Sunday, 30 November 2014

Contaminated Chicken - Britain's Latest Food Scare

It seems Britain's highly-industrialised food production industry just can't get it right. In the last few years we've been scandalised (technical term meaning whipped up into a frenzy of indignation by the tabloid press) by salmonella in eggs, mad cow disease, and horsemeat being passed off as beef. Last week, a report by the Food Standards Agency was issued detailing high levels of contamination of supermarket chicken by the campylobacter virus. Apparently, chicken sold by the major supermarket chains has contamination rates ranging from 64% (Tesco) to 78% (Asda).

This is clearly a very serious issue, given that in the UK campylobacter causes about 280,000 cases of sickness each year and about 100 deaths. But the expected sh*tstorm doesn't seem to have happened yet.

So should we stop eating chicken? No. The problem isn't the chicken itself - the virus is killed by cooking. The real problem is cross-contamination that happens when you handle the bird. The virus can spread to your chopping board, your hands, your cook's knife, your kitchen sink if you (inadvisedly) wash the chicken. And from there it can enter your body via the bread you cut with your contaminated knife on your contaminated chopping board. You might get some jam or some mayonnaise on your contaminated fingers, which you sneakily lick off. You might dry the area around your contaminated sink with a dishcloth, and from there you'll contaminate anything that comes into contact with the cloth - cutlery, crockery, etc.

So you see, it really is a mess. Solutions proposed by the supermarkets include: cook-in-the-bag chicken, where you never actually touch the raw flesh; better hygiene in abbatoirs and processing plants, including more frequent changes of overalls and boots; leakproof packaging so that contaminated blood and juice doesn't drip all over everything in your fridge.

It's all a bit scary, isn't it. But what people (and restaurants) need to do is what they should have been doing all along - thoroughly wash anything that comes into contact with raw chicken. If you must dry these things, do not use a cloth - use disposable paper towels. Just proper, basic, kitchen hygiene.

Although why the poultry producers and processors can't just shoot any virus they see before it gets to you is beyond me.

Here endeth the lecture.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Restaurant Review - Hawksmoor, Seven Dials, London

We visited London in September to celebrate our son's second graduation. Part of the plan was lunch at a fancy restaurant. We decided on Hawksmoor, which I'd heard of from its excellent newspaper reviews. The Guardian's Jay Rayner, in particular, is a big fan. There are five or six Hakwsmoor restaurants scattered around London, but to describe it as a chain would give the wrong impression entirely.

We fetched up at the one in Seven Dials, near Covent Garden (11 Langley Street, London WC2H 9JG). If you didn't know it was there, you'd probably miss it. The street frontage is not much more than a pair of dark-coloured doors and with a sign above them. Once inside, you're in a lobby area with a reception desk and a cloakroom. The real action is down the stairs.

The site is part of what used to be the Watney-Combe brewery, and the restaurant and bar are located in a large brick-vaulted cellar with genuine parquet flooring. The chairs are upholstered in dark green leather, and the tables are made of dark wood. It's all very old-school, and the tables are not dressed up with heavy tablecloths and fancy napkins. Everything is warm and welcoming, because this place is really all about the food. Actually, it's all about the steaks, which are constructed from top-quality well-aged beef and come in sizes that include 'bring a friend' and go up to 'as big as your head'.

I apologise for the lack of photos, but I was toting a recently-acquired camera and couldn't get to grips with how to make it take good photos in low light - at least not before the food had gone stone cold.

To start with, I had something I'd want to try for a long time - bone marrow. It's the centre part of a marrowbone sawn lengthways down the middle. The waitress said it was dinosaur bone, but you can't fool me - I know it came from an elephant. It's grilled until the marrow is just on the point of melting, and served with some toasted sourdough bread and a slathering of salsa verde (which I found to be a little bit gritty with salt). Bone marrow is pretty much all buttery fat, and I loved it.

