Monday, 31 January 2011

Food on Film. 3. Eat Drink Man Woman

Although Ang Lee had made The Wedding Banquet the previous year, it was Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) that revealed him to be one of the leading directors of his generation (he has subsequently made The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain). Eat Drink Man Woman won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Moving effortlessly from Asian art film to mainstream comedy-drama modes, this Taiwan/USA co-production boasts some of the best food preparation scenes seen in any film.

The story centres on a renowned chef living in Taipei, and his three grown daughters. He cooks them an elaborate traditional meal every Sunday. This ritual anchors the family during a time of societal change and personal turmoil. Here is the opening scene, followed by the US trailer:

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Riverside Farmers' Market, Cardiff

Riverside Farmers’ Market this morning. The market is held every Sunday between 10am-2pm at Fitzhamon Embankment, opposite the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Founder Steve Garrett has subsequently established three other Farmers’ Markets in Cardiff (Roath, Rhiwbina and Llandaff) and oversees the Riverside Market Garden.

We browsed Spice of Life (buying flame raisins and Brazil nuts), Wigmore’s bread (sourdough loaf), Untapped Brewery (bottle of Ember), Teifi Cheese (cumin cheese), Old Sandler Farm (pears and apples), Tŷ Mawr (kale, parsnips and other seasonal veg), and Cig Loder (lamb and sausages). Blaencamel Farm also had a good selection of organic vegetables, while Madgett’s Farm had duck and poultry and Little Mill sold meat and game. Interesting snacks and meals could be had from Kimi Indian Curries, Taste of Persia, Falafal Wales, and Frantastic Crepes and Welsh Cakes; The Parsnipship sold vegetarian food and Penrhiw Farm did burgers. A couple of stalls new to us: The EthicalChef (Deri Reed cooking local produce and doing a good trade in warming porridge) and the Caffeine Kid (lots of coffee). Here is a film about the Riverside Market, which includes an interview with Steve Garrett:

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Food on Film. 2. Ratatouille

I am a big fan of Pixar and so it's no surprise that the studio's 8th film Ratatouille (2007) is my favourite animated Food Film. For each of their films, Pixar set itself technical challenges (e.g., hair, water, shiny metallic surfaces). In Ratatouille the challenge was to create appealing computer-generated food, using sub-surface light scattering techniques and new methods for modelling organic textures.

The animators attended culinary school, and studied how foods change when they are cooked and when they rot. The celebrated chef Thomas Keller designed dishes specifically for the film, including the ratatouille. Ferran Adrià, of El Bulli fame, was also an advisor on the film and his voice is used for one of the characters in the Spanish language version.

The film was directed by Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava, and featured voice work by Patten Oswalt, Lou Romano, Janeane Garofalo and Peter O'Toole. The story is about a young rat who arrives in Paris, and dreams of becoming a chef. The food looks good, the comedy is funny, and the outcome genuinely affecting. 

Further information:

Friday, 28 January 2011

Blood Donation Biscuits

This morning I opened the Murchfield Community Hall in Dinas Powys, where I am Coordinator, for the Welsh Blood Service. I was back a while later to donate blood. Stocks of blood are low at the moment (a session in December here was cancelled due to bad weather). Do think about donating.

One of the good things about giving blood is the drink and biscuits afterwards. This morning, there was a choice of five Brontë Biscuit flavours – Fruit Shrewsbury, Choco Chip, Viennese Fingers, Shortcake Oat and Golden Crunch - and a stray Penguin. I had a cup of tea and a couple of Viennese Fingers. Biscuits rarely taste better than after you have given blood.

The Brontë Minipack range is baked by Paterson Arran (The Royal Burgh Bakery, Livingston EH54 5DN Scotland) especially for the catering and hospitality industries. The Welsh Blood Service buy Traditional Assorted Minipacks.

Blood donation

Murchfield Community Hall

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Food on Film. 1. Babette's Feast

Babette's Feast (Babette's Gastebud) is a Danish film from 1987 (it won that year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar). Directed by Gabriel Axel, and based on a short story by Karen Blixen, it is set in 1871 amidst a small religious community in a remote part of Denmark. After winning money in the lottery, housekeeper Babette (Stephane Audran) decides to spend it all by cooking an extravagant meal - the like of which the town’s people have never seen before. This is a gentle and slow-moving film, which puts the food centre stage. It’s the first in my Top 10 essential Food Films.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The New York Deli, Cardiff

Lunch in Cardiff’s own New York Deli: a bagel oozing cream cheese and crammed with salt beef, horseradish sauce, tomato and lettuce (no pickles for me), accompanied by a mug of coffee (£5.10).

Before the bend in the High Street Arcade, you’ll see an outdoor bench, a US flag overhead, and attractive art deco windows. You enter and walk across a rustic wooden floor, past window seating, tables and chairs, modern art (by the owner's son) and a carving of a Native American, and up steps to the counter. There is also a mezzanine upstairs floor; the multilevel arrangement makes this place look bigger than it actually is.

The New York Deli was established in 1990 by New York-born Harriett Davies, who plays a very hands-on role. The place operates a loyalty card scheme to reward its many regulars. Its Take Out service is popular with local shop and office workers (they also deliver, “office catering a speciality”). You will not find friendlier staff in a snack bar in Cardiff.

Not wanting to meddle with the traditional-style American Delicatessen formula that has served them well for 21 years, the New York Deli has declared itself a mobile phone free zone and there’s no Wi-Fi in sight. So, a good choice if you want a break from electronic information overload while you eat. There is a laid-back atmosphere and period music: early Led Zeppelin while I lunched.

