from the University of Georgia (USA), called ‘The Biology and Chemistry of Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)’. This is currently ranked 3,237,947 on the Amazon bestsellers list:

Now, I know that can’t be good, because I get (or don’t get) the royalty cheques. However, I think the price the publishers charge for academic books like this might have a bearing.

Google books do a section for books where you can read selected pages (I don’t remember signing up for that one). Unfortunately, they have not selected any of the racy pages or even any of the interesting pages (the meat of the book concerns the Jerusalem artichoke’s USP – the inulin it lays down instead of starch):

Must sign off on this now, to deal with some 'trick-or-treaters'. Another Jerusalem artichoke news update coming soon, in a couple of years.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Personal taste

In recent posts, I have written about the environmental factors that influence how we perceive food and drink.  To complete this mini-strand, I offer a few words on the genetics of taste perception.

Back in 1931, a chemist called Arthur Fox was carelessly working with a powder called phenylthiocarbamide (TCP). His colleague complained that some of the airborne powder tasted bitter, but Fox could not taste anything. Studies to date have confirmed that around 75% of people can taste TCP and 25% cannot. With increasing knowledge of genetics, this ratio strongly suggested that a single dominant gene was involved in TCP perception; though the fact that people vary in their sensitivity to it suggests that other factors are also involved. In 2003, geneticists identified the gene – TAS2R38 – coding for the TCP receptors.

TCP does not occur naturally, so what is the significance of this? The answer was once life or death, of course. The TCP receptors are just part of the structures on the tongue that detect bitter substances. There are now around 30 genes linked to such bitter taste receptors. Your ability to taste TCP is positively correlated with your ability to taste other bitter substances, most significantly toxic compounds in plants that you might want to try eating.

I was reminded of this at Green Man this summer. One of the University Science Department stands in the Einstein’s Garden area of the festival was conducting simple genetic test, including the one for TCP perception.  As on previous occasions, this confirmed that I can taste TCP. Though this leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, it is a good thing (and they did supply sweets afterwards). It means I have a better chance of detecting bitter toxins in my food than people who cannot taste it, or it would if we all still lived in the age before supermarkets.

The genetic component for the perception of the other four basic tastes is thought to be less strong, though recent research has revealed that the perception of sweetness is partly inherited. This research is being done with a view to understanding obesity. Genetics may have little bearing on how we perceive salty and sour, while less is known about unami generally.

There are a number of technical terms to describe medically-related conditions involving taste perception, but these are more linked to environmental factors, particularly the onset of certain diseases, than genetic factors. For example, people can have ageusia (complete loss of taste), hypogeusia (partial loss of taste), dysgeusia (distorted sense of taste) and hypergeusia (abnormally heightened sense of taste). While ill, I have experienced mild versions of a couple of these and it certainly makes you appreciate your food when you recover.

One of the many environmental factors influencing how we perceive taste is aging, with older people often having reduced sensitivity to salty or bitter tastes. Acquired tastes are preferences that develop over time. These can override any genetically determined aversion to bitter or unusual tastes. Coffee, Marmite, broccoli, goat’s cheese and Brains Bitter, for example, are acquired tastes. It all goes to show that taste can be a very personal thing.

See also:
Crossmodal sensory perception

Pete Brown on beer and music

Some archived posts you may be interested in:
Genetics at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales


Raw Vegan Rock and Roll

Monday, 29 September 2014

Crossmodal sensory perception

In a recent post I wrote about a beer tasting session with Pete Brown at the Green Man Festival, in which he talked about how the music we hear may influence our perception of flavour. In the UK, much of the influential research in this area comes from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford.

The Laboratory was founded in 1997 and the team there study the integration of information across the different sensory modalities (hearing, vision, touch, taste, and smell). This is an area of research that is changing the way we view our senses. Traditionally, vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste have been studied in isolation. However, recent research has shown sensory processing within a single sense is modulated by information from the other senses.

One area of interest to the Oxford laboratory is how our understanding of multisensory perception can be used by the food industry to improve the perception of foods and drinks. Professor Charles Spence, who heads the Crossmodal Research Laboratory, was interviewed for a recent Guardian article by Amy Fleming (link below). She notes that much of the lab’s work is funded by Unilever, while Prof Spence sits on the scientific advisory board of PepsiCo.

Therefore, this is an area of research that people should be aware of, in order to make informed purchasing decisions. For example, it has been found that ‘crunchy’ correlates with fresh, so food manufactures are making crisps and so forth that sound crunchy even though they are not so fresh. The information also informs product design and marketing. More beneficially (for us), food manufacturers are using crossmodal perception research findings to gradually reduce the salt and sugar content of foods (to meet Government guidelines). One of the early results of crossmodal perception, for instance, was that product colour affects perceptions of flavour and sweetness.

Charles Spence has written a book with his colleague Betina Piqueras-Fiszman called ‘The Perfect Meal’ (published next week in the UK), which presents the laboratory's recent findings on crossmodal perception for general readers. It is structured around the dining experience in a restaurant. It looks at the factors that influence flavour perception, including visual, tactile, cognitive and aural stimuli. For example, the subtle effects of the colour of the plates, the shape of the glass, the names of dishes, and the background music. So, for instance, whisky tastes better in a “woody” room, while food plated to resemble a work of art tastes better than when it is indifferently put on a plate.

A signature dish for crossmodal perception is the ‘Sound of the Sea’ served at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant. This seafood and fish dish plays on taste, aroma, sound and the overall nostalgic experience of the seaside. It is served with an iPod (inside a conch shell from which headphones emerge) playing seaside sounds, specifically waves crashing on a beach. The flat glass plate on which the food is served is placed on top of a rectangular box containing a bed of sand, while edible sand (made from tapioca), pieces of edible seaweed, and a wave of salty sea foam (vegetable and seaweed broth) surround the fish and seafood. Charles Spence collaborated with Heston Blumenthal on the creation of this dish, which is based on work concerning sound and flavour done in the Oxford laboratory.

So, if your waiter comes across all Derren Brown, there may be crossmodal perception at play. When it comes to food advertising, packaging and the perception of processed food products, however, you (the consumer) are not supposed to be aware of the psychology being applied. So, now is a good time to read up on what’s being cooked up in the lab (links below).

For instance, a recent paper from the laboratory found that the perception of green, yellow, and orange drinks was influenced by the shape of the glass in which the drink was presented, and the authors advised that for advertising and product packaging the appropriateness of the glassware be carefully considered. Another paper confirmed that fruit juices were considered 'sweet and low in sourness' were consistently matched with rounder shapes and speech sounds, and lower-pitched sounds, and were generally liked more; meanwhile, those juices that were rated as tasting 'sour' were consistently matched with angular shapes, sharper speech sounds, and sounds with a higher pitch, and were liked less.

The Oxford team have also found that the sounds of a food product’s name are generally associated with both sensory and conceptual attributes. This forms part of a wider area of study, looking at how retail spaces can provide non-verbal cues to improve sales.

Further reading:

Pete Brown on beer and music

Crossmodal Research Laboratory, Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford

‘Charles Spence: The food scientist changing the way we eat’, by Amy Fleming

Make your own 'Sound of the Sea'

‘Beverage perception and consumption: The influence of the container on the perception of the contents.’ Wan and Spence, 2015 (in press). Food Quality and Preference 39: 131-140.

‘Do you say it like you eat it? The sound symbolism of food names and its role in the multisensory product experience.’ Favalli et al., 2013. Food Research International 54: 760-791.

‘Retail atmospherics and in-store non-verbal cues: an introduction.’ Grewel et al., 2014. Psychology and Marketing 31: 469-471.