Next up, the main course. A little (250g) rib-eye steak, which came all alone in the middle of the plate. Between us we'd also ordered the triple-cooked chips, beef dripping roasted potatoes and an assortment of home-made sauces - ketchup, stilton hollandaise, bone marrow gravy and a few others. My wife may have ordered a vegetable. Everything was admirable, but that steak was the best I've ever had.

And finally, a decent sticky toffee pudding followed by coffee and salted caramel rolos. The Rolos were amazing. So amazing that when I got back home I had to make them myself - here's my salted caramel rolos recipe.

We didn't drink much - bottle of craft beer to begin with, a glass or two of Tokay with the dessert.

Expect to pay a lot of money for food of this quality. We had the Cheap Person's Lunchtime Express Menu (£24 for two courses), but it still topped out at about £50 per head.

And do you know what? It was worth every penny.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Food, Fads and Fear

Most of my Facebook friends are reasonably sensible people. Of course they are, because I defriend the ones who show signs of being right-wing nutters, gun freaks and fundamentalist Bible-bashers. But now and again, one or two of them will share something from one of the increasing number of 'healthy-eating/living' websites. They usually have irresistibly clickable titles like '10 Foods You Should Never Eat' and 'Top 10 most unhealthy, cancer-causing foods - never eat these again!'

The problem with articles like this is they come from what I call the 'everybody knows' school of writing (I certainly wouldn't call it 'journalism', unless the word 'gutter' was somewhere close by). The stories are packed with assumptions that things like GMOs are automatically bad, that MSG is a toxin, that 'processed' is a synonym for 'nasty stuff'. And that, worst of all, chemicals in your food will kill you.

All of this is presented with little or no evidence to support it, and written in the kind of confrontational language that George W. Bush was so fond of - 'if you're not with us, you're against us'. Not exactly original, but not helpful either.

Processed Food

Unless you only eat raw food, everything you consume has been processed in some way. Any kind of cooking is a process. If you want to talk about this more sensibly, you should perhaps talk about 'industrial processing'. And indeed, some of the processes some foods go through are quite baffling to the layman, but I'm sure that no business would spend time and money on processes that they didn't feel were necessary to produce the kind of product people want to buy. Whether that's a good thing is, of course, a different matter entirely.

Chemicals in Food

Chemicals in food are kind of unavoidable, given that me, you and everything in the universe are made of nothing more or less than chemicals. Natural News fans might imagine there's something healthy called maybe 'plantstuff' that we can eat, but sadly there isn't. It's all chemicals.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

There seems to be an unfortunate and possibly unbreakable link in many people's minds between 'GMO' and 'Monsanto Corp'. While I'm no fan of Monsanto and their unsavoury business practices, I don't think GMOs are necessarily bad. Genetic Engineering is not much different from the selective breeding of animals and hybridization of plants that has been going on for centuries. The technology is different, obviously - direct manipulation of genes produces a quicker and more accurate result than working through multiple generations of apples, say, to get the one that is exactly what you want. My only quibble is that this process narrows the gene pool and tends to ignore flavour at the expense of things like hardiness, size, disease resistance and yield.
Ban GMOs? First Show us the Victims

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

This one really annoys me. Its bad reputation came from one magazine article back in 1982 which coined the term 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome'. I have met one person in my life who claims that MSG gives him headaches - but he also has a few other food allergies and sensitivities. MSG is derived from seaweed, and I think of it as powdered umami. Umami is the 5th taste, after sweet, salty, sour and bitter - it's a Japanese word that is generally translated as 'deliciousness' or 'savouriness'. It occurs naturally as glutamic acid in many foods - tomatoes, mature cheeses (the white crystals in ancient Parmesan are pure glutamic acid), anchovies, kombu (a seaweed), mushrooms and many other common foodstuffs. By the way, none of the recipes on my website use MSG, and I very rarely use it in cooking. If it's umami you want, you can achieve that using foods that contain glutamic acid.
If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?