The bread choice is bagels (white or cinnamon raisin), sliced wholemeal or light rye, and hoagies (long soft bread rolls “for the very hungry”); it would appear the White House Special hoagie is not for the faint-hearted. Numerous fillings are available, including ham, pastrami, tuna, bacon, smoked salmon cheese (Swiss, cheddar, Brie, provolone, Philadelphia), and a range of salad garnishes. In fact, you can make combinations up to suit your particular taste. The Harriett Special is a bagel with ham, cream cheese, sweet thai chilli sauce and gherkin. Currently, a breakfast bagel option looks particularly good value.

Think Subway, but as a local one-off; it's friendlier and offers a more authentic Deli dining experience.

The New York Deli, 19 High St Arcade, Cardiff. Tel: (029) 2038 8388

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Addressing the Haggis

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
   Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
   As lang's my arm.

I have attended proper Burn’s suppers, in Cambridge, where a piper played at the head of a procession, with the haggis being placed on the top table - where it was dispatched with a lethal-looking dagger. Kilts appeared on people you never suspected were Scottish. All the stanzas of Robert Burn’s Address to a Haggis were recited. Whisky was drunk.

I don’t expect to ever be invited to anything like those dinners again, but every year we cook haggis on the 25 January (Burn's Night). I really like the taste, it’s an excuse to bring out a good single malt, and Robert Burns is a great writer who (even if you’re not Scottish) deserves to be celebrated.

I don't think too much about the nationalism and deeper issues surrounding Burn's, I'm just cooking a tasty sausage, but here's an interesting dissenting view:

Let's also spare a thought for Scots living in the USA. There is still a 40-year old ban in place that prevents the sale of haggis, which officially deprives Scots living in the US of a part of their culture. Story here:

I have to go to do battle with my haggis now, and prepare the neeps and tatties, but I’ll leave you with the rest of Burn’s Address to the Haggis. It’s rather bloodthirsty (“Trenching your gushing entrails bright”) and less than complimentary about French cuisine (“fricassee would make her throw-up”).

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin was help to mend a mill
   In time o' need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
   Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An' cut ye up wi' ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
   Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
   Warm-reeking, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an' strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
   Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
   'Bethankit!' hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
   Wi perfect scunner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
   On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feclkess as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
   His nieve a nit;
Tho' bluidy flood or field to dash,
   O how unfit.

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
   He'll make it whistle;
An' legs, an' arms, an' heads will sned
   Like taps o' thrissle.

Ye pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware,
   That jaups in luggies;
But if ye wish her gratfu' prayer,
   Gie her a Haggis!

[nb. Pudding = sausage. Standard English translation here:]

Monday, 24 January 2011

Wine Family Tree

A family tree of wines has just been published. It is based on the largest study to date of the genetics of grape vines. Sean Myles, and colleagues at Stanford University, looked at genetic markers in 583 cultivars to reveal the pattern behind 6,000 years of breeding. There appears to be a “vast swathe of possible varieties unexplored”. This is good news for breeders seeking to develop disease-resistant cultivars, and also in the light of a recent report that suggested new cultivars were needed as climate change affects traditional wine growing areas. The study revealed that wine grapes were less diverse than previously thought, with most of the main cultivars being close cousins of one another, because the same cultivars have been reused by breeders over and over again.
Sean Miles et al., 2011. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1009363108

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Football and Chips

Pêl-droed a sglodion. Today we’re talking football and chips. Up early for a Dinas Wolves vs. Cowbridge U-8s game, on a frosty Bryn-y-Don pitch here in Dinas Powys. Juliet scored in a close-fought draw. Then, this afternoon, Juliet and I went to see Cardiff City play Watford at the Cardiff City Stadium. We have season tickets behind the goal in the Family Stand.

The new stadium is well served by snack bars under the stands. Today we sampled the chips (portion £2.60, with unlimited ketchup from large dispensers). Juliet pronounced them very good. Not greasy, nice and thick - floury inside and crisp outside as they should be. They would have benefited by being cooked a little longer. However, they are decent chips. We prefer getting food before the game (the queues are much shorter than at half-time) and, after a previous hot dog experience, don't eat after half-time. I hear the food in corporate hospitality is good - a pity food other than burgers and chips doesn't filter down below the stands.

The sponsorship and advertising is less food-related than at Ninian Park (with its Brace's Bread logo on the roof) and more geared to Internet betting (Sbobet on the City shirts), financial services and, since the new Malaysian owners arrived, Visit Malaysia signage. However, there’s still old-school hoardings (none of this annoying electronic scrolling stuff) advertising regional food and drink: Peter’s Pies, Talgarth Bakery, and Brecon mineral water.

It was a good game today. Cardiff City won 4-2. Goals for Bellamy, Chopra, Bothroyd and Gyepes, together with a very promising debut by Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (on loan from Arsenal).

Friday, 21 January 2011

Getting to grips with the Wagamama cookbook

I remember when the first Wagamama opened in the UK in 1992. It was a bit of a cult place, to be found on a side street in the Tottenham Court Road end of Bloomsbury, in the shadow of Centrepoint. You descended to a large basement and sat at long refectory tables. The noodle-based food was novel for the time. It was a pleasingly communal experience and it was always busy. There was a definite buzz about the place.
Wagamama are now everywhere. There are two in Cardiff. The one in Mermaid Quay opened with the redevelopment of Cardiff Bay, while the one in Mill Lane opened last year. They are a little more expensive than I remember. The long communal tables are giving way to smaller tables, although at busy times you may still get seated next to strangers (Wagamama used to attract more interesting people than most eateries you could name). The quality of the food on offer is just as good as in those early London days when I “first discovered Wagamama.”
I have just gotten around to “The Wagamama Cookbook” by Hugo Arnold (2004). Tonight I cooked Chicken Ramen. In the book, this is a combination of grilled and sliced chicken breast, noodles, stock, pak choi, with canned bamboo shoots and spring onions to garnish.
I never have all the ingredients for dishes like this, and never expect it to look or taste like it does in the restaurant. So, I substitute things and adapt it to suit. Instead of the Ramen (or Soba), which are thin, wheat egg noodles, I used soft Chinese noodles. I made do without bamboo shoots. Wagamama chicken stock is made with some ginger root, so I boiled up my stock with a few slices of ginger, which was satisfactory, and so on.
However, a key thing with these dishes, which should be respected, is to assemble them just before serving. Cooked and drained noodles are put into individual deep bowls first, followed by chopped vegetables (Chinese leaves in my case), then the hot stock, and finally the grilled chicken and any garnishes you’re using (e.g., spring onions) on top.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Food and drink in the works of REM

When I was much younger I imagined being on Mastermind, with the works of REM as my specialist subject. Then, one day, I saw the programme and someone was answering questions on REM in the specialist round. He only got a few more correct than I did without preparing. I no longer wanted to be on Mastermind.

Vocalist Michael Stipe must have the largest vocabulary of any rock lyricist. The words always approach a subject from an interesting and oblique angle. Here’s some of my favourite food and drink imagery in REM songs:

“I have got to find the river
Bergamot and vetiver run through my head and fall away

There is nothing left to throw
Of ginger, lemon, indigo
Coriander stem and rows of hay”
(Find the River)

“Today I need something more substantial: a can of beans or black-eyed peas, some Nescafe and ice.”
(The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite).

“That’s sugarcane that tasted good, that’s cinnamon that’s Hollywood.”
(Imitation of Life).

“Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly bean, boom!”
(It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine)

“I cried the other night
I can’t even say why
Fluorescent flat caffeine light
It’s furious balancing”

“a tea made from the leaves of eucalyptus fragrances and coriander seeds”

“after wine and nectarines, the fireflies and time, move like syrup through the evening, with a sweet resign.”
(Summer Turns To High)

“It’s a new day today and the coffee is strong.”

“I’d settle for a cup of coffee, but you know what I really need.”
(I don’t sleep I dream)

"Hot Java, a steaming hot cup of joe...
Got a cup of sugar I can borrow, a nice bit of cream?
A nice cup of coffee, to set the scene."
(Java [1995 fan club single])

You may have noticed a coffee theme emerging. I have an REM coffee mug (won in a raffle at the Monster LP release party in Athens, Georgia). Some of the coffee references possibly link to the theme of sleeping and (Rapid Eye Movement) dreaming that regularly emerge in the band’s records. I am also guessing that Michael Stipe likes a good cup of coffee.

Do you know if they do the same specialist subject twice?

Allison Hazen commented on your link [to this page from FaceBook]: "Some of the references also describe the physical in terms of food, such as, moving like syrup, fragrances, and the color of light in terms of food. This is a very southern trait. We use it in our speech all of the time. That's part of why others think we are linguistically colorful."

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Making Marmalade

It’s the time of year when Seville oranges are in the shops, and the year’s supply of marmalade is made. I have just got 2 kg from our friendly local greengrocer (Valley View Fruit Stores, Dinas Powys) and things are coming together for a marmalade making session this weekend (with Chris in charge of operations).
Here’s the tried and tested recipe from Good Housekeeping Cookery Book (1987 edition) that we use as a guide:
1.4 kg Seville oranges, juice of 2 lemons, 3.4 litres of water and 2.7kg sugar.
Halve fruit and squeeze out juice. Slice peel how you like it, and put into a pan with the juice, water and the rest of the pithy bits of orange (the latter tied in a muslin bag). Simmer about 2 hours, until peel soft and liquid reduced by about half. Remove muslin bag, squeezing it well to retain the liquid (which helps it set). Add the sugar and stir on a gentle heat until it has dissolved. Boil rapidly until setting point is reached (test a teaspoonful on a cold plate) – about 15 minutes - and turn off heat promptly. After maramalade has cooled for about 15 minutes, put into sterilized pots.

Here is a video demonstration from Guy Watson, the founder of Riverford Organic.


On 19th January. Facebook. Stephen Nottingham bought Seville oranges. Gillian Fagg wrote: Good start!

The marmalade making today was a success. Those oranges filled 15 containers of varying sizes with fine-tasting marmalade.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Cornish vs. Welsh pasties

The Cornish pasty originated as a working man’s lunch in the 18th Century, amidst the boom in tin and copper mining in Cornwall. Thick pastry kept the filling secure and warm. The crimping acted as a handle that could be thrown away (these men’s hands were dirty), while initials could be inscribed into this part of the pastry. The Cornish pasty was taken around Britain and to the USA by miners, as the Cornish mining industry declined. Today, traditional pasties are enjoying a revival, with an increase in the number of high-street outlets specializing in them. In Cardiff, The Cornish Bakehouse opened in 2005, while the Pembrokeshire Pasty and Pie Co opened at the end of 2010.

The Cornish Bakehouse originated in St. Ives, Cornwall in 1990. There are now 23 shops, from Cornwall to Colchester in the east, as far north as Wolverhampton, and with two in Wales. The Cardiff shop is on the corner opposite the entrance to St. John’s on Church Street. The pasties are made by Crantock Bakery and sold as “the true taste of Cornwall”. Authenticity is the keyword, and the pasties are traditionally crimped. Steak-filled traditional pasties are sold in four sizes (small to giant). These (small, £1.85) have a good amount of mildly-spiced meat filling, with easily digested, thinly-sliced potato and swede pieces, and taste just like you’d expect a good Cornish pasty to taste. A wide range of fillings are available, including 'gourmet pasties'. I tried the Moroccan Spiced Vegetable (£2.75), which was pleasant, but I did not like the spicy crust on the pasty casing. Take-away and some seats for eating in.