Natural Food is Best

Finally, the most misunderstood and misleading term of all: 'natural'. Stop and think what this means. 'In a state of nature', perhaps. Take it further. You can only live a purely 'natural' life if you wander around naked, take shelter where you can - in a cave, maybe, or up a tree, and eat only the raw food you find around you - a rotten apple here, a dead bird there. But this is to forget the true nature of Nature. It is red in tooth and claw, it is a system of predators and prey. And some of us humans, who think ourselves the most highly evolved and developed creatures on the planet, want to think we can live a decent life without harming any other living creatures.

Of course we do. It's only natural.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Brummie Balti

You may or not know that our beloved European Union has a scheme to protect certain regional and/or traditional food- and drinkstuffs from piracy (and you thought it was all about supporting French farmers and straightening bananas, didn't you). It's called the Protected Food Names scheme, and it comes in three flavours: Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), and Traditional Specialities Guaranteed (TSG). And here's me thinking the EU was all about open markets and free trade. And straighter bananas.

But I guess it's reassuring to know that that very expensive bottle of fizz you bought came from the Champagne region of France, and you won't be wasting your hard-earned cash on the well-known Tchiampain from China. It seems we are all deemed to be idiots these days, who cannot tell the difference between the salt-packed, Tetra-packed cheese-like substance from Denmark and your actual Greek feta cheese?

All well and good, I suppose, but this story caught my eye recently. The Birmingham Balti Association has applied to the EU Protected Food Names scheme to have its curries given TSG. And the chosen name is 'Birmingham Balti', which is odd, because nobody, but nobody calls it that. It's just 'Balti'.

I should explain what a Balti is at this point, for the benefit of the 7.12 billion or so people who don't live in Birmingham, England. It's a kind of curry, served in a small bowl with handles (and the bowl is called a 'balti', which some commentators say means 'bucket'). The dish was, apparently, invented in Birmingham in the 1980s. So don't be rushing off to the sub-continent and demanding a Balti, they won't have a clue what you are talking about. Or they'll give you a bucket.

Given that Baltis first appeared in 1982, I think the 'Traditional' bit is pushing it. And I'm not at all clear what benefit it offers anybody. Are they going to sue anyone selling something under the name of 'Birmingham Balti'? Are they going to force people to abide by a specific recipe?

Does anybody, actually, care?

Friday, 7 November 2014

Masterchef: the Professionals 2014

So the big Masterchef news over the summer was the departure of the much-loved Michel Roux Jr (fancy still being called 'Junior' when you're in your fifties) in a dispute with the BBC over Roux advertising potatoes.

That left a vacant slot for a high-flying chef/judge, and there were screams of horror, outrage, downright terror when it was announced the new guy would be the devil incarnate himself, Marcus Wareing.

Wareing has appeared as guest judge on Masterchef and other shows, and could always be relied upon to be as mean as possible. I once saw him reduce a grown man to tears. I got the impression that the only person who could cook well enough to please Marcus Wareing was, well, Marcus Wareing.

But he seems to have changed and acquired a pleasant side that can even admit to him liking the odd thing. Although he can still spit out stuff he doesn't like. He could have ruined the show, but no, it's business as usual with endless waves of Masterchef wannabes torturing themselves in their pursuit of perfection, and occasionally humiliating themselves by doing something absolutely bloody stupid.

Great entertainment.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Poundland Comes To Madrid

This post is only peripherally to do with cooking. Except it isn't. As a Brit living in Madrid, yes, I love all the Spaniards and some of their cuisine dearly. But you never forget the things you enjoyed at home (even if it was something the rest of the world hates, which is almost the definition of 'regional speciality'). Everybody from everywhere will ALWAYS be on the lookout for stuff from their homeland.

Until about 2 years ago, we were fortunate in Madrid to have 3 or 4 shops that specialised in Brit stuff. It was pricey, obviously, because the shop owners could only buy in small quantities and had to add on the cost of shipping. I don't know why, exactly, but all of these shops decided to throw in the towel within about three months of each other.