The Pembrokeshire Pasty and Pie Co is based in Tenby, Pembrokeshire. The outlet at the St Mary Street end of the Royal Arcade in Cardiff is only their second shop. Without the Cornish tradition, there is more scope for reinterpretation. The first thing to go is the pastry crimping. There is less pastry-to-filling, and the pastry is flakier, to a non-traditional extent, with a glazed finish. These are pasties with a Welsh twist, and with funky names (The Fiery Dragon, The Tenby Treat). The emphasis is on local produce, all sourced within Pembrokeshire whenever possible. The Original Pembrokeshire Pasty (smaller size, £2.50) has Welsh lamb, with Welsh redcurrant jelly and currants. It's the tastiest pasty I have ever eaten. The Vegetable Surprise (£2.50) contained leek and potato in a cheddar cheese sauce, and was indeed a pleasant surprise. The shop is roomy, but entirely take-away (though handy for the railway station).

So, if you fancy an authentic, hearty Cornish pasty then the Cornish Bakehouse is for you, but if you fancy a lighter, more modern, Welsh variation on the pasty then check out the Pembrokshire Pasty and Pie Co.

The Cornish Bakehouse, 11 Church Street, Cardiff.

The Pembrokeshire Pasty and Pie Co., 1-3 Royal Arcade, St Mary Street, Cardiff.

Stephen Nottingham adds (March 2011)
The Pembrokeshire Pasty and Pie Co have added stools and a window table since this blog was first posted.

Monday, 17 January 2011

On this day: Spaghetti Bolognese

Alice (age 14) cooked Spaghetti Bolognese for us all last week. It was a big success. There is something deeply satisfying about a hearty Spag. Bol. in the depths of winter.
It was on this day that Nigel cooked Spaghetti Bolognese. In fact, his entry for January 17 (‘A benchmark Bolognese’) in Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries (2005) is probably the best recipe I have come across for Spaghetti Bolognese. I have bookmarked it, so that I can use it as a checklist when I cook my own spaghetti Bolognese. Basically what Nigel does is melt butter, add pancetta, onion and garlic to fry. Then, carrot and celery, followed by mushroom and bay leaf. The beef mince is then added and browned. Tomatoes, red wine, stock, a grating of nutmeg, salt and pepper follow. Cook for two hours. Pour in some milk for the last twenty minutes. Serve with pasta and grated parmesan. I don’t always have pancetta, but I improvise with whatever bacon is to hand. I feel the additional meat flavour is important in this dish.

Some rave about Heston Blumenthal, but I think he lets the science go to his head sometimes. Finding that something is a meat flavour-enhancer, for example, he will lob it into his meat sauces (fish sauce, mace, star anise – go for it). In fact, star anise has a very strong and particular flavour, and I thought it marred the Heston meat dish recipe I tried recently.
Elizabeth David (Italian Food, 1954) is at hand to remind us that the true name for Bolognese sauce is Ragù. It is a component of lasagne and can go with many other kinds of pasta (not just spaghetti). She makes it using butter, chicken livers and uncooked ham alongside the minced beef, with vegetables already mentioned, tomato puree, white wine, stock, nutmeg and seasoning. Claudia Roden (The Food of Italy, 1989) has a recipe similar to Nigel Slater’s, with double cream added toward the end for richness; she prefers tagliatelle with her Bolognese meat sauce. Marcella Hazan’s Italian recipe follows Elizabeth David, with nutmeg and white wine, but she only uses beef mince.

Alice, using her 'The Children's Step-by-Step CookBook (Angela Wilkes, 1994) cut up three rashers of streaky bacon to brown with the mince – to good effect. It was an excellent meal. We are hoping she will cook for us every week. I have just handed her the Wagamama cookbook!

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Why do Jerusalem artichoke make you fart?

Today, I did my first bit of gardening of the year. I broke up some spring planting garlic and put it into pots, dug up some Jerusalem artichoke, and did some general tidying. The Jerusalem artichoke has been regenerating in the same place in the garden for a few years now. They reappear even if only small bits of tuber are left in the ground. It gives a splash of yellow when it flowers late in the season. Growing up against a back fence, it requires no looking after.

The plant has nothing to do with Jerusalem and is not an artichoke. It is native to America (consumed by Native Americans before Europeans arrived) and is in the sunflower family (Helianthus). Sunroot or sunchoke are better names but never caught on. The flowers are much smaller than the sunflower, because this plant is putting most of its resources into the tubers. These are a welcome vegetable in January when there is little else to harvest. I mainly use them in soups, although they are versatile and can be used in numerous ways. Last year I took to boiling them with potatoes for a Jerusalem artichoke-spud mash.

Here’s a brief extract (stripped of references) from The Biology and Chemistry of Jerusalem artichoke, the book I co-authored with Stanley Kays (CRC Press, 2008). I got to write the section on farting: the thing most people know about Jerusalem artichoke! Basically, its storage carbohydrate is inulin instead of starch, which breaks down into fructose sugars (instead of sucrose or glucose). This means it is valuable as a low-calorific food (inulin extracts are increasingly added to low calories foods), is useful in diabetic diets (neutral effect on blood sugar), and can be utilized by the “good bacteria” living in the lower intestine (inulin is included in probiotic drinks that contain cultures of these “good bacteria”).

From Chapter 6, page 106:
“Human digestive enzymes do not target inulin. Around 89% of the inulin and fructooligosaccharides that we consume, on average, remain intact in the small intestine. As it is not digested, there tends to be a lot of it in the large intestine after eating a meal rich in inulin. However, none reaches the stools, and only a small fraction occurs in the urine. This is because inulin is completely fermented by the microbial fauna in the large intestine, especially by bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. The digestion is accompanied by the production of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and other gaseous products. This leads to an undesirable side-effect of eating Jerusalem artichoke and other inulin-rich food: flatulence.
The wind-inducing effects of Jerusalem artichoke have been known for many years. Although the tuber spread rapidly throughout France in the ten years after its introduction in 1607, it was not universally popular due to over-indulgence of the unfamiliar vegetable revealing its digestive downsides. Jean-Luc Hennig, in Le Topinambour et Autres Merveilles, writes of the less than complimentary nicknames the street sellers gave the tubers…. Meanwhile, in England….John Goodyer’s entry for Jerusalem artichoke in the 1633 edition of Gerard’s Herball concluded: In my judgement, which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir up and cause a filthie loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be much pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than man; yet some say they have usually eaten them, and have found no such windy quality in them”.

Right, I am off to cook some of those nutritious, nuttily-delicious, knobbly Jerusalem artichoke tubers. More later…

Further info on book:;jsessionid=JMp1gl11P+8HsxwFji+0pw**

Friday, 14 January 2011


I often get a bottle of single malt whisky for Christmas. Favouring the island single malts, I was really pleased this year to get one from Islay that I had not tried before – CAOL ILA.
The distinctive taste of Islay malts arises from a combination of local barley, fertile peat all across the island, and numerous soft-water streams (burns) that run down from this land to the coastal distilleries. Sea water is used for cooling. Caol Ila has been distilled at Port Askaig on the Sound of Islay (“Caol Ila” in Gaelic), on the island’s east coast, since 1846. The original owner Hector Henderson apparently bankrupted himself establishing the distillery in this remote spot, but it endured. It’s located in a hidden cove and is hard to find (visitors to distillery through bookings only).
Caol Ila does not have the full hefty peatiness of Islay malts such as Lagavulin or Laphroaig, but it still has that distinctive note of peat and a fresh “sea air” taste. It has a pale golden colour and is 43% proof, and is aged for 12 years (it says here on the label).
Caol Ila is a smooth pre-dinner dram, according to my whiskey guide (Wallace Milroy’s Malt Whiskey Almanac, Lochar Publishing) - that’s about right. Cheers!

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Llanover Hall Arts Centre, Cardiff

I did some pottery this morning at Llanover Hall Arts Centre, in Canton, Cardiff. It’s on the Romilly Road, opposite Thompson’s Park, and a 5-minute walk from Chapter Arts Centre.

The new kitchen has been fitted, and the café has just reopened for business - serving refreshments to art students, of all ages and abilities, and the professional artists who work there. Coffee and tea is served during class breaks, along with a range of other drinks, fruit, biscuits, chocolate, cakes and crisps. It's all reasonably priced.

Soup is the most popular order at lunchtime among the art centre’s community. Louise cooks a range of soups from scratch each day, including a very tasty spicy soup with butternut squash. Today it was leek and potato served with toast (£3), with bowls filled to the brim. Salads and other light snacks can be also ordered.

There are some new exhibitions (running to Feb 18th) that are well worth seeing. In the downstairs gallery are abstract paintings on ceramic tiles by Alison Graham, while in the galleries upstairs are new paintings by Caroline Smith and landscape drawings by Sue Roberts.

A wide range of courses and activities are hosted at Llanover Hall, including Life Drawing, Portraiture, Pottery, Drama, Fashion Design and Photography.

Further information:

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Colour of Beetroot

Roasted root vegetables – ideal fodder for this time of year. I cooked roast potatoes, parsnips and beetroot the other night. The beetroot, from an organic vegetable box, had a lovely deep-red colour. Today’s post is an extract from my 2004 book 'Beetroot'. It’s from Chapter 5 and concerns colour pigments.

“Betalains are a group of nitrogen-containing pigments that are yellow, orange, pink, red and purple in colour. Unlike the other three main classes of plant pigment [chlorophylls, carotenoids and flavonoids], betalains have a limited distribution in the plant kingdom. Most red colouration in plants is due to carotenoids and flavonoids. The red colour of most fruit and vegetables, such as strawberries, grapes and red cabbage, is due to anthocyanins, which are in the flavonoid class of pigments. Betalains are restricted to plants in the order Caryophyllales. In addition to Beta vulgaris (family Chenopodiaceae), betalains have been described from Cactaceae fruits (prickly pear), Amaranth seeds (Amaranthaceae), Bougainvillaea bracts (Nyctaginaceae), and flowers or other plant parts within the Aizoaceae, Basellaceae, Didieraceae, Phytolaccaceae and Portulaceae. Nine of the eleven families within the order Caryophyllales have plants containing betalains. The other two families (Caryophyllaceae and Molluginaceae) have anthocyanins (flavonoids) instead, which probably reflects an early taxonomic division within this plant order. Red beetroot and prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) are the only edible sources of betalains.

Betalain pigments were first isolated from the red roots of Beta vulgaris; the betalain class of pigments are named after the plant genus Beta. There are currently over fifty known betalain pigment molecules, which occur in flowers, fruits, shoots and roots. The betalains are subdivided into two structural groups: the red-violet betacyanins and the yellow betaxanthins.

Beetroot contains a complex mixture of betalain pigments. However, the characteristic purple-red-violet colour of beetroot is mainly derived from a particular betacyanin pigment called betanin. Betanin was first discovered in around 1920, while a crystalline form of betanin dye was produced in the 1960s. Up to 200 mg of betanin is typically found in one beetroot.

After betanin, the yellow betaxanthin pigments vulgaxanthin-I and vulgaxanthin-II are the next most significant in beetroot. Mario Piattelli and colleagues, working in Naples, first described these pigments in beetroot in the 1960s. Cultivars with deep purple-red roots have a high ratio of betanin to betaxanthin pigments, while yellow and gold cultivars such as Burpee’s Golden have relatively high levels of betaxanthins and very little or no red betanin pigment. Cultivars with white roots, including Albina Vereduna and Blankoma, have extremely low levels of both betacyanin and betaxanthin pigments.