That's the back-story. I haven't been suffering too much because I have a mate who visits the UK at least once a month and can bring back things I need (mostly Oxo cubes and marrowfat peas) in exchange for a pork pie.

I can't say I've ever been in a Poundland store in England, but the concept is they sell well-known brands of household stuff and food in cans and jars, and everything is priced at one pound. I had a perception that there was something a bit grubby about these kinds of stores - it seems all UK High Streets are populated these days by pound shops and charity shops.

But they must be doing well. Poundland has begun expanding into Spain, under the name 'Dealz'. They already have stores in Alicante and Torremolinos. Last week Dealz opened a store not too far from where I live - Calle Bravo Murillo 192, near Estrecho Metro. This afternoon I went to check it out and was very pleasantly surprised. More or less everything is priced at €1.50. What caught my interest wasn't so much the food items (I can get Heinz Baked Beans, HP Sauce and the like for less from other sources). No, what thrilled me was the kitchen equipment section. I've been trying to get tins for baking mince pies in for years. I did manage to find some on my last UK trip, but at £12 a pop thought they were somewhat overpriced. Similarly, cooling racks for baked thingies. And silicon cooking mats. And kitchen scissors. Honestly, I could have spent €100 in Dealz (and probably will in the weeks to come).

We already have hundreds of bazaars ('Chinos') in Madrid selling any amount of cheap tat. But the problem is it's identical to the tat that all the others are selling. Dealz is refreshing because what they're selling is completely different from what the Chinos have to offer. I think it will do very well indeed.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Best Cafe in London?

We were visiting our son in the great metropolis recently. Lunchtime approached, bellies rumbled. He asked if we fancied trying the best cafe in London. It's famous, he said, it gets used as a location in almost any film that requires a 'typical English caff'. The mention of home-made pies clinched it for me, so we trundled off in search of The Regency Cafe (17-19 Regency St, London SW1P 4BY).

It was about 12.45 pm when we got there, and the queue snaked out of the door. We tagged onto the end of it and were pleased to see that it was moving reasonably quickly. The deal here is that you do not take a seat until you've ordered and paid for your food at the counter. We couldn't actually see the counter from the end of the queue, but we could see lots of Formica tables and polypropylene chairs occupied by happy-looking diners (a mix of office workers, builders and tourists) enjoying plates of solid British food. As each order was ready, a booming voice bellowed it out and the recipient would come to collect it. These bellows were coming thick and fast, at least one or two a minute, and people were leaving as soon as they finished eating to make way for the new diners.

The walls are decorated with boxing and football memorabilia and photographs, and beside the counter the days offerings are written on a blackboard. My knees almost turned to jelly when I saw Steak and Kidney Pudding on the menu, and I must have been wearing a stupid grin when it was my turn to order. Did I want my pud with chips, mash or boiled potatoes? Would I like peas, carrots or cabbage with it? Well, boiled potatoes and cabbage are things your mum used to make, not things you usually see in a cafe, so I pounced on them. Wife and son had steak and kidney pie (because my pud was the last one and I ungraciously declined to offer to let it go), and chicken and mushroom pie.

We found seats and waited about ten minutes, sipping our mugs of tea as we did so. The pudding was everything I could have wanted - light suet crust, identifiable chunks of beef and kidney in a thick, rich gravy. The spuds and cabbage were cooked to perfection and arrived plain and unadorned by any fancy herbs or even butter. Everything was sitting in a pool of gravy and if I have one criticism it is that there was some tomato flavour in the gravy that shouldn't have been there.

Is it the best cafe in London? I couldn't say without spending a small fortune and several years in sampling all of them. But I can say the food was great, the service fast and efficient, the place entirely unselfconscious and without a trace of pretension. And the best bit? The price - about £6 per head including a mug of tea. In the centre of London, about 5 minutes from Parliament, this has to be the best value eating in town.

And of course they do the Full English Breakfast thing, and I'll certainly be back to try that.