Distinct light and dark rings are usually visible when beetroot is cut transversely. This is due to different amounts of pigment in the vascular system and storage tissue of the root. The vascular system appears as darker bands due to higher levels of pigment, while the storage tissue appears as lighter bands. In some deep red cultivars like Boltardy and Red Ace this colour difference can be quite subtle. The colour difference is at its most obvious in Chioggia, with its concentric bullseye pattern of rosy red bands (vascular system) and white bands (storage tissue).

Further reading:

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Hayes Island Snack Bar, Cardiff

A Chicken Mushroom Roll with a large tea (£3.90 in total) at Bwyty Hayes Island (Hayes Island Snack Bar) in Cardiff today. This café is widely regarded as serving the best bacon roll in town (£2.10) and the tea is very good. Like the bacon roll, today's sandwich was cooked to order and contained a generous amount of filling.

The building dates from 1911, when it was a parcel office. It has been run as a café for the past sixty years. Currently operated by First Cafes, it's a distinctive Cardiff landmark.

Seating is outside, under trees, with shoppers streaming past on both sides. The tables and chairs are mainly metal, although there are four stone tables with inlaid chess boards. It’s a good place to watch the world go by, especially on the warmest and sunniest day in Cardiff so far this year. A large video screen on the side of St David’s Hall can be seen from the seating area, offering updates on news, weather, sport and local events. The underground toilets are a tourist attraction in their own right, being among the best-preserved Victorian toilets in the UK.
The Hayes Island Snack Bar has survived through major redevelopments. During the recent St David’s extension it became the first stop for tea-breaking builders. Now the dust has cleared, it offers an interesting local alternative to overpriced chain coffee shops and sandwich bars.
Someone commented recently that the place was an eyesore now the smart mall has been built. Rubbish. This place is a link to the past - part of the city's culture - and who really wants Cardiff to turn into one big generic shoppping mall anyway. However, note that they don’t take credit cards, sandwiches are dispensed in paper bags, and tea in polystyrene cups (they used to have proper mugs). The outdoor seating is exposed to the elements and the pigeons can sometimes be a nuisance; I saw some idiots actually feeding them.
Even if you have never visited Cardiff, you may have seen The Hayes Island Snack Bar on TV, in one of the series shot here. It has, for instance, been glimpsed in several episodes of Torchwood. In ‘Ghost Machine’ Captain Jack parks the unit’s black SUV beside it, while in 'Shapeshifter' Gwen chases an alien down into the Victorian Gents toilets.
The Hayes Island Snack Bar, City Centre, Cardiff CF10 1AH. Tel: 029 2039 4848.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Wine from Dinas Powys: Cock Hill

A quality wine is made from grapes grown on a hillside between Dinas Powys and Cardiff. Cock Hill is labelled as ‘a dry white produced from a blend of handpicked grapes selected from six varieties of cool-climate vines’. The grapes are grown on the Bryn Ceiliog [Cock Hill in English] Vineyard, Beggan Farm, Leckwith, Vale of Glamorgan. The wine is crisp and fruity, with apple and elderflower aromas. It is bottled for Cock Hill by Three Choirs Vineyards in Newent, Gloucester.

There have been Welsh vineyards since Roman times, although a decline set in around the 17th Century. Lord Bute revived the tradition, planting vines on the slopes around Castell Coch and pressing the grapes in Cardiff Castle. By 1893, annual production was recorded as 12,000 bottles. Production declined and was stopped by WWI. Recently, vineyards have increased in the UK, favoured by the generally milder conditions bought on by climate change, and there are currently around 20 in Wales.

The vineyard at Leckwith, first planted in 1998 and containing 2,000 vines, is run by Ian Symonds, on a family farm whose main business is Welsh Black beef. The wine has been given approval by the UKVA (United Kingdom Vineyards Association) to be labelled as a ‘Welsh Regional Wine’.

We buy our Cock Hill in the village stores in Dinas Powys. It is on sale in a couple of other outlets and is served in some of the top restaurants in the area. We have had bottles of the 2006 production recently and have found it reliably excellent, and comparable to good quality crisp England whites. It's ideal to serve to guests along with other local produce; the vineyard being only a mile or so from our house in Dinas Powys.

Peter Finch (2009), 'Real Cardiff Three: The Changing City', Seren, Bridgend, Wales, Pages156-159.

Beggan Farm,

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Warm Pig’s Head, or the frustrations of a domestic chef

A week into my new food blog and I've yet to mention anything about the family meals I cook nightly. So, last night's menu was burgers with fried onions, chips and broccoli. Thursday night I did roast salmon fillets (parcelled with lemon juice and capers) with new potatoes and chard. On Wednesday night, beef casserole (cooked slowly using a can of Guinness and stock) containing carrots, onions, mushrooms, celery etc, served with buttered baked potatoes.
I like looking at cook books, but here’s the problem. The recipes I would like to experiment with are not going to down well at meal times. The youngest doesn’t like eggs, rice and sundry other things (changes by the week) and turns her nose up at broccoli, partner doesn’t do shellfish, oldest – well, you get the picture. Putting dinner on the table every night can be frustrating if you hanker to try out that interesting recipe in your new cookery book.
A good case in point is Fergus Henderson’s no-nonsense ‘Nose to Tail Eating’ (1999), based on his original book of recipes from the St. John’s Restaurant in London. His philosophy is that all parts of an animal should be utilized in the kitchen. Subtitled ‘A Kind of British Cooking’, he argues that doing so is part of culinary ritual and tradition, and is less wasteful. In the book, he adapts his recipes for the home and tells you there's nothing to be afraid of.
So, what would happen if I serve up Warm Pig’s Head, Crispy pig’s tails, Lambs’ brains, Snails and oak leaf lettuce, Duck’s heart on toast, or Boiled ox tongue? Well, I would probably be sent back to the kitchen to rustle up some beans on toast. It seems a good many cookbooks are for constructing fantasy meals in your head, while you wait for the frozen pizzas to cook.

Soundtrack for this post: Larks Tongues in Aspic (Parts I and II) by King Crimson.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Millionaire’s Shortbread

One of the highlights of the Christmas TV schedule was an adaptation of Nigel Slater’s excellent book Toast, about his childhood in the 1960s. In one scene, his family went on holiday from Wolverhampton to Penarth, while the rest of the Midlands (my family from Coventry included) would usually have headed for mid and north Wales. I’ve never seen anyone set up a picnic table on Penarth beach (actually a steep stony gradient ending in Bristol Channel mud), especially on an overcast day, so it was perfect for the scene. Poor Kid.. Actually, Penarth has a fine pier and some very good places to eat, which I will blog about in due course.
Food mainly came in tins in the 1960s (with the exception of mashed potatoes which came dehydrated in packets). One canned food from that time that is still with us is condensed milk. A big hit this Christmas was Millionaire’s Shortbread, made using condensed milk (not by me I should add, but by other family members). I am archiving the recipe below, as it’s written on the side of a tin of Nestle Carnation Condensed Milk that I am about to fling into the recycling.
7 oz shortbread biscuits crushed, 1oz butter melted, 5 oz butter unmelted, 5oz dark brown sugar, small can (379g) of condensed milk, and 7 oz milk chocolate melted.

Line 8” tin. For base, mix crushed biscuits with melted butter and press into tin in even layer. Chill for 20 minutes (while the base cools in the fridge).
Put butter unmelted and brown sugar into a non-stick pan and stir over medium heat until melted and dissolved, respectively. Add condensed milk, stir continuously, until bubbles first appear – then remove from heat. Spread this golden caramel over the base and cool.

Pour the melted chocolate over the caramel, smooth to edges. When chocolate has set, the millionaire’s shortbread can be cut into 9-12 squares.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Digesting cheese from the inside out

A selection of cheeses for lunch today, including Quenby Hall Stilton, Y Fenni (with mustard seeds) and a smoked Oakwood, all pulled from the fridge at breakfast time.

Harold McGee called cheese-making one of mankind’s greatest achievements. In his book McGee on Food and Cooking he explains how in a fridge the protein network of a cheese becomes unnaturally stiff. This leads to a more rubbery texture and the trapped of aroma molecules (a major component of taste). Giving cheese plenty of time to warm to room temperature improves the texture, and enables the smell and flavour of a cheese to develop fully.
Cheese comes in a dizzying range of varieties. Today, let’s contemplate Swiss alpine cheeses, which are warmed together with wine or kirsch to make fondue. The alcoholic additions help the cheese to stay liquid by preventing the cross-linking of molecules in the cheese.
I mention fondue, because it is the first food to be filmed being digested, from the inside, using MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imagery). A recent story in New Scientist by Olivier Dessibourg featured a video (see below) made by a team headed by Mark Fox at the University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland.
Volunteers ate cheese fondue washed down with different beverages such as black tea and red wine. The study, published in the British Medical Journal, found that alcohol slowed the digestion of cheese in the stomach, contrary to what is often believed. In the video, a ball of cheese in the stomach is coated by a layer of alcohol, kirsch in this instance.

They must be a healthy lot in Switzerland, because they use their MRI scanners to look at a range of physiological processes in healthy people. The Zurich team's most famous video is of a couple inside an MRI having sex. It shows for the first time what sex looks like from the inside out.

MRI fondue digestion

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Crumbs, Cardiff

I enjoyed an early lunch in Cardiff today, at Crumbs in the Morgan Arcade (the arcade joining The Hayes and St Mary Street). Crumbs is Cardiff’s oldest vegetarian restaurant. It opened for business on the 3rd December 1970.

Judi Ashley started Crumbs straight after finishing a course at Cardiff College of Food Technology. In a recent interview, she recalled how people generally hadn't heard of brown rice in 1970. Crumbs has stuck to its original philosophy. The solid pine tables, and many of the menu items, have been consistent for four decades.
Today, I had the original mixed salad, with coffee. The salads, on display in large metal dishes, are spooned into individual wooden bowls. Servings are generous. Layers of different salad, with an emphasis on grated carrot, shredding red and white cabbage, apple and celery, are topped with flavoursome brown rice. On the way to the bottom, you get some cheese dressing, a hint of Tabasco, a few beans, and so on. This is food that you know is good for you.

I cannot eat this type of food without being reminded of the 1980s: the alternative cafes in Bath and weekends at the Centre for Alternative Technology in north Wales. Wholefood restaurants and left-leaning politics seemed to be intrinsically linked back then.

The food in Crumbs is nutritious, unpretentious and, despite the rise of vegetarian restaurants, still fairly unique. This is because many new outlets shy away from the obviously home-made, simple, filling salads on display in Crumbs (they do curries and other menu items too), for fear of being judged too boring or unsophisticated. If, like Neil Young and his music, you strive to mine the pure source of things, then in the field of vegetarian restaurants Crumbs would be a good place to start.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

WikiLeaks and GM Crops

In my book Eat Your Genes: How Genetically Modified Food is Entering Our Diet (Zed Books, 1998), I speculated on the pressures that the US would apply on the European Union (EU) to ensure that genetically modified (GM) crops exported from the USA were accepted in European markets, despite the widespread opposition to them among European consumers. GM crops are also called transgenic crops - food plants engineered to contain genes originally derived from other organisms.
Today, new light has been shed on this issue, via cables released by WikiLeaks. A story in The Guardian this morning (Tues 4th January) reveals how the US Ambassador in Paris, Craig Stapleton, advised Washington to start a trade war against EU countries that opposed GM crops, after France sought to ban a Monsanto GM maize in 2007.
Other WikiLeak cables show how US diplomats around the world pushed GM crops on countries as part of strategic government and commercial imperatives. The cables, in effect, show US diplomats working directly for Monsanto and other US agrobusiness corporations.
The US also lobbied the Vatican to get the Pope to declare his backing for GM crops, to undermine opposition to US exports of GM maize and soya to Catholic countries. However, key support within the Vatican was eroded as a result of the Iraq War.

The US has apparently worked closely with Spain over the years, according to other leaked diplomatic cables, in order to persuade the EU in Brussels that regulations governing GM and crop biotechnology should be relaxed.

This is still a live issue, of course, with the present UK government looking to dilute some of the restrictions on GM crops now that public opposition is perceived as being less hostile to them.
Incidentally, ‘Eat Your Genes’ still sells, in very modest quantities. There is a Spanish language version, and the rights were recently sold in Albania and Macedonia.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Wearing Meat

I had an enjoyable lunch of bacon and eggs today – thick rashers of bacon with duck eggs from my sister, who keeps ducks in her back garden (more on duck eggs later).
It’s a bit 2010, but digesting my bacon I remembered some notes (on the back of a proverbial envelope) on the more unusual uses for meat and thought it worth a blog!
It’s common to see people wearing animal skin (leather and fur), but less so to see them sporting the internal parts of animals (muscle, fat, organs). Therefore, when Lady GaGa wore a meat dress to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, with matching hat, shoes and purse, she was sure to get noticed.

The outfit was designed by Franc Fernandez, who told MTV that the dress was made using meat from his family butcher. It took him two days to stitch, using flank steak (“matambre” in his native Argentina). It was estimated that around 25 pounds of beef were used. The lighting at the award ceremony would gradually have cooked the dress, which probably smelled by the end of the evening (possibly attracting flies and presenting a minor E. coli infection risk).

In the torrent of post-awards articles I didn’t read anything about the avant-garde art scene, but this is clearly where Lady GaGa goes for inspiration. The Turkish-born, New York-based artist Pinar Yolacan, for instance, takes photos of women wearing clothes fashioned from tripe, guts, and assorted offal. For one New York show, she dressed Afro-Brazilian women in clothes fashioned from cow placentas (there was a political point). The clothes were described in one art review as “having a strange and haunting beauty”. Yolacan made the clothes on the morning of the shoot with thawing meat, to reduce the rotting.

You can hire your own Lady Gaga meat dress – if you can fit into a UK woman’s size 10-12 and have £40 to spend on a three-day hire. Revamp of Brighton, England, have screen-printed the design onto hand-stitched fabric (ok, so it contains no real meat).

The meat-patterned party dress is, of course, nothing new in art circles. The artist Tamara Kostianovsky, for example, handcrafts recycled clothing to look convincingly like beef carcasses:

Finally, here’s a thought for the day – how different would be the connotations if a man wore a meat garment; say, Bono at next year’s MTV Video turned up wearing a jumpsuit made from steaks?

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Ice Cold in Nerdsville

So, what was the first thing in my mouth in 2011 (I hear you ask)? Well, it was a bowl of crunchy nut cornflakes with cold milk.

Now, the cold bit is important. Don’t you just get annoyed when the milk gets left out of the fridge in the morning, depriving you of the ice-cold cereal hit you crave?

There is a memorable passage in Neal Stephenson’s novel ‘Crytonomicon’ (1999) that sums it up brilliantly (page 475). The computer-geek character Randy Waterhouse is having breakfast, while, of course, doing some serious coding:

“He sets up his empty bowl, an exceptionally large soup spoon, … goes to the kitchen, opens the fridge, reaches deep into the back and finds an unopened pod-unit of UHT milk. UHT milk need not, technically, be refrigerated, but it is pivotal, in what is to follow, that the milk be only a few microdegrees above the point of freezing. The fridge in Randy’s apartment has louvers on the back where the cold air is blown in, straight from the Freon coils. Randy always stores his milk-pods directly in front of these louvers. Not too close, or else the pods will block the flow of air, and not too far away either. The cold air becomes visible as it rushes in and condenses moisture. What Randy would like to see, ideally, is the whole milk-pod enveloped in an even, jacket-like flow to produce better heart exchange. He would like the milk to be so cold that, were he to reach in and grab it, he feels the flexible squeezy pod stiffen between his fingers as ice crystals spring into existence, summoned out of nowhere simply by the disturbance of being squished. Today the milk is almost, but not quite, that cold. Randy goes into the living room with it. He has to wrap it in a towel because it is so cold it hurts his fingers… Golden cereal nuggets pelt the bottom of the bowl. Ideally, one wants the bone-dry cereal nuggets and the cryogenic milk to enter the mouth with the minimal contact and for the entire reaction between them to take place in the mouth.”

Personally, I would swap the UHT for full-fat milk, ideally from Jersey cows that have spent their lives grazing on the grassy slopes of The Channel Islands, but I know where this guy is coming from!

Saturday, 1 January 2011


This is day one of my Food Blog 2011 from Cardiff, Wales (actually Dinas Powys, just outside Cardiff in The Vale of Glamorgan). I aim for a post each day for a year. It’s going to be a bit of an adventure, and I’m not exactly sure where it's heading! However, expect lots about independent food suppliers in the Cardiff area, eating out in Cardiff and The Vale, home cooking and the occasional recipe, and rants about this and that. There will also be book reviews, pieces on food science, and riffs on food and popular culture.Those following links from Facebook and my other family-friendly pages should take note – this is stronger stuff. I’ll often be writing about food with my biologist hat on, so it’s really all about growing up, sex, and death. On several levels, we are what we eat. However, overlaying our basic appetites are layers of culture relating to food – rituals, taboos, the art of cookery, dining out and so forth – that makes it an endlessly fascinating subject. The terrific diversity of what’s on offer to eat and drink, and the amazing things science and art are revealing about our relationship with food, might make it difficult cramming everything into 365 days, so let's get started!